Flash Ah, Ahhhh……..Cards

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I can’t believe I have not written about flashcards before. They are an incredibly popular learning tool and have moved relatively seamlessly to digital in recent years. Research published earlier this year found that 78% of students said they had used digital flashcards and of those who used both the digital and paper version, 60% preferred digital, largely because of their convenience and ease of use.

What is a flashcard? – essentially its a card with a question on one side and the corresponding answer on the other. You pick up the card and read the question, maybe it says, who was the 77th Prime minister in the UK? you then attempt to recall the answer in your head before flipping the card over to reveal the name “Boris Johnson”. Interestingly, in that same survey only 53 % of learners turn the card over to check if they were right, something we will discover later is not a particularly good idea. Which highlights another problem that might be happening, students are using flashcards, just not correctly.

Why do they work?
Of course, it doesn’t follow that just because lots of students use flashcards, they are good, but in this instance they are. Flashcards force students into doing things that we know are good for learning. For example, they are excellent for retrieval practice, spaced practice and interleaving, in fact, they support most of the evidenced based learning techniques. Let’s take a look at some of these in more detail.

Retrieval practice – The process of reflecting back and having to retrieve a memory of something previously learned is very powerful. When you look at the card and attempt to recall the answer the brain is working hard, this will result in the reinforcement of neural pathways, in simple terms you are learning. And of course, it requires effort, that’s the reason it works, don’t do as it would appear 47% of all learners and not check if you were right or flip the card over too soon.

Spaced practice – Spaced practice is the exact opposite of cramming, you effectively take the same amount of time to study, just do it over a longer period. The evidence shows that if you revisit what you have studied over time it boosts what is called retrieval and storage strength but if you study in a short period of time, your retrieval strength improves but your storage strength reduces. Flashcards can be used intermittently, effectively spacing out you’re learning, a good way to do this is to use something called the *Leitner system. Let’s assume there are three envelopes and on the first is written, “every day”, on the second, “every other day” and on the third, “once a week”. All flashcards initially start in envelope one, if you answer a flashcard correctly it moves into envelope two, if incorrectly it stays in envelope one. Each time you get a card correct, you move it to the next envelope but if you get it wrong, you move it back to the previous one. Eventually, in theory at least, all cards will end up in envelope three. Here is a video that shows exactly how it works.

*The Leitner system was developed by the German science journalist Sebastian Leitner in the 1970s.

Interleaving – Interleaving is simply studying different topics as opposed to studying one topic very thoroughly, this latter process is called blocking. Repetition is one of the main benefits of using flashcards, the process takes place naturally as you go through the pack several times, however that same repetition can make the process easier, because the brain will begin to remember cards by association with each other. This is not the same as remembering the information on the card, because if you change the order then the association is broken and you will forget. A simple technique is to shuffle the deck each time you go through it.

Paper based or digital
The evidence to support using paper-based flashcards or the digital version is mixed with some suggesting that digital is better, Azabdaftari & Mozaheb, 2012 and others Gilbert Dizon and Daniel Tang concluding that there is no significant difference. Although they do acknowledge as our earlier research did that students prefer digital when asked.

The arguments are that digital is more convenient, for example everyone carries a mobile and they easier to create and use due to the sophistication of some of the Apps available. However, in contrast producing your own papers-based cards, deciding what to put on them or how they should look, together with their tactile nature makes the learning more effective.

My advice, do whatever works best for you. Perhaps using an app such as Quizlet, Brainscape or the very popular AnkiApp for one subject and produce your own paper based cards for another.

Conclusions
I should have written about flashcards before, they are a hugely effective tool that utilise many of the best evidenced based strategies. Don’t worry about the, “should I use digital or paper” debate, it really doesn’t matter, try both.

And one last tip, don’t leave the use of flashcards until the end of your studies. To maximise their value start using them about a month before the exam, not the night before! Oh, and why not rate yourself in terms of confidence in getting the correct answer before turning the card over, it’s just another way of deepening learning through reflection.

You might find this helpful, it shows 5 ways to use flashcards, although in fairness some are just good note making skills, but then what’s wrong with that.

Sniff your way to exam success – well almost

Malcom Gladwell the author of Outliers and Tipping Point to name two of his most well known books, has a curiosity with no limits, he wanders from topic to topic littering his insightful observations with facts and statistics. His podcast Revisionist History, which I would recommend if you would like to hear stories from the past that have been overlooked and or misunderstood, has an episode called, “The dog will see you now”, in which he discusses the incredible sense of smell that dogs have, apparently, it’s between 10,000 and 100,000 times more sensitive than ours. I will leave you to listen to that but it got me thinking about how powerful and valuable our sense of smell is when it comes to memory and learning. The classic and now debunked learning styles analysis promotes, Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic but makes no specific refence to smell or taste.

Sense of smell – Olfactory
Your sense of smell is thought to be the oldest of our senses, providing the brain with information about food, potential partners and even danger. Women actually have a better sense of smell than men, which may have evolved to help them identify and bond with their new born. Interestingly it is also the only fully developed sense a fetus has in the womb and goes on to become the most developed in a child through to the age of around 10 when sight takes over. This is one of the reasons that childhood memories appear almost instantly when a smell from your past wafts into your unconscious, think candy floss, bubble gum or newly sharpened pencils. Your sense of smell is so strong it has an impact on how we experience taste, accounting for as much as 80%, try holding your nose and tasting something by way of an experiment. Although there is some debate about the actual percentage, all are agreed that smell and taste are connected.

The Proust Effect
The Proust effect refers to the power of smell and taste to evoke memories and emotions. Marcel Proust the famous French writer finds that his childhood memories come flooding back after tasting the tea-soaked crumbs of a madeleine (A French cake).

“… I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me.”. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.”

This was not a conscious process it resulted in an “involuntary memory” a term Proust created but is now widely used to describe this phenomenon.

Why is smell so powerful?
Smell and memory are so closely linked because of the brain’s anatomy. They are handled by the olfactory bulb, the structure in the front of the brain that sends information to other areas of the body’s central command for further processing. Odors take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, these are the regions related to emotion and memory.

Smells, sleep and studying
Memory can be thought of as a process of encoding, consolidation and recall, anything that improves the encoding or consolidation will aid recall. It was therefore of some interest when Franziska Neumann & Jürgen Kornmeier from the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University of Freiburg Medical Center published a paper that concluded, if we smell an aroma while we take on new knowledge and then sleep next to a source of that same odor, we will find it easier to recall the information at a later date. What they effectively did was link the encoding process with a smell, in this instance rose-scented incense sticks which was on their desks while learning English vocabulary with consolidation by having the same rose scented smell on their bedside table when sleeping.

What they found was “students showed a significant increase in learning success by about 30% if the incense sticks were used during both the learning and sleeping phases”. Franziska Neumann.

However, the overall message is not to replicate this in your own studies, it’s very early days and the study was relatively small, although part of me thinks why not! What we can take away is that smells are incredibly powerful and play an important part in memory consolidation, and you should be aware of this when studying. It’s another technique in the memory toolkit, along with mind maps, mnemonics, effective note taking etc.

Frustration
It has always been a frustration for me that we have not been able to harness the memory enhancing qualities of smell, incorporating them into the general learning process, and that’s partly the reason I have not written at length about this topic before. That said there has been some interesting research around using smells to enhance the learning environment in terms of both memory and mood.

In 2003, psychologist Mark Moss, at Northumbria University, carried out a range of cognitive tests using lavender which is associated with relaxation, and rosemary, linked to enhanced memory. The results showed that students who were subjected to the lavender aroma preformed significantly worse in working memory tests but those in the rosemary group did much better than the controls.

And this is something you can replicate, when learning why not experiment with some of these in your study room.

  • Citrus – increases energy levels, improve your mood and to some extent concentration
  • Peppermint – improves concentration and helps reduce anxiety
  • Lavender – slows the heart rate and calms the nervous system
  • Rosemary – improves retention, clarity and alertness

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember; and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts…

W. Shakespeare

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)

Exam resits – getting back on the horse

resit

Failing an exam is not something people plan for but it happens. In fact, I have blogged about it many times because at some point almost all students will have to deal with it. The overriding message is that you should learn from your mistakes and move forward. There are two parts to this, firstly learn from your mistakes, after all you don’t want to make the same ones again, secondly pick yourself up and put together a plan that will take you towards your goal of passing.

Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success. C. S. Lewis

In the exam world after failure comes the resit, another exam on the same subject sat at some point in the future. But what are the stages in between, how best should you study for an exam that you have already sat and might have only narrowly failed.

Emotional reaction

Imagine the email has arrived and you have failed, as with other challenging situations there are any number of different emotions you might experience. These will depend to some extent on your judgement as to how well the exam itself went. If you didn’t make any huge mistakes, were not fazed by many of the questions and completed them all, you were in with a chance. As a result, you might be shocked, angry, disappointed, frustrated and then you will begin to think about the implications, sitting the exam again, how much time it will take, the costs, having to tell people etc. If on the other hand you thought the exam had gone badly, the result simply confirms you were right. That said the email has taken away that small hope you might have been wrong or in some way fluked it, after all exams have gone badly before and you passed them, so why not again.

Either way, eventually you will end up in the same situation and need the best approach to sit the exam again.

The best approach

  • Mindset

A mindset is little more than a series of assumptions and beliefs that lead to an opinion. What’s important here is to recognise that they are only assumptions. Carol Dwecks work around Fixed and Growth mindsets provide us with evidence as to the importance of having the right mindset and how best to think about it. Dweck argues that students who believe their abilities are carved in stone, intelligence fixed and failure not just a setback but proof of your ability, will find it very difficult to move forward. Alternatively, those with a growth mindset believe they can improve, that intelligence is not fixed, (brain plasticity) and that failure is something to learn from will be in a far better position to learn from their mistakes and try again.

The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure. John C. Maxwell

Failing an exam is a fact, why you failed and what caused that are often assumptions. The secret here is to revisit your assumptions, what you think they mean and change the negative mindset to a positive one. It is very easy to think you are fooling yourself, this is not about putting a positive spin on a set of poor results, if you didn’t do enough work telling yourself it will be better next time will achieve little. The positive mindset here is to recognise that working harder will give you a better chance of passing which of course it will.

Another reframe is to take the advice of the famous behaviourist B.F Skinner, a failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances.

  • Learning from your mistakes

Rather than making emotional assumptions as to why you failed far better to spend that energy figuring out what exactly caused the failure. Was it for example lack of work, be honest, was there one area or topic that you simply had no idea what to do, did you run out of time?

Examiners reports and where possible script reviews can be very helpful. One word of caution, script reviews are not remarking exercises. They are there to provide personal feedback on your exam performance. Also, in professional examinations they can be expensive, are not always returned promptly and can sometimes offer little more than what is said in the examiner’s report.

If a script review is not available you could sit the exam again but this time in the comfort of your own home. The purpose here is to provide some insight as to what went wrong, it’s better if you can get your answer marked by a third party, this doesn’t have to be an expert e.g. teacher but it will help. Don’t worry that you will know the answers, think about this in the same way that the police reconstruct a crime, its to give you insight. Not knowing what you did wrong makes it very difficult to do something differently next time.

  • Studying

Firstly, remember you have done this all before, you have a base knowledge of this subject, you’re not starting from scratch. This means you will already have materials, revision notes and a bank of past questions. If you don’t then the good news is you now know exactly what to do!

Past papers – analyse what came up in your exam and add the findings to your existing analysis of past papers. With objective tests or where getting past papers is not possible try and think was there anything different in terms of style, complexity etc.

Revision notes – Although you will have an existing set of notes, it’s a good idea to start with a clean sheet of paper and rewrite them. By all means use your existing notes as a template or guide but re-reading your old revision notes is not particularly effective. You might also want to consider an alternative note taking style for example mind maps.

New question bank – as with revision notes you will also have a book of past questions, get a clean copy e.g. one with no workings or writing in the margin. This is a mindset trick; a clean copy will make each question feel new. Also consider buying or borrowing a completely different set of questions.

Timetable – having a timetable was important last time, its essential for a resit because you are more likely to have limited time available so need to maximise what you do have.

All that remains is for me to wish you the best of luck with the resit and take note of what Zig Ziglar said – failure is an event, not a person.

Cramming works, but only until tomorrow

Cramming

I have written about cramming before or to be precise it was in the title of a previous blog but the main focus was on the benefits of attempting exam questions. As a result, I feel I should say far more about what many students reluctantly admit is their most commonly used study method.

Cramming is the process of leaving everything until the last minute and then studying intensely in a relatively short period of time. Students know they shouldn’t do it and yet the “cramming badge of honour” is often worn with pride. It is accompanied by the boast, “anyway I work better under pressure”.

Better under pressure

Yerkes and Dodson (Yerkes-Dodson Law) famously put rats in a maze and administered electric shocks as they attempted to choose between a black and white door. They noticed that mild shocks improved the rats’ performance until a certain point, after which it greatly decreased. A chart of the shock strength versus performance takes the shape of an inverted U. And although there has been some criticism as to the exact findings, the concept that people perform better under pressure is true but only to a point, and of course judging when that point is reached is personal and arguably impossible.

The conclusion therefore has to be that creating a stressful situation by leaving everything until the last minute is not a particularly sensible strategy. An exam environment brings its own high level of stress without you having to manufacture your own.

Back to cramming

In June and July, I identified 6 scientifically proven learning strategies, and it is here that we can find the answer to the question, does cramming work?

Spaced practice is the process of studying over time compared with studying the same content but intensely at the end, normally prior to a test. The results as to which one is best is conclusive, spacing your learning is far better because you will not only improve what is called retrieval strength but also storage strength. The implications being that you will you be able to recall what you have learned quickly and the information will be stored waiting for when you might need it in the future.

However, studying at the end, effectively cramming also works, it has to, students have been using this method of revising since the very first exam. But, and there is a but, it only helps with retrieval strength, that is you will only be able to retrieve the information for a short period of time, perhaps as little as a day. Should you want to recall what you learned at some point in the future it won’t be there. The reason, a short burst constantly topped up will keep the information in short term memory but due to the lack of time the brain is unable to consolidate what you have learned, effectively taking it into long term memory. There is some evidence to support the view that this consolidation takes place when you are a sleep, something else that students who cram often don’t get, but that is a sufficiently large enough topic it would need a future blog.

Conclusions

Cramming does work for short term chunks of information for example formulas, key words that remind you of knowledge stored in long term memory, formats, illustrations etc. Simple memory techniques such as acronyms and acrostics are great and should be used, they are part of the tool kit of a professional student. But they are in addition to a more structured and spaced out way of learning, not an alternative.

Here are a few more resources.

This past blog gives specific advice – Twas the night before ………..the exam – but what to do?

Video (5m) – How to: Cram the night before a test and PASS – This is worth watching 472, 000 others have.

Video (2.5m) – How to Cram for a Test.

 

This is difficult, good, it should be – desirable difficulty

elephant

Dr Robert Bjork, a cognitive psychologist coined a term back in 1994 called desirable difficulty. He suggested that introducing certain difficulties into the learning process greatly improved long-term retention.

The reason Bjork refers to the term ‘desirable’ is because having access to long term knowledge is the goal of most forms of learning. The term ‘difficulty’ however is not simply about making the process of learning harder but refers to the fact it has several difficult side effects. For example, it will slow down student progression and may result in the student feeling as if they are not learning efficiently or effectively. And that means they become unhappy with the subject and the teaching.

In essence ‘desirable difficulty’ refers to a learning task that may prove difficult initially but that leads to greater learning over an extended period of time.

How to make something more difficult?

The reason making something difficult works is because it impacts the encoding, storage and retrieval process. If something requires some degree of effort to encode it will be easier to retrieve, if it’s easy to encode, it is merely stored for the short term and as a result easily forgotten.

But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it is desirably difficult. Bjork suggests a number of ways in which difficulties should be introduced.

Spacing learning and interleaving – study in small chunks, then either take a break or study another topic or subject, that’s the interleaving. Doing this is inefficient and will result in taking more time but it should help you retain the knowledge for the long term.

It highlights an important difference between tuition, and revision. Don’t leave the learning part until the last minute, chip away at it day by day, little and often. But when you get to revision, then cram as hard as you can. The cramming may not help with long term retention but it will get you through the exam. The number of students who come out of an exam having crammed for days, that can’t remember what was on the exam paper let alone what they have learned is evidence that Bjork does have a point.

Testing –  controversial in some circles but testing to learn is not fundamentally wrong, it’s the implications and environment of testing that gets it a bad press.

Which one of the following is best?

  1. Study Study Study Study – Test
  2. Study Study Study – Test Test
  3. Study Study – Test Test Test
  4. Study – Test Test Test Test

The answer is number 4. Ideally make testing part of your practice, nothing to complicated though, low-key and very frequent. This will as before slow you down and many students will skip the tests they were asked to complete in favour of consuming more content, which is logical, just not the right thing to do for long term retention.

“Varying the context, examples, and problem type engages processes that can lead to a richer and more elaborated encoding of concepts and ideas, which can, in turn, support transfer of that learning to new settings.” Bjork

Having learners generate target material – This will not be liked by many, especially if you’re in full employment and time poor. And yet one of the most powerful learning techniques is to teach someone else, so it’s not that much of a surprise that preparing material to help teach yourself or another will help.

There are other techniques that Bjork suggests but they are a little more challenging, for example his research shows that making learning materials less well organised and more difficult to read is also effectiveThere is however a balance that needs to be struck between having a problem that when resolved will embed knowledge verses the time and frustration you might experience in going through the process.

Counterintuitive

Making something more difficult seems counterintuitive to me. I have spent much of my career trying to make the complicated seem easy. But this is not about making concepts difficult it’s the recognition that ultimately learning requires effort, and if that effort is directed towards a more effective way to learn, better long term learning will result.

If you want to hear more listen to this interview with Robert Bjork, it’s only just over 5m and well worth it.

 

Competence leads to confidence, but not vice versa.

OverconfidenceThe self-help and business section of any good bookshop will offer a wealth of advice as to how you can improve your confidence, the narrative will suggest that confidence will lead to success not only in your career but in life.

However, there is a subtle and important distinction to be made.  Although you can appear confident, it doesn’t mean you are competent. Confidence is a feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of your own abilities or qualities. It’s a belief in your ability to succeed, it doesn’t mean you will or strangely enough even notice that you haven’t.

Confidence does not make you any more likely to be right than a person lacking in confidence.

The Confident student

When I was studying I remember meeting a colleague after work for a drink. We had agreed to get together when the examination results were out from our first year. The individual concerned was a very confident person, he displayed this in his body language, loudness and use of language. The truth is I had just about scraped through the exam with a mark only 5% above what was needed. As the evening went on I listened quietly, impressed by his grasp of the subjects we had studied and how well he was doing at work. I didn’t particularly want to get onto the topic, but just before the evening ended I plucked up the courage to ask, how he had done? He then said, he had failed the exam, but went on to add that he thought this was a very good result given that he hadn’t tried very hard, largely due to the responsibility of his day job. The odd thing was I remember nodding in agreement, impressed he had done so well. “How about you”, he said, “oh I managed to pass but only just” I replied. In fairness I think he complimented me.

It was only driving home in the car that I realised that I had past and he had failed, odd isn’t it what confidence can do.

Confidence bias

How was my friend able to remain so confident even though he had failed? Well phycologists have a word for this, it’s called confidence or confirmation bias. In effect you ignore or delete evidence that does not fit with your existing beliefs. There is in fact a lot of it about, you may not be surprised that it’s more common in men than women and it tends to be age related. This is the reason that a 20-year-old will base-jump of a mountain with no more than a wingsuit to keep them in the air, but a 50 year would probably think it too risky. The 20 year is so confident they won’t die, they will delete the statistics that say they might.

And it gets worse, the Dunni ng-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is. There is a great story here of a bank robber who covered himself in lemon juice thinking he was invisible, unfortunately he was wrong and got caught.

“The only thing I know is that I don’t know anything.”

Socrates

Confidence should be earned not learned

Its very easy as a student to be intimidated by others who appear to know more. The truth is it doesn’t matter what other people know, only what you do. The danger is you begin to judge your own performance by that of others, and if its not as good it can impact on how hard you work, learn and study, worse still it lowers your self esteem.

Confidence comes from the little successes you have, keep thinking about them even when the studying gets harder and others appear to be doing better. After all they may be suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect, they just don’t know they are.

 

 

 

Closing the gap – learning from answers

Close-the-Gap

The single most important piece of advice for anyone sitting an exam is to practice questions, and where possible, past exam questions. It has been a consistent message for over 20 years, and although we have evidence to show its effectiveness it also has a common-sense logic. Would you for example go on a driving test having only read about driving in a book but never practiced in a car beforehand?

Although the process of practising questions provides insight not just about the exam but also how well you perform under timed conditions, there is another important and valuable lesson. What does comparing your answer to the model answer tell you about how well you understand the subject and what you need to do to get it right next time, effectively to close the gap?

Closing the gap
Checking if your answer is right or wrong is important for obvious reasons but there is a rich seam of learning to be found by looking at the detail in the answer and comparing it with yours. For numerical questions consider reworking the calculations, noting each iteration to help gain a better understanding of the answer. Although this will help should a similar question be asked again, that’s not the main objective. Focusing on one subject, one topic and a specific question helps direct your efforts to a problem that needs to be solved, and the brain loves to solve problems. It also adds context and purpose to what you have been learning.

Written answers are far more difficult to review as there is often a degree of interpretation. However, when you find a statement or section of narrative that is different to yours or perhaps didn’t appear in your answer, ask, why didn’t I put that? Was it that you knew what to say but didn’t think it relevant, was your answer similar but not as clearly expressed, has it exposed your level of knowledge or lack of it? It’s this process of reflection together with the guidance as to what you need to do to “close the gap” that makes doing it so worthwhile.

Different types of exam
There are different types of exam so in order to offer more specific advice, let’s look at two extremes.

Objective tests – these types of questions are the easiest to review because they are relatively short, but even if you passed don’t be satisfied, look at the questions you failed and learn from the answers. You may of course find your knowledge lacking, but going back to the textbook with a specific problem in mind is a very efficient way to learn. Also remember to add some comments to your notes as to what you have now learned, this will help you avoid making the same mistake again. And if you didn’t pass you obviously have even more work to do.

Case Study – looking at past questions for case studies is a very different learning experience. If the case study requires you to demonstrate application of knowledge, which is a common objective, reviewing the answer can provide excellent guidance as to how this can be done. Application is something many students find difficult, largely because their head is full of rules and not how those rules could be used in the context of a real-world problem.

In addition, you will get a feel for the required standard and how the right headings, phrases and structure can help give order to the random thoughts that will come to mind when in the exam. Equally don’t be afraid to effectively steal some of the set phrases or tricks of good writing, for example notice when making a series of points, firstly, secondly, thirdly can help the answer feel structured and yet not repetitive.

Reviewing past exam questions is learning from someone who has got the answer right, which sounds terribly logical when you think of it like that.

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:

Passing case studies by thinking in words

thinkingA case study is a relatively high level form of assessment used to test a student’s ability to apply knowledge from a whole range of different subjects set against the backdrop of a real-world situation, a case study is a simulation.

Thinking process

On the face of it the challenges set by a case study seem daunting, how can you remember everything you have learned in the past and be able to solve a problem in an environment you have potentially never seen before. The good news is that our brains are better suited to solving these types of problems than you might think. In fact, in some ways learning individual subjects can be more difficult due to their apparent theoretical nature and little use outside the classroom.

However, the process you have to go through in order to produce a good case study style answer is worth exploring in more detail, especially if you’re not getting the mark you want or in fact need. Here are six stages that set out what you have to do from the point when you open the exam paper to finally putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard.

  1. Read and absorb the narrative given in the context of the case
  2. Make the case real, visualise yourself in that context, play your role
  3. Search for knowledge that might help, thinking across a whole range of subjects
  4. Begin to formulate an answer in your head or at least a direction of travel by manipulating information
  5. Organise your thoughts in such a way that when communicating to others it will appear both logical and persuasive
  6. Write out your thoughts using clear heading’s and plain English

Individually nothing is difficult but if you don’t perform particularly well at any one of these stages, the chain will be broken and as a result the quality of the answer suffer.

Using words to think – start with general and go to specific

From my experience students begin to struggle at around stage 5 and certainly 6. The cognitive energy required to not simply know what to do but be able to turn those thoughts into something that can be understood by others is possibly the most difficult part. One technique that can help with this is to use key words and linguistic structuring.

Imagine the question asks you to offer advice to company A as to how it might improve its profitability. One solution that might come to mind is, increase sales. What you need to do next is drill deeper, ask how do we increase sales? Maybe, you think, selling more of product X is a good idea. Next ask, how do we sell more of product X, answer, by approaching company Z and asking them to advertise it along with their best selling product.

Okay, get the idea, firstly there is a degree of analysis and questioning, this is stage 4. You now need to organise your thoughts and put them on the page so that others will understand the point you are making, stage 5 and 6.

This is where the words come in, start with general and go to specific. General words or statement sit high up, by definition they apply to many situations and are vague but act as an umbrella under which the answer can be honed and defined, for example, you might make the following statement.

One way of improving profitability is to increase sales.

This is a very general statement and could apply to many companies. Next be more specific.

One possible solution to increasing sales for company A is to sell more of its product by approaching company Z to see if we could come to an arrangement where they would be willing to promote their bestselling product and ours at the same time.

This in some ways is the reverse of the thinking process, but by creating a general statement first it gives a real structure to the answer. Like any technique it will require practice, so don’t be surprised if it takes time to become really good at it. When answering case study style questions, you will be thinking and reorganising thoughts a lot, and this initially at least is just another aspect of the case you need to take into account. But with repetition comes the shifting of knowledge into behaviour, and the ability to do it without thinking at all.

In summary, e.g.

  • What I hope you have found from reading this blog is that you can improve your chances of passing any exam with some simple techniques. (very general)
  • On the face of it a case study may seem different, and exam techniques less applicable. (Case study specific but still general)
  • However, if the process of thinking can be set out into a series of stages, this can help identify an area that needs to be improved. (Getting more specific)
  • The most common point where students fall down is towards the end of the six stages, specifically stage 5 and 6. (Nearly there, but talking about any student)
  • But by drilling into the problem and continually asking questions you can drive out a solution, then if you write out that solution using the general to specific technique, the words and so your answer should appear on the page in a logical and easy to understand format. (Finally we get to the point, talking specifically to you the student)