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:

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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)

 

 

 

The tip of the iceberg – exam tipping is becoming obsolete

tip1

Assessment is changing, there was a time when all examinations were sat in a room, the answers would be hand written on a piece of paper and a retired English teacher would stand at the front reading out instructions as to what you could and couldn’t do in the next three hours.

Not any more…….you request a date that is convenient, turn up at the exam center, no longer is this a sports hall, it might be a driving school test center or the college you studied at. Then you log onto the PC and answer questions on the computer screen in front of you. The results may be immediate; it depends on if it is “human marked” or computer marked.

But in some ways these changes are only the tip of the iceberg!

What no past exam papers.

As examinations move into the digital world we are seeing other changes as well. There is a move towards objective testing, scaled scoring and examining bodies no longer providing past exam papers, what did you say, no past exam papers……!

This is partly down to the nature of the test i.e. you can’t provide an exact replica of a past exam question if it is an objective test. Remember objective test questions are randomly selected from a pool, and are different for each student. But there is also a shift towards some examining bodies only providing an example of the type of questions that could be set rather that a continuous flow of, the last exam papers.

If the test changes – how you study (and teach) has to change

Now for someone who has advocated that students analyse past exam questions in order to identify key areas so as to better direct their studies, this is a bit of a blow. It has also been the method I have used in the past to focus my own delivery in class and on line. Of course using past exam questions has always been much more than just spotting key areas, it is about focus, providing a place to start, showing content in the right context, helping with writing style etc.

There will still be past questions, sample questions will be provided. What we don’t know is how representative they will be of the examination. Or will it be as we have seen in the past with pilot and specimen papers, they change over time, drifting away from the original in terms of style and emphasis. Although I can see the logic in examining bodies not releasing papers, I hope they will continue to keep the sample papers fresh, in keeping with current thinking about the subject and how it will be examined.

What to do?

Students and tutors still need focus, there has to be emphases on key areas in order to chunk the content so that it can be more easily learned, it’s just that we won’t be able to use past questions or at least as much as we have in the past. That emphasis will now have to come from articles written by the examiners, examiner reports and syllabus weightings. If faced with a new subject where there is only one sample paper, it will be necessary to read the guidance from the body closely, noting reference to “this being a key part of the subject” or “one the examiner thought was answered badly in the past.” These together with the syllabus weightings and specific learning outcomes will have to be your guide. It is of course possible that the subject has not changed much from before and so some of the older past question can be used. As far as questions style is concerned then that will have to come from the questions and answers that are published, it may not be ideal but it’s the best we can do.

The overall impact of these changes is that students will have to know more, something that is hard to argue with. Students and tutors alike will have to devote far more time to the subject, which is fine if students have the time and can afford the extra costs involved in longer periods of study.

But it’s not all bad news, new technologies can help students make the most of dead time, studying on the train using their mobile phone for example. Also knowledge is more freely available than ever before as many top institutions provide a huge amount of free easy to access content online.

One final thought, examinations may change and they may not be fair but on the whole they are equal, everyone as before is in the same boat, and someone will always pass, wont they!

The future – Sitting the exam at home?

On line exams

An online student, all be it a mature one shows his ID to the online assessor

And maybe even the exam room will become obsolete. Proctur U is a US based company that also has a presence in the UK offering online invigilation. Watch this video to see how it works and judge for yourself

 

 

Sleep is for wimps – oh and successful students

Get some sleepAlthough I am sure someone is preparing for an exam this very minute, July/August are the traditional months to take a holiday and get some well earned rest. A holiday can be exactly what you need especially if you have just come to the end of a long period of study followed by in some instances, weeks of exams.

I have to express a personal bias in so much that I believe holidays are essential if you are to be at your best. For me this years holiday has to provide some degree of relaxation after what has been a particularly busy 6 months. I am looking forward to a change of scene, meeting different people and the freedom to wake naturally, feeling rested after a good nights sleep. Holidays are of course very personal and for some an adventure holiday, travelling to new places every day, might be far more desirable.

But one thing that all holidays should provide is the ability to relax and catch up on sleep, even if that means you climb two mountains, swim for three hours before crashing out in a state of satisfied exhaustion on the evening.

Sleep is essential for learning 

Of course sleep is something you should do “properly” every day, it’s just that we don’t. Modern life steals that vital rest time, this is acutely the case when trying to balance both work and study. Studying is often undertaken on an evening and sometimes late into the night as you effectively try to do, too much in too little time.   We now sleep less than we did 50 years ago, it used to be around 8.5 hours, it’s now only 6.5. The sleep should also be of high quality, yet our sleep is interrupted by the lights of mobile phones, and sounds made when texts arrive late into the night. In order to sleep better it is a good idea to avoid light approximately 30 minutes before going to sleep, yet how many read in bed from iPads or equivalent with the bright light emitted from the screen telling your brain to stay awake.

Why sleep is important

We have known that sleep has been important for many years but we didn’t know why, cognitive scientists now have some of the answers. There are three views as to why sleep is beneficial:

One restoration – some of our genes only turn on when we sleep, their role being to make essential repairs.

Two conservation – we sleep to conserve energy, and

Three consolidation – our brain revisit events and experiences, and begins to make sense of them, moving data into long term memory and solving complex problems.

Susanne Diekelmann at the University of Tubingen in Germany says “sleep helps stabilise the memories and integrate them into a network of long-term memory, it also helps us to generalise what we’ve learnt, giving us the flexibility to apply the skills to new situations. So although you can’t soak up new material, you might instead be able to cement the facts or skills learned throughout the day.”  Bodies need rest – the brain needs sleep Sometimes you may find yourself having to push sleep to one side and in specific situations thats fine.

It’s when lack of sleep becomes the norm that problems arise, the result is greater stress, poor judgement and ineffective learning.   So now the exams are over, take a break, get some quality sleep and try and make a few simple adjustments in you life so that sleep takes more of a priority.

It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.

John Steinbeck  

Music to help you sleep and two video to watch but not just before you go to sleep

TED neuroscientist Russell foster  explains more about why we sleep  

Arianna Huffington talks about the importance of sleep

Twas the night before ………..the exam – but what to do?

keep-calm-and-study-all-night-5

Well not exactly all night

For students May and June are the main exam months. Studying and learning can be enjoyable…. honestly, but the fun has to come to an end and it does, with the exam. It cannot be avoided and so is best embraced, treat the exam as a game and you the player. What you need to do is give yourself the very best chance of winning.

Become a professional exam taker, someone who follows a process of preparation, very much like a top sportsperson. This means you personally need to be in the best physical and mental shape and have a series of exercises that will get you match fit.

Below is your training regime from the night before the exam – good luck

The night before

You should by now have:

  • Read through and reduce your class/tuition notes down to approximately 10 pages (20 max) of revision notes, see March Blog on how to prepare notes. You may have some professionally produced revision notes, but it is still best to make your own.
  • Practiced past questions on the key examinable areas both under exam and non exam conditions.
  • Started the process of memorising the revision notes.

Be realistic – The key to the night before the exam is to be realistic. You don’t have much time, so don’t think you can cover everything. Let’s assume you have 3/4 hours, 6.00pm – 10.00pm maybe.

Put to one side the large folder that contains all your notes taken throughout the term/year, and concentrate only on the 10-20 page revision notes.

Focus and memorise – In the 3/4 hours that you have you want to get an overview of the subject and focus on the areas that need memorising. These should be the key examinable areas and are most likely to be standard formats, definitions, lists, formulas s not given in the exam etc.  Memorising should include some rewriting of notes, but very little, talking out loud, drawing pictures, writing out mnemonics etc. See my blogs on memory, in particular: Thanks for the memories  and To pass an exam do and exam.

Admin – make sure you have set to one side everything you will need the next day. This includes your exam entry documents, calculator, gum, mints etc. You don’t want to be thinking of these in the morning. And of course make sure you know exactly what time you need to leave to get to the exam with about 1 hour to spare.

Physical and mental preparation – Drink lots of water, avoid tea, coffee etc as you will need to get a good night’s sleep. Exercise is an incredibly effective method of reducing tension and stress. So you may want to build into your 4 hours, 30 minutes for a run or brisk walk. This could be at the half way point of your evening, combining a well earned break with the exercise maximises your time.

Getting sleep is important, so avoid reading your notes and then going straight to sleep. Pack you notes away, put them ready for the morning, then physically go into another room if possible or even outside, watch TV for 10 minutes, something trivial or read a book. You need to break the state of mind from that of studying, relaxation leads to sleep not stress.

And finally keep a positive attitude, think about what you know and are good at and not what you don’t know and are bad at. Keep telling yourself that you have done everything possible, and if you follow these steps you will have. Thinking you know nothing and should have done more will not help at this stage, it’s a pointless thought strategy and not what the professional exam taker does.

The morning before

Set your alarm sufficiently early to give you at least another hour of revision. You don’t need to get out of bed, just continue memorising your notes. This is now about little and often, short 10 minute intervals. Don’t worry about falling to sleep in the exam; the adrenalin won’t let you.

1 hour before

What you do after arriving at the exam centre/School etc  is personal. Some will prefer to sit on their own going over the revision notes; don’t bother taking your folder of course notes. This is still very much about short term memory. Others will prefer to talk, chatting about nothing, just to stop them worrying. Both are fine.

After the examExam post it!

Afterwards is also a little personal, most will go home, but some will want to talk through what was in the exam, looking perhaps for some conformation they have not made a complete mess of it. Most importantly, if you have another exam, go home, put your old revision notes to one side, forget everything and start on your next subject.

The American basket ball player Art Williams had a good saying that I will leave you with. I’m not telling you it is going to be easy — I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it”

And although personally I found exams difficult I have never regretted the hard work, it was for me worth it.

And something to watch

How to: Cram the night before a test and PASS

Or you could try this

This blog is for Beth – good luck xx

Just answer the question!!! – but how?

Last month I looked at the best way to tackle a case study, but case study is only one type of exam, what about the more traditional style of exam question?

The world is full of great advice, lose weight, exercise more, stop smoking, just answer the question ….all these statements are very clear with regard to WHAT you should do but terribly unhelpful as HOW to do it.

The reason that students fail exams is simple, every examiner since the beginning of time will have made some of these comments.

Students fail exams because?

  • They don’t know the subject – inexcusable and the only reason you should fail
  • They don’t read the questions properly – and as a result  misunderstand what was being asked
  • They don’t  manage their time – so only complete 50% of the paper
  • They don’t write good answers – true this might be due to lack of knowledge but could also be the result of not knowing how much to write

The last three of these can be overcome with the use of good exam techniques. In this blog I want to share with you two simple techniques that I think will help.

How to read questions properly – Tip one, the rule of AND

Below is an exam question worth 12 marks. You don’t need to know anything about the subject so don’t worry.

Using the information given for DT Co, calculate the adjusted present value of the investment and the adjusted discount rate, and explain the circumstances in which this adjusted discount rate may be used to evaluate future investments. (12 marks)

The rule of AND is simple, where there is an AND in the question simply put a line through the AND then make the next statement the start of a new question.

Now read the question

1. Using the information given for DT Co, calculate the adjusted present value of the investment. and

2. (calculate) The adjusted discount rate, and

3. Explain the circumstances in which this adjusted discount rate may be used to evaluate future investments.                                                                                  

There are now three questions and because we have broken it up, it is so much clearer what you have to do.  If we were really clever we might be able to guess how many marks out of 12 relate to those three questions, a tip for another day perhaps.

How to write a good answer – Tip two, Define. Explain and Illustrate

Define Explain and Illustrate is a technique to help you write more using a simple structure.

Read this question

Discuss the proposal to repurchase some of the company’s shares in the coming year using the forecast surplus cash. Other implications of share repurchase for the company’s financial strategy should also be considered. (10 marks)

Firstly Define the technical words. In this example the technical word is repurchase, so firstly we need to say what a share repurchase is.

E.g.  a share repurchase is where a company buys back its own shares and as a result reduces the number of shares available on the market.

Secondly Explain in more detail.

E.g. the share buy back has to be financed in some way so one implication is that it will result in a reduction in the company’s cash balance. It also means that because there are fewer shares, earnings per share (eps) will increase.

And lastly and in many questions most importantly, Illustrate. This could be by way of a diagram an example or by referencing to the question in more detail. The reason this is so important is that this is how you will demonstrate to the examiner that you can apply the knowledge. If you don’t understand something you will not be able to apply it. The application section of the answer will often carry the most marks.

E.g. in the example above it is clear that the company is forecasting surplus cash, i.e. they have more money in the future than they need. Leaving this money in the bank is not considered sensible partly because the level of return that can be earned from the bank will be less than the shareholders require, it can also be interpreted as a lack of ambition on the part of the Directors. Blah blah blah

Depending on the detail provided in the question this final illustration section can go on and on. How much you write will depend on the marks available.

I hope you have found these two tips helpful, if you want more in the coming months just add a comment to this blog and I will oblige.

Epic exam failure – what not to put on your exam paper

And finally a short video showing students real exam answers – funny

Click here

 

Thinking in box’s – Cracking case study

Put it in a boxExaminations come in many shapes and sizes, short form, multiple choice, essay, case study etc. I know there are other methods of assessment but I am thinking here of the most common. Of these one stands out as being very different, the case study. Developed by Harvard in the 1920s the  case study involves giving the student a  real life, normally business situation and asking relatively broad Socratic type questions e.g. what do you think, why etc.

It not only puts the student in a realistic situation but also requires them to think far more deeply.  The cognitive process involved in answering a question such as what is the capital of France or can you add 2+2, on the whole is very simple and may need little more than memory. However giving student a real life business to analyse and asking them to give an opinion as to what the company should do next requires higher level thinking as well as effective communication skills.

Too much to read

One other aspect of a case study is that it often involves large amounts of narrative, all will need reading digesting and putting into context. On the face of it this can seem daunting, but it can be done and as with so many aspects of learning there is a process that can help. I have written about, having too much to read and the benefits of chunking before but I want to bring these together with another powerful technique “thinking in box’s”.

Thinking in box’s 

Volume and lack of direction is the main problem here, so we need to find our own direction and reduce the volume. Thinking in box’s refers to the natural process we have in compartmentalising thoughts. In order to make sense of the world we often put “stuff” into box’s, work, study, relationships etc. We can then open the box’s when we are best able to deal with them. The  point being that  we can’t deal with everything all at once. If this whole idea sounds a bit odd, then just consider the saying “Thinking outside the box”. This refers to the imaginary frame we put around something that restricts our ability to solve a problem and think more creatively. Strange isn’t it…..

Case study

Imagine that you have 10 pages of narrative to read based on a particular industry, a case study. There are a few sub headings and some paragraphing. You are required to provide guidance to the board of Directors as to what the companies strategy should be in the next five years.

The process 

In order to give the advice required by this question, you need to fully grasp the current situation, which means you have to  read, understand and comprehend what is written on the 10 pages. To add structure to the case firstly take chunks of content and put a frame around it, this will help focus just on this chunk of information, it also reduces the volume. A chunk will often be information under a heading or specific paragraphs. Once you have the content in a box, sift through it looking for the “key words” and underline them.  Focusing only on the key words but taking into account the context, ask yourself, what do I think about this? What does it mean, what is it telling me etc. Then write down your thoughts. Do this for every chunk of information, then number each chunk.

At the end of this process you should have read and thought about each chunk, captured those thoughts and have a numerical reference by which to structure them. The final part of the process is to read each of those chunks again and produce a SWOT. This brings all 10 pages down to just one. And by using the SWOT supported by your detailed analysis you should be able to give the advice required by the question.

watch_this_videoIn this short video I demonstrate the thinking in box’s approach.

      Thinking in box’s

And finally – A few words from Terry Pratchet

I will be more enthusiastic about thinking outside the box when there is some evidence of thinking inside it!