Sleep, picture, talk – learn smarter

Three stories caught my eye this month that I thought might be of interest.

They are all ways in which new research is providing evidence as to how it is possible to learn more effectively, a kind of smart brain learning.



Sleep is good for study

A new study from the University of Notre Dame suggest  that sleeping soon after learning new material is best for recall. This clearly has implications for students in those latter stages of revision and arguably the night before the exam.  The answer it would seem is that you can study right up to the last minute (probably memorising  facts) as long as you are getting a good night’s sleep after wards.

Although it is not known with certainty why sleep is so good, it is believed that it brings some form of consolidation of the facts, a kind of updating and reorganising of the brain while you rest.

The idea is not that new, this research was out in 2004

Pictures are better than words

This might come as no surprise to people who have read this blog before but it is reassuring that there is some science to support the view that the brain is more effective with pictures than words.

A story from the BBC about a group of people who had their brainwaves scanned while completing a series of tasks, individually and in groups, to see if data visualisation, presenting information visually, in this case a series of mind maps can help. The results showed that when tasks were presented visually rather than using traditional text, individuals used arround 20% less cognitive resources. In other words, their brains were working a lot less hard.

The research was carried out by Mindlab International, an independent research company that specialises in neurometrics – the science of measuring patterns of brain activity through EEG, eye tracking and skin conductivity, which tracks emotions.

This is not just another plug for mind maps, they are just one way in which information is presented visually. When reading a book or study manual, put information in boxes, use graphs, draw people and objects, make it look visual, it will all help.

The first sign of madness – talking to yourself out loud

Gary Lupyan, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison often found himself talking out loud so he thought it might try to find out if it helped, and guess what it did.

In one experiment, volunteers were shown 20 pictures of various objects and asked to look for a specific one, such as a banana. In half of the trials, participants were asked to repeatedly say what they were looking for out loud to themselves, the others were asked to remain silent. The researchers found self-directed speech helped people find objects more quickly by about 50 to 100 milliseconds.

Most people talk to themselves when studying, but they don’t say the words out loud they keep it inside their heads. What this research suggests is that what you should do is say the words out loud, use different voices even. I know it sounds strange but it does work. Okay maybe you should do it behind closed doors; you don’t want to upset the neighbors…..




Exam techniques worth £100,000

I am not sure what to make of the latest news that a law student Maria Abramova is suing the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice (OXILP), part of Oxford Brookes University for £100,000 claiming they did not prepare her well enough to sit her legal examination, specifically they did not teach her exam techniques. 

She claims that failing the exams left her with a ‘blind spot’ when it came to taking future exams and eventually contributed to her failing the New York bar examination in 2008. She has since decided not re-sit the American examinations, as the process of taking legal tests causes her to become psychologically distressed.

Maria Abramova was clearly academically bright; she graduated in July 2004 with a 2:1 degree in law from Oriel College, Oxford. In all her studies with OXILP she had consistently been graded “very good”, the top grade.  Of the 357 other students that studied that year more than 99% went on to pass the paper at the heart of the litigation.

Who is to blame?

So what went wrong, does she have a case, is a college or university responsible for getting the student through the exam or is their job simply to deliver knowledge in an inspiring and understandable manner. And do exam techniques make that much difference anyway?

It is perhaps not surprising that a case of this nature has finally come to court. With exam results determining the opportunities for many and the price of education on the increase, why should educators not be accountable………….What is interesting is that this case has focussed not on the content of the course – “I was not taught X and X came up in the exam and that is the reason I failed,” but on exam techniques.

Now as someone who delivers courses on exam techniques and believes they are a vital part of passing examinations, it would be hard for me to argue they are unimportant or make no difference. But I come from a world (Professional accountancy and tax qualifications) where passing an exam is considered a vital part of the success of the course. I am not sure that this is the case with OXILP.

Its about responsibility

To answer some of these points you need to clarify how much responsibility should rest with the student and how much with the tuition provider. Education has to be a partnership; students are not empty vessels simply waiting to be filled with knowledge, they do have to try hard and study independent of the class, they should talk to other students and find out what they do and perhaps most importantly, they should challenge and if they are not happy seek a remedy.

I am of course no lawyer and await the outcome of this case with interest, but I can’t deny that I am pleased that someone has managed to put a £100,000 price tag on the value of exam techniques. And should Maria ever want to reconsider her decision to give up exams and need help with exam techniques I could certainly recommend a good book…..