The self-isolating learner – a new mindset

COVID-19 is forcing everyone to make changes, effortlessly disrupting routine and future plans, for many students the exams you have been working towards may well have been cancelled or alternative methods of assessment announced, and your School, University or College will have closed its doors for an unspecified period of time. With what could be described as a Dunkirk spirit many educational establishments have achieved what would have seemed impossible, a shift from face to face lectures and a physical campus-based mentality to a virtual learning environment.

If you are continuing to study, doing it remotely might be a brand-new experience and although it will mean some changes what remains the same is the way we learn. In fact, one of the biggest challenges is in not wasting time, something ironically because of the restrictions we now all have a lot more of. This new virtual learning can take many different forms, the platform will most likely be one of the following, Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, Brightspace but there are others. Content will be delivered via any one or a combination of, live webcast, instructionally designed eLearning, video or simply tagged learning materials. All of them however require a positive approach to self-study.

Tips to studying when working from home

Prepare a Timetable – without the discipline of the classroom or a formal schedule you will need something to help manage your time. A timetable can seem unnecessary for experienced students but the process of preparing one will give you a mental picture of the tasks and challenges ahead. It should include important learning activities and tests that need completing and by when. Don’t underestimate how long something will take, learning is not an exact science so don’t forget to build in a buffer. Also make sure you include breaks and non-study time – just not too many.

Create a learning space – most students prefer a quiet place with little distraction in which to study. This may of course be difficult in a busy household but try and find a space and use the same one every day. If noise is a problem consider a headset with low volume classical or instrumental music playing in the background. Avoid listening to songs with lyrics as it can break your concentration.
Next remove as many distractions as possible. This will of course mean putting your mobile phone away, also turn off any alerts, the noise is enough to create what is called a “dopamine bump”, a short pleasurable sensation which will make it almost impossible for you not to check your messages. Contrary to popular student culture, multi-tasking doesn’t work. You may feel as if you’re watching Game of Thrones and answering a question at the same time, in reality you are simply swapping attention between two competing activities, which is tiring and reduces levels of concentration.

Don’t study for too long or cramCramming can work in those later stages of revision, the problem when learning and not revising is it overloads short term memory resulting in you forgetting something from the day before. Little and often is the secret to effective study. We don’t have any hard evidence as to the optimum period of study but most believe something around one and a half hours works best. After your session make sure you have a reasonable break, 10, 20 or even 30 minutes, grab a cup of coffee or take a walk outside, it’s important to physically move. There is a lot of evidence to show that exercise helps improve concentration and the ability to focus on specific tasks.

Question practice is key – Although attempting questions can seem a little disheartening, especially if you get something wrong it is one of the most effective methods of learning. The process of answering a question involves what we call retrieval practice forcing the brain to think back over what has previously been learned and in so doing transferring knowledge into long term memory.

Keep in contact with others – fellow students can be a real help when it comes to clarifying problems or just giving moral support. Also don’t forget your University or College, they will be only too pleased to support you, with many providing, forums, technical help and direct contact with your lecturer/teacher.

Develop a positive mindset – working alone can result in moments of self-doubt which can turn to worry and or stress. The important point is that both of these are perfectly normal reactions to a challenging situation. There is a view that worry is simply the way in which the brain moves something up your list of priorities. Lists are a great way of dealing with worry, simply write down what you are worried about and turn it into an action. Remember a certain amount of stress can also be good, its continual long-term stress that can cause problems.
Drink lots of water and as mentioned above build exercise into your daily routine, it’s a great antidote to stress and who knows you might not only pass your next exam but end up with a six pack as well.

If you would like to find out more about studying from home, here is a short video.

Brain overload

Have you ever felt that you just can’t learn anymore, your head is spinning, your brain must be full? And yet we are told that the brains capacity is potentially limitless, made up of around 86 billion neurons.

To understand why both of these may be true, we have to delve a little more into how the brain learns or to be precise how it manages information. In a previous blog I outlined the key parts of the brain and discussed some of the implications for learning – the learning brain, but as you might imagine this is a complex subject, but I should add a fascinating one.

Cognitive load and schemas

Building on the work of George (magic number 7) Miller and Jean Paget’s development of schemas, in 1988 John Sweller introduced us to cognitive load, the idea that we have a limit to the amount of information we can process.

Cognitive load relates to the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time

Human memory can be divided into working memory and long-term memory. Working memory also called short term memory is limited, only capable of holding 7 plus or minus 2 pieces of information at any one time, hence the magic number 7, but long-term memory has arguably infinite capacity.

The limited nature of working memory can be highlighted by asking you to look at the 12 letters below. Take about 5 seconds. Look away from the screen and write down what you can remember on a blank piece of paper.

MBIAWTDHPIBF

Because there are more than 9 characters this will be difficult. 

Schemas – Information is stored in long-term memory in the form of schemas, these are frameworks or concepts that help organise and interpret new information. For example, when you think of a tree it is defined by a number of characteristics, its green, has a trunk and leaves at the end of branches, this is a schema. But when it comes to autumn, the tree is no longer green and loses its leaves, suggesting that this cannot be a tree. However, if you assimilate the new information with your existing schema and accommodate this in a revised version of how you think about a tree, you have effectively learned something new and stored it in long term memory. By holding information in schemas, when new information arrives your brain can very quickly identify if it fits within an existing one and in so doing enable rapid knowledge acquisition and understanding.

The problem therefore lies with working memory and its limited capacity, but if we could change the way we take in information, such that it doesn’t overload working memory the whole process will become more effective.

Avoiding cognitive overload

This is where it gets really interesting from a learning perspective. What can we do to avoid the brain becoming overloaded?

1. Simple first – this may sound like common sense, start with a simple example e.g. 2+2 = 4 and move towards the more complex e.g. 2,423 + 12,324,345. If you start with a complex calculation the brain will struggle to manipulate the numbers or find any pattern.

2. Direct Instruction not discovery – although there is significant merit in figuring things out for yourself, when learning something new it is better to follow guided instruction (teacher led) supported by several examples, starting simple and becoming more complex (as above). When you have created your own schema, you can begin to work independently.

3. Visual overload – a presentation point, avoid having too much information on a page or slide, reveal each part slowly. The secret is to break down complexity into smaller segments. This is the argument for not having too much content all on one page, which is often the case in textbooks. Read with a piece of paper or ruler effectively underlining the words you are reading, moving the paper down revealing a new line at a time.

4. Pictures and words (contiguity) – having “relevant” pictures alongside text helps avoid what’s called split attention. This is why creating your own notes with images as well as text when producing a mind map works so well.

5. Focus, avoid distraction (coherence) – similar to visual overload, remove all unnecessary images and information, keep focused on the task in hand. There may be some nice to know facts, but stick to the essential ones.

6. Key words (redundancy) – when reading or making notes don’t highlight or write down exactly what you read, simplify the sentence, focusing on the key words which will reduce the amount of input.

7. Use existing schemas – if you already have an understanding of a topic or subject, it will be sat within a schema, think how the new information changes your original understanding.

Remember the 12 characters from earlier, if we chunk them into 4 pieces of information and link to an existing schema, you will find it much easier to remember. Here are the same 12 characters chunked down.

FBI – TWA – PHD – IBM

Each one sits within an existing schema e.g. Federal Bureau of Investigation etc, making it easier for the brain to learn the new information.

Note – the above ideas are based on Richard E. Mayer’s principles of multimedia learning.

In conclusion

Understanding more about how the brain works, in particular how to manage some of its limitations as is the case with short term memory not only makes learning more efficient but also gives you confidence that how your learning is the most effective.

Double entry bookkeeping replaced by internet

There is an interesting question being asked at the moment, given that fact-based knowledge is so accessible using the internet, is there a case for not teaching facts at all?

According to Don Tapscott, a consultant and speaker, who specialises in organisations and technology, memorising facts and figures is a waste of time because such information is readily available. It would be far better to teach students to think creatively so that they can learn to interpret and apply the knowledge they discover online.

“Teachers are no longer the fountain of knowledge, the internet is”
Don Tapscott

Is this the solution for educators with an over full curriculum, the result of having to continually add new content to ensure their qualification remains relevant and topical? Perhaps they can remove facts and focus on skills development? After all its skills that matter, knowing is useful but it’s the ability to apply that really matters …right?

What makes you an accountant

When you start to learn about finance, you will be taught a number of underpinning foundational subjects including, law, economics, costing and of course basic accounting. Sat stubbornly within the accounting section will be double entry bookkeeping. This axiom is fiercely protected by the finance community such that if anyone questions its value or challenges its relevance they will be met with pure contempt. And yet, is the knowledge as to how you move numbers around following a hugely simple rule i.e. put a number on one side and an equivalent on the other of any use in a world where most accounting is performed by computers and sophisticated algorithms? I am sure there will be similar examples from other professions and industries. The challenge being, do doctors really need to understand basic anatomy or lawyers read cases dating back to 1892?

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan

But Knowledge is power

Daniel T. Willingham is a psychologist at the University of Virginia and the author of a number of books including, why students don’t like school. His early research was on the brain, learning and memory but more recently he has focused on the application of cognitive psychology in K-16 education.

Willingham argues that knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. How knowledge Helps.

Knowledge is cumulative – the more you know the more you can learn. Individual chunks of knowledge will stick to new knowledge because what you already know provides context and so aids comprehension. For example, knowing the definition of a bond ‘a fixed income instrument that represents a loan made by an investor to a borrower (prior knowledge), enables the student to grasp the idea that anything fixed has to be paid by the company (the lender) regardless of its profitability and this is the reason debt is considered risky. (new knowledge)

Knowledge helps you remember – the elaboration effect has featured in a previous blog. In essence it suggests that the brain finds it easier to remember something if it can be associated with existing information. Using the same example from above, it is easier to remember that bonds are risky if you already knew what a bond was.

Knowledge improves thinking – there are two reasons for this, firstly it helps with problem solving. Imagine you have a problem to solve, if you don’t have sufficient background knowledge, understanding the problem can consume most of your working memory leaving no space for you to consider solutions. This argument is based on the understanding that we have limited capacity in working memory (magic number 7) and so to occupy it with grasping the problem at best slows down the problem-solving process, but at worse might result in walking away with no solution. Secondly knowledge helps speed up problem solving and thinking. People with prior knowledge are better at drawing analogies as they gain experience in a domain. Research by Bruce Burns in 2004 compared the performance of top chess players at normal and blitz tournaments. He found that what was making some players better than others is differences in the speed of recognition, not faster processing skills. Players who had knowledge of prior games where far quicker in coming up with moves than those who were effectively solving the problem from first principle. Chess speed at least has a lot to do with the brain recognising pre learned patterns.

Skills are domain specific – not transferable

There is one other important lesson from an understanding of knowledge – skills are domain specific. The implication being that teaching “transferable skills” e.g. skills that can be used in different areas, communication, critical thinking etc doesn’t work. A skill (Merriam Webster) is the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance. The argument being that in order to use knowledge effectively, it needs to be in a specific domain.
In July 2016 the Education Endowment Foundation in the UK released the results of a two-year study involving almost 100 schools that wanted to find out if playing chess would improve maths. The hypothesis was that the logical and systematic processes involved in being a good chess player would help students better understand maths i.e. the skills would transfer. The conclusion however found there were no significant differences in mathematical achievement between those having regular chess classes and the control group.

Long live double entry bookkeeping

This is an interesting topic and open to some degree of interpretation and debate but it highlights the difficult path curriculum designers have to tread when it comes to removing the old to make space for the new. In addition there is a strong argument to suggest that core principles and foundational knowledge are essential prerequisites for efficient learning.
But whatever happens, we need to keep double entry bookkeeping, not because knowing that every debit has a credit is important but it helps structure a way of thinking and problem solving that has enabled finance professional to navigate significant complexity and change since Luca Pacioli allegedly invented it in 1494.

And the case from 1893 – Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company

The end of the 2010’s – Reflections

December 2019 is not only the end of a decade but also marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog. Every month for the last 10 years I have written something under the broad heading of exams and how to pass them. That makes it a good point from which to look back at some of the subjects discussed and see if we can learn anything new or simply remind ourselves of what has been forgotten.

By way of context and to get you in the mood here is a random list of memorable events, innovations and developments that have taken place in those 10 years.

Climate change and Greta Thunberg – Uber – Instagram – iPad launched – Wearables – Obama to Trump – Brexit – Streaming and Netflix – Big data – Terrorism and mass shootings – Alexa – Electric cars – Toys R Us and Thomas Cook disappear – Cloud computing – AI – What’s App – Tuition fees £9,000 plus – Grenfell Tower – #Me Too – Refugee crises – Mental health.

Themes
To review over 120 blogs was harder than I thought but a number of themes began to emerge.

Exams, why do we have them, what do they prove etc – Perhaps an obvious but essential category for a blog about exams. Exams are still important and remain a key way in which a candidate can differentiate themselves in the job market. However recently grade inflation and increasing numbers of graduates coming out of University has begun to weaken this argument. We are also seeing a change as to the importance of league tables and measuring the quality of education by a single metric.

In the next decade technology has the potential to provide new and exciting alternatives to the traditional exam, able to assess and reward some of the more nuanced skills needed to prosper in the 2020’s. This together with a wider acceptance as to the value of micro credentials will make for an interesting next few years.

Mental attitude, includes, changing mindset, different thinking strategies and shifts in perspective. Often the importance of state of mind in passing exams is overlooked until something goes wrong. Understandably the student spends their time studying but as a result may miss how ineffective it has become, the result of neglecting their mental wellbeing. Subjects discussed here were the importance of motivation, Carol Duckworth’s Grit, Stress, Commitment, Confidence and Mood. One unfortunate development in recent years has been the growth in mental health issues, this is something I have not dealt with directly partly because it’s an area I don’t feel sufficiently informed to comment. But stress, the more temporary yet often precursor to serious forms of mental illness has been discussed many times.

As important as mental health is from a pure learning and personal perspective it is motivation that captures my imagination and yet remains elusive. This is despite a significant amount of research and time spent in attempting to understand it sufficiently well so that it might be possible to ‘inject it’ at just the right point, reigniting the students interests so they continue to learn more, with greater passion and energy.

Methods and techniques, this theme includes blogs written around the more practical aspects of passing exams, for example, exam techniques, what to do if you fail, using past exams to provide focus, better note making, mind mapping etc. A large amount of time has been devoted to writing blogs to help students do better in the exam. My motivation has always been simple, good students can fail an exam not because they haven’t worked hard enough, not because they are not ‘clever’ enough but simply because they didn’t understand the rules of the game, and that’s not fair.

10 years ago, the most valuable exam technique was to practice past exam questions and whilst this still sits at the top of the list it is not as powerful as it once was. The reason, examinations have and are changing, objective tests and case studies require different skills. For example, although working through a past case study is helpful, it will not give you that perfect symmetry with the real exam. Each case study is unique and although patterns can be seen they are not so easily duplicated. In addition, with the introduction of objective tests we are no longer sure that the questions practiced prior to the exam are the same as those actually in the exam.

How we learn, another big theme, this time exploring subjects such as Learning styles, Personalised learning, Learning science, Meta cognition, Reflection, Neuroscience, etc. An important objective of all the blogs was to remove the subjectivity and indulgence in expressing a personal opinion unless it was supported by evidence. This evidenced based approach underpins many of the blogs on how we learn. The inspiration often comes from new research or a genuine curiosity to find out more about something we take for granted or perhaps never even consider, for example what is going on when we think, what is thinking, how can you improve concentration, define intelligence and how important is it in passing exams.

The subject of intelligence and innate ability/ talent remains an area in which I am hugely interested. The idea that intelligence is 50%- 60% hard wired seems sensible and a certain amount of evidence exists to support this view, but brain plasticity is fascinating and an area I would like to find out more in the future.

2020 is just around the corner
That’s all folks for this decade at least, no predictions as to what might happen in the 2020’s I will leave that for another time. Enjoy what remains of 2019 and here is to the next decade – the decade of figuring out what is true and real – fact from fiction.

Synergy – Direct Instruction part 2

Last month’s blog introduced the idea that Direct Instruction (DI) which is a highly structured form of teaching was a very efficient way of delivering information. The challenge was that in a world where knowledge is largely free “drilling” information using rigid methods does little to develop the skills most valued by employers.

Earlier this year in an attempt to identify some of these higher-level skills, I am not a fan of the term soft skills, LinkedIn analysed hundreds of thousands of job advertisements. They produced a top 5, which are as follows: Creativity, Persuasion, Collaboration, Adaptability and Time management. We might add to this, the ability to think for yourself which in some ways underpins them all.

The modern world doesn’t reward you for what you know, but for what you can do with what you know. Andreas Schleicher

This month I want to expand on what DI is but also add to the argument that DI (teacher led) and discovery based (Student led) are not mutually exclusive, in fact when used together they work better than on their own.

Direct Instruction is learning led
The main reason that despite its many critics DI fails to go away is because of the significant amount of evidence that proves it works. And the reason it works is because it presents information in a brain friendly way.

Cognitive load, this is a very common instructional terms and refers to the limitation of short term or working memory to hold sufficient information at any one time. As a result, it’s better not to bombard the brain with too much information, meaning its more effective for students to reduce distraction and be presented with content broken down into smaller chunks, sequenced and taught individually before being linked together at a later date. This is one of the most important aspects of DI. Avoiding distraction refers not only to external distractions e.g. your mobile phone but information that is not required or is unnecessary in arriving at the desired learning outcome

Retrieval and spaced practice are both used in direct instruction and have been mentioned in previous blogs. They are well researched and the evidence is compelling as to their effectiveness.

Using examples to teach is also something strongly promoted. It is argued that the brain has the ability to use examples to build connections, ironically without DI e.g. if we are talking about pets and we said that a cat is an example of a pet but we already knew a cat was also an animal we could link the two. Next time when the term cat is mentioned we would know it was both a pet and an animal.

Discovery based (Student led – Autonomous – Constructivism)
Many of the discovery-based learning techniques have their roots in the work of psychologists Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, and Seymour Papert. The core argument is that self-discovery and the process of acquiring information for yourself makes that information more readily available when it comes to problem solving. In addition, it encourages creativity, motivation, promotes autonomy, independent learning and is self-paced.

It is not however without instruction. Teachers should guide and motivate learners to look for solutions by combining existing and new information, help students avoid distraction and simplify what to a student may appear complex. To expect the student to figure everything out for themselves would be incredibly inefficient and although might lead to a truly original idea is most likely to result in a feeling of wasted time and solutions we already know or are wrong.

Critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory Daniel Willinghams – Why Students Don’t Like School.

2 + 2 = 5 = Synergy
DI and the many discovery-based learning methods can be used together because together they are far more powerful and effective. Think more of them in terms of a venn diagram with highly effective learning in the middle where the circles overlap and DI in one circle and discovery based in the other. The mix is up to the teacher which in turn is dependent on the time available, the nature of the subject, their judgment of the students and the desired outcome.

You cannot tell students how to think but you can provide them with the building blocks, helping them learn along the way before giving them real world challenges with problems they will have to solve for themselves. Then its into the workplace where the real learning experience will begin.

Learn faster with Direct Instruction – Siegfried Engelmann

What we need to learn is changing, knowledge is free, if you want the answer just google it. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Survey, there is an ever-greater need for cognitive abilities such as creativity, logical reasoning and problem solving. And with advances in AI, machine learning and robotics many of the skills previously valued will become redundant.

No need for the Sage on the stage
These demands have led to significant change in the way learning is happening, no longer should students be told what to think, they need to be encouraged to think for themselves, Socratic questioning, group work, experiential learning and problem based learning have all become popular, and Sir Ken Robinson Ted lecture, do schools kill creativity has had 63 million views.

Sir Kens talk is funny and inspiring and I recommend you watch it, but I want to challenge the current direction of travel or at least balance the debate by promoting a type of teaching that has fallen out of fashion and yet ironically could form the foundation upon which creativity could be built – Direct Instruction.

Direct Instruction – the Sage is back
The term direct instruction was first used in 1968, when a young Zig Engelmann a science research associate proved that students could be taught more effectively if the teacher presented information in a prescriptive, structured and sequenced manner. This carefully planned and rigid process can help eliminate misinterpretation and misunderstanding, resulting in faster learning. But most importantly it has been proven to work as evidenced by a 2018 publication which looked at over half a century of analysis and 328 past studies on the effectiveness of Direct Instruction.

Direct Instruction was also evaluated by Project Follow Through, the most extensive educational experiment ever conducted. The conclusion – It produced significantly higher academic achievement for students than any of the other programmes.

The steps in direct instruction

It will come as no surprise that a method of teaching that advocates structure and process can be presented as a series of steps.

Step 1 Set the stage for learning – The purpose of this first session is to engage the student, explaining specifically what they should be able to do and understand as a result of this lesson. Where possible a link to prior knowledge should also be made.
Step 2 Present the material – (I DO) The lesson should be organised, broken down into a step-by-step process, each one building on the other with examples to show exactly how it can be applied. This can be done by lecture, demonstration or both.
Step 3 Guided practice – (WE DO) This is where the tutor demonstrates and the student follows closely, copying in some instances. Asking questions is an important aspect for the student if something doesn’t make sense.
Step 4 Independent practice – (YOU DO) Once students have mastered the content or skill, it is time to provide reinforcement and practice.

The Sage and the Guide
The goal of Direct Instruction is to “do more in less time” which is made possible because the learning is accelerated by clarity and process.

There are of course critics, considering it a type of rote learning that will stifle the creativity of both teacher and student, and result in a workforce best suited for the industrial revolution rather than the fourth one. But for me it’s an important, effective and practical method of teaching. That when combined with inspirational delivery and a creative mindset will help students develop the skills to solve the problems of tomorrow or at least a few of them.

The independent learner – Metacognition

Metacognition is not a great word but it’s an important one when it comes to learning, especially if you are studying at higher academic levels or on your own. Cognition refers to the range of mental processes that help you acquire knowledge and understanding or more simply, learn. These processes include the storage, manipulation, and retrieval of information. Meta on the other hand means higher than or overarching, put the two together and we are talking about something that sits above learning, connecting it by way of thought. For this reason, it’s often described as thinking about thinking or in this context thinking about how you learn.

Smarter not harder

When you have a lot to learn in terms of subject matter it may feel like a distraction to spend any time learning something other than what you must know, let alone reflecting on it, but this fits under the heading of working smarter not harder, if you can find more effective ways of learning that must be helpful.
As mentioned earlier cognition is about mental processes, storage and retrieval relate to memory, manipulation, to the shifting of attention, changing perception etc. But the meta aspect creates distance, allowing us to become aware of what we are doing, standing back and observing how for example perception has changed, this reflection is a high-level skill that many believe is unique to humans. One final aspect is that we can take control of how we learn, planning tasks, changing strategies, monitoring those that work and evaluating the whole process.

Keeping it simple

Its very easy to overcomplicate metacognition, in some ways its little more than asking a few simple questions, thinking about how you are learning, what works and what doesn’t.  Here are some examples as to how you might do this.

  • Talk to yourself, ask questions at each stage, does this make sense, I have read it several times maybe I should try writing it down.
  • Ask, have I set myself sensible goals?
  • Maybe it’s time to try something different, for example mind mapping, but remember to reflect on how effective it was or perhaps was not.
  • Do I need help from anyone, this could be a fellow student or try YouTube which is a great way to find a different explanation in a different format?

Clearly these skills are helpful for all students but they are especially valuable when studying on your own perhaps on a distance learning programme or engaged in large periods of self-study.

Benefits

There are many reasons for investing some time in this area.

  • Growing self-confidence – by finding out more about how you learn you will discover both your strengths and weaknesses. Confidence isn’t about being good at everything but understanding your limitations.  
  • Improves performance – research has shown that students who actively engage in metacognition do better in exams.
  • Gives control – you are no longer reliant on the way something is taught; you have the ability to teach yourself. Being an autonomous learner is also hugely motivational.
  • The skills are transferable – this knowledge will not only help with your current subjects but all that follow, not to mention what you will need to learn in the workplace.  

It will take some time initially but, in a way, metacognition is part of learning, it’s an essential component and as such you will end up knowing more about yourself at some point, even if you don’t want to, so why not do it sooner rather than later.

And just for fun – Sheldon knows everything about himself – even when he is wrong