Tag Archives: Tara Gray

Write, write, write

Researchers need to write as part of their job. It’s remarkable how stressful this can be. There is help at hand, but you have to be willing to change your habits.

Writing is a core part of what is required to be a productive researcher. Over the years, I’ve discovered that for many of my colleagues it’s an agonising process. This usually goes back to habits we learned in school.

Sport, music and writing

Growing up, I shared a room with my brother Bruce. I was an early riser but he wasn’t. But then, in the 10th grade, he joined the track and cross-country teams. Early every morning he would roll out of bed, still groggy, change into his running gear and go for his daily training run. After school he worked out with the team. He went on to become a star runner. At university, while majoring in physics, he obtained a track scholarship.

As well, Bruce learned the French horn and I learned the clarinet. We had private lessons once a week and took our playing seriously, practising on assigned exercises every day. We each led our sections in the high school band.

I also remember writing essays for English class, postponing the work of writing and then putting in hours the night before an essay was due. At university, this pattern became worse. I pulled a few all-nighters. To stay awake, it was the only time in my life I ever drank coffee.

Back then, in the 1960s, if you wanted to become a good athlete, it was accepted that regular training was the way to go. It would have been considered foolish to postpone training until just before an event and then put in long hours. Similarly, it was accepted that if you wanted to become a better instrumentalist, you needed to practise regularly. It was foolish to imagine practising all night before a performance.

Strangely, we never applied this same idea to writing. Leaving an assignment until the night before was common practice. And it was profoundly dysfunctional.

Boice’s studies

Luckily for me, while doing my PhD I started working regularly. On a good day, I would spend up to four hours on my thesis topic. I also started working on a book. Somewhere along the line I began aiming to write 1000 words per day. It was exceedingly hard work and I couldn’t maintain it for week after week.


Robert Boice

In the 1980s, Robert Boice, a psychologist and education researcher, carried out pioneering studies into writing. He observed that most new academics had a hard time meeting the expectations of their job. They typically put most of their energy into teaching and neglected research, and felt highly stressed about their performance. Boice observed a pattern of procrastination and bingeing: the academics would postpone writing until a deadline loomed and then go into an extended period of getting out the words. However, these binges were so painful and exhausting that writing became associated with discomfort, thereby reinforcing the pattern. If writing is traumatic, then procrastination is the order of the day.

Procrastination and bingeing is just what I did in high school and undergraduate study. It’s what most academics did when they were younger, and they never learned a different pattern.

Boice observed that a small number of new academics were more relaxed and more productive. They didn’t binge. Instead, they would work on research or teaching preparation in brief sessions over many days, gradually moving towards a finished product. Boice had the idea that this approach to academic work could be taught, and carried out a number of experiments comparing different approaches to writing. (See his books Professors as Writers and Advice for New Faculty Members.)

In one study, there were three groups of low-productivity academics. Members of one group were instructed to write in their usual way (procrastinating and bingeing). They ended up with an average of 17 pages of new or revised text – in a year. That’s about half an article and far short of what was required to obtain tenure.

Members of the second group were instructed to write daily for short periods. In a year, they produced on average 64 pages of new or revised text. Members of the third group were instructed to write daily for short periods and were closely monitored by Boice. Their average annual total of new or revised text was 157 pages. This was a stunning improvement, though from a low baseline.

It didn’t surprise me too much. It was the difference between athletes who trained just occasionally, when they felt like it, and athletes who trained daily under the guidance of a coach. It was the difference between musicians who practised when they felt like it and musicians who practised daily on exercises assigned by their private teacher.

Gray and beyond

Decades later, in 2008, I came across Tara Gray’s wonderful book Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar. In a brief and engaging style, she took Boice’s approach, extended it and turned it into a twelve-step programme to get away from procrastinating and bingeing. Immediately I tried it out. Instead of taking 90 minutes to write 1000 words, and doing this maybe one week out of three, I aimed at 20 minutes every day, producing perhaps 300 words. It was so easy! And it promised to result in 100,000 words per year, enough for a book or lots of articles.

Gray, adapting advice from Boice, recommends writing from the beginning of a project.  This is different from the usual approach of of reading everything about a topic and only then writing about it. For me, this actually reduces the amount of reading required, because I know far better what I’m looking for. Over the following years, I gradually changed my writing-research practice. Previously, writing an article happened late in a project. Now I write from the beginning, and there is more follow-up work. The follow-up work includes looking up references, doing additional reading, seeking comments on drafts from non-experts and then from experts. It’s much easier and quality is improved.

I introduced this approach to writing to each of my PhD students. Some of them were able to take it up, and for them I could give weekly guidance. I also set up a writing programme for colleagues and PhD students. Through these experiences I learned a lot about what can help researchers to become more productive. An important lesson is that most academics find it extremely difficult to change their writing habits. Many can’t do it at all. Research students seemed better able to change, perhaps because their habits are less entrenched and because they think of themselves as learners.


Tara Gray

With this newfound interest in helping improve research productivity, I looked for other sources of information. There is a lot of advice about how to become a better writer. Our writing programme was based on the work of Boice and Gray, so I looked especially at treatments that would complement their work. Excellent books include Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot and W. Brad Johnson and Carol A. Mullen’s Write to the Top! It was encouraging that most of these authors’ advice was similar to Boice’s and Gray’s. However, there seems to be very little research to back up the advice. Boice’s is still some of the best, with Gray’s research findings a welcome addition showing the value of regular writing.

Jensen

To these books, I now add Joli Jensen’s superb Write No Matter What, and not just because it has a wonderful title. Jensen, a media studies scholar at the University of Tulsa, draws on her own experience and years of effort helping her colleagues to become more productive. As I read her book, time after time I said to myself, “Yes, that’s exactly my experience.”

“Writing productivity research and advice can be summarized in a single sentence: In order to be productive we need frequent, low-stress contact with a writing project we enjoy.” (p. xi)      

Jensen excels in her exposition of the psychological barriers that academics experience when trying to write. She approaches this issue — one pioneered by Boice — through a series of myths, fantasies and fears. An example is the “magnum opus myth,” the idea held by many academics that they have to produce a masterpiece. This is profoundly inhibiting, because trying to write a bit of ordinary text feels so inadequate compared to the shining vision of the magnum opus. The way to avoid this discrepancy is to postpone writing, and keep postponing it.

Another damaging idea is that writing will be easier when other bothersome tasks are cleared out of the way. Jensen calls this the “cleared-desk fantasy.” It’s a fantasy because it’s impossible to finish other tasks, and new ones keep arriving: just check your in-box. Jensen says that writing has to take priority, to be done now, irrespective of other tasks that might seem pressing.

Then there is the myth of the perfect first sentence. Some writers spend ages trying to get the first sentence just right, imagining that perfecting it will unleash their energies for the rest of the article. This again is an illusion that stymies writing.

A colleague once told me how she was stuck writing the last sentence of a book review, with her fingers poised over the keyboard for an hour as she imagined what the author of the book she was reviewing would think. This relates to the perfect first sentence problem but also to Jensen’s “hostile reader fear.” Jensen also addresses the imposter syndrome: the fear that colleagues will discover you’re not a real scholar like them. Then there is the problem of comparing your work with others, usually with others who seem to be more productive. Upwards social comparison is a prescription for unhappiness and, in addition, can inhibit researchers. If others are so much better, why bother?


Joli Jensen

Write No Matter What is filled with valuable advice addressing all aspects of the writing process. Jensen offers three “taming techniques” to enable the time, space and energy for doing the craft work of writing. She has all sorts of practical advice to address problems that can arise with research projects, for example when you lose enthusiasm for a topic, when you lose the thread of what you’re trying to do, when your submissions are rejected (and subject to depressingly negative comments), when your project becomes toxic and needs to be dumped, and when you are working on multiple projects.

She says that writing can actually be harder when there’s more unstructured time to do it, something I’ve observed with many colleagues.

“When heading into a much-desired break, let go of the delusion that you will have unlimited time. Let go of vague intentions to write lots every day, or once you’ve cleared the decks, or once you’ve recovered from the semester. Acknowledge that academic writing is sometimes harder when we expect it to be easier, because we aren’t trying to balance it with teaching and service.” (p. 127)

Jensen is open about her own struggles. Indeed, the stories she tells about her challenges, and those of some of her colleagues, make Write No Matter What engaging and authentic. Her personal story is valuable precisely because she has experienced so many of the problems that other academics face.

With my experience of running a writing programme for a decade and helping numerous colleagues and research students with their writing, it is striking how few are willing to consider a new approach, how few are willing to admit they can learn something new and, for those willing to try, how difficult it is to change habits. Boice’s work has been available since the 1980s yet is not widely known. This would be like a successful sporting coach having superior training techniques and yet being ignored for decades.

To me, this testifies to the power of entrenched myths and practices in the academic system. Write No Matter What is a guide to an academic life that is both easier and more productive, but the barriers to shifting to this sort of life remain strong. In the spirit of moderation advocated by Boice, Gray and Jensen, read their books, but only a few pages per day. And write!

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.

stangor-fig08_012

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.

Roediger+&+Karpicke+(2006)+Graph+of+Testing+Effect

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.