Seven Facts about Studying: The A-B-C of your Brain

The recordings in your brain

It is magical; that moment when a memory is created. To cut straight to the chase – when you study to remember something, the moment the word on paper is transferred into your nervous system, the concept of that word is ripped to shreds and when you attempt to recall this piece of information it is reconstructed from fragments of information scattered throughout different parts of your brain. This is how your brain processes information. This is how you learn. This explains why remembering what you study for a test is hard.

As I now have your attention, let me bust a myth. You do not remember a list in order; you may reproduce it in order, like the alphabet, but your brain does not have a filing cabinet within where you open a random drawer to retrieve a specific memory. This, and other, oversimplified models of “memory” are doing you more harm than good. In fact, you probably have little idea how your brain commits information to memory – and therefore you cannot use optimal strategies to commit information to memory.

What is the letter in the alphabet preceding P? My guess is that your brain jumped somewhere to l, m, n, O! -p. If the theory that your brain had a filing cabinet in which the alphabet was stored, in order, than you should have gone to the filing cabinet, starting with A and progressed through the information to O. Rather, your brain jumped from P and leaped back to another memory, in this case L, to then fill in the gap till you got to O. And all this in less than a second.

The same rule holds when you memorize information for a test. Trust that your brain will reason its way to the right answer by connecting the dots. Understand that all that information is not stored in one place in your brain – it really, physically is not. Rather, information is scattered acros your cortex, much like the stars are scattered across the universe.

Making the connections

Luckily, your brain can rapidly access this vast quantity of information. In fact, you can train your brain to better access information stored within it. As you train your brain, the physical structure of your brain changes. Your brain literally changes shape as you use it. Fascinating! The neuro-scientific fact is that as you study, your brain adapts. There is seemingly an infinite amount of information that can be stored in your brain.

By repeating material over and over again you strengthen something called trace-strength. In fact, when asked to recall the letter preceding P, perhaps your mind jumped straight to O. Maybe because you recited the alphabet earlier today and the recent activation of the trace made it more accesible when the electrical current racing through your nervous system fired to active the memory. Perhaps you practiced the alphabet so fervently as a child that these traces are so strong and easy to access.

Can you recite the alphabet backwards? It is hard. It is easier to recite it from A to Z. Why? Likely because that is how you learnt it in the first place. That memory has been repeated over and over again, shaping and strengthening those specific traces from A to B, all the way to Z.

Your brain adapts

As you challenge your brain, it grows stronger. Likely it is harder when you first learn about something (like neuroscience, in my case) because you do not have the memory structure within which to frame the new knowledge. In fact, you need to build that basic framework. That is the hard part. At an undefinable point, the scales tip and you easily place new information into the existing networks. In fact, it becomes easier because you can relate the new to the existing.

Remembering that A is the first letter and Z is the last letter of the alphabet is easy. What is hard is getting the other twenty-four letters in, in order. Yet with practice, you managed to do so just fine.

A matter of training

When you study something and you claim you do not remember, you are lying to yourself. Likely, you did not study at all. Reading something once and highlighting is not studying.

Reading, actively taking notes, reflecting on the information and trying to frame it in a bigger context is studying. Asking yourself questions about what you have read, discussing the material and paraphrasing it in your own words is studying. Every element described above is a part of deep processing, an element of committing information to memory. And if you are not doing these things while you study, you are selling yourself short.

What you are not taught in university

Learning is learnable. It is the fine line between behavior and cognition that determines performance – where behavior influences your ability to learn. In fact, your ability to use your brain’s tremendous capacity to store and reproduce is very trainable.

That is what the following six chapters are about. You now understand that your brain is very capable of learning, and that by studying, you literally grow your brain. What you need to learn is how to study in a way that optimizes your brains natural ability to perform these elementary cognitive tasks better. This will lead to great jumps in your study performance.

What’s the catch? Very quickly you will see that it is not your brain’s ability to learn, but rather what you do on a daily basis, that influences your performance. The catch is finding the balance between what you are capable of intellectually and what you are willing to do to utilize your intellectual potential.

This booklet is merely a guide to show you the way to that moment where a memory is created. It is up to you to make the magic happen.

Change is constant

One observation of mine, after reading the first two chapters of a book which provides an overview of neuroscience, is that change is constant. Of the nine models of the nervous system described early on in the book, it is quite likely that the physical structures within your brain are constantly in flux.

For you that is good news. When you know your brain is an adaptable, ever learning, ever growing part of your body, you know that what you are capable of today is in no way a measure of what you were capable of in the past, and more importantly, what you will be capable of in the future.

I will be digging a bit deeper every day, so there is more to come. Yet when somebody tells you you cannot, you are not smart or able enough, now you know all you have to say to them is: “..yet.

 

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.

Is this the question that comes first?

My mac ran out of battery, so I am sharing this scribble with you from my notepad and mobile…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ok, I got home and finally could charge my battery. What, you may wonder, brought about the scribble you see above? 

In a sense, it’s all there. I am sure as a student you know that if you work hard enough you will get the results you want. Really, you do.

You have the ability to read and take notes, an agenda and the ability to review your notes and plan study sessions. You do not really need anyone to explain this to you.

Perhaps in the field of techniques such as mind mapping and SQ3R, you can get some training; yet basic comprehensive reading strategies you develop through reading and effort.

As all these thoughts collided in my mind, the thought occurred to me that students who have followed their interest, their passion, are engaged in their studies most of the time. They plan, read, write – relishing in what they learn and, even in tough subjects, seemingly have the drive to make it happen.

Why would you want to do well in university? Probably because you care. Because you care about what you are studying. And this means that what you choose to study influences, perhaps, your desire to do well.

If you are at a loss for this answer, perhaps you want to reflect on your choice and rethink what you want to learn more about.

If the reason to perform is clear to you, probably the performance follows naturally.

The bootleg publication!

This week I decided to bootleg a guide for students based on all the writing I have done so far (about thirty blogs and maybe twelve drafts of book chapters). The basic design is in; thanks to Oliver! And it looks sweet! Rather than make this bootleg production of ours a compilation, as all my blogs are first drafts (see my first post ever for an explanation), I am going through the material and crystalizing the material into some sort of logical order. If you have any thoughts on what I am writing, please let me know; I would greatly appreciate your help. Here is the first version of the introduction to this bootleg publication. Enjoy!

(The bootleg publication will be syndicated through a shared file when done!)

The greatest lesson your university education has for you

Is the added value of your university experience truly the information written in books? This is available to you anywhere, in any library or on the internet. Perhaps it is the lectures which make all the difference? Then again you will find many interesting lectures on similar topics online or in archives.

The information upon which your education is based is, in fact, available to you anywhere, anytime. So what, then, makes a university education such an important experience?

Reproduction is not Education

You hold in your hands advice. Good advice resulting from seven years of focus on high achievement students’ abilities to perform well in university. Yet if you expect to read a quick and easy guide to passing exams, this is not that. Rather, what is written here helps you to learn and do well in university by creating the most valuable university experience you could have. You do only get to really be a first year student once in your life.

Easily you can trick yourself into believing that doing well in university is solely related to your grades; that your ability to reproduce what you learn without adding any novel thought or personal experience to the knowledge you will acquire, is what will bring you success in university. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, the advice here is written to show you an view of education and learning which focuses on your ability to learn and grow by not only seeking intellectual stimulation through studying, but also through experiences and adventures in life. The world is not ink on pages, rather you want to venture forth and relate these words to life as you experience it. That is where the value of your education truly lies.

Learning comes natural to you

You were born with the innate ability to learn. And your ability to learn improves through practice. In fact, nearly everything you are capable of doing to day that helps you learn – reading, writing, speaking – is the result of practice and learning.

Your brain is naturally geared for learning that you may are not always consciously aware you are. Learning is a symphony of emotions, information and stimulation that constantly takes place in your brain. And building on that ability, the advice in this book will show you how you can manage your time, your emotions and your brain to use your natural ability to learn and create a marvellous university experience.

Whether you can learn is not the question; rather, how you will learn, is.

Four tenets of learning

About student performance in university much research exists. From my experience and in my understanding four tenets are of importance when you want to focus on learning and accomplishment:

  • Your mindset about learning
  • Your emotions during learning
  • Your effort in learning
  • Your habits of learning

The advice in this book is related to those four tenets, from your mindset to the skills and behaviours accomplished students develop over the course of their studies.

The greatest lesson your university education has for you?

You learn how to manage your ambition, through distraction, challenges, temptation, setbacks and accomplishment. In the end it is not your academic accomplishments, but the accomplishment of your character during your student life, which holds the greatest lesson for you.

On the following pages you find advice on how to shape that experience in such a way that you grow and develop your potential, which is greater than you may think.

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.

How to (3): Memorize a list, use your brainpower

The Student Achievement Program Brain Diagram

Figure 1. (Image taken from braininjury.com*)

Memorization is hard. Memorizing a list is harder. Besides using the memory palace technique when preparing for an exam to create an almost full proof memory of lists, facts and figures, it is important to commit relevant facts to memories. Looking further by standing on a giants shoulders’ means that you must climb and stand upon these shoulders first. Learning is crucial in applying the knowledge creatively or critically, depending on the circumstances. Here is how you do it.

Since the brain is a recurring theme in my writing, you and I will go for the maximum usefulness of the exercise by looking into five distinct aspects of the brain. Mind you the brain is a bit more complex than these five regions put together, but knowing about each of them and what we think we might now about their functions (I am talking to a neurologist in a month or so and will bring this blog to his attention for revision), will certainly help explore the brain in greater detail. Oh yes, and you will get a crash course in comprehensive reading and memorizing lists. Deal? OK. Let us get started.

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingSurvey the image above, at the start of the article. What do you see? Make sure you have a notepad handy and simply jot down the central idea of a mind map. This is the first step.

Now you could simply copy the five items in a list, and try to memorize them in order, say counter clockwise:

  1. Frontal Lobe
  2. Parietal Lobe
  3. Occipital Lobe
  4. Temporal Lobe
  5. Cerebellum

But if you have read any of my blogs on reading for the sake fo learning, you know this is a terrible idea. First, your mind is just not that good at remembering lists, in order.  So why bother? Second the list is quite useless as by the end of creating your list, you have no inclination as to which part of the brain you are referring to or any other useful information you may associate this new information to. Rather, let’s take a radically new approach:

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning Studying

Click to enlarge

As you can see for each part of the brain in the diagram in figure 1, two actions are taken in learning about the brain. First, a question is asked about the location of the brain segment in relation to something you are familiar with, your head or your neck. Second, a description of the location relative to something familiar like “over my eyes” is added.

The next step is to formulate the answers. When you are doing this by hand, it is easy because you can quickly draw a new diagram, and jot down the answers, in a visually relevant way:

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning Studying

OK, so now you have the basic relative positions of the brain sections in mind.

Let us look a bit closer at the prefrontal lobe and its attributes. Ask yourself a question about the prefrontal lobe, such as: “What do I know about the prefrontal lobe at this moment?:

Your answer obviously includes: It sits at the front of my brain, somewhere above my eyes. Further, you could include some random knowledge such as: It is related to memory, I think. Remember, you do not have to be right when you answer these questions before having learnt the material, but it is important start building the associations in your brain.

(A second question might be: what is the function of the prefrontal lobe in my brain?)

Now let’s add some information, taken from Wikipedia on the Prefrontal Lobe:

“The frontal lobe is an area in the brain of mammals, located at the front of each cerebral hemisphere and positioned anterior to (in front of) the parietal lobe and superior and anterior to the temporal lobes. It is separated from the parietal lobe by a space between tissues called the central sulcus, and from the temporal lobe by a deep fold called the lateral (Sylvian) sulcus. The precentral gyrus, forming the posterior border of the frontal lobe, contains the primary motor cortex, which controls voluntary movements of specific body parts.

The frontal lobe contains most of the dopamine-sensitive neurons in the cerebral cortex. The dopamine system is associated with reward, attention, short-term memory tasks, planning, and motivation. Dopamine tends to limit and select sensory information arriving from the thalamus to the fore-brain. A report from the National Institute of Mental Health says a gene variant that reduces dopamine activity in the prefrontal cortex is related to poorer performance and inefficient functioning of that brain region during working memory tasks, and to slightly increased risk for schizophrenia.”

That is quite some information to sift through. Can you circle the key information in this section, that is the information that will allow you to build on the concept of the prefrontal lobe as it exists in your brain right now? Again, rather than listing them, map them.

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning Studying

Essentially you repeat these final two steps for each of the five aspects of the brain from Figure 1.

In the end, your narrative may run something like this:

The brain has five main parts I can distinguish right now. At the front above my eyes somewhere is the prefrontal lobe. It is associated with my motor skills, such as my ability to type or tip-toe, but also with dopamine. This substance influences cognition such as attention, short term memory, planning and motivation. In a nutshell my prefrontal lobe is important for my ability to think.”

Piecing the information together,  you can move from a description of its location in your brain to the more functional aspects of your temporal lobe. The power of association is built and strengthened through practice.

As you challenge yourself to describe, place and answer questions as you study, you build and strengthen these connections. It may seem to take a bit longer at first, but after three months, the deep processing you utilize from the onset ensure learning and the ability to use this information in your reasoning, because it is accesible in your mind.

You can go all out, adding images, imagery and vivid descriptions at any step of the way. At some point this blog will be updated to include those examples, but for now these are the basics. Enjoy and give it a try. It is worth it.

*Source Figure 1

Brainiac… what a trip…

The Student Achievement ProgramTime flies… Ok, so I got up around 6.30 a.m. this morning with the intention to read, and consequently write about conscientiousness. Since I had covered this topic in my master’s thesis, I thought a quick refresher would be a good basis for a nice, quick and readable blog. As it is now 10:55 a.m. I thought wrong. Not only did I get a quick introduction to the wonders of neuroscience; I also see that scientists are making great strides in understanding how our brain works. It is truly amazing; and perhaps worth digging into for future blogs. But to go out on a limb on such a precarious topic after having read two or three articles and a book on how the brain works, I think is a bit too brave. I’ll spend some time mastering this stuff, so the reading can be profound and interesting, not merely entertaining.

Conscientiousness pays. It is true, proven without a doubt. And interestingly enough, one of the two articles I read this morning gave an interesting perspective on GPA. Indeed maintaining a high GPA over an extended period of time is a tough task; it requires dedication and the ability to deal with a complex and rapidly changing environment, whilst experiencing undeniable changes to yourself.

True, if you look at GPA in this light, I can only agree that looking at the behavior, perhaps GPA is indicative of some level of conscientiousness. However, just as conscientiousness scores can be inflated on a test, so the validity of GPA can be cast into doubt as students with high GPA might obtain these results through not-so-valid-means… perhaps more often than educators think. As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Back to conscientiousness. If you can describe yourself as hard working, organized, efficient and self-disciplined (Do you recognize in yourself a person with such ideal working ethics!?), then you are already halfway there. Don’t kid yourself; the research shows that you are able to inflate your score on this personality trait given a self-test. And obviously you want to see yourself as hard working, organized, efficient and self-disciplined… But are you really?

The Student Achievement ProgramIn coaching and training students for achievement, what counts is behavior. Not what you say you will do, but what you do. And just as important, how you do what you do.

And that is where conscientiousness kicks in. All though studies say as a personality trait it is constant during a lifetime, I am convinced by my own experience that conscientious behavior can be learned – and that you can apply it with success to achieve your goals and increase your performance.

In fact, if you were to self rate your conscientiousness level “low” before a training and intervention on this behavior and three months later, having changed your behaviors and routines to optimize your effectiveness, would you not rate yourself as more conscientious?

So perhaps, as a trait, it is stable (who am I to argue with scientific research, right?), but as far as the behavior goes – it is learnable.

Back to the brain. Interesting in this light was the note from the authors of an article that your prefrontal lobes are related to regulating social behavior and initiating and regulating goal directed actions. Does that sound like an abstraction of conscientiousness to you? It sure does to me…

You can train your brain and learn behaviors that will either obstruct your goal achievement or bring you closer to accomplishing your objectives. In a sense, you can train yourself to behave more conscientiously. It may take some effort, but in the end you are what you consistently do.

So what is my point? Even though snap shot tests like past GPA or self-rated conscientiousness may be in some way predictive of your ability to perform in the future, whether or not you perform is a different story all together. Understanding your level of conscientiousness is a tool, just like comprehensive reading or time management, and knowing where you stand is a good starting point to move to where you want to be.

Nothing in life is set in stone, in fact, high GPA is also proven to be a very poor predictor for real world performance, i.e. life… So don’t get stuck in the conscientiousness-influences-GPA-influences-my-future rut; there is more to life than getting good grades in university, but practicing your conscientiousness in university and getting good grades as a result will give you strong behavioral and psychological foundations for many of life’s wonderful challenges.