Let’s start with why.

Although this is not really a book review, I did recently read this book. I found it entertaining, at times repetitive – Apple is the primary, exemplary case – and both inspiring and instructional. The final chapter touched my emotions in a way a management book rarely does. So why, then, would I blog about this here, for students aiming to improve their academic performance. The answer to that question is very simple.

Why are you in university? Let’s start with why. I am very confident in stating that if you examine the question: what am I doing day-to-day in my university life, you will quickly discover your why. Are you here it to learn new things? Are you here it to make new friends, meet new people? Are you here to plan your next vacation? Are you here to party?

Looking and your what you do gives great hints to why you have chosen to be in university. Now ask yourself another question: is your why aligned with the idea you have of yourself, four years from now?

If you take Simon’s concept (it goes too far for me to call it a theory, sorry Simon) and use the simple model he provides to organize your motivation, you may find that you see your actions, your behaviors and your decisions reflected in the mirror of WHY?

And there is nothing wrong with that – if the why is something that you can get behind. The interesting thing about balancing your life in university today with the purpose of university, which is preparing your to think and act in the future, is that a variety of why’s can apply. Your mission – if you choose to accept it – is to create that magnificent why that makes what you eventually do incredibly easy for you to stand by. Whether others agree or not.

(Hint: when you feel unsettled by your own explanation, its probably because you know you’re lying to yourself…)

Intuitively, you understand the purpose of university, yet in the clutter of temptations (sorry, opportunities to express yourself, meet new people, develop your skills) you may loose sight of why you do what you do. In my direct experience, students who excel have a very clear explanation of why they do what they do – also when it comes partying hard. It is when someone cannot explain why there are more parties than lectures in a week, that I get worried.

Watch the video and this weekend, start with why. It’ll make coming monday very interesting indeed!

The predictive power of marshmallows

The Student Achievement Program Learning Education StudyingHave you ever read about the marshmallow test? In recent years I have found it quoted or recited in several books and articles on memory, behavior and personal leadership. The main idea? That children, who at a young age are able to refrain from eating a marshmallow for fifteen minutes knowing that there is a reward of an additional marshmallow at the end of their wait, are more successful by a variety of measures later on in life.

Having spent the better part of a decade observing successful students, I am convinced that in the academic domain, your ability to control impulsive behavior, such as eating the marshmallow, and focussing on the long term horizon rather then the pleasures of the here-and-now, is a key factor in performance improvement.

Successful students do not show this impulse control constantly (phew, you are human!), you show it more frequently than less successful students and, probably, you show it in moments of decision which influence events such as exams.

Yes, like the decision to go out for a beer or spend the evening preparing for a class the next day. Going out for the beer is the first marshmallow.

You know, as steady reader of this blog, that in my mind students are not so different in their intellectual ability. Given the exceptions at both ends of the spectrum, on average students who make it to university or college have the intellectual ability to be successful in their studies.

Yet it seems that the behavior of foregoing cups of coffee, shopping sprees, heat of the moment escapades and parties is crucial to the performance of who we consider to be top students. Actually, you are simply better at staying focused. At setting priorities. At delaying gratification. At controlling your impulses.

Yes, I just implicitly referred to at least a dozen articles and books discussing the same thing in different words. I think these are all elements related to impulse control.

Why is this so fascinating? Well, your ability to managing the trade off between feeling good in the moment or doing well in the long run is seemingly influences your future in an order of magnitude you do not (want to) comprehend.

Rationally you know what is best for you. Yet something clouds your judgement. Probably your emotions. When you observe the language you use for certain things, you may catch yourself confirming what I just said. You feel a need to do something. You know it is the right thing to do. Your language implies which part of the brain are in conflict here. The bad news? Your emotions are relentlessly swift and overwhelmingly powerful influencers. The good news? Your reason is very capable of learning to reign in your emotions.

In fact, you can learn to do better at the marshmallow test. But think carefully.  If you  think that by not eating the marshmallow within fifteen minutes, you suddenly have impulse control, you are mistaken. In that moment perhaps, but what about when it comes to something truly important to you, such as  deciding to putt in that extra hour at the end of the day for a course or going for a drink with some friends. For two weeks straight? Exactly – your irrational mind is already making up excuses why you should be able to go out with friends. Nobody is saying you should not go out with your friends. Somebody is saying that you do not have to go out with your friends tonight. 

You know that no matter how well you do at the marshmallow test, a hard task awaits you in turning around your academic performance.

The trick to improving your academic performance is simple. In fact, you have had so many opportunities to show to yourself that you are very capable of performing well. You may be smart enough, but are you behaving smart enough?

Marshmallows have no predictive power. You do. Every morning you can predict whether you will perform today or not. And every morning you have a chance to prove yourself wrong. Or right.

It really does not matter how long you leave the marshmallow on the table. What matters is that every day you do what has to get done. If you think that is partying – you might as well have that marshmallow now.

Performance as a dynamic measure

Case-in-point. Your course material encompasses A, B, C and D. These are the four elements which you must master to have understood the course.

You are tested for elements A, B and C. That is 75% of what you were originally had to master. You are able to recall perfectly elements A and B. That is 66,666% of what you were tested on. This is 50% of what you were originally required to master according the the course material covered in the course.

Because you have “completed” the course, you need not master C and D. There now exists a gap in your knowledge that you have no incentive to fill. Does this make any sense to you?

The question

Sadly enough, this how most education systems in the Netherlands (where I live) function. Perhaps it is the same elsewhere in the world – I believe it is – but my experience with education systems in other countries is limited, for obvious reasons.

The question is not whether the failure of the systems is the status quo or whether it can be changed. Rather, the question is: given this inadequate system, what can I do to get the most out of my education?

Inadequate system

Why is the system inadequate? In the case-in-point, one of three things go awry in your education. First, the course requirements could be unrealistic, meaning that quantity is prioritized over quality. This is beyond your control, as the teachers is responsible for this. Then the testing is inadequate, as you are not receiving the opportunity to demonstrate your mastery of the entire body of knowledge you are required to learn. Also this is beyond your control, as the teacher is responsible for the fairness of your testing.

Finally, regardless of your obvious lack of knowledge, the system allows you to move to the next level – leading you to believe you are prepared for what is to come, and effectively setting you up for failure further down the line. This, as a final check and balance, is also beyond your control, as the system rewards the discrepancy between your behavior and the results it produces. Or is this final point beyond your control?

A system which fosters learning

We know (for a fact) that positive reinforcement of behavior is a key driver in developing habits. This means that positively rewarding behavior which leads to substandard academic performance, in the long run leads to impoverished academic development. And this is exactly what is happening to most students today. It is not that you lack intelligence in any way. Rather the system that should stimulate the development of your intelligence is failing. It is broken, fundamentally dysfunctional and the victim of this system is you.

The sad truth of the matter is that there is a vast body of knowledge available, from both research science and practical experience, which provides solid building blocks for a system which prioritizes learning and development.

Performance as a dynamic measure

What would happen if the result you got from the test you took was taken as a starting point for further learning and development? It is a concept which is so foreign to the education system you are a part of today, because the current system is a one shot game (perhaps with a re-sit). You either pass or fail. And if you fail, perhaps you can try again later.

Stop. Rather, you say to yourself: I have mastered elements A and B (see case in point), I am struggling with element C and I have no idea where I stand on element D. What can I do to master all these elements which my teacher, from his experience, has stated are elements of knowledge on this topic so I can build on this.

Why is this so important? In an earlier blog I eluded to the fact that the new is born from the old. Any gap in your knowledge which is maintained for no other reason than a lacking education system therefore impedes your ability to make the connection and move from the old to the new.

Learning is truly a continuous process

When your performance is taken as a dynamic measure of your ability, suddenly tests are not a cut off point. Tests become opportunities to advance your learning and development. Rather than being at the end of the learning curve, they are now a part of your learning curve. Thus these tests become starting points for growth and stimulate behavior which takes you from a performance model to a development model of education in which intelligence is not given, but developed. In which you have the opportunity to reach your potential.

What’s the catch?

The argument above has a major weakness. It assumes that the system, not you, provides the test-as-a-starting-point mentality. This is not true.

In fact, you can take your test results as starting point for learning and development. If you think about it, you have all the tools you need to this. You can reflect on your performance and see what you can change in your behavior, preparation, skills and habits, to produce a different result.

The question then becomes why you would attempt to do this in a system where the behavior which led to a result which you can improve is seen as a victory rather than a learning opportunity.

I cannot imagine what the incentive is in the system, but I can see the tremendous benefit in this approach for you.

Test anxiety

It is quite simple. Too much test anxiety inhibits your ability to exercise your intelligence. The good news is it is very malleable, hence you can decrease your test anxiety, thus increasing your ability to perform cognitive tasks – committing new information to memory and answering questions about what you have learnt.

Already primed to think in this direction whilst reading Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, it seems that your emotional brain (the pre-historic part of your brain) is extremely powerful and exerts a tremendous amount of influence over your ability to use your intelligence. Left unchecked, your emotional brain reigns supreme, thus inhibiting your cognitive performance. Not what you want when you are trying to do well in your studies.

Here is the good news. Your rational brain has the capacity to regulate your emotional responses; in fact, you can train this ability. Mastering (finally, I managed to slip that word in to a blog again!) your emotions can lead to improved control over impulses, which helps you develop the habits you need to cultivate to improve your study results.

One does not simply… excel in academia. It requires dedication and devotion; perhaps emotional mastery is the first step. And it is not even a university course.

Test anxiety is an emotion; fear. A very powerful emotion which primes your body for many things, but not for excellent cognitive performance. It is not that you are not intelligent, you are not letting your intelligence flourish when you let fear take command of your brain.

Study. Practice. Talk to your peers. Take a course in test taking. If you put some conscious effort into training, your test anxiety decreases and, yes, your test performance will increase.

 

The Basics

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingHave you ever heard about the paradox of failure? I sure had not until I read today’s article; then again it seems so common-sense; it is good that we have some academic proof.

Before you and I go into the details of this obvious paradox, together we shall look at one specific element in the psychology of motivation: the belief that your effort influences your performance.

This phenomenon may be granted any name, such as self-efficacy or academic control, and all though both and other, terms imply this element of the psychology of motivation, this simple wording is, I believe, at the core of it.

For example

In fact, this belief is one of the basics of motivation. When you believe something is possible for you to do, perhaps carrying a cup filled with water to the table without spilling any water, you, without a spare thought, act. You know, be it from experience, example or confidence that you are capable of performing this astonishing feat of agility, balance and control, and therefore you perform.

Yet, when the same glass is filled to the brim, your brisk walk quickly adapts to a careful trot. It is not that your confidence in your ability to complete the task is diminished, the factors influences the potential successful accomplishment of the task have simply changed. Yet your belief that with the appropriate effort (precautions) you can complete the task, does not hinder your performance, in fact, that very belief makes it possible.

The paradox

What, then, is this paradox of failure? I would carefully paraphrase it as the (proven) concept that in your studies, the belief that your effort produces results, coupled with a healthy dose of preoccupation with failure, leads to improved academic results.

You basically need to have some concept of failure to influence your performance in a positive manner. In fact, if you dismiss failure to easily, you hinder your performance significantly.

But you cannot escape the basics; the belief that you can is your guardian angel as it probably helps you balance your fears and confidence. And when the balance is struck, you are home free.

How do you stretch your ability, bring it to the next level? It begins with your belief that you can actually do. That you, through learning by doing, can improve your ability by stretching yourself a little bit at a time. When the conviction that you can is set firmly in your mind, your behavior follows suit; you keep putting in effort.

The next step is the ability to learn from feedback from your effort, and adapt your approach until you find one that gets you the result you want. Yet you and I will follow some old wisdom here – and take these basics one at a time.

Training, practice & competition

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingDuring the past weeks I have been reading They call me coach by John Wooden, a marvelous story of his life and philosophy. While reading his thoughts on working with the potential talent, ambition and drive for excellence and performance, I realized that in learning perhaps we can use the metaphor of training, practice and competition to better understand how you can positively influence our academic performance.

Training

The basics are what it all comes down to. Learn the techniques and apply them to your studies. This is what you do in training. Your trainer, more experienced or expert in techniques, shows you the basics and shows you the way to the more refined techniques. As the techniques become second nature to you, you use training to hone your them to the finest detail.

Practice

Techniques are only useful when put into practice. In basketball this is playing games with team members and friends, in learning this means picking up a book or following a lecture to engage in active learning. During practice you do not only see how your the basic technique works in a real life situation, but you also get to fine tune it to match the specific requirements; you get to make it your own.

Competition

Finally, you get to play competitions. We will call them exams. Here is where all your training of techniques and practice in the field come to play. You prepare, increase your commitment and drive yourself to perform. When you have prepared well, you will perform at the best of your ability. And since you can only learn in education, you will always come out a winner.

In university

When you look at the way you study, perhaps you spend some time in practice, perhaps none. And exams occur on a regular basis during your terms.

I sincerely doubt you spend a lot of time training your ability to learn. Yet this is where the largest gains are found when you want to increase your performance. Certainly your ability to learn is there, otherwise you wouldn’t be in university. Rather it is the techniques you apply to learning and the time you spend refining them while reading your books or following classes, which make all the difference in your performance at university.

Train and practice the fundamentals; there is a reason training is the starting point of excellence.

Image credit: http://basketball-junkie.tumblr.com/

Mirrorneuronically

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingHave you ever wondered why talented athletes and top athletes – there is a difference – are brought together in training camps and competitions? Or why the national football competition in England, Spain or Brazil fosters good players?

In one of our favorite types of story, the protagonist must stretch herself beyond what she thinks she is capable of to defeat her ultimate match, the villain. In tennis, for example, you see a match between two players turn into a spectacle when with every decisive actions, the opponent rises to the challenge; creating an upward spiral where both players need to play at their best and a bit more to keep the edge.

Friends with benefits…

Besides your innate abilities and the opportunities you create to develop these, the places you go and people you surround yourself with determine, in part, how far you may go. That is why there are academies where top athletes can interact with people who think and work at the same level, with similar ambitions. This is an environment in which they thrive.

Is it the same where you study? Are you surrounded by students who share your ambition? If that is the case, you are lucky – the group’s momentum will carry you forward. When you are one of few with an ambition to study well, take care not to trade that ambition for the attitude the group has towards studying.

Being accepted is one thing, being accepted for who you are is another thing entirely.

Learning through modeling

One aspect of learning is that we can model behavior we see in others. In fact, much of your behavior is learned through imitation, of your parents, your friends, your teachers, your idols.

To change your level of performance in studying, model the behavior of students who are getting results you would care to emulate. This is why involving yourself with a peer group which shares your ambitions is helpful.

There is no right or wrong

This is not a matter of choosing friends because of their merits; you must make yourself aware of the fact that in your social life, you go where your friends go.

Finding a peer group who are dedicated to their studies at the same level or more than you are, gives you an insight into the choices they are making and helps you establish the ground rules for your academic accomplishments.

 

Image Credit: http://www.fanpop.com/spots/the-olympics/images/31733883/title/epke-zonderland-ned-gold-medalist-horizontal-bar-photo

It takes discipline to learn discipline?

The Student Achievement Program

Aristotle

We are what we repeatedly do… is an old saying attributed to Aristotle, yet is the summation of his ideas by the philosopher Will Durant. The wisdom hidden in these words has lasted through the ages. The habit of discipline is one which we have touched upon many times in this blog.

Accomplishment is the culmination of habits that are related to the realization of your ambition. The paradox lies in the habit of discipline; learning discipline requires discipline. And this simple statement of fact in itself points to the key to not only shaping habits which help you grow, but also in accomplishing any feat in life, be it in the arts, athletics or academics.

How do you learn to write? Certainly not by pondering the act of writing. No book was ever written through thoughts of authoring. Any book is the result of the act of writing, not the thought thereof. Not the pen, but the hand that wields it, puts words to paper.

How do you run a four minute mile? Again, all the thought about the act of running in no way conditions your body for the accomplishment of that feat. Putting on running shoes and running a mile, yard by yard, is what shapes a runner. Not the shoes, but the feet that wear them, take each step of the way.

How do you improve your mathematical ability? Merely thinking of the numbers and the rules which apply to them will not suffice. It is the time you spend solving problems and reflecting on the process of solving the problem which provides you with insights into the rules which govern mathematics. Not the method, but the mind that applies the method finds the solution.

The act of living. No matter what you do in life, it is the act of living which makes life worthwhile. It is as if you have received this marvelous gift named time, so use it to accomplish something that feels worthwhile to you.

Living is to apply yourself to life. To rejoice at the challenges you are presented with, and your ability to learn to overcome them – time and again. When you chose to apply yourself, you chose discipline. And discipline is a good thing, because it affords you freedom.

The only way to understand discipline is to make it a part of your life. Every day hold yourself accountable for what you set out to do. Discipline is not about making yourself right or wrong. Discipline concerns itself with findings ways for you conduct yourself in ways to further your abilities.

Discipline is a habit you learn. To master the habit of discipline, Aristotle’s words may serve as good advice, in any age:

“These virtues are formed by man in his doing the actions.”

 

Image credit: http://images.suite101.com/1998402_com_448pxarist.jpg

Who holds you accountable?

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingTake charge of your accomplishments in university.

How? Make yourself accountable to yourself.

What will you use as a benchmark when you reflect on the results you produce? In the end, the only thing that matters is your own standard. And you can set any standard you want for yourself. The question you want to ask yourself is this one:

“What standard can I set for myself that helps me unfold my own potential.” 

One of the things I believe is that living means growing. And growing means going from where you are to where you can be. This is easy to forget when you are good at something; being accomplished gives you positive feedback, from your activity and from your environment.

There is a reason that we are attracted to new things; it means you have learnt something new and wants to share that with us. That is why what you are good at today will only give you pleasure for as long as it is interesting to you. When the novelty wears off.

That is why learning and growing is so important. At what rate you learn and to which heights you grow are very much up to you. To set the best kind of standard for yourself, you think about your values. When you have a clear set of values in your life, they serve as tremendously powerful guides in your decision making.

In fact, when it comes to time management, your values help you stick to your priorities. In the end, when you hold yourself accountable, you know what served you and what did not when you reflect on your actions in relation to your values.

And your values are in fact a reflection of your standards for yourself. So there you have it. To take charge of your accomplishments in university, take some time to figure out your values. Then act accordingly, and your accomplishments will always ring true to your real self.

Always look on the bright side of… your ability

Optimism. After another interesting read today, the old adage that the more you learn, the more questions you have rings true. Optimism is a wonderful thing; in fact, a recent assessment and training  I did on my emotional intelligence showed that I had greater than average level of optimism.

The first thing a dear colleague said to me when we discussed this was: “Be happy, imagine what it would be like when you see the world and its events for what they truly are.” There was, as there always is, truth in his advice. In fact, so much truth that I did not give his remark any more consideration until I read today’s article optimism and student performance.

If you do not want to be disappointed, do not expect anything. That is one way to go through life. A realistic view of life, or a pessimistic one – you decide which is which – will save you a lot of heartaches, discomfort and disappointment. When you expect to fail and you do, you psychologically win; being right is a great way to make yourself feel good.

Yet when you set a different expectation for yourself; one where you may need to perform at a level just beyond your current ability, do you win when you do not live up to your own expectations?

Did you get the question? Do you win when you do not live up to your own expectations? 

It depends on your frame of mind. When you are in the able or not mindset, then you probably think that you let yourself down. You tried, you reached and you failed.

Writing things like this has become a gut wrenching experience for me, because it is so fundamentally untrue it nearly hurts. There is no greater accomplishment in life than to try.

To try and fail makes you a winner, simply for going beyond your comfort zone and acting. To try and win makes you a winner, simply for going beyond your comfort zone and acting. They are both the same. The result is irrelevant; in fact all that matters is trying – because that is where growth is.

An optimist may say; “Hey, I tried, I failed, but at least I did it. Maybe next time I will succeed.” In fact, this optimist is more likely to try again. And again. And if we know anything about accomplishment, we know that trying eventually leads to mastery.

Whoaa there friend! Let me venture a guess at your thoughts. Trying the same thing over and over again wil not get you any different result. Very true. In fact, simply doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result is about as foolhardy as not trying at all. And it gets real tedious – real fast.

Rather, you can use your natural predisposition to learn from experience and alter what you are doing; to take a different approach to accomplish what you set out to do.

Think of it as training to run a ten kilometre run (6.3 miles). The first run you do, you don’t go for eight kilometres and see what happens. You are better of setting up a benchmark for yourself by testing your general condition; can I jog for thirty minutes straight?

This initial step may have no direct relation to the end goal; but it is a good starting point for your training. If the answer is yes, you can start a slightly intensified training. If the answer is no, you want to build your general condition over one or two weeks until you can break into a comfortable jog for thirty minutes before starting your running schedule. Knowing that you can go it for thirty minutes may give you just the kind of confidence you need to stick to your initial training schedule when it gets a bit tough.

In your studies, when you look at those humongous books you are required to plow through in university, you may consider that startin of with one chapter may be a big enough challenge. And seeing that you can master that first chapter, perhaps you will find the confidence to accumulate more knowledge – and make the connections.

When optimism fails you. If you are overtly optimistic, you may actually fall into something called the self-enhancement bias. This simply means that you overestimate your ability. I have found that the times I am so certain of my natural ability to make something work out, it always goes wrong. Yet when my reasoning is complemented with a healthy doubt, I make it work. Do you know the feeling?

Year in year out, I hear students say that they’ll be fine. They know what they are doing and they are going to be just fine. They did not get the results they wanted last term, but the courses were just so hard. And the professors lectures, to which they stopped going of course, were boring and uninformative. (If this sounds familiar to you – keep reading) But this term, the courses are completely up their alley; in fact, they used to be really good at similar courses in high school.

Usually, this conversation takes place after one (if he is lucky) or two terms in which the student has failed to manage himself appropriately, and failed miserably he has. But rather than look to himself for answers, he looks at the courses, the teachers and the system. Or, even more detrimental, he convinces himself he is not able. Yet his bright outlook on life colors his judgement to the extent that it impedes an appropriate response to this dire situation.

Optimism is perhaps one of life’s great paradoxes. It makes life easier and helps you overcome hardships without loosing yourself on the one hand. Yet on the other hand, it may cloud your judgement and keep you from actualizing your potential in the time you have.

A healthy balance between optimism about and reflection on facts will help you reach decisions. And as you look in the mirror and ask yourself: “Am I seeing myself as more than I am right now?” and your nose starts growing, dare to be brave and call yourself on your self deceit.

As for your ability to learn and grow, keep a rather optimistic view of that. It is in fact, truer than you realize.