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.

 

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Plastic fantastic – how the brain grows

Stress BallA major new idea was presented to the world in 1991, to many it will mean very little but in terms of improving our understanding of the brain it was a milestone.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) had seen its roots in the earlier MRI, but instead of creating images of organs and tissues, fMRI looks at blood flow in the brain to detect areas of activity and so show how the brain works in real time.

The implications of this for learning are significant because for the first time we were able to identify which parts of the brain were reacting when different tasks were being performed. For example, we know that the cerebrum which is the largest part of the brain performs higher functions such as interpreting touch, vision, hearing, speech, emotions etc.

Brain plasticity

But it is the next discovery that is far more interesting from a learning perspective. For many years the common belief was that brain functionality (intelligence) was to a certain extent hard wired, largely genetic, with a fixed number of neurons. It probably didn’t help that the computer gave us a simile for how the brain worked which was misleading.

That all changed when it became possible to observe the brain and watch how it responded to what it saw and was asked to do. What this showed was that the brain has the ability to generate new cells, a process called Neurogenesis.

Click here to listen to neuroscientist Sandrine Thuret explain how humans can generate new brain cells i.e. Neurogenesis.

This may make sense for children given the basic brain functionality when a child is born, something must be happening to turn them into caring and thoughtful adults. In fact, by adolescence the brain has produced so many synapse, the connections between cells, they have to be cut back or pruned. Hence the term synaptic pruning.  What was perhaps more of a surprise was that growing new brain cells was not just something children could do, adults were able to do it as well.

The classic example is the evidence by Professor Eleanor Maguire from the Wellcome Trust Centre and colleague Dr Katherine Woollett who followed a group of 79 trainee taxi drivers and 31 controls (non-taxi drivers). Their research showed that London taxi drivers developed a greater volume of grey matter i.e.  cell development, three to four years after passing “the knowledge”  when compared to the control group.

Learning about learning

This may leave you thinking, all very interesting but what does it mean for me as a student?

In the same way that people can develop a growth mindset, bringing it within your control, you can do the same with your academic performance. Just because you don’t understand something or pick it up very quickly doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to. This is not to say that some people are not “brighter” than others, it is estimated that around 50%/60% of your intelligence is genetic, but that’s on the assumption your brain cannot change, and what this proves is it can.

And here is one last interesting observation, knowing how the brain works can actually help rewire it. There is evidence that students who know more about how they learn, (meta cognition) will naturally reflect on what they are doing when they are learning which in turn will help grow new cells, how good is that.

Artificial Intelligence in education (AIEd)

robot learning or solving problems

The original Blade Runner was released in 1982. It depicts a future in which synthetic humans known as replicants are bioengineered by a powerful Corporation to work on off-world colonies. The final scene stands out because of the “tears in rain” speech given by Roy, the dying replicant.

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

This was the moment in which the artificial human had begun to think for himself. But what makes this so relevant is that the film is predicting what life will be like in 2019. And with 2018 only a few days away, 2019 is no longer science fiction, and neither is Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Artificial Intelligence and machine learning

There is no one single agreed upon definition for AI, “machine learning” on the other hand is a field of computer science that enables computers to learn without being explicitly programmed. The way it does this is by analysing large amounts of data in order to make accurate predictions, for example regression analysis does something very similar when using data to produce a line of best fit.

The problem with the term artificial intelligence is the word intelligence, defining this is key. If intelligence is, the ability to learn, understand, and make judgments or have opinions based on reason, then you can see how difficult deciding if a computer has intelligence might be. So, for the time being think of it like this:

AI is the intelligence; machine learning is the enabler making the machine smarter i.e. it helps the computer behave as if it is making intelligent decisions.

AI in education

As with many industries AI is already having an impact in education but given the right amount of investment it could do much more, for example

Teaching – Freeing teachers from routine and time-consuming tasks like marking and basic content delivery. This will give them time to develop greater class engagement and address behavioural issues and higher-level skill development. These being far more valued by employers, as industries themselves become less reliant on knowledge but dependant on those who can apply it to solve real word problems. In some ways AI could be thought of as a technological teaching assistant. In addition the quality and quantity of feedback the teacher will have available to them will not only be greatly improved with AI but be far more detailed and personalised.

Learning – Personalised learning can become a reality by using AI to deliver a truly adaptive experience. AI will be able to present the student with a personalised pathway based on data gathered from their past activities and those of other students. It can scaffold the learning, allowing the students to make mistakes sufficient that they will gain a better understanding.  AI is also an incredibly patient teacher, helping the student learn from constant repetition, trial and error.

Assessment and feedback – The feedback can also become rich, personalised and most importantly timely. Offering commentary as to what the individual student should do to improve rather than the bland comments often left on scripts e.g. “see model answer” and “must try harder.” Although some teachers will almost certainly mark “better” than an AI driven system would be capable of, the consistency of marking for ALL students would be considerably improved.

Chatbots are a relatively new development that use AI.  In the Autumn of 2015 Professor Ashok Goel built an AI teaching assistant called Jill Watson using IBM’s Watson platform. Jill was developed specifically to handle the high number of forum posts, over 10,000 by students enrolled on an online course. The students were unable to tell the difference between Jill and a “real” teacher. Watch and listen to Professor Goel talk about how Jill Watson was built.

Pearson has produced an excellent report on AIEd – click to download.

Back on earth

AI still has some way to go, and as with many technologies although there is much talk, getting it into the mainstream takes time and most importantly money. Although investors will happily finance driverless cars, they are less likely to do the same to improve education.

The good news is that Los Angeles is still more like La La Land than the dystopian vision created by Ridely Scott, and although we have embraced many new technologies, we have avoided many of the pitfalls predicated by the sci-fi writers of the past, so far at least.

But we have to be careful watch this, it’s a robot developed by AI specialist David Hanson named “Sophia” and has made history by becoming the first ever robot to be granted a full Saudi Arabian citizenship, honestly…..

 

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:

What’s the use of lectures?

Robot lecturerThe title of this month’s blog is not mine but taken from what many would consider a classic book about what can realistically be achieved by someone stood at the front of a classroom or lecture theatre, simply talking. Written some 25 years ago but updated recently Donald A. Bligh’s book takes 346 pages to answer the question, what’s the use of lectures?

What makes this book interesting is the amount of research it brings to bear on a topic some consider an art form and so not easily measured or assessed.

With many in Higher education questioning what they get for their £9,250 per annum, and contact time being one way of measuring value, it’s as important a question as ever.

For clarity, we should define what we mean by lecturing, as ever Wikipedia can help –  A lecture (from the French meaning ‘reading’) is an oral presentation intended to deliver information or teach people about a particular subject.

What should happen in a lecture?

If you’re a student attending a lecture you would hope to learn something, however as many of my past blogs have discussed, learning is a complicated process and so we may need to break this question down a little further by asking, what should a lecture actually achieve?

A lecture should….

  • Transmit information
  • Promote thought,
  • Maybe change opinion or attitude
  • Inspire and motivate
  • Help you be able to do something i.e. develop a behavioural skill

Well here is the bad news, according to Mr Bligh, a lecture is only really good for one of the above, to transmit information. And it’s not even better than many other methods e.g. reading, it’s simply as effective, but no more.

Promoting thought, changing opinions

Lectures are relatively passive whereas a discussion requires that people listen, translate what is said into their own words, check if it makes sense with what is already understood, construct a sentence in response etc. In effect, a discussion is far more effective than a lecture in developing thought.

In addition, putting the student in a situation where they have to think is important, for example by giving them a problem or asking a question as is the case when you have to answer a past exam question for example. A discussion can also help change opinions, especially where you can hear other people’s views, often different to your own. It has a longer-term impact when the group comes to a consensus.

Inspiration and motivation

Bligh also argues that on the whole lectures are not an effective means of inspiring or motivating. He suggests that it should certainly be the objective of the lecturer to try, it’s just they rarely succeed. I find myself slightly disagreeing, lecturers can be inspirational, and yet maybe this is just my personal bias from having watched Sir Ken deliver his “do schools kill creativity“  or the last lecture delivered by Randy Paush.

But perhaps, these are just the exceptions that prove the rule.

Developing skills

And finally, if you want to help people become good at a particular behaviour, you don’t tell them how to do it, you get them to practice, over and over again, with good feedback.

The end of the lecture?

I don’t think this is the end of the lecture, these criticisms have been around for many years. But I can’t help thinking that with new technologies and online learning, lectures are going to have to get a whole lot better in the future.

And what will Universities point to as value for money then?