How I came to write a study skills book problem-page style

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I returned to education pre-Internet. Yes! That long ago! I’d always battled with the ‘no-pain-no-gain’ approach to learning and revising for exams. As I was about to study psychology, I figured that psychology had to have tips on studying itself. I wasn’t aware of any study skills books and had to make do with an Introductory textbook. Sure enough, I found a few ideas on attitudes, attention span, the context of learning, and how to take a more holistic approach to studying. This modest find inspired me to look for more hints and to apply what I found.  And, I continued to do this throughout my time as a student and then as a lecturer. Over the years I gained and honed key principles on how to learn how to learn – and how to work smarter not harder.

As a psychology lecturer, I quickly realised that no one processes information as efficiently when stressed. And, when faced with a daunting reading list, the last thing we need is a study-skills book ‘thick enough to stun an ox’! We need the signposts, the quick fixes, and the short-cuts. The challenge in writing in a book on study skills is as much as what you leave out as what you put in. A book needs get across the framework of understanding without giving exhaustive tips, techniques and examples. It needs to cut-to-the-chase. The Internet is a wonderful thing, but often we start out looking for an answer and end up looking at totally irrelevant stuff with no idea how we got there. Sometimes we need to contain and focus our curiosity.

gary_wood_outro_pic_letters copy_tilt_border copyLetters to a New Student ( Buy: Amazon UK /  Buy: Amazon USA ) is a brief book and you the reader choose how to read it. It can be read from cover-to-cover or as a troubleshooting guide. It also mimics this ‘stream of consciousness’ style of the Internet so you can follow your own path or hop around at random. The also book taps into my experience as agony uncle and advice columnist. It’s based on a series of short, informal, problem page letters. This idea came about from reading Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. There’s also a bit of ‘dice-living’, from Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man thrown in to create a similar experience as the old Dungeons and Dragons books. You can read the letters in any order. You can even use dice! You’ll still get the same blueprint to make the information stick with less effort. The book offers an easy-to-use ‘survive and thrive’ guide of how to work with human psychology rather than fight it.

There’s also a strong theme of getting support and managing relations, and one aim is to get students and parents on the same page. I don’t know of any other study skills book aimed at parents too. The book also offers great principles to live by, so can be enjoyed by lifelong learners and self-help readers.

Letters to a New Student hasn’t taken nearly as long to write it as it has to live it. It’s been honed over 20 years. It’s the book I wished I’d had when I started out.

May it give you a shortcut to success.

Gary Wood

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Based on material from the book Letters to a New Student. Tips to Study Smarter from a Psychologist by Gary Wood. Published by Routledge. Buy: Amazon UK /  Buy: Amazon USA 

To find out more about one-to-one-coaching with Gary Wood, get in touch using the form below:

Solution Focused Life Coaching with Chartered Psychologist and Author Dr Gary Wood

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Mental Fatigue, Well Being and Confidence

How we process information has an impact on confidence and self-esteem

In my confidence building workshops and coaching I take a holistic approach. It’s not just about tips and tricks to appear confident. It’s about working from the inside-out too. It’s also about using basic human psychology to unlock inherent abilities.

One of the most visited posts on this blog is aimed at mental fatigue when studying. However the basic message doesn’t just apply to students. Feeling tired mentally will have an impact on how we all process information. This has a knock on effect in terms of confidence and self-esteem. The main ingredients for dealing with mental fatigue are: keep hydrated, exercise, breathing exercises, check your posture, eat healthily and build variety (and novelty) into your life and work schedule.

We’re All Water – Hydration and Mental Fatigue

Professional athletes know the importance of staying hydrated. It’s not just that we need water on a physical level but also at a psychological level. Even if we are dehydrated by a few percent this can have a negative impact on our ability to process information. So why make things more difficult when a humble glass of water can have a positive impact on our cognitive processing abilities? However, don’t over do it. A glass of water on your desk and a few sips might make all the difference. It’s a question of remaining hydrated not drowning in the stuff!

Health body, healthy mind

Tests on various brain training activities have found that the best way to boost memory is to spend just twenty minutes on a running machine rather than hours on a brain training machine. The mind needs time to recuperate and the increase in oxygen uptake is more effective than solving puzzles. Just a break away from your desk and go for a walk will have a positive impact. Perhaps a few sit-ups or squats in your breaks from study. Mental fatigue often occurs because we have created an imbalance by overdoing the mental activity. Taking a holistic approach helps to redress the balance. It’ll also help you get into better shape.

Take a deep breath and beat mental fatigue

Again top athletes know the value of breathing exercises. When stressed we breathe more shallowly. When relaxed we breathe more deeply. By practicing breathing exercises we take control of our stress response. When we are in a relaxed state we take ourselves out of survival mode. Being relaxed improves our ability to absorb information. By taking control of our breathing, our pattern-seeking brain assumes we are more relaxed too.

Check your posture – boost your attention

Having good posture is associated with confidence and other positive mental states. We we feel ‘down in the dumps’ we slump down in our chair. When something interests us we sit up and take notice! So check you posture for signs of tension. Are you carrying the proverbial weight of the world on your shoulders. Having a break, taking a deep breath, stretching and doing a bit of physical exercise can improve your posture. It will give you a confidence boost and once again send positive signals to the brain. The brain works with congruence and so adds to your positive state.

Food and mood – eat healthily and think healthily

When stressed we often reach for the junk food – the comfort food. This might temporarily give you an emotional boost. However it is more likely to create spikes in your blood sugar followed by the lows. During the lows you may be tempted to hit a bit more junk food. However this creates a vicious cycle. Instead, if you practice all of the things already discussed you are much more likely to boost your cognitive processing. The temptation, when facing a tough deadline, is to go for a quick fix. However it’s a false economy. Quick fixes actually slow us down in the long run.

It’s not just a cliché, variety really is the spice of life

In information terms, variety really is the spice of life and it’s also true that a change is as good as a rest. Fixating on one activity for too long can tire us out mentally. It’s as if we have little power sources attached to each of our senses. Students most commonly pick a strategy for exam revision and stick to it. All this achieves is that it depletes one of the power sources and so mental fatigue occurs. It becomes more of a struggle to retain information. The temptation is to embrace the ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy and just press on with more of the same. You won’t break through a mental fatigue barrier. It will only make matters worse. So what do you do?

Instead, I advise students to switch tasks. This taps into different power sources and gives the depleted sources a change to recharge. Use mind maps, draw diagrams, use picture based cue cards. In short anything to create variety and interest in the task. Surprisingly human attention span is only about 20 minutes at full capacity. After that our ability to absorb information reduces quite dramatically. So sitting there for hours without a break is counterproductive. The answer is to take a break or switch task, or better still incorporate both. When I’m studying or writing, I usually do so in intensive 30 minute blocks with short breaks in between.  I also have a proper lunch away from my desk and make sure I go out for a walk in the fresh air.

Positive mental attitude and fatigue

Things are more tiring if we are met with resistance and this can be our own mental resistance. If we resent doing something it adds to the burden. It’s important to be philosophical. We can’t like everything we have to do in life but if we look carefully enough we will find at least something to like about it. It can be as simple as recognizing our own personal resilience and resolve in tackling a task we don’t like!

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodAll of these points taken together create a powerful mental fatigue prevention programme. The reason for the efficacy of these tips is that they work with human psychology rather than work against it thus building confidence in your own inherent abilities.

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Studying, Highlighter Pens, Defacing Books and Learning

Scribbling on Books

Picture: Highlighting Books is NOT an active learning strategy

Highlighting books is NOT an active learning strategy

One of my pet hates is seeing books covered in fluorescent highlighter pen. On one occasion I lent a student a pristine, personal copy of a book that was in high demand in the library. My reward? It came back defaced in highlighter pen!  I was not pleased and the student didn’t seem to see it as a problem. I recently found out that one of my favourite writers, Oscar Wilde, would routinely scribble in the margins of his personal books. For some people it’s part of an active learning process. Hopefully, most would agree that it’s unacceptable to daub library books and other people’s books with your own personal thoughts (and ‘pretty’ colours). However, is the practice of daubing a book with highlighter pen a good learning technique?

Annotating Books: A Good Learning Technique?

As much as I disapprove of both, there is a fundamental difference in terms of learning between writing notes on books and daubing fluorescent highlighter pen on books. The Wildean approach is all about engaging with the material at a deeper level. Highlighting bits of a book is surface response ‘Ooh that looks as if it might be interesting’. Recognizing that something might be useful is at much shallower level than adding your own thoughts about the material.

Deep versus Shallow Learning

Students often engage in shallow learning techniques such as repeatedly (but passively) reading through notes (and using highlighter pens). Another favourite is recording lectures. There’s also photocopying. All of them require some form of action and some a great deal of effort. The problem is that they create the illusion of learning rather than actually learning. It’s important to engage with the material on a deeper level. Reader through notes only aids recognition not recall. You recognize the material when you see it which is not much use in an exam. You need to be able to recall it, spontaneously. Highlight falls into the same category, for the reasons described above. Recording lectures allows you to put in less effort at processing the information during the lecture. Often people don’t actually listen to their recordings or if they do, it’s only passively. Unless you have a sensory impairment you would be much better off paying attention in lectures and focus on trying to get the gist of the material. It’s more helpful to write down questions that occur during the lectures. These questions will help to guide and shape your reading after the lecture. The lecture is the starting point of your learning, not the be-all-and-end-all!

Students seem to have an almost passionate affair with the photocopier and copy much more material than copyright laws allow and much more than they can usually read. There’s no point in copying material if you are not going to read it. The knowledge will not be transmitted by a form of osmosis! It’s probably a much better strategy to spend time in the library, read the passage and make your own notes, not on the book, in your note pad! Of course some universities wantonly profiteer from photocopying and arguably turn a blind eye to breaches of copyright law (despite the notices). Surely you have noticed how much more expensive it is to photocopy on campus than at a local shop? You are just topping up your fees and you’re not necessarily learning. Owning a pile of paper is not the same as knowledge.

A Better Strategy for Learning

If you spend time writing stuff in your notepad you already engage more cognitive processes. If you read a passage in a book don’t just copy it out. Pause, think about it and write it down in your own words. The idea is that you condense the material rather than faithfully reproduce it.

If you photocopy material then go though it and make your own notes in the margins. Add some of your own thoughts. Make connections to other areas of knowledge. Write down some questions and then research them.

If you record your lectures (and assuming you have permission from lecturers to make recordings) then review the material afterwards. Make a written summary of the recording. You don’t need a word by word account. Personally, I wouldn’t bother recording on a routine basis. It encourages laziness. Better to engage fully at the time.

Being an Active Learning and Building Confidence

Active learning is much more likely to lead to understanding than is the passive, daub-on-it-record-it-photocopy-it approach. Passive learning is also very boring.  Just putting in time is not studying. Just being there is not enough! You have to participate more fully in the learning experience. The extra effort in actively engaging with learning will save you time in the end and help you to achieve better grades. Active learning is also more likely to build confidence in your abilities as you understand what you are learning and are able to recall it more readily and make connections.

So please stop daubing over your books and other people’s books. If you want to colour something in, then buy a colouring book.

Check out these posts on study skills:

Feedback Improves Performance Irrespective of Age

Recent research into learning supports an established principle that  task-related feedback can significantly improve performance. More importantly it goes some way to challenge the negative stereotype that age-related decline is inevitable. Feedback can improve performance irrespective of age.

Published in Psychology and Aging , investigators at Rice University (Houston, Texas) found that taking tests (and getting feedback) is more beneficial for learning than just studying information or simply re-reading it. The benefits were observed regardless of age, level of intelligence or whether or not people attend college. Jessica Logan, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Rice, said the findings show that training can help older workers obtain and maintain job-related information, adding the study also revealed” that employees regardless of age can greatly benefit from testing activities as a way to sharpen their on-the-job skills”.

The research emphasizes that learning is an active process rather than a passive absorption of knowledge. In my work providing academic coaching, I suggest techniques that increase interest and engagement with learning materials rather than passively reading through notes.

The research also has important implications for older people no longer in work too. Getting involved in new learning and getting feedback can have important implications for cognitive functioning. Learning is a lifelong process. Learning new skills increase confidence and esteem at any age.

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7 Item Study Skills Survival Pack

I’ve gathered my student-focused study skills based post into one convenient place. They cover most things from lectures, exams and revision as well as essay writing. As a psychology student,I have used these techniques myself and they have served me well. As a psychology lecturer, I’ve taught them to countless students too. Many of the principles are informed by evidence-based psychology, teaching theory and learning practice. They also form the basis of academic coaching I offer to students (see link below).

  1. A Letter to New Students – How to Study (for Success)
  2. Writing Good Essays: First Impressions Count (. . . and gain you marks)
  3. Writing Good Essays: First Impressions Count (. . . and gain you marks) – Part Two
  4. Writing a Critical Essay Does Not Mean “Rip to Shreds” Armed only with an Introductory Textbook
  5. Preventing Mental Fatigue – Good Study Habits
  6. Study Skills Top Tips
  7. Music to Study By

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Students: Focus on understanding instead of data collection

Solution Focused Life Coaching with Dr Gary Wood (Birmingham, Edinburgh, Telephone, Skype)

Dear New Student,

You are about to embark on an exciting journey so I thought I’d offer a few pointers that have served me very well in my learning journey so far. Returning to education as a mature student, I took an evening class in psychology. I quickly realised that psychology had to have insights about the most effective ways that humans learned. So the first thing I did was to scour the psychology books. I figured I would get psychology working for me right from the start. Working with our human abilities and capacities is a way of working smarter but not necessarily harder. Recently, I overheard two new students discussing future plans on the bus recently including how they intended to approach studying, particularly lectures. Both were very keen on getting digital recorders with voice recognition software. Both confessed to be “not very good at taking notes”. So, that is…

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Writing a Critical Essay Does Not Mean “Rip to Shreds” Armed only with an Introductory Textbook

For many people the words ‘critical’ and ‘criticism’ have negative connotations. Of course it’s not helped by the impression many people have of professional critics who spend their lives reviewing the accomplishments of others. Tales are told of critics who can ‘make or break’ plays or restaurants who can with the flick of a pen and a few well chosen acid-tongued ‘put downs’. It’s therefore perhaps not surprising that when students are faced with the prospect of writing their first critical essays that they think they have to don a black cape and mask and go MwaahhHHHAHAHAHAHA a lot.

Critical essays should offer balance. They are not  opportunites for students to be ‘smart arses’ armed only with the knowledge on an introductory textbook. Many students fall into this trap. The general rule is: the more you’ve read the more critical you can be. If you try to dazzle with insights and wit based on a chapter in a textbook, it simply comes across as immature academic development, laziness and arrogance.

Often students rely too heavily on introductory texts because it is easy. It’s important to recognise that they serve the function only to introduce you to a topic, not become the fount of all of your knowledge. The publishing process in academia is notoriously slow. With the review process, it may take two years to get research into a journal. Then the textbook authors get their hands on it and after the editing and publishing process the information finds its way to you. By that time it is already out of date. Remember that textbook authors are often generalists rather than specialist researchers. So, once the textbook has set the scene and context, you should head for the journals.

Another main problem is that students are not necessarily taught how to write critical essays and so fall back on erroneous assumptions of what it means to be critical. This is more often than not ‘rip it to shreds’. Rarely, if ever, is this a wise approach. So what it?

Start by imagining that you are writing the essay of an intelligent fifteen year old. If you’re ask to ‘critically analysis’, don’t launch in with ‘theory X is a load of old rubbish and Dr X has a drink problem and was molested by gibbons when he was a child”. Instead begin by giving the reader a neutral account of the theories in question. Once you have established that, you can give an account of the pros (positives) of the theories, and then the cons (negatives). Obviously, reading around a topic will help to develop your critical skills as you  encounter different perspectives. You are hardly likely to get this level of detail in a textbook.

This approach will communicate to your tutor that you are developing good academic skills. Yes it’s more work, but you aren’t studying to regurgitate what you already know or to demonstrate that you can get by for three of four years paraphrasing one book. Unfortunately some students do try this approach. Learning is about pushing the boundaries of what you know, and hopefully you may come up with critical analyses that is not in the textbooks.

Library cards to the ready and step away from that introductory textbook!

You can also find other insights of study skills and essay writing in my other posts:

Writing Good Essays: First Impressions Count (. . . and gain you marks) – Part Two

In order to highlight the importance of giving yourself time between finishing and essay an handing it in, I like to offer this second post on Writing Good Essays: First Impressions Count. I’d like to say it was intentional but that wouldn’t be strictly true, otherwise known as an ‘out-and-out-lie’. The truth is, I published my previous post without giving myself any thinking time and in so doing I missed a couple of points.

Missed Point Number One: Give yourself thinking time between finishing the essay and handing it in. That way you won’t miss important points such as this one. This all comes down to planning. Aim to finish your essay 24 to 48 hours before the deadline. That way you’ll give yourself time to have a break from it before giving the essay the final polish. You are also less likely to miss important points.

Missed Point Number Two: Spell check and proof read your essay. The two are not the same. The computerized spell check will pick up the obvious errors, including a few grammar problems too. However, it is not a substitute for proper proof reading. I find it useful to use the old-fashioned method and actually printing a copy of the essay. On screen editing is fine, but we often associate computers with speed and have a tendency to skim read rather than really looking at the essay in detail. You will be surprised at how many mistakes you will find. If you can get someone else to read through your essay they will often pick up things you have missed. Basically, you are so tied to the material that you will tend to see what you want to see. Going back to point one, giving yourself time between finishing and handing in really helps with proof reading. Another good technique is to read the essay out loud. If it sounds clumsy or stilted then it will read clumsy and stilted to the person marking it. A common mistake students make is that they try to use big words. The effect is that sounds like badly written dialogue in a costume drama. You should be aiming at the level of an intelligent 15 year old reader, not trying to sound like a mad professor in a comedy sketch.

These two additional points help to create a good impression of diligence. Why lose marks ?

For the other five points, see the previous post: Writing Good Essays: First Impressions Count (. . . and gain you marks)For other study skills related posts see: Study Skills on this Site

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Writing Good Essays: First Impressions Count (. . . and gain you marks)

First impressions count. So, it’s important when writing essays not to lose marks by not creating a good first impression. If an essay ‘looks the part’, it has a chance of being marked more favourably than one that looks like it was churned out the night before the deadline. Now, this is not a cue to rush out and buy expensive folders or ribbons or write on papyrus. Of course, it helps if the essay doesn’t look as if it has been wrestled from a toddler or used as a coaster. However, the most important thing is that it looks as if it might be a good essay by a diligent student. Here are five pointers that will gain you extra marks by just playing by the rules:

(i) Follow the submission guidelines and be conservative. If the guidelines ask for 12 point font on one side of the paper and 1.5 line spacing, then don’t submit something that can only be read with a magnifying glass. Different universities/colleges/departments/tutors have different rules about things like sub-headings. Obey them. The paper should always be white, not cream or powder blue or pink or monogrammed or ‘wibbley-edged’. Just basic paper, preferably recycled so you can do your bit for the planet. Although you won’t be marked down for  not being ‘green’. . . you may well be if the paper is the colour of lark’s phlegm. As your academic career advances,  if you submit a paper for publication in a journal, there will be submission guidelines. If you don’t follow the rules you won’t even be considered, so get into the good practice now.

(ii) Learn to use the appropriate referencing system. In psychology it’s usually the Harvard (author-date) system. You shouldn’t guess or make-up your own version. You learn the correct referencing format including how to to cite references in the text. Even with references included, you still have to be able to read the essay out loud. You don’t abandon the standard rules of punctuation. Learning the referencing system from the start will save you lots of lost marks on each essay. It also communicates to the essay marker, that you are a diligent student. This may mean that your essay is looked upon more favourably than one which looks like it was referenced by someone who doesn’t give a damn.

(iii) Write a good introduction. You will note that I didn’t begin this piece with ‘In this blog post I will outline how to pick up extra points on essays’. That would have been exceedingly dull. Do a little work to set the scene. It only takes about 50 words to set the context for the essay. It’s standard for all journalists of newspaper and magazine articles. Now you don’t have to be sensational, but you do have to evoke interest. Imagine your essay is found by someone who has to sleep on a park bench. Those first 50 words might mean that they take the time to read your essay to take their mind off the cold. If it starts ‘In this essay I will discuss’. . . chances are it will go straight up the vest or down the pants for insulation.

Your introduction, where possible, should contain the essay question paraphrased, so that anyone reading the essay will know exactly what the question is, without having to look at the question. It will also help you to stick to the point. Finally, your introduction should contain a brief statement of the path your essay will take – a very brief summary of what to expect. All of this makes your essay easier for the reader (marker) to process and it looks more professional. This good impression may mean that the marker may be a little more forgiving.

(iv) Follow the simple three point- rule. In your essay, (i)Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em (Introduction); (ii) Tell ’em (Main Body); (iii) Tell ’em what you’ve told ’em (Conclusion). The introduction as we have seen, sets the scene. In the main body you present your evidence. In the conclusion you briefly summarise the material you have already introduced and offer a conclusion. Think of it like a court case. Opening arguments, evidence then closing arguments.

(v) Write a good conclusion. This follows pretty much the same pattern as the Introduction. You briefly summarise the main themes in the main body. Again you offer a paraphrased version of the question and you offer a conclusion based on the evidence introduced in the main body. Now’s not the time to sneak in a few tasty morsels than you saved for the grand finale. If it’s evidence, it goes in the main body. Again think of a court case. You don’t start calling your star witness during your closing arguments.

Of course, you still have to write a good main body and support all of your points with up-to-date references from a range of sources. However, the five pointers above will ensure that the main body is received in a more positive light. To ignore these pointers is to needlessly throw marks away. Simply presenting your essay in a more professional and appropriate way could take your mark up into the next grade band. The sooner you present yourself as a serious or diligent student, however far from the truth that may be, the sooner you will stop losing valuable marks.

Contact info@drgarywood.co.uk to discuss one-to-one academic coaching for study skills, essay writing and  exam techniques

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Preventing Mental Fatigue – Good Study Habits

drgarywood_blog_subscribe copyAny one who has ever studied hard knows how tiring it can be. Many consider studying to be a boring but “necessary evil”. However, boredom don’t have to come with the territory. The old adage that  “variety is the spice of life” definitely applies to study life. Furthermore, reducing the boredom can also reduce the mental fatigue.

We take in information through out five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell), but mainly through sight, hearing and touch. If we think of each of these senses as having separate energy sources to run them, it helps to explain why we suffer mental fatigue. These energy sources are rechargeable but we can drain them faster if we over use one of them. So boredom, is really a warning signal that we need to do something different. The best way to avoid mental fatigue is to switch activities regularly so that the focus is not on just one sense for long periods of time. So read through your notes, condense notes, use mind maps or spider diagrams, asking and answering questions and so on.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodThe same principle applies to the business world and everyday life. Creating variety in tasks and making sure you involve more of your senses will help prevent mental fatigue. Finally, never underestimate the power of a glass of water. Keeping hydrated can help maintain optimal cognitive functioning and boost confidence.

If you found this post useful you may also like: Mental Fatigue, Well Being and Confidence. For other study related posts see the following links and please do consider using the buttons below to like this post and share with others.

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