Learning, Self-control and Marshmallows

pink-&-white-marshmallow

In the late 1960s and early 1970s research led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University led to one of the most valuable insights into human behaviour and learning.  It showed that children who demonstrated self-control or if you prefer self-discipline went on to gain higher marks in school, had better social and cognitive skills, a greater sense of self awareness and coped with stress far more easily in later life.

In the actual experiment a child was offered a choice between having one marshmallow, pretzels and cookies worked just as well, immediately or two marshmallows if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes. The child was alone as the tester left the room, they returned later to reward those who had not eaten the marshmallow as promised. Those that still had the marshmallow sat in front of them had demonstrated self control.

It became known as the marshmallow experiment and was the inspiration for further research, in particular why was it that some were able to resist but others couldn’t, were some people born with higher levels of willpower and the ability to exert self-control or could it be learned?

Mischel continued his research and published a book in 2014, The Marshmallow Test: Understanding Self-control and How To Master It, which offers some interesting insight into the nature nurture question.

Delayed Gratification

Later research in particular work by Laura Michaelson et al, in 2013 suggested that delaying gratification may also require trust (social trust) in the individuals offering the future rewards. Michaelson identified that if the children didn’t think they would get a second marshmallow, they would most likely eat the first one. In effect if you don’t believe the person is trustworthy, then even those with “will power” will give in.

This has a significant implication in so much that the ability to delay cannot be hard wired, it is environmental, influenced to some extent by what you believe. There has also been the suggestion that it is logical to eat the first marshmallow, especially if you have grown up in an environment where resource is scarce.

This leads us to the conclusion that there are two potentially important factors at play, firstly self-control and secondly established beliefs.

The ability to discipline yourself to delay gratification in the short term in order to enjoy greater rewards in the long term, is the indispensable prerequisite for success. Brian Tracy

Implications for Learning

Fundamentally delayed gratification is about the belief that short-term pain or at least a little discomfort today will lead to rewards in the future. And that is an important component of learning, yes of course learning should be interesting and enjoyable but there will come a point when it is not. This is especially true when taking examinations, even if you enjoy the subject, sitting a test or exam that you might fail can be stressful and for most is far from a pleasant experience. Learning also requires that you make sacrifices in terms of what you give up, for example not meeting with friends, studying on bank holidays, and generally missing out.

The good news is that as Walter Mischel and others discovered you can improve your self-control by using a few simple techniques.

  • Remove the distraction – if the marshmallow had been taken out of sight, the temptation to eat it would be left to your imagination. The student’s marshmallow is most likely to be a mobile phone, so how about you remove it, not for ever of course that would be unreasonable, just for a couple of hours. An alternative is to distract yourself, rather than thinking about what your giving up, do something else, watch a video on the topic, produce a mind map etc.
  • Have a routine – develop a routine or habit for example, always study for two hours after you get home.
  • Reframe – if you thought that the marshmallow was bitter, the temptation to eat it would go away. It is possible to reframe the distraction as a negative, for example  that mobile phone ringing is someone I really don’t want to speak to….
  • Reward yourself – when you have studied for 2 hours, give yourself a reward, anything you like, a new car might be over the top, but you deserve something.
  • Set goals – perhaps obvious, but if you have a goal not to eat the marshmallow for 15 minutes, then 1 hour, eventually you will be able to resist for days.

The world in which we live seems to be changing, as organisations attempt to satisfy the continual demands of those with a “want it now” mentality.  Having what you want, when you want may seem ideal but those that have enjoyed instant gratification have not always found it a good place to be.

Listen to the man himself talk about delayed gratification and the marshmallow experiment, it’s just 4 minutes.  –  Walter Mischel.

 

 

 

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Case study – Omelettes and Cognitivism

1774_making_summer_sausage_omelette

If you have actually got as far as reading this first paragraph, there must have been something in the title that caught your attention. Perhaps you were simply curious as to how these three words are connected, or maybe one of the words relates to something you are interested in?

Whatever the reason, you have begun to process information and so engage in cognition, put more simply, you have started to think.

Making an omelette

But first a question, take a moment and think about how you make an omelette? ……….Then in your own words, explain how you would do this? ………. As you might imagine this is not about the omelette but the process you went through in order to answer the question.

The process – There was clearly an element of memory and recall as you thought back to the time when you last made an omelette, you would also have needed to direct your attention to the event itself and use strong visualisation skills, to see yourself actually whisking the egg, adding the salt and pepper etc. However so sophisticated is the human mind you can actually create images of making an omelette based on your knowledge of scrambling an egg! The point being, you have the ability to visualise activities of which you have no or little experience. The mental processes outlined above go some way to explaining Cognitivism. Cognitivism in learning is the study of how information is received, directed, organised, stored and perceived in order to facilitate better learning. Cognitivist believe that mental processes should be studied in order to develop better theories as to how people learn.

Case study is higher level

As you progress up the exam ladder the style of examination question changes. It starts with relatively simple activities that require you to recall something already taught e.g. what is the capital of France? It then moves to questions that test understanding, e.g. explain why Paris is the capital of France? At higher levels you will ultimately come across, Application, Analyse and Evaluation, and it is these higher level skills that a case studies often requires you to master.

I have written about case studies before, firstly, Putting the context into case study and secondly Passing case studies by thinking in words. Here I want to explore how by understanding how people think  (Cognitivism) you can develop strategies to help you answer what seem to be impossible questions.

Application of knowledge

Imagine you have been given a case study that has a large amount of information about the company, the people and the financial position. You have been asked to offer advise as to how the company should improve its internal controls within the HR department. Even though you may not think you know the answer, the process outlined above will give a framework to follow.

  • Firstly, focus your attention on the key words – internal controls and HR deportment
  • Secondly, recall any information you have about internal controls and HR departments
  • Thirdly, deploy strong visualisation skills, seeing yourself in that company, bringing in as much detail as possible to give context, and then use common sense
  • Finally write out your answer – Say what you see, talk through how you would do it, mention some of the problems you might experience and outline the possible solutions

These are cognitive strategies developed from learning more as to how people think, why not give them a go?

And here is how to make an omelette from my favourite instructor, Delia – yet another practical tip, remember last month it was how to make toast.

Learning unleashed – Micro learning

dogholdingleash

As with many other types of learning, micro learning is difficult to define. At its simplest it can be thought of as small chunks of untethered content that can be consumed in about 5 minutes, 8 minutes tops. Although video is possibly the best example, watch this micro learning chunk on how to boil an egg  it can come in other mediums for example quizzes, flashcards, infographics etc.

Each chunk of micro learning should be capable of being consumed independently but can form part of a larger topic. For example, if you watch the video on how to boil an egg, that could be part of a series of micro lessons, including how to scramble an egg, how to poach an egg, you get the idea. The video might also be interactive and include questions at the end to check that you were paying attention. When fully formed, it’s a complete course, with its own learning objective, content, examples and an assessment. And that is its real value from the perspective of a student, they are getting a well designed chunk of learning available when it is most needed – its learning at the point of need.

Growing in popularity

Organisations are finding that micro learning is popular not just with the “attention short” millennials but all ages. One reason for this is it’s how we like to learn, being presented with information in relatively short bursts. Despite the often quoted falling attention spans being a justification for micro learning, apparently it was 12 seconds and is now only 8, there is little real evidence that this is true. The original research which was attributed to Microsoft is in fact from another organisation, and not easily confirmed.

But if we think of it less in biological terms and more behavioural, there is merit. It’s not so much that attention spans are changing its that we now live our lives at an ever-increasing pace, and so want information and learning to move just as fast. Micro learning also needs to be accessible, in practical terms this means it should work on a mobile device, most likely a smartphone. And because we always have our phone with us, it’s always available. This might be when you have some free time, on a train, travelling to and from work perhaps, or when faced with a problem that requires a skill you don’t have. For example, that boiled egg now needs to be placed on the best toast in the world, but how do you make the best toast? If only there was a short 3-minute video you could watch. But from a learning perspective micro learning has one other big advantage. When you are trying to understand something, you are at your most curious, and if that curiosity can be satisfied before the moment passes, learning will take place more easily.

Micro learning is informal, meaning it is not a structured A to B, B to C process led by a teacher, its student led, requiring the individual to pick the next step in the journey. This can of course be time consuming as the student wanders around, following their instincts as to what is important rather than taking direction from an expert. But if the student has a clear understanding of where they are going and a time constraint, its can be an excellent self managed learning experience.

Micro learning is distilled wisdom

As Mark Twain once so famously wrote “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead,” micro learning is not created by taking existing content and cutting it into smaller chunks. It requires you revisit exactly what it is that needs to be learned, remove everything that is not essential in helping you achieve that objective, then offer up that content in a short easily understood chunk. This will need the help of an individual with a high level of subject expertise and significant experience. It will also, as Mark Twain so succinctly identified take far longer than you might at first thought.

Here are some great examples of micro learning, they won’t take you very long to watch – after all, its micro learning.

  • This is a gamified micro course that trains people to make a Domino’s pizza – click.
  • A free, gamified language app that uses short lessons to help learn almost  any language – click.
  • And lastly, not all micro learning is in a video format – here is an infographic that summarise the key features of micro learning – click.
  • Oh and just in case – how to make toast! – click.

Concentration – the war in the brain

Concentrating

One of the most important skills in learning is the ability to concentrate. If you could focus your attention on a specific task for long periods of time you would be able to absorb more content, more quickly.

But concentrating is not easy. The reason is partly because we lack the ability to manage distraction. I have written before about focus, information overload and the problems with multi-tasking, but this is a large and fascinating subject.

The war in the brain

Improving concentration has a lot to do with attention, which in some ways is an invisible force, but as we have found before neuroscience can help us gain insight into the previously unknown. For example, most of us will have what is called a priority map, a map of the most visited places in our brain. Its value is that it can be used to identify how we prioritise incoming information and as such where we place our attention. It’s worth stating that attention a is a limited resource so how we use it is important.

Take this attention test and find out your level of attention.

The problem is that these maps change based on how “relevant” the information is, and relevancy itself is dependent on three systems that continually compete with each other. I know this is getting complicated but stick with it, concentrate!

The executive system – Sitting in the frontal lobe, this is the main system and orients attention according to our current goals. For example, I need to learn about double entry bookkeeping, so I will place my attention on page 4 and start reading.

The reward system – As you might imagine this is the system that offers us rewards. A reward can be as simple as the dopamine rush you get when checking your mobile phone, the problem is, you should be reading page 4! And its made worse by the fact that the brain’s attention naturally moves to flashing lights, which you often get when a text comes in.

The habit system – This system operates using fixed rules often built up over time by repetition, perhaps it’s the reason you keep looking at your phone just to check that you haven’t had a text even though you know you haven’t because you would have seen the flashing light….But most importantly the habit of checking, created by you has once again distracted your attention, when you should still be reading page 4!

Hence the term, war in the brain, these systems are in competition for your attention. The result is exhausting, you don’t finish reading page 4, and feel tired even though you have achieved very little.

How to improve concentration  

Some of the methods below will seem obvious and there is of course no magic bullet, however because there is a scientific reason as to why these might work I hope you will be more likely to give them a go.

  1. Reduce distraction –  if you have to make a huge amount of effort to check your mobile phone, the reward you get from checking it will diminish. The simple advice is don’t have your phone with you when studying or anything else that might occupy your thoughts. Also have a space to study that is quiet, with simple surroundings and nothing interesting that might be a distraction. Finally, although there is mixed evidence on playing music or listening to white noise in the background, it may be worth a try.
  2. Set goals – this is to support your executive system, write down your goal and don’t make them too ambitious.
  3. Relax and stay calm – it’s hard to concentrate when you are feeling high levels of anxiety. Methods to help with relaxation include, deep breathing, click this video its very helpful, and of course exercise which I have written about in the past, because of it being a natural antidote for stress.
  4. Avoid too much stimulation – novelty seeking behaviours for example playing video games can become imbedded in your reward system. They can make studying appear very dull and unrewarding especially if you have played a game immediately before getting down to study. Keep it for afterwards, by way of a reward perhaps.

And if you would like to find out more watch these:

Turn off the mobile – multi tasking doesn’t work

Information every whereThe background to Dr Daniel J Levitin latest book, “Thinking Straight” is that the information age is drowning us with an unprecedented deluge of data and we need to develop strategies to cope. Information overload and distraction are two problems we face when it comes to learning. How easy do you find it to concentrate when studying? Do you sit in a quiet room with no distractions and focus your attention on one task or is your mobile phone, PC or tablet sat close at hand waiting to deliver the worlds information in a second.

In the past books were precious due to their scarcity and knowledge hard to acquire the result of people’s inability to read. Following the invention of the printing press in 1450 books became more readily available but even then the amount of information any one individual was exposed to was very small. In addition the pace of life was slower, expectations as to what could be achieved balanced against the practicalities of what was humanly possible.

information_overloadBut look at the situation today, we live in an information rich society, all of it accessible at the press of a button. The problem now is not availability of knowledge (western world centric I know) but curation, synthesis and prioritisation. Yet how well is our brain programmed to cope with this new world?

Good job we can multi task

Levitin argues that multi tasking is inefficient, it’s a myth. The idea that one solution to this deluge of data is to do several things at the same time is simply wrong.  When you are doing two things at once, reading a book whilst monitoring your Twitter feed or face book account for example you are not in fact doing two things at once, you’re switching between neurones very quickly and this is giving the illusion of multi tasking. The downside of this process is it drains energy, neurones need glucose and the constant switching depletes it, resulting in poor concentration and an inability to learn as effectively. Multi tasking

I have written before (Attention Breach of duty as a student) on the importance of focusing your attention on one thing at a time and Levitin is supporting doing just that. However he does add something that I think is of interest. When you flit between two competing information sources the brain will reward you with a shot of dopamine, the pleasure drug. The result being you will enjoy the experience. This was valuable for Stone Age man because discovering a new food source at the same time as avoiding being eaten was helpful but in a modern world it is just problematic.

Externalise the information – organise, reduce and prioritise

What Levitin suggests is that you need to externalise, get the information out. In simple terms write it down, making lists is an example of externalising. He also states that you should write rather than type as this requires deeper processing.

So if you want to follow a more brain friendly approach to learning you should:

  • Break information down (A common message) into chunks and write out the key points. This will help you focus and process the information at a deeper level.
  • Find a place that is free from distraction, turn off all mobile devises. This is probably the most important message; your brain does not deal well with doing two things at once.
  • Make a list of what you have to do. Interestingly this is where technology can help. Google calendar can set up simple reminders so that you don’t have to keep distracting yourself by thinking about something you need to do later.

And if you’re interested click this link to read – Why the modern world is bad for your brain.

Ps Beth this ones for you!

Attention! – Breach of duty as a student

Beam of light

Once again the FT has provided me with some food for thought. An article entitled why e-mail must disappear from the boardroom, Monday 27th July 2009, suggested that main board Directors should give all their attention to the meeting and less to the email that has just arrived on their Blackberry or similar electronic device.

In fact it suggested that by not giving all their attention to the meeting they could be in breach of their fiduciary duty to shareholders.  How would you feel if the surgeon who was about to cut you open was concentrating on an email rather than on you?

It went on to quote some research from Rene Marois a neuroscientist and Director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt university that the brain has an inability to concentrate on two things at once. The researchers even have a name for it “inattention blindness”.

Now think about this in the context of learning, if you are in a classroom or any other learning environment for that matter and you move your attention from the classroom to another event, a text or email perhaps, then although you are in the room you have put your attention elsewhere.

Yes you can hear what is going on and yes if someone called your name you could respond all be it slowly, but would your ability to learn and recall the facts from the lecture be as good, somehow I think not.  This is not to say that periodically you should not let your concentration drift as you begin to think about coffee or what you want to do at the weekend, this is a perfectly natural and in some instances a necessary form of relaxation that can help with learning. This is about being engaged, giving The Event your full attention.

Think of your attention as a single beam of light, able to shine on only on one thing at a time, it illuminates and makes clear that one thing but when you move the light what you were looking at becomes dark or at best not as clear, something in your periphery.

And so to the point, when you have an opportunity to learn, attend a lecture or meeting, give it your full attention. You are not being efficient by doing two things at once you are in fact only ever doing one. So if you do have two things to do but only time to do one, look carefully at what they are and prioritise. And if the email is more important give it all your attention and only after you have dealt with it come to class or attend the meeting.

One other point, you do not become invisible when on your mobile, everyone can see that you have your shoulders slumped in the so called “Blackberry prayer”. Now you might think that this sends a very clear message as to how busy and important you are, in fact it does the complete opposite. People think that you are not in control, probably fire fighting, a poor delegator and a poor manager. And yes it’s bloody rude……