Category Archives: self-development

Dealing with information overload

information-overload

How well are you coping with the flood of information produced and distributed these days? A common malady is “information overload”: more information is coming in than you can process properly. For some guidance, read Daniel Levitin’s book The Organized Mind. It’s a big book. More information! But it has many useful perspectives and tips.

Levitin is a neuroscientist. He starts with how the mind makes sense of the world. A key process is making categories. Levitin tells about this through simple examples, such as “vegetable” being a broad category and “potato” being a more specific one. Then there are types of potatoes.

You may already be impatient. What’s the punch line? What’s the key to surviving the information onslaught? So here’s Levitin’s central insight: externalise your mind. Rather than trying to remember everything, you should set up systems to hold information vital to you, in ways you can easily manage. And do it in a way that takes advantage of the way the mind deals with categories — like “vegetable” and “potato.”

A classic example is the to-do list. A daily list of things to do, preferably in priority order, addresses information overload in a simple way. Rather than try to make decisions about every new call, visit, message or thought, you consult your to-do list and concentrate on proceeding through it. Once you set your priorities, the endless succession of messages, including advertisements, communications from family, friends and workmates, and all sorts of electronic enticements, can be subordinated to your own agenda.

to-do-list

Active sorting, namely putting things into piles according to their importance, enables you to focus on what you’re doing:

Active sorting is a powerful way to prevent yourself from being distracted. It creates and fosters great efficiencies, not just practical efficiencies but intellectual ones. After you have prioritized and you start working, knowing that what you are doing is the most important thing for you to be doing at that moment is surprisingly powerful. Other things can wait — this is what you can focus on without worrying that you’re forgetting something. (pp. 34–35)

Levitin has a bigger agenda than simply being efficient at getting things done at work, a topic that has already been capably analysed. Levitin addresses cognitive overload, and how to deal with it, in several key domains: at home, social life, time management, life-and-death decisions, business and teaching children. Information overload is a problem in each of these areas, and so is a related problem: decision overload, namely having to make too many decisions.

Daniel-Levitin
Daniel Levitin

Priorities and tasks

A key insight from neuroscience is that “The decision-making network in our brain doesn’t prioritize” (p. 6). What happens with overload is that there are too many decisions to be made, and the brain gets tired in the sense that willpower is depleted. If you haven’t prioritised what’s important, you will be worn down making trivial decisions and won’t be well placed to deal with the important ones. This is why dealing with electronic messages — Facebook, texts, email — can be undermining. You have to decide whether to read a message and then what to do with it: remember it, file it, act on it or, more likely, skip it or delete it. All those little decisions exhaust willpower. This is overload in action.

Levitin notes that people think they are being more efficient when doing more than one thing at a time, but actually, “ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient.”

Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. … Just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognitive performance. Glenn Wilson of Gresham College, London, calls it infomania. His research found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an e-mail is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. (pp. 96-97)

information-overload-1

Life-and-death decisions

Levitin encourages readers to organise the information relevant to their life in a more efficient fashion and to develop skills for making decisions. This is more than just paying attention to what’s important. One of the skills Levitin promotes is using fourfold tables to work out probabilities. Suppose you’ve taken a test for a rare cancer. The test returns a positive result, and naturally you panic. But wait: what’s the chance you actually have cancer? You need to know some figures first. If the cancer occurs in one in a million people, and the test has a 10% chance of a false positive, then most likely you don’t have cancer. Many doctors don’t understand the probabilities and will recommend treatments that are more likely to cause harm than reduce it. Levitin provides examples for working out the figures.

If the chance of being struck by lightning is one in a million, what is the chance of being struck by lightning twice? To calculate the answer, you have to know whether the two events, namely getting struck by lightning, are independent. Often they are not. This basic insight about probabilities applies to many areas. What is the chance of having your house burgled twice? What is the chance of two global financial crises within 20 years?

At home and work

In organising things at home, Levitin offers suggestions on the use of categories, and recommends having a “junk drawer” for the miscellany of things that don’t (yet) warrant a category of their own. In organising your time, he addresses the roles of sleep, noting that most people don’t get enough, which means they haven’t set the right sort of priorities for use of their time. In organising your social life, he points to the cognitive challenges involved in an ordinary conversation, given that both literal and implied meanings are nearly always involved. To maintain relationships, you need to take both into account.

hand-in-papers

In looking at being organised in the business world, Levitin notes that highly productive executives have an advantage over the rest of us: they have assistants who organise their files, their time and their interactions. They don’t have to worry about whether the activity they are doing right now is the most important: they know their assistants have arranged that it is. This helps explain why they can be so focused in meetings: they are less distracted by worries about other things they need to do.

This is an example of Levitin’s central point. Given that memory is fallible and making sense of a cacophony of information inputs is cognitively draining, the key to being organised is to put parts of your mind outside your body. You may not have personal assistants, but you can use computers, phones, diaries, apps and even one of Levitin’s favourites, 3-by-5-inch index cards.

Index-Cards

Managing your time

To give a sense of the wide-ranging nature of The Organized Mind, consider the chapter “Organizing our time.” It starts off noting the importance of the prefrontal cortex in time management, addresses the biological importance of time and the rise of precise time measurement (which is pretty recent in human history), considers the mental challenges of temporal frames and planning in a wide variety of tasks (from watching television to the invasion of Normandy), examines the many roles of sleep, looks at what is called flow (immersive engagement in an activity), and addresses reasons for procrastination. Within the procrastination section, Levitin considers various topics including attention deficit disorder, delayed gratification, and beliefs that facilitate procrastination.

Also important is to disconnect one’s sense of self-worth from the outcome of a task. Self-confidence entails accepting that you might fail early on and that it’s OK, it’s all part of the process. The writer and polymath George Plimpton noted that successful people have paradoxically had many more failures than people whom most of us would consider to be, well, failures. If this sounds like double-talk or mumbo jumbo, the resolution of the paradox is that successful people (or people who eventually become successful) deal with failures and setbacks very differently from everyone else. The unsuccessful person interprets the failure or setback as a career breaker and concludes, “I’m no good at this.” The successful person sees each setback as an opportunity to gain whatever additional knowledge is necessary to accomplish her goals. The internal dialogue of a successful (or eventually successful) person is more along the lines of “I thought I knew everything I needed to know to achieve my goals, but this has taught me that I don’t. Once I learn this, I can get back on track.” The kinds of people who become successful typically know that they can expect a rocky road ahead and it doesn’t dissuade them when those bumps knock them off kilter — it’s all part of the process. As Piers Steel would say, they don’t subscribe to the faulty belief that life should be easy. (p. 200)

If you can organise your time well enough to spend ten minutes per day reading The Organized Mind and implementing some of Levitin’s suggestions, you can become even more efficient, focused and mentally calm, and also assist your children and others in your life to thrive. It’s worth the effort, because all the signs suggest information overload isn’t going away. Instead, it’s likely to become worse.

Organized-Mind

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Learning: how to do it better

We continue to learn our entire lives. Research shows ways to do it better, but this means changing our habits.

keep-calm-and-never-stop-learning-5

Learning — we do it all the time, when reading messages, hearing the news, starting a new job, and in a host of other circumstances. Then there is formal learning, in classrooms and when studying for assignments.

Most people learn how to learn when they are young, and continue with the same methods for most of their life. What if there are better ways to go about it?

Benedict Carey is a long-time science writer, and since 2004 has written for the New York Times. Gradually, he became interested in research on how people learn, and set out on a quest, contacting leading researchers on learning. He was surprised to find that, according to the latest research, what he had done during high school, long sessions of concentrated attention on study topics, was really not all that effective. In his book How We Learn (Random House, 2014), Carey provides an accessible guide to key practical findings from learning research.

How-we-learn

Carey makes his account engaging by telling stories about pioneering researchers who developed ideas taken up later. He then spells out the implications for learners, whether they are in schools, universities, jobs or everyday life.

The spacing effect

Which is better: studying for two hours in one session, or for two sessions of one hour each on two different days? The answer is clear: two separate sessions are better, whether you want to learn facts or skills. This shouldn’t be news. In athletics, where learning techniques make the difference between winning and losing, training is normally spaced out. Runners do not postpone training until the day before the race.

Yet generations of students have crammed for exams and other assignments. As an undergraduate, I stayed up all night on several occasions to write essays. It was the only time in my life that I drank coffee! The trouble with cramming is that nearly everything learned is quickly forgotten. Spacing out study is more efficient: you can learn more in less time and retain it longer.

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But what’s the best sort of spacing? If you have two weeks to learn the names of the bones in the body, and want to spend a total of two hours studying, is it better to use two sessions of an hour, twelve sessions of 10 minutes, or some other breakdown? And how should the study sessions be spaced? Should one be just before a test? Or, if long-term retention is the goal, what’s the best option? Carey examines what is known about spacing. In general, more spacing is better, but there is still much to be discovered about the optimum spacing for learning different sorts of material.

The testing effect

If you don’t know anything about a topic – for example, Chinese history in the 1700s – then surely the best way to learn about it is to start studying. Actually, though, you’ll learn more efficiently if you take a test on the material before you start, even though you just guess at the answers. Somehow this primes the mind to pay more attention when you do start studying. This is a really strange research finding.

Educationists commonly talk about two types of assessment. Summative assessment measures learning whereas formative assessment is designed to improve learning. Actually, though, all assessment is formative to some degree: it is a method of learning.

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Formal assessment is designed by teachers. But there’s another type of testing: self-testing. When you’re studying, you can test yourself regularly. Or you can try to explain the topic to a friend. Testing yourself can overcome the fluency illusion, in which you have the incorrect belief that you know something because it seems familiar. Carey writes:

These apparently simple attempts to communicate what you’ve learned, to yourself or others, are not merely a form of self-testing, in the conventional sense, but studying – the high-octane kind, 20 to 30 percent more powerful than if you continued sitting on your butt, staring at that outline. Better yet, those exercises will dispel the fluency illusion. They’ll expose what you don’t know, where you’re confused, what you’ve forgotten – and fast. (p. 103)

Incubation

Many students think they’re learning only when they’re studying. Therefore, it doesn’t matter when they study, even if it’s at the last moment. It’s just necessary to put in enough hours. The spacing effect shows that something can happen in between study sessions: the unconscious mind engages with the material, and you don’t even notice it happening. There’s another aspect to this process, called the incubation or percolation effect.

Here’s the trick. When studying a topic intensely, it’s actually better to interrupt the process before finishing, and leave the mind to chew away at it before the next session. In terms of writing, this means not finishing an essay, but instead leaving it incomplete for the time being.

incubation-effect

When a task isn’t complete, the mind won’t let it alone, so in the long run you learn more by being interrupted at odd times while pursuing a task. Carey:

… we should start work on large projects as soon as possible and stop when we get stuck, with the confidence that we are initiating percolation, not quitting. My tendency as a student was always to procrastinate on big research papers and take care of the smaller stuff first. Do the easy reading. Clean the kitchen. Check some things off the to-do list. Then, once I finally sat down to face the big beast, I’d push myself frantically toward the finish line and despair if I didn’t make it.
Wrong.
Quitting before I’m ahead doesn’t put the project to sleep; it keeps it awake. (p. 147)

The incubation effect is used by great creators who bore away at a problem for weeks or months and then take a break – and this is often when the best ideas pop up. The challenge is to trust your own mind and treat interruptions to significant tasks as opportunities rather than sources of worry.

Interleaving

The usual way of learning is to concentrate on a particular task until it is mastered, and then go on to the next task. It sounds logical, but actually there’s a more productive technique, which is to mix up the tasks.

Carey describes the technique of interleaving. Here’s a typical research protocol. One group of students learned artistic styles by looking first at six paintings by one artist, say Braque, and then six by another, say Mylrea, and so on through twelve artists. A different group of students saw exactly the same paintings for the same length of time, but mixed up in a random sequence. At the end, students in each group were shown paintings they had not seen before and asked to name the artist. Which group did better? It was the ones who saw the paintings in a random order.

This outcome has been reproduced in numerous studies involving discrimination. During the learning phase, students exposed to interleaving don’t feel like they are learning, but actually they improve faster.

interleaved-blocked

“That may be the most astounding thing about this technique,” said John Dunlosky, a psychologist at Kent State University, who has shown that interleaving accelerates our ability to distinguish between bird species. “People don’t believe it, even after you show them they’ve done better.”
This much is clear: The mixing of items, skills, or concepts during practice, over the longer term, seems to help us not only see the distinctions between them but also to achieve a clearer grasp of each one individually. The hardest part is abandoning our primal faith in repetition. (p. 164)

Athletic coaches long ago figured out that exercising a particular muscle too much at a time is not productive, so they mix up training, switching between different muscle groups. The studies of learning artistic styles show that mixing things up is a more general learning strategy, with applications in many areas.

Other factors

Carey also discuses other factors that enable faster and longer-lasting learning. These include perceptual learning, which happens without having to think about it, and the role of different sleep cycles in consolidating learning.

Sleep-Helps-to-Form-Memories
Sleep helps to form memories.

It is fascinating that there are ways to speed up learning in a wide range of contexts, for example pilots comprehending the implications of different instrument panels or language students learning Mandarin.

It is tempting to think that it would be possible to take advantage of several of the techniques described by Carey and quickly become a much more efficient learner. If you are in the hands of one of the researchers or skilled practitioners using one of the techniques, such as interleaving or perceptual learning, then you have an advantage. But to take the initiative to adopt these techniques on your own is another matter.

One of the key considerations is habit — and many people’s learning habits are deeply entrenched. It can be quite challenging to replace one habit with another, though there is good research on how to do this.

To better understand the challenges of adopting some of the techniques presented by Carey, here I’ll discuss how they relate to the high-output writing programme I’ve been using for several years.

Writing

Robert Boice, a psychologist and educational researcher, addressed the problem of low research productivity. Many of his important studies date from the 1980s.

Robert-Boice
Robert Boice

He observed newly appointed academics and noticed that most of them struggled in the demands of the job, but a few were highly productive in research and furthermore were less stressed than their colleagues. Boice thought the techniques used by these productive new academics might be taught to others, and he showed how this could be done.

Advice for new faculty members

Boice’s approach was elaborated by Tara Gray and turned into a twelve-step programme. The core of the approach is doing some writing every day or nearly every day, but not too much. Boice advocated stopping while still fresh, in order to have energy and enthusiasm to continue the next day. A central theme in Boice’s approach is moderation, to overcome the syndrome of procrastination and bingeing.

Gray says to start writing from the very beginning of a research project. For example, in doing a PhD, you should start writing the first day, rather than spending a couple of years first reading and collecting data. The slogan here is “write before you’re ready.”

P&F2e_OSFC

How does the Boice-Gray approach to writing measure up in relation to the techniques described by Carey that enhance learning? First is the spacing effect: it’s more productive to space out learning sessions. That is actually the foundation of the writing programme: it is designed to overcome the usual approach of procrastination and bingeing.

Second is the testing effect: it is productive to use testing as a form of studying. In the writing programme, daily writing is done without looking at texts or stopping to look up references. You might have a few dot-point notes, but otherwise everything has to come from your head. In effect, it is a type of testing of your memory of what you want to say. For example, if you’ve read some articles the previous day, you write about them without consulting them: it’s a test, and a powerful learning tool.

Third is incubation. This is central to the writing programme. In between writing sessions, the unconscious mind is going over what to say next. In one of Boice’s studies, he looked at the number of creative ideas produced by academics in three conditions: no writing, normal writing (bingeing) and daily writing. No writing was worst for generating new ideas, normal writing was twice as good and daily writing was five times as good. The writing programme might be seen as turning the incubation process into a routine.

Another facet of incubation is that you learn more when you interrupt your study before finishing. This happens every day in the Boice-Gray programme, and can be enhanced by a simple technique. At the end of your daily writing session, finish in the middle of developing an idea, perhaps even in the middle of a paragraph or sentence. This incomplete expression of an idea serves to stimulate thinking, and often by the next day your unconscious mind has come up with a way to complete the thought.

Tara-Gray
Tara Gray

Fourth is interleaving: learning about a range of different topics at the same session. This is not usually part of the writing programme, but could be incorporated into it. Usually I write about the same topic from one day to the next, gradually writing the draft of an article or chapter. But sometimes I feel a bit stuck and switch to a different project and topic, coming back to the other one when I feel ready, which can be days, weeks or months later. No doubt interleaving can be used in other ways to improve writing productivity.

Fifth is mixing up learning contexts: you can consolidate your learning by studying in different surroundings and times of the day. The idea is to embed your learning in different environments. This is different from what’s usually recommended in the writing programme, which is to have a routine and stick with it. I think this difference points to an important factor not addressed by Carey: how to motivate continued effort at learning.

The practice of doing just a small amount of daily writing is designed to reduce the barriers to beginning a session. To add pressure, Boice asked academics to report to him weekly with a log of the minutes they had written each day and the number of words they had produced each day. This accountability process made a huge difference. Daily writing combined with reporting a weekly log to Boice improved productivity by a factor of nine compared to the usual procrastination-bingeing approach.

The technique of varying the learning contexts is worthwhile if your writing habit is well established. But few writers seem to have such a solid habit. Writing while travelling would seem like an ideal opportunity to vary contexts, but Gray reports that when travelling, away from the usual routine, writing at all is a challenge for her, and many others have told me the same.

Writing-while-travelling

Conclusion

The message here is that the techniques described by Carey are highly worthwhile and should be investigated by anyone for whom learning is important. However, a key consideration is how to turn a new learning approach into a habit. If you can do this, you’ve truly learned something worthwhile.

Benedict-Carey
Benedict Carey

Meanwhile, generations of students are carrying on in their usual approach, and so does most teaching. There is important research being done on learning, and Carey has pointed to some of the most practical findings. When these will affect schools and training programmes is another matter. Not soon, I suspect. So read How We Learn, pick one or two techniques relevant to your needs, and become a more efficient learner – and enjoy it too!

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Don Eldridge for helpful comments.

The benefits of face-to-face

Relationships can be highly beneficial in people’s lives. For best outcomes, they need to be face-to-face.

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In the past 20 years, there has been a boom in research on happiness, sometimes called wellbeing or flourishing. A range of behaviours and mental patterns have been shown to improve happiness, including being physically active, expressing gratitude, being optimistic, helping others and being forgiving. For some of these topics, authors have written entire books explaining the research and its implications.

Among all the methods of improving happiness, one of the most often cited is relationships. Research shows that positive interactions with others can make a huge difference to people’s lives. This includes family members, friends, neighbours, co-workers and many others, even extending to casual acquaintances and people met in commercial contexts, such as hairdressers and salespeople.

A few years ago, in the happiness course run by Chris Barker and me, the vagaries of timetabling meant that part way through one of my classes, my students and I had to walk across campus to get from one classroom to another. We carried out observations and  informal interventions during these walks. One of them was to observe the other walkers we saw on the way, and notice whether they were smiling or otherwise seemed happy. It was striking that those walking and talking in groups nearly always seemed happier than those walking alone.

If this topic interests you, I recommend Susan Pinker’s new book surveying research on relationships, titled The Village Effect. The subtitle gives a convenient summary of the main themes: How face-to-face contact can make us healthier, happier, and smarter. She provides a wealth of examples, case studies, findings and patterns to make the case for the benefits of personal relationships.

Village-effect

She tells about communities in the mountainous regions of Sardinia, where life is traditional and exacting, where people have rich personal connections and where they live far longer than would be expected going by other lifestyle factors such as diet. Pinker uses this as an extended example, also citing much other research on the effect of relationships on longevity and physical health.

The Sardinians are an exception, for they have maintained traditional patterns of village life in the face of incentives to “join the modern world.” There is a deep irony in aspects of contemporary economies. Higher standards of living can improve happiness, but also undermine it.

The irony is that most people want greater happiness, yet the way they go about it can undermine it. An example is seeking a higher income. There is plenty of research showing that, above a certain level, greater income and more possessions make only a marginal difference to wellbeing, certainly far less than alternatives such as expressing gratitude or being mindful. Yet many people, in search of improved happiness, will take on a second job or move to another city at the expense of time with their family and friends.

Face-to-face versus screens

In the past few decades, there has been a big shift from face-to-face interactions to digital connections using email, texts, Facebook and host of other platforms, not to mention the long-standing attraction of television, partly supplanted by video games. It might seem that social media, because they are interactive, are superior to the mass media of radio and television. Pinker quotes research about the advantages of face-to-face contact compared to digital contact.

The irony is that parents who spend their hard-earned cash on gadgets so their children will have immediate access to communication networks may also be facilitating their girls’ feelings of social exclusion. Girls with televisions, computers, and cellphones in their rooms, for example, sleep less, have more undesirable friends (according to their parents), and are the least likely to get together with their real buddies face-to-face. Yet, according to this study too, it is exactly these face-to-face interactions that are most tightly linked to feeling happy and socially at ease. If North American girls spend an average of almost seven hours a day using various media and their face-to-face social interactions average about two hours a day … then many girls are spending most of their spare time on activities that make them feel excluded and unhappy. (pp. 163–164)

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Such findings have significant implications in a range of areas. Children are especially in need of personal interaction to stimulate their developing minds, yet digital tools are proliferating and being used at ever younger ages. When it comes to formal education, face-to-face contact with teachers turns out to be crucial. Investments in better teachers appear to be far better for improving learning outcomes than investments in advanced technology.

Many Australian universities, being squeezed for cash, have cut back on class contact. Small tutorials, with maximum interaction between teachers and students, are made larger, and sometimes tutorials are abandoned in favour of lectures, or replaced by online interactions. Evidence cited by Pinker suggests that it would be better to get rid of the lectures and retain the tutorials — at least if learning is the goal.

For example, in one study, almost a million US students in grades 5 to 8 were surveyed about media use, while their school results were monitored. “With the advent of home computers, the students’ reading, writing, and math scores dropped, and they remained low for as long as the researchers kept tabs on them.” (p. 190)

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Susan Pinker

Is there any alternative?

Given that there are numerous ways to improve happiness, are relationships really so fundamental? There may be some loners who can be perfectly happy because they are great meditators or have found an activity that provides a satisfying experience of immersive involvement. Surely they can be happy with low levels of face-to-face contact.

Pinker addresses this, for example noting that although people on the autism spectrum have very poor relationship skills, they can still benefit from improving those skills and interacting more. However, I would not assume this is essential. No doubt even the most ungrateful person can become happier by becoming better at expressing thanks, but this is not the only way to become happier.

More generally, Pinker devotes a chapter to the negative aspects of relationships. Face-to-face connections can be highly damaging in some contexts, with fraudsters taking advantage of the trust engendered by social similarity.

Pinker’s overall message is to try to maintain face-to-face connections. Talk to the colleague in the next office rather than sending an email; take time to visit friends; have meals with family members, in the same room!

Face-to-Face-Logo-300x128

However, wider trends are working in an opposite directions. Individuals can improve their own lives by building their personal connections, but must do this in the face of the relentless encouragement to use digital media and to pursue careers at the expense of time with friends and family.

Technology to the rescue?

According to Pinker’s argument, much of the decline in face-to-face interaction is due to displacement by technology, especially the ever-present screens in people’s lives. So technology, while making interaction at a distance far easier, is reducing something valuable.

For me, there remain further questions: are some sorts of technologically-mediated interaction considerably better than others, and could future media simulate being in a room with someone?

The loss of personal connection accelerated with the rise of television, so people watched screens with which they had no interaction. Watching television with others in the room offers the possibility of some live discussion, but it is increasingly common for each member of a household to have their own screen in their own room.

The telephone offers a far more interactive experience. Voices are incredibly rich with meanings independent of the words spoken, so there can be a personal connection at a distance, though visual and tactile dimensions are missing.

face2face21

Texting and email are more abstract forms of interaction — but at least they are personal, unlike television. Prior to email, people used to write letters, which include a tactile component, and a personal one when handwritten. But letters took a long time to arrive compared to a text. How do these media compare?

Then there is Skype, providing an aural and visual interaction much richer than either telephone or writing. Does it partially substitute for the real thing?

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The next stage is virtual reality, in which avatars interact with each other in realistic simulated three-dimensional spaces. Virtual reality technology is available today, but not widely used to mimic face-to-face interactions. In principle, it could eventually simulate nearly every aspect of human contact, even including touch and smell. It will never be exactly like physical presence, but will realistic simulation compensate? Not if people aren’t honest about themselves. Pinker cites research on online dating showing that 80% of people misrepresent their age, weight, height, appearance, income or other attributes.

Rather than look to technology to solve a problem exacerbated by technology, the alternative is to reassert the importance of physical presence. Pinker notes that affluent parents are now giving their children the advantage of schools and teachers with more personal interaction.

There is a certain irony in efforts to recreate the benefits of face-to-face interaction. Many of the poor people in the world live in extended families and in small communities where there are numerous routine personal interactions. They have the benefits of what Pinker calls “the village effect.” Do they have to pass through an isolating development transition, or are there ways to “develop” that maintain the advantages of face-to-face?

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Don Eldridge for valuable comments.

Rapid learning

You can become pretty good at a new skill in just 20 hours by following Josh Kaufman’s advice.

josh-kaufman
Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman is a busy man. He has three children, runs a business and is a writer on the side. Yet he wants to do more. He wants to acquire new skills and to learn them as quickly as possible.

There’s an enormous body of research on learning. There are millions of teachers in schools and universities, not to mention private teachers and coaches on every topic from driving to playing the violin. Despite this wealth of knowledge and experience, Kaufman was looking for something different: how to tackle a completely new skill and become competent as rapidly as possible, fitting it all into his busy life.

So Kaufman developed his own system, based on 10 principles of effective learning. Being a practical person, he drew on his experiences in developing the principles, and then tried out his approach. And he’s written a book about it: The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything … Fast (Penguin, 2013).

First 20 hours

Expert performance and rapid learning

There’s a growing body of research on expert performance, the sort of high-level competence that would make you a chess grandmaster, a piano virtuoso, or a famous scientist. The research suggests that achieving this level of performance usually requires at least 10,000 hours of practice. Furthermore, not just any sort of practice will do: it has to be what is called “deliberate practice,” during which you concentrate intensely on improving, typically by working on the most challenging tasks for your level of performance. A swimmer, for example, needs to be pushing most the time during training.

Kaufman respects those who seek this level of performance. His goal is something different: to become as good as possible in a short time. It is quite compatible with deliberate practice. Indeed, it could be seen as the beginning of a journey towards high-level performance.

Anders Ericsson, the most prominent researcher on expert performance, notes that in learning a new skill most people improve rapidly to start with, but then their performance level plateaus. For example, most people learning to drive improve steadily because they are putting themselves in ever more challenging situations. But as soon as they are reasonably competent, they stop pushing themselves: they are driving but not improving much. Race car drivers, on the other hand, need to keep challenging themselves to achieve much higher level skills.

dog-driver

Kaufman is interested in this early skill acquisition stage and how to make it really efficient. No messing about attending classes for him.

So how good can he get in just 20 hours? Kaufman’s 10 principles for rapidly acquiring skills seem plausible, but how to apply them is what counts. To illustrate this, he offers six case studies in which he personally set out to learn a new skill in just 20 hours. These case studies take up most of the book. They are fascinating and are powerful recommendations for Kaufman’s approach.

Typing: learning it fast

Kaufman was already a good typist. Using a standard online test, he could type 60 words per minute. But he felt he was moving his fingers too much and so wanted to learn to type using a different, more efficient keyboard.

The standard keyboard is called QWERTY, after the first six letters in the top row of keys. Nearly all keyboards are laid out this way, and nearly everyone who learns to type learns this system. So why would anyone want to change?

QWERTY_keyboard_layout
QWERTY keyboard

QWERTY was set up in the days of manual typewriters and designed so the moving keys wouldn’t get stuck. But in terms of finger movement it is not ideal. For example, a highly efficient key arrangement would have the most common letters, E and T, on the middle line of keys, so less finger motion is required.

Kaufman set himself a goal: in 20 hours, he would seek to learn to type using a different keyboard, up to the same speed as before, 60 words per minute. So how did he proceed?

If deliberate practice is the key to skill acquisition, then you might guess that Kaufman spent 20 hours practising using the new keyboard. This is only partly right. One of the key insights Kaufman provides is that it is vital to figure out the best way forward. Time spent doing this is at least as important as deliberate practice.

First he had to choose the alternative keyboard he wanted to learn. He investigated several options and chose Colemak, one that suited his circumstances. He figured out how to change his computer so that when he pressed keys, they gave Colemak rather than QWERTY outputs. He then purchased some key covers and set up his keyboard in the new configuration. Now he was ready to practise typing using Colemak.

colemak
Colemak keyboard

Deliberate practice is the key

How to practise? Kaufman searched the web to find training programs, and compared the ones he found, choosing one that suited his purposes. Then it was time to begin. He used the program for an hour every day, practising in the evening to that his new skills would be better cemented into his mind through sleep.

After just 20 hours total — comprising choosing the keyboard, setting it up and practising using it — he achieved his goal of typing at 60 words per minute in Colemak. Along the way, though, he did a little experiment that is one of the best advertisements for deliberate practice I’ve seen.

While learning the new typing system, Kaufman couldn’t just drop all his regular correspondence. He still needed to type. So as soon as he was competent, even at a slow typing speed, he used Colemak. But doing his correspondence wasn’t deliberate practice, because he was concentrating on what he was writing, not on improving his typing speed.

I wonder: What if I drop the deliberate practice for a while and just continue typing e-mails and surfing the web? I’m two-thirds of the way to my target performance level of sixty WPM [words per minute] after only fourteen hours of deliberate practice. Can ambient practice carry me the rest of the way, without additional focused effort?

I decided to do an experiment: I’m going to suspend my deliberate practice for thirty days and set what happens. I’ll continue typing normally in Colemak, without switching back to QWERTY. With as much time as I spend on the computer, I should be able to get enough ambient practice to hit sixty WPM, right?

After thirty days, I retook the typing test. Want to guess my typing speed?

Forty WPM. Zero improvement.

Even though I was typing quite a bit, I wasn’t actively focused on improving my skills. Ambient practice wasn’t enough to improve.

If you want to improve a skill, you need deliberate practice, at least in the early stages of skill acquisition. Lesson learned. (pp. 151-152)

Other skills

Kaufman describes his efforts at learning a variety of skills using his approach: yoga, computer programming, the game of go, and windsurfing. In some cases, it’s an advantage to be able to pay for good equipment, as in the case of windsurfing. Kaufman tells how he searches for information about the most suitable equipment for his purposes, yet at a moderate price. And he does this all within the 20 hours.

To my mind, his most impressive achievement was learning the ukulele. Musicians will tell you that the ukulele is one of the easier instruments to learn. In 20 hours you can only make a start on the violin or oboe. Although the ukulele is relatively easy, Kaufman set himself a performance target that most people would find impossibly daunting.

He was invited to give a talk at a conference to tell about his approach to rapid learning. It was just 10 days until the conference and he thought, “Why don’t I demonstrate my approach by learning the ukulele in 10 days and performing on it as part of my talk?” And so he did. He practised hard during those 10 days, but also, as usual, spent a good portion of the time ensuring that he adopted the most efficient approach to practice. The response to his talk, and the accompanying ukulele performance, exceeded his expectations.

Kaufman-playing-ukulele
Josh Kaufman on the ukulele

What happens after 20 hours and a reasonable level of competency? Kaufman makes it clear that this depends. In some cases he wants to keep going: he continues to use Colemak for touch typing. In other cases he decides not to do any more. He became a decent beginner at the game of go, but decided not to continue playing the game. After all, if he learns too many skills, he’ll run out of time to deploy them, much less to continue to improve at them.

If you have a desire to learn any of the skills Kaufman took up, for example computer programming, the details he provides about how he learned will prove helpful. Even if you want to learn something quite different, the case studies are inspiring. They show how to approach a completely new area and make the task manageable. In the age of the Internet, this has become far easier than it would have been a few decades ago.

Implications for learning

Kaufman is a learning addict: he loves learning for learning’s sake, as well as for the satisfaction of using skills. Could his approach be applied to schools and universities? In many courses, students in a semester spend more than 20 hours attending classes — at least if they attend as they are expected to — and are supposed to devote many additional hours in study. Yet, based on Kaufman’s account, my impression is that few students learn as much in 100 hours as he does in 20.

There are several reasons for this. Kaufman’s first principle of rapid skill acquisition is “Choose a lovable project.” Many if not most students take courses primarily because they want a diploma or degree. They might enjoy some of the topics, but study is commonly seen as onerous, whereas Kaufman sees it as part of an intensely absorbing challenge.

Another factor is that Kaufman is in charge of his learning process. He chooses what to learn and how to learn it. Students seldom have this autonomy.

Kaufman pushes himself really hard. He designs his deliberate practice so it is maximally effective in achieving goals he has set himself. Most students are driven to study not by their own desires but by targets imposed externally, by their teachers. Kaufman set himself a goal of performing the ukulele before an audience. Students have a goal of passing an exam set by their teacher.

20 hours, but not so rapid

Kaufman wants to acquire skills rapidly. Is it possible to learn efficiently but not so rapidly? I decided to apply a variant of Kaufman’s approach. I acquired some juggling balls and the book Juggling for the Complete Klutz, and started to practise. But rather than doing it intensely, I decided to practise only five minutes per day. After a few months, I could juggle three balls with two hands or two balls with one hand without too much difficulty — in less than 20 hours of practice. I discovered that the key is practising every day, even for just a couple of minutes.

Juggling

While learning, I demonstrated to myself the importance of concentration. If my thoughts wandered for even a second or two, I would inevitably drop the balls.

I’m not as brave as Kaufman: I’m not going to juggle in front of an audience, at least not yet!

Kaufman versus textbooks

A typical textbook tells about subject matter, whether philosophy or physics. What it doesn’t tell is how to go about learning in a really efficient fashion. Educational researchers know a lot about learning, but this is seldom translated into practical guides for high-speed learning. So it takes someone like Kaufman, not a professional educator, to provide an original, inspirational guide. If you really want to learn, enjoy it and get better quickly, then spend a few hours learning from Kaufman’s example.

But there is no substitute for practice, a point that Kaufman reiterates.

If you want to acquire a new skill, you have to practice. There is no other way.

You can prepare. You can research. You can eliminate distractions and alter your environment to make it easier to practice. You can find intelligent ways to make your practice more effective or efficient. But, in the end, you must practice.

What feels like the long way is the shortest way. Zero-practice shortcuts don’t exist. No practice, no skill acquisition. It’s as simple as that.

Why don’t we practice? Simple: we’re busy and we’re scared. …

The major barrier to rapid skill acquisition is not physical or intellectual: it’s emotional. Doing something new is always uncomfortable at first, and it’s easy to waste a ton of time and energy thinking about practicing instead of practicing. …

One final thought: the only time you can choose to practice is today.

Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next month or next year. Today. (pp. 257-258)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Marking essays: making it easier and more fun

It’s worthwhile discovering methods to make marking more enjoyable. The same methods can be used to tackle other dreaded tasks.

libraryPapers3

Sitting on your desk is a pile of essays that need to be marked. There might be just 10 or 20, or maybe 50, 100 or more. For most teachers, this is not an eagerly awaited task. Is there some way to make marking easier and more enjoyable?

I’ve been marking undergraduate essays for over 25 years and have tried out various methods to make the task less onerous. Gradually I’ve discovered ways that work well for me. You may or may not want to adapt these for your own circumstances. In any case, I encourage you to undertake your own search for better methods. If you’re looking ahead at 25 years of marking, surely it’s worthwhile to explore better ways to go about it.

Pacing

Because marking is generally seen as unpleasant, it is very common to postpone starting. Doing other things, such as reading a book, checking emails, searching the web or even doing housework, suddenly seems more appealing. After all, it really won’t matter much if you start tomorrow. Days and sometimes weeks go by until it becomes urgent to do the marking. Then it becomes a matter of long exhausting hours of mental labour. It seems like a marathon, and only goes to prove that it really was something to be avoided.

The habits of procrastination and bingeing are deep-seated. Most teachers learned them when they were students, cramming for exams or doing all-nighters to write essays.

desk-and-papers

The solution to the syndrome of procrastination and binge marking is simple: tackle just a few essays each day. If I have 80 essays and need to finish marking them in two weeks, I set myself a target of six every day. Six essays seem much less daunting than 80.

The hard part is getting started. It’s best to begin marking the very first day or, if some essays come in early, before the due date.

Robert Boice researched the habits of highly productive new academics, and found the secret of success was working in moderation. Academics who did a little every day — research, writing, class preparation — were vastly more productive than those who waited for big blocks of time to complete tasks in lengthy sessions. Furthermore, the ones who worked in moderation were less stressed.

I can’t tell you how to change habits of procrastination and bingeing; you can learn a lot from various self-help books. All I can say is that it’s one of the most important things you can do to make marking easier.

keep-calm-carry-on-marking-essays-2

Staying fresh

My goal is to approach each essay feeling fresh and positive. Doing only a moderate number of essays per day helps. So does taking breaks. After marking one or two essays, I’ll take a break: a stretch, a snack, some research work, some reading, perhaps the dishes.

If I’m doing only an hour’s worth of marking per day, a break may not be needed. For anything longer, breaks are vital.

Marking requires mental effort, and the mind behaves like a muscle. Do too much and it gets tired and cries out in pain. Do the right amount and it gets stronger day by day. This is another reason for pacing: marking gradually becomes easier. So often it’s better to start with a few essays on the first day and increase the daily target later.

stressed teacher

Going faster

How long does it take to mark an essay? A few teachers I’ve met may spend an hour or more, reading and rereading the essay, writing lengthy comments and agonising over the mark. My goal, though, is to go faster while maintaining quality.

Many people read at 200 to 300 words per minute. Yet it is possible to read several times this fast while maintaining comprehension. To do this requires practice, going a little bit faster until it seems natural, and then pushing to go faster still.

Going faster is similar to progressive training of the body, with greater speed or strength developing over time. It’s also similar to typists who train so they can achieve amazing speeds with great accuracy.

My aim is to be fresh and to maintain concentration so I need to read an essay only once and retain a short-term memory of it, perhaps jotting down a few notes along the way. I then type all my comments. If I feel a need to read the essay again, it usually means I haven’t maintained concentration. Time for a break.

Marking less

Even the most efficient marker can be daunted by the prospect of hundreds of essays. If you have some control over assessments, then there are ways to cut back on the marking load.

One option is to simply reduce the number of assignments. Students are often overloaded with work, and could do a better job on fewer assignments, putting more effort into each one.

Another option is to mark some student performance during class. I used to have students do short oral presentations. With a simple template, I would scribble feedback on a sheet of paper and give this to the students at the end of the class. One advantage for students was getting feedback promptly, which seldom happens with essays.

Yet another option is to have frequent small assignments, but only mark some of them. For example, in one class students had to write eight mini-essays, one per week. However, only two these were marked, in weeks chosen randomly after weeks four and eight. Some students complained that they wanted all their submissions marked; I responded by saying that marking just two of them was equivalent to having an exam in which only two of eight possible questions were asked.

Another source of essay marking overload is writing too many comments. I discovered that some students were discouraged by too much red ink. Others never bothered to read my comments at all. In one case a student – one of the weakest in the class – glanced at the mark and immediately deposited the essay in the rubbish bin. All the effort I had put into commenting on strengths and weaknesses was for naught.

red-ink

For final assignments, some of my colleagues have a policy of asking students to say in advance whether they want comments. Students who don’t ask just receive a mark.

Years ago, I used to correct spelling and grammar as well as give comments on content. But I don’t teach English composition, so why become a proofreader? So I stopped giving detailed feedback on expression, and concentrate on content.

grading+essays

My current system is to write brief comments on each assessment criterion, mentioning strengths and ways to improve, and to supplement this with “general comments” that are generic for the whole class. The general comments explain my expectations and elaborate on how essays could be better. I say in my feedback that if my specific comments don’t say anything about a particular aspect of the assignment, then the student should look to the general comments. This approach avoids the need to write the same comments on essay after essay.

Varied assignments

Monotony is a great source of pain in marking. If there are 50 essays each answering the question “What are the factors behind the rise of social media?” the task quickly becomes tedious. If you are marking essays for someone else’s class and have no control over essay questions, you have my sympathies. Luckily, I’ve usually been able to set my own assignment topics. One of my goals has been to make it interesting for me to mark essays — even the ones that aren’t so good.

Thinking up assignments that are stimulating for students to carry out and for me to mark is not easy, but it has been worthwhile. Two ways of doing this are to give students quite a bit of choice in their topics and to invite or require them to use unconventional formats.

In an environmental politics class, we covered a series of topics such as sustainable development and the precautionary principle. Each week I asked the students to write a comment on that week’s environmental topic using a randomly chosen political, economic or other theory or framework, such as liberalism, militarism, feminism or Buddhism. Then for the final assignment, students had to write a dialogue between two characters, as in a script for a play, with footnotes as appropriate. Each character had to represent or embody some theory, for example Mao Tsetung for Marxism and Gandhi for pacifism. The characters had to discuss some environmental topic. So one possible dialogue would be between Mao and Gandhi discussing sustainable development.

For marking purposes, this assignment was delightful. Every submission was different, and many students were creative in their choices. One student crafted a discussion between Thomas the Tank Engine and Percy the Small Engine. Percy was a Rastafarian and used rasta slang; footnotes explained unusual terms.

When designing such unorthodox assignments, it can be challenging to explain to students exactly what is expected. I’ve found a fairly good method: with students’ permission, I post top assignments from previous years on my website. These show the format expected, for example a dialogue, and by demonstrating really good work can provide an inspiration to do well.

Designing an assignment that is interesting to mark has a spin-off effect. It can change the mode of covering the content. In many cases, I’ve found it effective to let students investigate topics themselves rather than me delivering lectures. For the environmental politics class, we had an excellent textbook for the environmental topics, and I let the students (many of whom were doing an environmental science degree) look up topics like liberalism and Buddhism on their own.

To some, this might seem to be abdicating a teacher’s responsibility to provide authoritative perspectives on content. For me, it is part of encouraging students to learn on their own, including finding relevant readings, understanding concepts and applying them to case studies.

In making marking more enjoyable, I also hope to make learning more enjoyable for students. By getting students to do more work on their own and tackle unorthodox assignments, I hope to encourage student creativity and initiative. I remind myself that for the teacher to work hard often is not all that relevant to student learning. Students learn more when they work hard, and they are more likely to work hard on an interesting assignment. When the assignment is interesting to both students and the teacher, it is a win-win solution.

posting-on-fb

Other applications

If marking can be made reasonably enjoyable, what about other dreaded tasks? What is dreaded depends on the person, and might be paperwork filing, housework, gardening, tax returns or practising the violin. Often it’s whatever you’re avoiding. Whatever the challenge, the same sorts of principles can be applied.

1. Work in moderation, a little bit each day, rather than procrastinating and bingeing.

2. Remain fresh and alert by taking breaks when needed.

3. Practise going a bit faster while maintaining quality.

4. Aim to do what’s good enough, not at perfection.

5. Redesign the task to make it more interesting.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Further reading

Robert Boice, Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2000): on moderation as a philosophy for academic work.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (New York: Random House, 2012): a fascinating account including advice on changing habits. (See Brian’s commentary.)

http://www.bmartin.cc/classes/: subject outlines and outstanding student work illustrating unusual types of assignments.

Acknowledgements Thanks to Paula Arvela, Don Eldridge, Kathy Flynn and Anne Melano for helpful comments.