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)

COVID Time – spend (£) it wisely

If you asked a group of students what was one of their biggest problems, many would say – lack of time.  

Now it’s unfair to highlight this as something unique to students, we all suffer from a lack of time. A look across the virtual bookshelves for titles that make reference to Time Management will give you some idea as to how many people are looking for solutions to this problem.

Life in the UK and across the world has changed as a result of Covid 19, one of those changes has been a disruption to normality. No longer does your alarm go off at 7.00 am, which is essential if you are to have a shower, grab some breakfast and be at your desk for 9.00 am. No longer do you have to leave the office at 5.05pm to be on the train for 5.30 pm, which will give you a fighting chance of being home for 7.00 pm. If your studying on the evening this strict time management regime will permit an evening meal and provide two hours of effective study before you go to bed.

Of course, your day may not be anything like this, in fact it’s possible you are busier than ever, but for many Covid has reset normality, effectively putting a line through what you were doing and replacing it with……time. The secret of course is not to waste it, reflect on what you were doing and think carefully before you fill the space with other activities, spend this time wisely on what is most important to you!

The key is in not spending time, but in investing it.”   Stephen R. Covey

Thinking about time – it doesn’t really fly
Time is in itself an interesting concept, the Greeks had two words for it, Chronos which refers to the more traditional understanding as with a clock or calendar, it is measurable and predictable. Kairos on the other hand considers the human perspective, how we experience time, the quality of time, finding the “right time” to start studying perhaps. This perception of time is explained neurologically by the way the brain changes, impacted by neurotransmitters and chemical stimulants. When neurons are fired more quickly time will go faster, fire them slowly and time will drag. See also Circadian rhythms. This might help explain why there is never enough time for interesting subjects but too much for boring ones.

Impact on studying
Several studies indicate that students who manage their time not only perform better in the exam but experience less stress. There is also evidence that students are not good at managing their schedules, finding it difficult to strike the right balance between studying and the other demands on their time. This lack of balance often leads to disrupted sleep patterns and higher levels of stress. It may well be that “pulling an all-nighter” a common solution to running out of time is in effect a coping strategy to compensate for the lack of good time management skills. Interestingly, students are well aware of the problem, Ling, Heffernan, and Muncer (2003) found that time management was often stated as being a factor in poor exam performance.

One caveat, it’s possible that the research only shows a correlation not a causation, “good students” who would do well in the exam anyway just happen to plan, prioritise and stick to deadlines. These skills are not contributing to those higher grades, they are simply incidental behaviours. That said if “good students” manage time well and in the absence of anything to the contrary, maybe it’s worth doing anyway?

The common man is not concerned about the passage of time, the man of talent is driven by it.”  Arthur Shoppenhauer, German philosopher

Making the most of your C time
But what can you do to improve your ability to get things done in this newly discovered Covid time? There are many tips and techniques that can help, below are a few of the best ones.

Planning backwards – this is probably one of the most effective. Start by asking the question, when do I want to pass the exam, if its June 2021, put that date in your calendar or planner. Then ask another question, how much do I need to learn before then? To give some idea as to how you might answer this, break down what you have to learn into chunks, looking at how many chapters there are in the book is one way of doing this. Then ask, if there are 10 chapters when do I have to start, assuming for example each one will take a month. Hopefully you get the idea, at each stage you ask a question breaking the larger activity into a series of smaller ones. This not only makes each task more manageable it provides a month by month plan that will lead all the way to the exam.

Using technology – often technology is seen as a problem, a distraction, when it comes to getting things done. But there are some very useful apps available these days to help better manage time.

  • Google calendar – other calendars are of course available but Google provides one of the most effective planning tools on the market. Not only is it free but it performs equally well across all devices from phone to desktop. This is the place to put those key dates and deadlines that came from the planning process.
  • Trello –  is effectively a project management tool or as some have described it “Post-it notes on steroids.” It can help capture ideas and organise thoughts with the added advantage they can easily be shared with others who can also contribute in real time.
  • Remember the milk – is extremely helpful for making lists and as with Trello can also be shared. It includes the ability to set reminders and integrates with Gmail, Google Calendar and Evernote.
  • StayFocused – is a blocking app, available on the chrome browser that temporarily blocks the internet except for the websites you give an exception.

Prioritisation – Choosing what you should spend time on is called prioritisation. One technique that many people have found useful is the Eisenhower decision matrix. So, called because Dwight D. Eisenhower is said to have used it to help him make better decisions by organising and prioritising his workload.

A simple 2 by 2 matrix that has the level of urgency on one side set against the level of importance on the other.

It’s relatively self-explanatory but one of the most important messages is the need to make time for tasks that are important but not urgent. If something is important and urgent you have to do it now but there is danger with some activities that they are never urgent, the result, they are constantly put off. For example, starting to study, this is incredibly important especially if you want to pass the exam in June 2021, but because it’s not urgent you can always start tomorrow.

I will leave you with one final quote about time from Bill Keane the American cartoonist which I have always found insightful.

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift, which is why we call it the present.”

Enjoy your gift…..

Time management skills have been shown to have a positive impact on student learning and student outcomes (Kearns & Gardiner, 2007; Kelly, 2002; McKenzie & Gow, 2004)
Many students find it hard to regulate both their studies and their external lives (Van der Meer, Jansen, & Torenbeek, 2010)

Fairness and mutant algorithms

Back in 2014, I wrote two blogs (part 1 & part 2) about examinations and asked if they were fit for purpose. The conclusion – they provide students with a clear objective to work towards, the process is scalable and the resulting qualification is a transferable measure of competency. They are of course far from perfect, exams do not always test what is most needed or valued and when results are presented in league tables, they give a too simplistic measure of success.

However, I didn’t ask if examinations were fair, that is treating students equally without favouritism or discrimination.

In the last two weeks the question around fairness has been in the headlines following the government’s decision to cancel all A level and GCSE examinations in order to reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19. Whilst many agreed with this it did cause a problem, how could we fairly assess student performance without an examination?

Are examinations fair?

This is not a question about the fairness of an exam as a type of assessment, there are for example other ways of testing ability, course work, observations etc. Its asking if the system of which an examination is part treats all students equally, without bias.

In the world of assessment exams are not considered sufficiently well designed if they aren’t both reliable and valid. It might be interesting to use this as a framework to consider the fairness of the exam system.  

  • Validity – the extent to which it measures what it was designed to measure e.g. add 2+2 to assess mathematical ability.
  • Reliability – the extent to which it consistently and accurately measures learning. The test needs to give the same results when repeated. e.g. adding 2+2 is just as reliable as adding 2+3. The better students will get them both right and the weaker students both wrong.

The examining bodies will be very familiar with these requirements and have controls in place to ensure the questions they set are both valid and reliable. But even with sophisticated statistical controls, writing questions and producing an exam of the same standard over time is incredibly difficult.  Every year the same questions are asked, have students performed better or is it just grade inflation, were A levels in 1951 easier or harder than today? It’s the reliability of the process that is most questionable.

If we step away from the design of the exam to consider the broader process, there are more problems. Because there are several awarding bodies, AQA, OCR, Edexcel to name but three, students are by definition sitting different examinations. And although this is recognised and partly dealt with by adjusting the grade boundaries, it’s not possible to completely eliminate bias. It would be much better to have one single body setting the same exam for all students.

There is also the question of comparability between subjects, is for example A level maths the same as A level General studies? Research conducted by Durham University in 2006 concluded that a pupil would be likely to get a pass two grades higher in “softer” subjects than harder ones. They added that “from a moral perspective, it is clear this is unfair”. The implication being that students could miss out on university because they have chosen a harder subject.

In summary, exams are not fair, there is bias and we haven’t even mentioned the impact of the school you go to or the increased chances of success the private sector can offer. However, many of these issues have been known for some time and a considerable amount effort goes into trying to resolve them. Examinations also have one other big advantage, they are accepted and to a certain extent the trusted norm and as long as you don’t look too closely, they work or at least appear to. Kylie might be right, “it’s better the devil you know”….. than the devil you don’t.

The mutant algorithm

Boris Johnson is well known for his descriptive language, this time suggesting that the A level problem was the result of a mutant algorithm. But it was left to Gavin Williamson the Secretary of State for Education to make the announcement that the government’s planned method of allocating grades would need to change.

We now believe it is better to offer young people and parents’ certainty by moving to teacher assessed grades for both A and AS level and GCSE results”

The government has come in for a lot of criticism and even their most ardent supporters can’t claim that this was handled well.

But was it ever going to be possible to replace an exam with something that everyone would think fair?

Clarification on grading

To help answer this question we should start with an understanding of the different methods of assessing performance.

  1. Predicted Grades (PG) – predicted by the school based on what they believe the individual is likely to achieve in positive circumstances. They are used by universities and colleges as part of the admissions process. There is no detailed official guidance as to how these should be calculated and in general are overestimated. Research from UCL showed that the vast majority, that is 75% of grades were over-predicted.
  2. Centre Assessed Grades (CAG) – These are the grades which schools and colleges believed students were most likely to achieve, if the exams hadn’t gone ahead. They were the original data source for Ofqual’s algorithm. It was based on a range of evidence including mock exams, non-exam assessment, homework assignments and any other record of student performance over the course of study.  In addition, a rank order of all students within each grade for every subject was produced in order to provide a relative measure. These are now also being referred to as Teacher Assessed Grades (TAG)
  3. Calculated grades (CG) – an important difference is that these are referred to as “calculated” rather than predicted! These are the grades awarded based on Ofqual’s algorithm. They use the CAG’s but adjusts them to ensure they are more in line with prior year performance from that school. It is this that creates one of the main problems with the algorithm…

it effectively locks the performance of an individual student this year into the performance of students from the same school over the previous three years.

Ofqual claimed that if this standardisation had not taken place, we would have seen the percentage of A* grades at A-levels go up from 7.7 % in 2019 to 13.9 % this year. The overall impact was that the algorithm downgraded 39 % of the A-level grades predicted by teachers using their CAG’s. Click here to read more about how the grading works.

Following the outcry by students and teachers Gavin Williamson announced on the 17th of August that the Calculated Grades would no longer be used, instead the Centres Assessed Grades would form the basis for assessing student performance.  But was this any fairer, well maybe a little, but it almost certainly resulted in some students getting higher grades than they should whilst others received lower, and that’s not fair.

Better the devil you know

The Government could certainly have improved the way these changes were communicated and having developed a method of allocating grades scenario stress tested their proposal. Changing their mind so quickly at the first sign of criticism suggests they had not done this. It has also left the public and students with a belief that algorithms dont work or at the very least should not to be trusted.

Perhaps the easiest thing to have done would have been to get all the students to sit the exam in September or October. The Universities would then have started in January, effectively everything would move by three months, and no one would have complained about that would they?

Food for thoughts – the impact of food on learning

According the latest government statistics obesity is on the rise, there is also a link to Covid deaths with nearly 8% of critically ill patients in intensive care being obese, compared with 2.9% of the general population. The WHO has stated that being overweight and obese is the fifth leading risk for global deaths with at least 2.8 million adults dying each year.

Eating too much is clearly not good for your health but how about what you eat, how might that impact your health, in particular your brain?

Viva las Vagus

Have you ever used your gut instinct, had butterflies in your stomach or when feeling nervous had to rush to the toilet? If so then you already have some evidence of the connection and importance of your gut to the way you think and feel. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve and runs from the brain stem to part of the colon in effect making the connection. The biggest influence on the levels of activity of the vagus nerve are the trillions of microbes that reside in the gut. The vagus nerve is able to sense the microbe activity and effectively transfer this gut information to the nervous system and ultimately the brain. Watch this 2-minute video that shows how this works.

Scientists refer to the relationship between the gut and the brain as the “gut brain axis”. The brain sends chemical signals to the gut through the bloodstream, one such example is the feeling of being full or hungry. But and this is the interesting part – the stomach talks back; gut bacteria send messages in the same way the brain communicates using neurotransmission. Prior blog – The learning brain.

Exactly what the messages say depends on what you eat, a gut filled with fruit and vegetables will have different microbes to one that has just consumed a Big Mac. This is a very new area and most of the research has been completed on rats but there is already some evidence to suggest that junk food impairs memory.

Hopefully this gives you some idea as to the strong connection that exist between your stomach and your brain. We can now move on and consider what specific types of foods can help when learning.

These Ted talks are well worth watching if you want to find out more – Your Gut Microbiome: The most important organ you’ve never heard of (11m), and Mind-altering microbes: How the microbiome affects brain and behaviour (6m).

What to eat when studying

The first thing to say is that I am far from an expert on nutrition and so the focus here is more on the impact food has on mood, concentration, cognition and memory. Secondly, to give this some context it might be worth thinking about what you eat in the same way an athlete does. They pay close attention to their diet to make sure their body is in the best possible condition in order to compete because if not they are reducing their chances of success. However, a good diet is no substitute for the hard work they have to put in at the gym, you have to do both. Short video on how nutrition is key to sports performance.

Brain foods

  1. Apples, berries and Citrus – The British Journal of Nutrition published research in 2010 (The impact of fruit flavonoids on memory and cognition) indicating that consuming certain fruits such as berries, apple and citrus, that are rich in flavonoids can help improve memory and cognition.
  2. Dark chocolate – Research published in the Frontiers in Nutrition (Enhancing Human Cognition with Cocoa Flavonoids) found that dark chocolate which also contains flavonoids improved memory in both the short and long term. But remember many types of chocolate are high in sugar, fats, and calories so it’s not all good news.
  3. Rosemary – Northumbria University’s Department of Psychology found that herbs such as rosemary and lavender impacted memory, with the scent of rosemary enhancing memory but lavender impairing it. Maybe Shakespeare knew what he was talking about when he said ‘rosemary is for remembrance’.
  4. Oily fish and walnuts (omega 3) – There is a much-published connection between omega three and the improvement in learning and memory. However, many of these claims are exaggerated to promote a particular type of food or brand with most having such small doses to make little or no difference. There is some evidence published in the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology that found people who ate more seafood, which naturally contains omega 3, had reduced rates of decline in semantic memory. But there is little evidence to show that supplements work at all. The best advice is to eat fish and nuts as part of a balanced diet but don’t expect your exam results to improve by that much.
  5. Fruit and vegetables – A study conducted by Pennsylvania State University in April 2012 found an association between consuming fruit and vegetables and being in a positive mood.
  6. Water – Despite being the least exciting of them all, water remains one of the best ways in which you can improve brain functionality. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition studied 101 participants to see if low water consumption impacted cognition. The result was those who had reduced amounts of water experienced poor memory, reduced energy levels and feelings of anxiety, but those drinking water experienced the opposite.

The evidence on specific foods and its impact on cognition and learning is complex and nuanced. However the connection between the stomach and the brain although still in its early stages has greater potential to lead us to a better understanding as to what we should eat to improve our mental wellbeing.

In the meantime, the best advice is to think about how your diet impacts you personally, identify when you feel best studying is it before a meal or after, pay attention to snacking and of course drink lots of water, eat your greens, all as part of a balanced diet.

Lessons from lies – Fake news

There is little doubt that we live in an age with access to more information than any other. All you have to do is log onto your PC and type into Google whatever you want to know and within 0.28 seconds you will get 3.44 million results, it really is science fiction. But having lots of information isn’t the same as having reliable information, how do you know that what your reading is true?

Fake news and false information

Fake news is certainly not new, in 1835 it was reported in a New York newspaper that a telescope “of vast dimensions” could see what was happening on the moon. It caused a sensation and the paper’s circulation increased from 8,000 to more than 19,000. The only problem, it was a complete fiction or fake news concocted by the editor, Richard Adams Locke. It may not be new but fake news is certainly faster moving and far more prolific fuelled by the internet, the growth in social media, globalisation and a lack of regulation.

But before we go any further let’s take a step back and clarify what we mean by fake news. Firstly, there are completely false stories created to deliberately misinform, think here about the moon story although even that contained some facts. There was an astronomer called Sir John Herschel who did indeed have a telescope “of vast dimensions” in his South African observatory, but he did not witness men with bat wings, unicorns, and bipedal beavers on the moon’s surface. Secondly, stories that may have some truth to them, but are not completely accurate, a much more sophisticated and convincing version of the above and probably harder to detect.

We will leave aside the motives for creating fake news but they range from politics, to pranks and as was the case of Richard Adams Locke, commercial gain.

Here are a few headlines:

5G weakens the immune system, making us more vulnerable to catching the virus
If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, then you don’t have the virus
Fuel pump handles pose a particularly high risk of spreading the Corona-19 infection
And more controversy, Health secretary Matt Hancock stating that testing figures had hit 122,347 on April 30

The first three are fake, the third is based on facts. Click here to make up your own mind as to its truth.

But why do we believe these stories?

Quick to judge A study from the University of Toulouse Capitole, found that when participants were asked to make a quick judgment about whether a news story was real or fake, they were more likely to get it wrong. This is somewhat worrying given the short attention span and patterns of behaviour displayed by those surfing the net.

We think more like lawyers than scientists – Commonly called confirmation bias, our ability to favour information that confirms our existing beliefs. Lawyers examine evidence with a preconceived objective, to prove their client’s innocence whereas scientists remain open minded, in theory at least. An interesting aspect of this is that well educated people may be more susceptible because they have the ability to harness far more information to support their opinion. This is a bias of belief not of knowledge.  

Illusory truth effect – This is the tendency to believe false information after repeated exposure. First identified in a 1977 study at Villanova University and Temple University. It would be wrong to ignore the man who many believe (wrongly) invented the term fake news, including himself, Donald Trump. He is a master of repetition, for example Trump used the expression “Chinese virus” more than 20 times between March 16 and March 30, according to the website Factbase.

Gullibility, the failure to ask questions We are prone to believe stories that “look right”, Psychologists refer to this as “processing fluency”. Experiments have found that “fluent information” tends to be regarded as more trustworthy and as such more likely to be true. Images are especially powerful, for example researchers have found that people believed that macadamia nuts were from the same family as peaches if there was a picture of a nut next to the text.

The same photo but from a different angle

Google it! but do so with care

Most educators will encourage students to become independent learners, be curious and ask questions, solve their own problems, it is one of the most powerful educational lessons, and as Nelson Mandela said, education can be used to change the world. But we need to be careful that what is learned is not just a bunch of facts loosely gathered to prove one person’s point of view. Mandela’s vision of changing the world through education was based on the education being broad and complex not narrow.

We are of course very fortunate to have such a vast amount of information from which to learn, but that curiosity needs to be tempered with a critical mind set. The questions asked should be thoughtfully constructed with knowledge of one’s own personal bias and the information analysed against the backdrop of the source of that information and possible motives of the authors

Guidelines for students using Google

1. Develop a Critical Mindset – this is the ability to think logically, figuring out the connections, being active rather than passive, challenging what you read against what you already know and perhaps most importantly challenging your own ideas in the context of the new information. Are you simply finding information to support your own views, an example of confirmation bias.

2. Check the Source and get confirmation – for websites always look at the URL for the identity of the organisation and the date of the story. Lots of fake news is news rehashed from the past to support the argument currently being made. What is the authority quoted, why not cut that from the story and paste into google to find out who else is using that information and in what context. Look for spelling mistakes and generalisations e.g. most people agree. These terms are vague and give the impression that this is a majority view.

3. Evaluate the evidence and don’t take images at face value – use your critical thinking skills to validate the evidence. Who is the authority quoted, do they have any reasons or motives for making these claims? Images as already mentioned are very powerful, but fake images are easy to create on the internet and a clever camera angle can easily mislead.

4. Does it make sense? – an extension of logical thinking but perhaps more emotional, how do you feel about this, what’s you gut instinct. The unconscious part of your brain can help make complex decisions sometimes more accurately than logical thought.

With large amounts of free knowledge, there are calls for schools to be doing more to better equip children to navigate the internet. In fact, back in 2017 the House of Lords published a report ‘Growing up with the internet’ which recommended that “Digital literacy should be the fourth pillar of a child’s education alongside reading, writing and mathematics”.

It’s not just school children that need this fourth pillar, we probably all do.

And of course the picture at the start of this blog is Fake!

The Covid gap year – a catalyst for change

At times it might seem difficult to find the positives in the current Covid crises but there are some. We may have had to change our travel plans but are benefiting from cleaner air and more time, staying closer to home is leading to a greater sense of community, and social media which was becoming ever more toxic has been used by many to keep in touch with friends and family. But how long will we continue to enjoy these healthy bi-products when we can jump on that aeroplane, tweet something without thinking and once again time becomes scarce, consumed by work. The downside is it can so easily revert back to how it was before.

However, some changes are likely to become permanent, people are beginning to call what comes after Covid the new norm, a kind of normality, familiar and yet different. We have all been given a glimpse of the future or to be precise the future has been brought forward not as a blurry image but with startling clarity because we are living it.

Change is easy
On the whole it’s difficult to get people to change their behaviour but if you change the environment it’s a different story. If we had asked people if they wanted to work from home they would have had to guess what it would be like, imagining not having to travel, imagining not seeing colleagues in the wok place but if you are forced into doing it, you experience it for real. And that’s what’s happened, people may not have chosen to work from home but having experienced it the change will be faster.

Neurologically a habit or learning for that matter takes place when you do something repeatedly. In 1949 Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuroscientist noted that once a circuit of neurons is formed, when one neuron fires so do the others, effectively strengthening the whole circuit. This has become known as Hebbian theory or Hebbs law and leads to long term potentiation, (LTP).

“Neurons that fire together wire together.”

Habits are patterns that can be thought of as grooves created over time by repetition but once formed they are hard to get out of, the deeper the groove, the less we think about it at a conscious level. But if you change the environment you are forcing the brain to reconsider those habits, effectively moving you out of that particular groove until you form another one. The secret is of course to create good habits and remove bad ones.

Many are suggesting that working from home will become far more common, Google and Facebook have already announced that they do not need their employees to go back into offices until at least the end of 2020, but who knows what that groove will be like by then. The other big changes on the horizon with potential for long term impact are, the reduction in the use of cash as appose to contactless, online shopping already popular will see a more drastic reshaping of the high street and studying online becoming a new way of learning. Education has seen one of the biggest changes arguably since we have had access to the internet with 1.3 billion students from 186 countries across the world now having to learn remotely. Even before COVID-19, global EdTech investment was $18.7 billion and the overall market for online education is projected to reach $350 Billion by 2025. (source WEF).

This is what school in China looks like during coronavirus.

Changing attitudes to study
Given the choice 1.3 billion students would not have all agreed to study online but Covid-19 has made this a reality within a matter of months. Its an environmental change on a massive scale. The argument that online learning is better remains complex and confusing, requiring a clearer understanding of what is being measured and a much longer time period under which it can be evaluated. There are for example claims that retention rates are higher by somewhere between 25% – 60% but I would remain sceptical despite its appeal and apparent common sense logic.

Instead focus on your own learning, think less of how much more difficult it is to concentrate staring at a computer screen rather than being in a classroom and embrace the process. You are in a new “groove” and as a result it’s not going to feel comfortable.

Covid Gap year
Why not make 2020 your Covid Gap year. UCAS says that one of the benefits of a gap year is that it “offers you the opportunity to gain skills and experiences, while giving you time to reflect and focus on what you want to do next”. It’s the changing environment in terms of geography, people, doing things that you might not have chosen that makes the gap year so worthwhile, and despite what people say when they return, it wasn’t enjoyable all of the time, you do get bored and frustrated but it can open your mind to new possibilities and ironically lockdown can do the same.

Online learning is a new environment, view it through the spectrum of new skills and experiences and only when you reflect back should you decide on how valuable it might have been.

How to bounce back – resilience

Like many I have been spending my time working from home, exercising daily and talking to colleagues and friends on a variety of video conferencing platforms. The news is of course dominated by the Coronavirus, in fact it’s hard to believe that anything else is happening. This is an extra ordinary time, never before have so many countries around the world all faced the same challenge, having to restrict the movement of individuals and prepare for the economic tsunami that will almost certainly result. The feeling that it is everywhere gives the impression there is no escape, and nothing you can do, it’s out of your control. Depressed yet!

Yet some people don’t feel like this, are they just out of touch with reality or eternal optimists, thinking it will be all right when we know it won’t. Alternatively, they might have higher levels of resilience which helps them recover and bounce back far more quickly. It’s not that they are ignoring the facts, they are fully aware of the situation with many of the same concerns but its just not affecting them in the same way.

Resilience can go an awful long way – Eddie the eagle

What is resilience
Resilience is recovering quickly from a failure or adversity, not just to the status quo but in some way improved, effectively having learned from the experience. But how can you do this or is it a consequence of your genetics in which case you can always blame your parents. There is evidence to show that some people are born with higher levels of resilience, the range is somewhere between 30% – 50%, it’s impossible to be more specific because of the levels of complexity resulting from interplay between the genes. But even if it’s as high as 50%, where does the other 50% come from, maybe its learned?

In his book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain Professor Richard J. Davidson states that signals from the prefrontal cortex (planning and decision making) to the amygdala (emotions) determine how quickly the brain will recover from an upsetting experience. Apologies for that but as with many of our emotional experiences it’s important to show that we can now identify exactly what is happening and that it’s not a subjective experience, we can observe the brain actually changing.

To summarise, resilience is real, we can see it happening in the brain and although some people have a head start with higher levels of “genetic resilience” we can all improve our ability to bounce back.

One final point before moving onto the practical guidance. There has been considerable research into resilience, specifically with regard to the military and its importance in combating PTSD. (Building Resilience by Martin E.P. Seligman) In addition it is considered a high priority given the current focus on mental health and an important contributory factor to economic growth. Arguably the reason that some countries will do better post Covid 19 will be more a result of the resilience of its citizens and less the impact of the cash injections made by the countries bankers.

Learning to be more resilient
The back drop for this blog is the current Covid crises but resilience is a skill that would benefit all students, after all it’s a way of recovering quickly from setbacks and nothing at the time can seem more of a setback than failing an exam.

Its important to remember that everybody has resilience, there is no evidence to show that resilient people experience less traumatic events or have fewer barriers thrown in their way. They have just found better ways of dealing with them, but what do they do?

Change the narrative – when you are faced with a setback it’s easy to continually revisit the event looking for a reason as to why it happened. This is of course an important part of learning, after all you don’t want to make the same mistake. But there is little point playing the “if only I had done this” game. Change the narrative to, at least “I won’t make the same mistake again.” Ask yourself if the conversation your having is helping you get closer towards your goal of passing the exam and if not change it. One simple technique is to swap the word problem to challenge – its far easier to deal with a challenge than a problem!

Perspective (it could be worse) – seeing the event through the eyes of someone else can help put it into perspective. Most often the consequences aren’t as bad as you can imagine. Put what has happened into perspective by comparing it with something from the past or where the impact could be far worse. For example, I failed an exam before but I passed it in the end or perhaps, it could be worse I only failed one exam, how bad would it have been if I hadn’t past chemistry?

Support from others – in researching this blog, having support from others was mentioned more often than anything else as to what made people more resilient. A strong relationship with friends and family gives perspective as to what is important, being able to talk through your worries is a way of releasing pressure. As they say “a problem shared is a problem halved.”

Embrace the new and see the positive – change is going to happen, there are lots of things that are outside your control. The coronavirus was not something anyone was expecting but it has happened and we need to accept the implications and work within the boundaries it has created. That doesn’t mean you have to be happy nor do you have to stop trying to improve your situation. You didn’t put the mark on your last exam that resulted in you failing, accept it and then start thinking about what you have to do to change the result next time.

All of the above are important but resilience is not one thing it’s a combination of many. Unfortunately, it’s not permanent and you will need to reapply some of the techniques again. It is however easier to top up your resilience than start from scratch.

What does resilience look like – well you won’t get a better example than Captain Tom Moore who has not only raised £31m but has lived to 100 and inspired a nation. Happy Birthday Captain Tom 🙂

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.