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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What to do if you fail the exam? – growth mindset

failure-sucess

Back in 2011 I wrote about what to do if you fail an exam, it’s one of my most read blogs. Last week I delivered an online presentation for the ACCA, (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) on how having a growth mindset can help improve your chances of passing an exam, the very opposite of failing. But that is partly the point, very few successful people have never failed, in fact coping with failure is one of the reasons they ultimately succeed.   Having the “right mindset” can not only help you pass, it can give direction and motivation if you fail.

Mindset

The term “growth mindset” was coined by Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She became fascinated as to why some children shrink in the face of problems and give up, while others avidly seek challenges, almost as a form of inspiration. What she discovered was that the type of mindset students held was at the heart of these two differing views. This search for resilience in the face of challenge and adversity has become her life’s work and something that has guided her research for over 40 years.

Fixed – When students have a fixed mindset, they tend to believe abilities are carved in stone, that you have a certain amount of let’s say talent or intelligence and that’s that. They perceive challenges as risky, that they could fail, and their basic abilities called into question. And the fact that they hit obstacles, setbacks, or criticism is just proof their views were correct in the first place.

Growth – In contrast, when students have more of a growth mindset, they believe that talents and abilities can be developed and that challenges were one way of doing this. Learning something new and difficult was in fact the way you get smarter. Setbacks and feedback are not seen as confirmation of frailty but as information that could be used to improve.

This does not mean that people with a growth mindset think talent doesn’t exist or that everyone is the same. To them it’s more a belief that everyone can get better at whatever they do, and improve through hard work and learning from mistakes.

How can you develop a growth mindset?

The good news is that you can develop a growth mindset, but just to be clear, the world is not divided into those with a growth mindset and those with a fixed one, a mindset is not a character trait. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. You could have a predominant growth mindset in one area but there can still be a thought or event that acts as a trigger and moves you into a fixed one. The secret is to work on understanding your triggers so that you’re able to stay in a growth mindset more often.

Beliefs – ask, what you believe about yourself and the subject you are studying. Do you believe you are below average, not very clever or that the subject or topic you are studying too hard? If this is the case you have wandered into a fixed mindset. What you believe is neither true nor false. What we can say is that it’s certainly not “helpful” to believe you are not clever, and is not what someone with a growth mindset would do.

Talent and effort – thinking that people are either naturally talented or not, is a classic example of being in a fixed mindset. You may never be top of your class but you can improve, and this is achieved by making more effort and working harder.

Positive self-talk – we all have voice inside our head, it’s called your inner speech. It has a significant impact on what you believe and how you behave. If you find your inner speech is telling you to give up or that you will never understand a particular topic or subject, change your voice, tell it off, and then say something more positive. Dweck says that just by adding NOT YET to the end of your statement can help. For example, I don’t understand portfolio theory – at least NOT YET.

The importance of mindset and failure

If you have failed an exam or just sat one and believe you have failed, I have two pieces of advice.

Firstly, on the whole students are not the best judge of their own performance. They tend to reflect on what they didn’t understand or thought they got wrong rather than what they might have got right. As a result, you may have done better than you think and are worrying about nothing.

Secondly, if you do fail, you have a choice as to what this might mean. On the one hand, it might simply be confirmation of what you already know, that you are not very good at this subject or clever enough to pass. Alternatively, you could move to a growth mindset, recognising that you have slipped into a fixed one.  Find out what areas you need to work harder on, and start again.

Everyone has to deal with failure, it’s what you do when you fail that matters most.

Sensemaking, humility and the humanities

human-being-girl-picture

For a variety of reasons, I have been engaged this month in thinking not so much about examinations but what subjects should be examined.

Whilst the news has been dominated by terrorism, Trump and Brexit, we may be facing a far bigger problem, of which these news stories are a good example, how can we be sure of making the right decisions in a world of mass information, complexity and change.

People voted Brexit for a whole variety of reasons, many “facts” were presented in simple terms, we will save £350m a week and this money will go into the NHS, immigration will be reduced as we gain control over our borders. Yet these facts are far too simplistic, any level of analysis, critical thinking and challenge would have revealed the difficulty of delivering them, and in many instances they won’t be delivered. If this is the case, did people vote to leave, or stay not on the facts as presented but using other criteria, maybe they were just naive and placed far too much trust in Politicians or perhaps they had never been taught about sensemaking, humility or studied the humanities.

Sensemaking

An interesting article caught my eye earlier in the month, “Silicon Valley needs to get schooled”. it was by Christian Madsbjeg, author of the book Sensemaking and senior partner in ReD, a strategy consulting company based on the human sciences. In the article Madsbjeg argues that the reason for a lack of new and exciting products from Silicon Valley is not because of a shortage of ideas but a complete failure to understand people.

In the book Sensemaking he expands on the problem. In order to cope with complexity, we look to science, logic and the algorithm (a rules based process) for a solution. On the face of it crunching big data so that it spews out the correct answer seems perfect, but, and this is a quote from the book, Madsbjeg makes a very important point, he says we stop seeing numbers and models as a representation of the world and we start to see them as the truth – the only truth”.  We are in fact looking at the numbers without the context of the world from which they came or a sufficiently deep understanding of the behaviours we are measuring.

We rely on science and the scientific method for so much of what we do but where people are involved we need a different approach. To put it another way “When human beings enter the equation, things go non-linear” Neil deGrasse.

Sensemaking is “how we make sense of the world so we can perform better in it”. It recognises that situations are complex and information ambiguous. It requires people to make a continuous effort to understand the connectivity that exists between people, places, and events in order to anticipate their trajectories and act accordingly.

Humility

trumpwillwin-notextIntellectual humility as defined by the authors of a recent paper entitled, Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility is the opposite of intellectual arrogance or conceit. It is in effect, recognising that you could be wrong. One of the findings from the research was that people who displayed intellectual humility were better than the control group at evaluating the quality of evidence they had been presented with. A very useful skill indeed, given the world of false news in which we currently find ourselves.

Humanities

And what job will you get after studying History for three years……

The humanities (English, History, Philosophy etc) have been given a bad press in recent times. Overshadowed by the drive to develop coding skills and with the constant chanting of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in the background, it’s not surprising that less people are studying them. They were at an all-time low in 2014 at 6.1% of all bachelor’s degrees, a long way of the 1967 record of 17.2%.

But it is generally recognised that the humanities can teach us a lot. In another reference from Christian Madsbjeg’s book, Sensemaking, he suggests the humanities can teach us, one that other worlds exist, two that they are different and three, we learn how to imagine other worlds that in turn helps us better understand our own.

As with sensemaking and humility, are these not the types of skills we need to learn?

Examinations – what to examine?

What subjects should be examined depends to a large extent on what job you would like to do. But with the claim that 60% of 11 year olds will leave school to do jobs which have not yet been invented it’s hard to know the answer. What we do know is that the world is unlikely to slow down, change not happen, data become less available and complexity give way to simplicity. As a result, we need to teach people and so examine the skills that will help them better navigate this world. Maybe when those primary school children go onto higher education they will be studying sensemaking, humility and the humanities.

Even though the ink is barely dry on the letter sent by Theresa May bringing about our formal negotiations to exit Europe, the interesting thing is we will never know if this was a good or bad decision. Because post Brexit people will behave differently, some will work hard to make the impossible possible whilst others will continue to frustrate the process, and none of that could have been foreseen at the time.

So, let’s hope the basis for the original decision to leave was not because of the headline – We will save £350m a week and this money will go into the NHS!

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)