Motivation by Reward and Consequence – Behaviourism

Motivation is one of the most important aspects of learning and as a result has featured in many previous blogs. In its simplest form motivation can be defined as something that you want; you want to get fit or you want to pass the exam, and as a result that want directs your behaviour. For example, if I want to pass the exam, a good behaviour would be to attempt 5 more questions.

But do we ever really know what is motivating someone? We could ask Tom Dean, the gold medal winner in the 200-meter freestyle at this year’s Tokyo Olympics. What motivated him to train even harder after he contracted Covid for a second time? I’m sure he would give us an answer, the problem is it could well be something he has constructed to explain it to himself rather than the real reason.

Maybe we should think less of the cognitive reasoning behind motivation and consider only the actions of a motivated person? It’s likely Tom had a few early mornings and went through some pretty painful training sessions in order to get fit for the games, but it could be that his ability to do this is more a consequence of conditioning rather than his desire for a gold medal. There is also the question as to why a gold medal is motivational, after all its not even gold, they are 92.5% silver. Interestingly the Tokyo medals include recycled metal from electrical devises. Maybe its because he associates it with success and or pride, something that he has been conditioned to over many years.

Behaviourism
Behaviourism, is a theory of learning which states that all behaviours are learned through interaction with the environment by a process called conditioning. The implication is that your behaviour is simply the response to a stimulus, a cause and effect.

The environment shapes people’s actions. B.F. Skinner

Its highly likely you will have experienced and even been involved in motivating someone in this way. For example, were you ever put on the naughty step as a child or told your dog to sit and when he does, reward him? These are examples of how changing the environment results in a different behaviour. The dog is motivated to sit not because it’s a lifelong ambition but because he wants the reward. Tom Dean may well have got up early to go training but that might have more to do with the conditioning resulting from his alarm going off, than a burning desire to get out of bed.

It is effectively motivation as a result of reward and consequence, if you do something you get something.

Classical conditioning – association
Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, discovered that dogs could “learn” to salivate at the sound of a bell that rang before they were fed. He called this classical conditioning, the dog associating the bell with food. These types of associations can be the reason people are afraid of spiders or chewing gum, yes, it’s real, Oprah Winfrey is a sufferer. It also explains why having a designated study area can help you feel more like studying, you associate it with getting work done. Here are a few more examples, your smart phone bleeps and you pick it up, celebrities are used to associate a product with glamour, Christmas music makes you feel Christmassy and an exam hall brings on exam anxiety.

Operant conditioning – reinforcement
In contrast to classical conditioning, operant conditioning encourages or discourages a specific behaviour using reinforcement. The argument being that a good behaviour should be reinforced by a repeated reward or a bad behaviour stopped by a repeated punishment. The person who developed this type of conditioning is B.F. Skinner, who famously used pigeons in what became known as “Skinner boxes”.

There are four types of reinforcement

  • Positive reinforcement – The behaviour is strengthened by adding something, a reward (praise/treats/prizes) which leads to repetition of the desired behaviour e.g. “Well done, Beth, that was a great question”. Here praise is added to encourage students to ask questions.
  • Negative reinforcement – The removal of something to increase the response e.g. “I can’t study because, everyone is shouting”. The shouting stops which encourages the behaviour of studying.
  • Punishment – The opposite of reinforcement, it adds something that will reduce or eliminate the response. e.g. “that’s probably the worse answer I have ever heard Beth, were you listening at all”. Here humiliation is added that will reduce the likelihood of students asking questions.
  • Negative punishment (Extinction) – This involves removing or taking something away e.g. “You can have your mobile phone back when you have done your homework”. In this situation removing access to the mobile phone results in the homework being completed.

A person who has been punished is not thereby simply less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment. B.F. Skinner

Limitations
Skinner remained convinced anything could be taught with operant conditioning and went on to invent a teaching machine using the principles of reinforcement. It required students to fill in the blank, if the answer was correct, they were rewarded if incorrect they had to study the correct answer again to learn why they were wrong.

Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything. B.F. Skinner

However, there are many limitations, the motivation is not always permanent, it’s too basic to teach complex concepts, punishment can lead to a reinforcement of the undesirable behaviour and its possible the person is just pretending.

Operant conditioning is still a hugely influential in the modern world, for example have you ever watched someone play a fruit machine, the required behaviour rewarded to extract more money. What about online gaming where points and leader boards provide rewards in terms of status and prizes.
Then then there are the ideas surrounding behavioural economics popularised by Nudge theory which suggest that you can influence the likelihood that one option is chosen over another by changing the environment.

And finally, have ever seen how the military train, check out this video.

So next time you think you are making a decision of your own free will, maybe you’re just responding to an external stimulus!

Becoming a better thinker – Edward de Bono learning leader

There are a number of people who have changed the way I think but no more than Edward de Bono who died this month aged 88, a great example of a learning leader.

Born in 1933, he graduated as a doctor from the University of Malta before studying physiology and psychology at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He represented Oxford in polo, set two canoeing records and later gained a PhD in medicine from Trinity College, Cambridge.

But he is probably best known for two things, firstly as the creator of the term lateral thinking and secondly for his six thinking hats strategy that went on to influence business leaders around the world.

Lateral thinking

To understand lateral thinking, we first need to figure out what thinking is. There are many definitions but my own take is that it’s a reflective process involving the manipulation of knowledge, feelings and experiences as we seek to connect what we know with new information, normally focused on a problem.

There are two or maybe three modes of thinking!

1. Convergent – focuses on coming up with a single, “correct” answer to a question or problem. Examples of convergent thinking would include critical thinking, a logical process that involves challenging underpinning assumptions, questioning accuracy, motivation and purpose in order to make sense of a situation or solve a problem. Its origins can be traced back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, or as De Bono disparagingly referred to them, the gang of three.  Also, analytical thinking, where you break down complex information into its component parts, this can and is often used in conjunction with critical thinking. Convergent thinking is logical thinking, meaning its rule based, systematic and linear. If for example we concluded that 2 + 2 = 4 and we decided to add another 2, logically the answer would be 6. 

But logic can still be challenging, there is a logical answer to this question yet 80% of people get it wrong.

Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?
A: Yes
B: No
C: Cannot be determined

The correct answer is A. (click here for the explanation)

The need to be right all the time is the biggest bar to new ideas.

2. Divergent – is the opposite of convergent and involves coming up with many possible solutions, acknowledging that there may be no single correct answer. This type of thinking is often emergent, free flowing, illogical and requires creativity. Convergent and divergent thinking can be used together, divergent to generate ideas and convergent to make sense of those ideas and find a practical application. Click here for a video that explains how these two types of thinking work together.

3. Lateral thinking – is a way of solving problems by taking an indirect and creative approach by looking at the problem from different perspectives. Although there are similarities with divergent thinking it is not the same. Divergent thinking starts with a problem at the centre and random ideas are generated branching outwards in all directions, lateral thinking requires the individual to come up with a solution by generating different ideas that result from changing perspective. De Bono writes that lateral thinking forces the brain to break set patterns, it’s a pattern switching technique.

Let’s consider one of his examples, Granny is sitting knitting and three-year-old Susan is upsetting Granny by playing with the wool. One parent suggests putting Susan into the playpen, a relatively creative (divergent) solution. A logical (convergent) answer might be to tell Susan not to do it, but anyone with a three-year-old will know how effective this will be, but that won’t stop them trying!

The other parent suggests it might be a better idea to put Granny in the playpen to protect her from Susan, this is lateral thinking, looking at the problem from a different perspective. Its illogical because granny is bigger and surely you don’t need to protect granny from a three-year-old, but it is still a solution and would work.

I am reminded of a question I was once asked whilst visiting Berlin. “Why did the East Germans build the Berlin wall?” ………“To keep people in of course”, it was a prison not a defence. It’s all about perspective.

Lateral thinking is not a substitute for logical thinking and can be used as a way of generating new divergent solutions, they complement each other and are interchangeable. Lateral thinking is generative, logical thinking selective.

In summary lateral thinking is about changing perspective……

Most of the mistakes in thinking are inadequacies of perception rather than mistakes of logic.

My own personal favourite perspective story

This is the transcript of a radio conversation of a US naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October, 1995. Radio conversation released by the Chief of Naval Operations 10-10-95.

Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.

Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.

Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States’ Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that YOU change your course 15 degrees north, that’s one five degrees north, or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.

Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

Lateral thinking for learning

But what has this got to do with learning? Well learning is not just about facts and knowing stuff, the reason we go to school is to gain an understanding of a wide range of issues, concepts and ideas that when faced with a problem we can manipulate and cross check in order to form opinion and come up with a solution. Learning is a consequence of thinking.

Learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous.
Confucius

De Bono believed that thinking was a skill that could be learned and because lateral thinking helps people develop creative ideas, creativity could also be learned. It is not an innate trait, a type of intelligence that you are borne with, it’s something we all possess, we just need the techniques to do it. He did however distinguish between artistic creativity and idea creativity, Michael Angelo and Shakespeare are artistically creative, lateral thinking will only ever make you idea creative.

As to the techniques, maybe they will feature in another blog but if you can’t wait, here is a short video, but beware De Bono was the master of acronym.

We tend to take thinking for granted, believing we are good at it or maybe never even questioning our ability. But what De Bono made popular was the idea that it was a skill and that we can improve. We live in a time when information is more accessible and freely available than ever, so the real value has to be in what we do with it.

Thank you, Edward De Bono 1933 – 2021.

And lastly….the blog would not be complete without one of De Bono’s lateral thinking puzzles.

A man lives on the tenth floor of a building. Every day he takes the elevator to go down to the ground floor to go to work or to go shopping. When he returns, he takes the elevator to the seventh floor and walks up the stairs to reach his apartment on the tenth floor. He hates walking so why does he do it?

The man is a dwarf and cant reach the higher buttons.

Note making, not note taking – it’s about effort

I have always been a believer in the idea that much of what you need to know is accessible, the answer is staring you in the face and yet you can’t always see it. Maybe because you’re not asking the right question or looking at it from the wrong perspective.

Figuring out how learning works and the best way to study can seem complicated and yet if you watch what people do when they are trying to learn and ask the right questions there is much to see.

For example, watch a group of students in class or a lecture, (remember that pre-Covid) what do they do? Where are they looking, what are they concentrating on and most importantly what activity are they engaged in? The answer to this last question is easy, they will all be making notes. Going forward these notes will become the single most important learning resource the student has.

Why is note making important
There are two basic reasons why you make notes, firstly it improves concentration and cognition, making notes gives you something to do that requires attention, you become more focussed. Secondly you will have created a permanent record of what was said to review later. Interestingly if you asked students, they probably think capturing the information is the sole reason for notes, when in reality it’s the effort involved in making them that mattes in terms of learning.

Its worth adding that making notes works just as well from a book as it does a lecture.

How to make notes?

Blank paper notes – The simplest form of note making is to start with a blank piece of paper. Unfortunately, research tells us that most students notes are incomplete, on average they only capture one third of what was deemed to be important. In addition, they are often inaccurate, in one study, Crawford (1925) found that only 53% of noted information was fully correct, 45% was vague, and 2% inaccurate.

Conclusion – making notes in class is a good idea but if you use those same notes afterwards, not only will you be missing some important information but some of what is there may well be wrong.

Full notes – An alternative to a blank piece of paper is to give students a full set of notes. In 1987 a study by Kiewra and Benton showed that students who reviewed full notes achieved 17% higher scores than students who reviewed their own. This of course may not be surprising given the lack of information captured by students in the first place. Interestingly there is even some evidence to show that reviewing a full set of notes is better than attending the lecture!

Just to be clear, the best way of learning is to attend the lecture, make notes but then review a full set of notes not your own. Unless of course there is another way….

Partial, Scaffolded, Skeletal and Gapped notes
Partial notes may offer the best solution, helping keep the student engaged when in class but providing them with a sufficiently complete set of notes from which to study later. Partial notes contain the main ideas but leave blank spaces for students to complete, for example producing or labelling a diagram, adding in key definitions, working calculations etc. More research in 1995 from Kiewra and Benton but this time in collaboration with Kim, Risch, and Christensen showed a marked increase in completeness from 38% for those who used a blank piece of paper to 56% for those that were given partial notes. What we don’t know from this research is the level of detail that was missing, but it proves the point.

Note taking cues – One tip for teachers, the more cuing or signposting that is deployed the better. This might involve pausing and telling students they must pay attention to a particular point or simply writing out a key phrase or definition on the whiteboard. In one study, students recorded 86% of the information written on a blackboard (Locke, 1977).

Handwritten or typed?
This is a difficult one to answer, with some research to support both forms. We know that most students can type more quickly than they can write and as a result they should have more comprehensive notes to study from. But in 2014 Mueller & Oppenheimer cast doubts on the viability of laptop note taking. They concluded that “whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning”. In addition, laptop users did not capture diagrams that well, this was thought to be the result of the difficulty of doing this digitally. Copying and pasting certainly captures information but is a relatively mindless activity and leads to a certain amount of unnecessary information being recorded which is off little value.

Conclusion
It would be wrong to conclude that making notes on a computer is worse than writing them out by hand. Its more that a computer makes it easier for students to disengage or become distracted, and if that happens, the learning is less effective. To a certain extent learning has to be difficult, it’s all about the effort, the more you try the more you learn.

We can however say that partial notes are a very good compromise, offering the best of both worlds, helping students capture sufficient information to review later but requiring them to concentrate whilst sitting in class.

I’m now off to — in the —— and have a cold —-

For more links to the research, here is an excellent summary, Note-taking: A Research Roundup by Jennifer Gonzalez – The cult of Pedagogy

Who are you when learning? – Personality

Being a very agreeable kind of a person, I was encouraged to find a piece of research that appears to be unanimously supported in terms of evidence as to its validity, it’s called the Five Factor Model or the Big Five model of personality. Developed by McCrae and Costa in 1987 it simplifies personality, suggesting that we are all biologically predisposed towards the following five traits, Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, easily remembered by the acronym OCEAN.

For those who are curious and would like to learn more about themselves there is a test at the end of the blog to help you identify your preferences. But some may have little interest in finding out how well they perform, the reason for these two different attitudes could well be personality. What should however be of interest to everyone, partly because you are reading this blog is to find out what personality has to do with learning.

What is personality?
The term Personality is derived from the Latin word ‘persona’ meaning mask or character. An actor might for example wear a mask (persona) to promote a particular quality in a character as part of a performance or simply use it so as not to reveal too much of themselves.

The term is now more commonly used to describe an individual’s characteristics, patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. In other words, your personality is what makes you, you!

Although intelligence is one of the strongest predictors of student success, there is evidence to show that personality is also responsible for individual differences in how well people learn.

“intellectual ability refers to what a person can do, whereas personality traits may provide information on what a person will do”.
O’Connor & Paunonen, 2007 and Furnham and Chamorro-Premuzic 2004

The Five Factor model
Many people will have heard of the Myers Brig’s Type Indicator, MBTI for short, it’s one of the most well-known profiling techniques. In fact, you may well have been asked to take an MBTI test at some point in your career, although strictly it’s not a test as there is no right or wrong answer. It requires the completion of a self-regulated questionnaire in an attempt to capture how people perceive the world, gather information and make decisions. It’s based on Jung’s theory of psychological types. The main problem with MBTI is that its binary by design, meaning that a person is either an introvert or extrovert which on one level is helpful because it gives you an answer but even Jung admitted that “there is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert.”

In contrast the Five Factor Model provides its results in the form of a measure as to how much of the trait you possess, it’s a personality trait rather than a type. But although this is more accurate it’s difficult to interpret, for example you may be 55% agreeable, but what conclusions can you draw from that?

However, many academics and practitioners consider the five-factor model superior partly because there is a lack of evidence to support the MBTI and the results can be unreliable. If you retake the test after 5 weeks, there is a 50% chance you will fall into a different type.

OCEAN

Openness to experiences – this personality trait denotes how receptive you might be to new ideas and new experiences, a willingness to try out the unknown. People who have low levels are generally sceptical about the unknown and happy with the status quo. It might be worth adding that there is no opposite to being open, you are not for example a closed person, just less open.

Conscientiousness – Individuals who are conscientious are able to control their impulses. They are more likely to be successful both in the classroom and in their careers, largely because they are organised, hardworking and determined in the pursuit of their goals.  People with low conscientiousness have a tendency to procrastinate and deviate from their objectives. They can also be impetuous and impulsive. As with openness there is no opposite, you are just less conscientious.

Extraversion – Unlike the above you can be introverted. However, the term introvert refers to where you get your energy from and has nothing to do with being shy. Extroverts gain their energy from activities and other people whereas Introverts prefer the world of ideas and internal thoughts.

Agreeableness – if you are agreeable, you are more likely to get along with others and be cooperative. People on the low end of agreeableness can at times be blunt and sometimes even rude, although they will probably view themselves as being honest and not afraid to call “a spade a spade”.

Neuroticism – this refers to how emotionally stability you are as a person. It often manifests itself in being confident and comfortable in your own skin as opposed to suffering from anxiety, worry, and low self-esteem. Instinctively it feels as if this is the worst trait to be strong in, and you would be right. But we all have some aspects of neuroticism and higher levels are often associated with people who are very creative.

Personality and the connection with learning
It may come as no surprise that the research identifies two personality traits as being the most important from a learning perspective, conscientiousness as a positive and neuroticism as a negative. Students who are conscientious perform well academically whilst those that display higher levels of neuroticism can sometimes struggle, for example they are more likely to suffer from test anxiety and self-doubt. This particular aspect of personality might go some way to explaining why “clever” students don’t do so well.

Conscientious learners are more likely to engage in and succeed at learning.

Students with higher levels of Anxiety (a quality of Neuroticism) will face greater learning challenges than less Anxious students.

It was also found that agreeableness and openness helped students academically suggesting that in addition to being conscientious, cooperation and inquisitiveness was also of value.

Interestingly some research has even shown that personality accounts for a greater part of the variance in academic achievement over and above intelligence,and that personality may be better at predicting academic success at the post-secondary levels of education 2.

However, the more important message is that few of us sit at the extreme of any of these personality traits and as individuals have elements of them all. And by recognising that we have a weakness in one and a strength in another can adapt, whilst at the same time acknowledging that these traits are important because they are what makes us who we are.

Take the test – if you are open and conscientiousness you may want to find out more about your personality.

And here is a fun quiz (Buzz quiz) based on MBTI popularised by long term career advisor David Hodgson. Rather than a 4 letter code David’s idea is to presents the results in the form of an animal.

1 (Bratko et al. 2006; Gilles and Bailleux 2001; Noftle and Robins 2007; Poropat 2009)
2 (Conard 2006; Di Fabio and Busoni 2007; Furnham and Chamorro-Premuzic 2004; Furnham et al. 2003; Petrides et al. 2005).

Feedback – The breakfast of champions

There was an interesting piece of research that came out recently, it referred to something called “Temporary mark withholding”. This as the name might suggest is providing students with written feedback but without marks. On the face of it this might seem odd and frankly unhelpful, how can you judge your performance if you don’t know how you compare against what is expected?

To answer that question, you need to ask a far more fundamental one, what’s the purpose of giving feedback in the first place?

Feedback – task or ego
We need to separate feedback from criticism which often implies that the person giving it is trying “to find fault”, although it’s possible to make it sound a little more positive by calling it constructive criticism. In simple terms criticism is more about what was wrong in the past whilst feedback directs you towards what you should do to improve in the future. But when we are thinking in terms of learning it gets a little more complicated, Dylan William talks about whether its ego involving or task involving feedback. The first of these would include offering praise such as “well done you have produced an excellent answer” but he states this is rarely effective and can actually lower achievement. However when the feedback focuses on what the student needs to do to improve, and explains how they can do it, then you get a significant impact on student achievement.

He goes on to say that “good feedback causes thinking, the first thing a student needs to do when they receive feedback is not to react emotionally, not disengage – but think”. It might be worth adding that Dylan William is talking about the impact of feedback on student learning not on how the student might feel in terms of motivation, self-confidence etc. There is clearly a place for ego type feedback it’s just not that effective when sat alongside a direct instruction because the emotional response often blocks or detracts what needs to be understood for the student to improve.

Formative and Summative assessment
There is one last piece of information that will help us make sense of the reasons why temporary mark withholding might work, the difference between formative and summative assessment.

Summative – The purpose of summative assessment is to “sum up” student learning at the end of a chunk of learning or completion of a course and compare it against a standard, normally a pass rate. This is why exams are often criticised, it’s not that testing is bad, it’s how the results are used, often polarising and narrowing opinion as to an individual’s performance, pass and you’re a hero, fail and you’re a villain. It gets worse when you then put those results into a league table and publish them, with the winners at the top and losers at the bottom for all to see and draw often incorrect conclusions.

Summative assessment is however valuable, if you score below the target, it tells you that more effort or work is needed, also that you are not performing well on a particular topic, but it provides no guidance as to what you need to do to improve.

Formative – The purpose of formative assessment is to monitor progress on an ongoing basis in order to help the teacher identify the “gap” between what the student knows and needs to know. This is where the magic happens, firstly in finding out where the gap is e.g. Where is the student currently compared to where they need to be, then figuring out the best way of getting them to that higher standard e.g. what do they need to do to improve. Formative assessment can be a test, a quiz or simply observation.

Lessons for students
And this is why holding back the marks works, what the piece of research (et al) highlighted, is that when students get their marks, they effectively prioritise the grades over the written comments. The good students ignore the comments because they don’t think they have anything to learn, and the weaker students are demotivated so also ignore them.

The key point for students is this, by all means look at the mark but resist that emotional (ego) reaction to pat yourself on the back or beat yourself up. Read all the comments with an open mind, asking two simple questions, can I see that there is a gap between my answer and the model answer and secondly do I know exactly what to do next to close it? The feedback, if it is good of course should make this as easy a process as possible.

The fact that your script might only say “see model answer” or have a cross with the correct number written next to it, is more an example of poor marking with little or no feedback. Perhaps you should return your script providing the marker/teacher with some feedback highlighting the gap between good marking and bad marking but most importantly what they should do to improve…..

And if your interested, here is the link to Dylan William explaining the importance of formative assessment.

Reference – Kuepper-Tetzel & Gardner – Jackson & Marks, 2016 – Taras, 2001, Winstone et al., 2017 – Ramaprasad, 1983

The single most important thing for students to know – Cognitive load

Back in 2017 Dylan Williams, Professor of Educational Assessment at UCL described cognitive load theory (CLT) as ‘the single most important thing for teachers to know’. His reasoning was simple, if learning is an alteration in long term memory (OFSTED’s definition) then it is essential for teachers to know the best ways of helping students achieve this. At this stage you might find it helpful to revisit my previous blog, Never forget, improving memory, which explains more about the relationship between long and short-term memory but to help reduce your cognitive load…. I have provided a short summary below.

But here is the point, if CLT is so important for teachers it must also be of benefit to students.

Cognitive load theory
The term cognitive load was coined by John Sweller in a paper published in the journal of Cognitive Science in 1988. Cognitive load is the amount of information that working/short term memory can process at any one time, and that when the load becomes too great, processing information slows down and so does learning. The implication is that because we can’t do anything about the short-term nature of short-term memory, we can only retain 4 + or – 2 chunks of information before it’s lost, learning should be designed or studying methods changed accordingly. The purpose of which is to reduce the ‘load’ so that it can more easily pass into long term memory where the storage capacity is infinite.

CLT can be broken down into three categories:

Intrinsic cognitive load – this relates to the inherent difficulty of the material or complexity of the task. Some content will always have a high level of difficulty, for example, solving a complex equation is more difficult than adding two numbers together. However, the cognitive load arising from a complex task can be reduced by breaking it down into smaller and simpler steps. There is also evidence to show that prior knowledge makes the processing of complex tasks easier. In fact, it is one of the main differences between an expert and a novice, the expert requires less short-term memory capacity because they already have knowledge stored in long term memory that they can draw upon. The new knowledge is simply adding to what they already know. Bottom line – some stuff is just harder.

Extraneous cognitive load – this is the unnecessary mental effort required to process information for the task in hand, in effect the learning has been made overly difficult or confusing. For example, if you needed to learn about a square, it would be far easier to draw a picture and point to it, than use words to describe it. A more common example of extraneous load is when a presenter puts too much information on a PowerPoint slide, most of which adds little to what needs to be learned. Bottom line – don’t make learning harder by including unimportant stuff.

Germane cognitive load – increasing the load is not always bad, for example if you ask someone to think of a house, that will increase the load but when they have created that ‘schema’ or plan in their mind adding new information becomes easier. Following on with the house example, if you have a picture of a house in your mind, asking questions about what you might find in the kitchen is relatively simple. The argument is that learning can be enhanced when content is arranged or presented in a way that helps the learner construct new knowledge. Bottom line – increasing germane load is good because it makes learning new stuff easier.

In summary, both student and teacher should reduce intrinsic and extraneous load but increase germane.

Implications for learning
The three categories of cognitive load shown above provide some insight as to what you should and shouldn’t do if you want to learn more effectively. For example, break complex tasks down into simpler ones, focus on what’s important and avoid unnecessary information and use schemas (models) where possible to help deal with complexity. There are however a few specifics that relate to the categories worthy of mention.

The worked example effect – If you are trying to understand something and continual reading of the text is having little impact, it’s possible your short-term memory has reached capacity. Finding an example of what you need to understand will help free up some of that memory. For example…….…if I wanted to explain that short term memory is limited I might ask you to memorise these 12 letters, SHNCCMTAVYID. But because this will exceed the 4+ or – 2 rule it will be difficult and hopefully as a result prove the point. In this situation the example is a far more effective way of transferring knowledge than pages of text.

The redundancy effect – This is most commonly found where there is simply too much unnecessary or redundant information. It might be irrelevant or not essential to what you’re trying to learn. In addition, it could be the same information but presented in multiple forms, for example an explanation and diagram on the same page. The secret here is to be relatively ruthless in pursuing what you want to know, look for the answer to your question rather than getting distracted by adjacent information. You may also come across this online where a PowerPoint presentation has far too much content and the presenter simply reads out loud what’s on the slides. In these circumstances, it’s a good idea to turn down the sound and simply read the slides for yourself. People can’t focus when they hear and see the same verbal message during a presentation (Hoffman, 2006).

The split attention effect – This occurs when you have to refer to two different sources of information simultaneously when learning. Often in written texts and blogs as I have done in this one, you will find a reference to something further to read or listen to, ignore it and stick to the task in hand, grasp the principle and only afterwards follow up on the link. Another way of reducing the impact of split attention is to produce notes that reduce the conflict that arises when trying to listen to the teacher and make notes at the same time. You might want to use the Cornel note taking method, click here to find out more.

But is it the single most important thing a student should know?
Well maybe, maybe not but its certainly in the top three. The theory on its own will not make you a better learner but it goes a long way in explaining why you can’t understand something despite spending hours studying, it provides guidance as to what you can do to make learning more effective but most importantly it can change your mindset from – “I’m not clever enough” to, “I just need to reduce the amount of information, and then I’ll get it”.

And believing that is priceless, not only for studying towards your next exam but in helping with all your learning in the years to come.

Motivated ignorance – is ignorance better than knowing?

If it’s true that the cat wasn’t killed by curiosity and that ignorance was to blame (see last month’s blog) then it follows that we should better educate the cat if it is to avoid an untimely death. But what if the cat chooses to remain ignorant?

Ignorant – lacking knowledge or awareness in general; uneducated or unsophisticated.

In a paper published last February, Daniel Williams puts forward a very challenging and slightly worrying proposition, that when the costs of acquiring knowledge outweigh the benefits of possessing it, ignorance is rational. In simple terms this suggests that people are not “stupid”, or ignorant, when they are unaware of something, they are in fact being logical and rational, effectively choosing not to learn.

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” – Aldous Huxley

Beware the man of a single book St. Thomas Aquinas
In terms of education this is clearly very important, but it has far wider implications for some of the challenges we are facing in society today. There is an increasing divergence in opinion across the world with people holding diametrically opposite views, both believing the other is wrong. We can probably attach personas to these groups, on the one side there are the knowledgeable and well educated, on the other those who may not be in possession of all the facts but trust their emotions and believe in community and identity. The two groups are clear to see, those that believe in climate change and those that don’t, Trump supporters and anyone but Trump supporters, take the vaccine or anti-vaccine.

The stakes could not be higher.

“Ignorance is a lot like alcohol. The more you have of it, the less you are able to see its effect on you.” – Jay Bylsma

Motivated ignorance
The idea that choosing to be ignorant could be both logical and rational is not new. In his book An Economic Theory of Democracy first published in 1957 Anthony Downs used the term “rational ignorance” for the first time to explain why voters chose to remain ignorant about the facts because their vote wouldn’t count under the current political system. The logic being that it was rational to remain ignorant if the costs of becoming informed, in this case the effort to read and listen to all the political debate outweigh the benefits, of which the voters saw none.

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” – Robert Orben

Daniel Williams is making a slightly different point; he argues that motivated ignorance is a form of information avoidance. The individual is not remaining ignorant because the costs of obtaining the information are too high, they are actively avoiding knowledge for other reasons. He also goes on to say that if you are avoiding something it follows that you were aware of its existence in the first place, what the US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld so eloquently referred to as a known unknown.

We need one final piece of the jigsaw before we can better understand motivated ignorance, and that is motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoners reach pre-determined conclusions regardless of the evidence available to them. This is subtly different to confirmation bias, which is the tendency to only notice information that coincides with pre-existing beliefs and ignores information that doesn’t.

If motivated reasoning is the desire to seek out knowledge to support the conclusions you want, motivated ignorance is the opposite, it is the desire to avoid knowledge in case it gives you the “wrong” answer. For example, although you might feel ill, you avoid going to the doctors to find out what’s wrong because you don’t want to know what the doctor might say.

The question that we should ask is, why don’t you want to know the answer? The implication here is that something is stopping you, in this instance perhaps the emotional cost of the doctor’s prognosis is greater than the gain. Similar examples can be found in other domains, the husband who doesn’t ask as to his wife’s whereabouts because he is afraid, she is having an affair, and doesn’t want it confirmed, although in reality she might have just been late night shopping!

“If ignorance is bliss, there should be more happy people.” – Victor Cousin

The idea that we should always seek out knowledge to be better informed clearly has its limitations and that far from being illogical motivated ignorance has some degree of rationality.

What have we learned?
Human beings do not strive to answer every question nor have within their grasp all the knowledge that exists. We are selective based on how much time we have available, how we might like to feel and, in some instances, the social groups we would like to belong. There is always a sacrifice or trade-off for knowledge and sometimes the price might be considered too high.

The answer to ignorance is not to throw more information at the problem in an attempt to make the ignorant more enlightened. If you don’t believe in climate change, not even a well-crafted documentary by David Attenborough is likely to help If the motivation for choosing ignorance is not addressed. This over supply of information was evident in the Brexit debate here in the UK. For those who had “made up their mind”, providing very powerful arguments by equally powerful captains of industry as to why leaving Europe was a bad idea failed to educate because most chose not to listen.

The role of education and learning has to be inspiration and curiosity, we need to get closer to those underlying motivational barriers and break them down. We have to help people appreciate the feeling you get as a result of challenging your views and coming out the other side with a better and possibly different answer. There is a need to move away from the competitive nature of right and wrong and the idea that changing your mind is a sign of weakness.

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”- attributed to J Maynard Keynes

And maybe we have to accept that although there is a price to pay whatever it is, it will be worth it.

“no people can be both ignorant and free.” – Thomas Jefferson

If it wasn’t curiosity, what did kill the cat?

In 2006 Professor Dr. Ugur Şahin, an oncologist was working on a curiosity-driven research project to help find out if it might be possible to develop a vaccine to control and destroy cancerous tumours by activating the body’s own immune system. This approach was fundamentally different to the more common treatments of radiation and chemotherapy. Curiosity driven projects often have no clear goal but allow scientists to take risks and explore the art of the possible.

In 2008 Dr. Ugur Sahin and his wife Ozlem Tureci founded a small biotech company called BioNTech who you may never have heard of, if it wasn’t for COVID-19. Because together with Pfizer, BioNTech are the suppliers of the first Covid vaccine to be used in the UK. That early curiosity driven research in 2006 provided Sahin and Tureci with the answers to our 2020 problem.

Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning – William Arthur Ward
Curiosity is the desire to know or learn something in the absence of extrinsic rewards. The point being, there is no reward other than the answer itself. It is a psychological trait and because of that, has a genetic component, some people are just born more curious. However, nurture has an equally important role to play, and although it’s argued you can’t teach curiosity you can encourage people to become more curious by using different techniques. See below.

Sophie von Stumm, a professor of Psychology in Education from the University of York believes that curiosity is so important in terms of academic performance that it should sit alongside intelligence and effort (conscientiousness) as a third pillar. Her research found that intelligence, effort and curiosity are key attributes of exceptional students.

Curiosity follows an inverted U-shape when shown in graphical form. Imagine a graph, along the horizontal axis we have knowledge and on the vertical, curiosity. When we first come across a new subject, we know very little and as such our curiosity rises as does the level of dopamine, but as we find out more and more our curiosity will reach a peak before ultimately falling.

“When you’re curious you find lots of interesting things to do.” Walt Disney

Curiosity types – it would be far too simplistic to think that there is only one type of curiosity. Mario Livio, an astrophysicist talks about a few of them in his book Why? What Makes Us Curious.

  • Epistemic curiosity is the one we have been talking about so far and relates to the type of curiosity that drives research and education. It’s generally a pleasurable state, the result of a release of dopamine that comes from mastery and the anticipation of reward.
  • Perceptual curiosity is primal and exists on a continuum between fear and satisfaction, it’s the curiosity we feel when something surprises us or when we get an answer that doesn’t quite fit with what we expected. The motivation is to seek out something novel although the curiosity will diminish with continued exposure.
  • Diversive curiosity is transient and superficial and is often experienced when swiping through your Twitter feed. Its effectively a means of jumping from topic to topic and normally fails to result in any form of meaningful insight or understanding.

You might think that as we grow older, we become less curious simply because we know more. However, although we may lose some elements of diversive curiosity or the ability to be surprised, research shows that epistemic curiosity remains roughly constant across all age groups

But why?
The roots to curiosity can be traced back to a form of neoteny, an evolutionary condition that means although we reach maturity, we retain juvenile characteristics. Effectively we are more childlike than other mammals, continuing to be curious and playful throughout our lives. You can often tell if people are curios by looking at their eyes, which will become more dilated. This indicates that noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter has been released in the brainstem’s locus coeruleus, the part of the brain most strongly linked to arousal, vigilance, and attention. In addition, noradrenaline is also integral to a number of higher cognitive functions ranging from motivation to working memory and therefore hugely valuable for learning.

This may well be a slightly complicated way of saying that if you are curious about something, you are more likely to pay attention, making it easier to remember and in so doing learn.

How to become more curious

“Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.” Bernard Baruch

Research into curiosity has confirmed some of what we might have already assumed to be correct, for example in a paper published in 2009, it concluded that people were more likely to recall answers to questions they were especially curious about. However it also showed that curiosity increased when answers were guessed incorrectly, suggesting that surprise was a factor in improved retention.

“I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of human excellence is to question oneself and others.” Socrates

The concept that curiosity is based on an Information gap was first put forward by George Loewenstein in 1994 which leads to one of the most powerful tools we can use to improve curiosity, asking questions. The best question to ask is probably WHY, but don’t forget Kipling’s other 5 honest serving men, WHAT, WHEN, HOW, WHERE and WHO. Below are a few more ideas.

  • Ask Socratic questions. This involves asking open ended questions that provoke a meaningful exploration of the subject, this process sits at the heart of critical thinking.
  • Create environments that promote curiosity. Challenges that need solving require a curious mind. Case studies are also more of interest, providing several different routes to explore.
  • Guess the answer first. As mentioned above, if you guess first it increases the surprise factor. Loewenstein also argued that guessing with feedback stimulates curiosity because it highlights the gap between what you thought you knew and the correct answer.
  • Failure is feedback. Finding out why you got something wrong can be just as interesting as knowing that you are right, it certainly increases curiosity.
  • Start with the curious part of a subject. You may not be curious about the whole subject, but try to find the part you are interested in and start there.

And if you would like to find out more

What’s the answer, what did kill the cat?

it was IGNORANCE…………

Learning is emotional

We are all emotional, it’s part of what it means to be human, your emotions help navigate uncertainty and experience the world. For some it’s even considered an intelligence, requiring the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, as well as others.

For many years’ emotions were considered something that “got in the way” of learning, effectively disrupting the efficiency, but it is now believed that emotion has a substantial influence on cognitive processes, including perception, attention, memory, reasoning, and problem solving.

Emotions, feelings and mood

In last month’s blog I outlined how sensory input impact memory and the story continues because memories are a key part of emotion and both are found in something called the limbic system, a group of interconnected structures located deep within the brain. The limbic system plays an important part in controlling emotional responses (Hypothalamus), coordinating those responses (Amygdala), and laying down memories (Hippocampus).

There is no single definition of emotion that everyone agrees upon, what we know is, it relies upon the release of chemicals in response to a trigger which in turn leads to three distinct phases. Firstly, a subjective experience, perhaps a feeling of anger, although not everyone would necessarily respond in the same way to the same stimulus. Secondly, a physiological response for example, raised blood pressure, increased heart rate and lastly a behavioural or expressive response, a furrowing of the brow, showing of teeth etc.  

Although emotions are not believed to be hard-wired, in the 1970s Paul Eckman identified six emotions that were universally experienced in all human cultures. They are happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, and anger. This list has however been expanded to include others for example shame, embarrassment, excitement etc.

Feelings on the other hand arise from emotions, they are a conscious interpretation of the stimulus, asking questions as to what it might mean, some refer to feelings as the human response to emotions.  And finally, moods which are more general and longer term, an emotion might exist for a fraction of a second but moods can last for hours, even days and are sometimes a symptom of more worrying mental health issues.   In addition, moods are not necessarily linked to a single event but shaped by different events over time.

Impact on learning

Understanding what this means for students and educators is complex and in a short blog it’s only possible to introduce the subject. But there are a few lessons we can learn.

  • Emotions direct attention – if students can make an emotional connection with what they are learning it will improve levels of concentration and enjoyment.
  • Consider the emotional environment – the emotional context in which information is delivered can help students experience more positive emotions such as happiness and one of the most powerful emotions in learning, curiosity.
  • Avoid negative emotions – students who are in a continual state of anxiety or fearing failure whilst learning will find concentrating and retaining information difficult. This is partly the result of the brain going into its fight or flight mode which effectively narrows its focus to the task in hand.
  • Emotional state is contagious – the emotional state of the teacher can have a significant impact on students.
  • Memory and emotions are bound together – emotions have a considerable influence on memory. This is why we remember more emotionally charged events such as September 11 or the London bridge attack in 2017.

And if you would like to find out moreHow do emotions impact learning.

Dedication – in a lifetime we will all experience many emotions some good, some bad, but none are as powerful or more gratefully received than a mother’s love, for my mom.

Never forget – improving memory

When I first started lecturing, I asked myself a question, what’s the point in saying something if no one can remember what’s said? Didn’t I have a responsibility to present the knowledge in such a way that it was more memorable? If not, then all I was doing was putting it out there for each student to figure out the best way of getting it into their head.

What followed has been a lifelong interest in learning and memory.

How memory works
Although there is a strong link between working memory and intelligence, they are not the same. Memory is our ability to encode, store, retain and subsequently recall information, it’s the recalling of information to solve a problem that makes memory so useful in terms of intelligence.

A great memory does not make a mind, any more than a dictionary is a piece of literature.
John Henry Newman

The brain takes information in by way of the five main senses, what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell, this is known as sensory input. But we are bombarded with sensory information potentially at the rate of 11 million bits per second making it impossible to consciously capture everything, that is if we should want to.

The result is that much of this information is lost, however if you turn your attention towards a piece of information, effectively concentrating on a sound or image whilst ignoring the rest, it will move to short term memory where it can be stored, but not for long. Although short term memory is only part of working memory in this context they can be thought of as the same.

The true art of memory is the art of attention.
Samuel Johnson

As you might imagine short term memory is by definition short, around 15 to 30 seconds, its also limited in terms of capacity. In 1956 George Miller* famously defined the capacity as being 7 plus or minus 2, although recent research suggests the 7 might more accurately be 4. The implication being that you can only hold around 7 pieces of information in short term memory at any one time. You can test this by looking at the letters below for about 20 seconds and trying to memorise them.

SHNCCMTAVYID

Then take a 5-minute break and on a blank piece of paper write down as many as you can remember.

There are 12 characters and you would be in good company if you remembered around 6 or 7, with those at the start and end being the easiest. This is known as the primacy (start) and recency effect (end). But more importantly how did you memorise the information, perhaps by repeating the letters over an over in your head or looking at the shapes each one made, picturing them in your minds eye? These are examples of techniques you have learned to help transfer information from short to long term memory, they may not be the best but they work.

Long term memory – it’s all about the input
The repeating of a word is a type of encoding, effectively labelling the information as a means of moving it from short to long term memory. Think of it as a type of filing system, if you don’t file it correctly, when you come to look for it at a later date it might be there but you won’t be able to find it. If you would like to learn more about what’s happening in the brain when you create these connections read this previous blog – The learning brain.

There are many ways in which you can encode information, they form the basis for the most common memory techniques. I have written about some of these before although it was over 10 years ago and they are sufficiently important to cover again.

1 Association and organisation – the brain needs structure and works well when information is added with an association or link to something that came before. This is why acronyms are so effective, if you already know the word SMART, then it is easier to remember Specific Measurable Realistic and Timely because your simply adding new words to something already in long term memory.
Association also works with dates, ask yourself what day the 15th of February fell on this year? Chances are you will remember that the 14th was Valentine’s day which was a Friday, you will then be able to figure out that the 15th must have been the Saturday.

2 Repetition – continually repeating something fires neurons in the brain until they form a long-term connection. This is the reason you can remember your times table so well. However continually repeating something in a short space of time which is called mass repetition is not as effective as spaced repetition. The spacing makes recall more difficult requiring additional effort and it is the effort that strengthens the long-term memory.

3 Visualisation – one of the most powerful senses for recall is your ability to visualise, with some arguing that it’s the main way in which memories are stored. However, researchers would most likely award that accolade to your sense of smell. But few would disagree that picturing something in your “mind’s eye” is an important way of bringing the past into the present.

Ask yourself what colour your front door is, can you see it, where is the letter box positioned, towards the top, in the middle or at the bottom? When you try to answer these questions it’s your visual memory you will be using. Images have also been proven to be effective when used with a verbal commentary. The theory of dual coding suggests that people process verbal and visual information separately but interestingly at the same time making the input of information even more powerful. Mind maps use many of the principles of memory but rely heavily on the use of related colourful and imaginative pictures. Click here to learn more.

4 Rhythm and Rhyme – the ability to remember music and even more fundamentally rhythm helps encode information. Remembering the lyrics to a song will not be as easy as remembering the tune that carries the words. There are lots of examples of memorising using rhythm, think about all those nursery rhymes or how Matilde remembers how to spell difficulty

Mrs D, Mrs I, Mrs FFI, Mrs C, Mrs U, Mrs LTY.

5 Chunking – and lastly the one we started with, remember those numbers from before? You would have had a much better chance if you had chunked them down into smaller pieces of information and associated them with existing knowledge. Look at the letters below for about 20 seconds and try to memorise them.

DIY VAT MCC NHS

You should find this a whole lot easier, even though they are the same letters as before but just backwards. You might even have found yourself visualising the blue of the NHS. Click here for more on chunking.

Lest we forget – It is perhaps no mistake that in order to remember those who died in the first world war and all subsequent wars, an image of a poppy was chosen. And who could forget – The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

*Based on psychologist George Miller’s paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” (1956)