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:

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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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Become Your Own Time ‘Lord’

Become a time 'lord'

Becoming your own time 'lord'

Where did the year go?

If you’ve found yourself uttering this, you’ve recognised that time speeds up as you get older. The main reason is that as we age, each new year becomes  an ever diminishing proportion of our total time on the planet. Between the age of one and two that year represents living half of your life again. Whereas by the age of ten, another year means living a tenth of your life. And on it goes, the incredibly shrinking year. When you were a child and you were told ‘we’re going out in a hour’, you’d think ‘No! Do I have to wait a whole hour?’ Now if someone says you’ll be going out in an hour you’d complain ‘An hour? I’ll never be ready in time’.

So the question is, can we do anything about it? Can we slow time?

Slowing It Down, Spicy Style
In Making Time,  Steve Taylor sets out the psychological laws of time and how we can change our perception of time. One law follows the theme of ‘variety is the spice of life’ or ‘a change is as good as a rest’.  So to slow down time you need to seek out new experiences and new environments. Do you have any secret goes or ambitions that you forego for a few hours in front of the television? Just breaking up your routine can help. Have you ever noticed that the first time you go somewhere no, the journey seems longer than the next time? That’s because the second time you go your brain has mapped out the journey and it’s already started to become familiar and for some of the decision you react automatically. So mix things up a little. Take different routes on familiar journeys, try a new food every week, go shopping at different places, read a type of book or newspaper different to your normal choices, try out some classes and so on. Try some personal experiments doing different things to see if you can slow time. Also, write down some short-term, medium term and long term goals and act on them.

Speeding It Up (but being happier)
Another psychological law of time is something of a paradox. When we are absorbed in something we love doing then time seems to go more quickly. However to balance this, time spent in these states of total absorption is one definition of happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-sent-me-high) calls this state of absorption being in ‘flow’. At the heart of his philosophy is also goal-setting. I remember a conversation with my granddad when I was about 14 years old. I asked him if he had any regrets. He had two: getting a tattoo and not planning for his retirement. I never understood the significance of ‘planning for retirement’ until I read Flow. We can set goals for just about anything, they are promises to ourselves – something to get out of bed, or off the couch  for.

The Alternative
Now there is an alternative ways to slow down time. Just sit there and do nothing just staring blankly into space. Paradoxically, each day will drag interminably but years will seem to fly by.

It’s Your Life So Take It Personally
As a teacher and a coach I subscribe to the philosophy  ‘It’s your life so take it personally‘. So don’t ‘kill time’ and don’t complain about having too much time on your hands or not enough time to do the things you like. Many of us waste time by choosing to do nothing else instead. You don’t have to look back over another year and ask ‘where the hell did the year go and what have I done with it?’ Okay, so you may not become a time ‘lord’ in the sense that you can travel across the universe but by using the psychological laws of time you can take charge of your destiny. So take a deep breath and get started. Time flies – seize the day.

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Self-Help Videos

Going for Your Goals or Going with the Flow

We often talk about ‘going with the flow’ as an indication that we are flexible and relaxed individuals who make the best of what comes our way. And it’s true, ‘going with the flow’ can sometimes be a good thing. ‘Digging our heels in’ and resisting change can be stressful, especially when the change is inevitable.However, taken to its extreme ‘going with the flow’ could mean that rather than ‘taking the plunge’ we let ‘life wash over us’.

‘Flow’ is a concept discussed by Positive Psychology by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced ‘Chick-sent-me-high’). For him, to be ‘in flow’ is a definition of happiness. Flow is that state when we ‘lose ourselves’ in the moment with some activity. We lose sense of time and hours pass and seem like minutes. We are totally captivated by the experience. When we set goals to increase the amount of time we are ‘in flow’, we also increase our personal happiness.

Increasing ‘flow’ and therefore happiness is one of the main themes running through my self-help book Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet. In keeping with the aquatic theme of the book, I offer the GO-FLOW model of goal-setting, which is a development of the GROW model.

  • Goal – clearly and specifically stated (with a time frame)
  • Observation – observing opportunities, reality and choices
  • Feelings – checking your feelings, perceptions, emotions and attitudes to the goal.
  • Limitations or Let-downs – considering the personal and situational limitations for this goal, how you can counter them or work around them, and how you will deal with the let-downs.
  • Options – considering all possible options of achieving the same outcome
  • Will – that is, I will do it.

Bear in mind that goals shouldn’t be too easy as we’ll become bored and lose motivation. Without being totally out of our reach, goals should stretch us without overwhelming us, that way we are more likely to be ‘in flow’. So on to the pitfalls.

Two of the most common stumbling blocks when goal-setting are:

  1. Carrying on regardless when the approach is unlikely to succeed with adjustments
  2. Giving up prematurely.

The key to overcoming both of these is how we use feedback. If we don’t succeed the first time or with only limited success it’s most likely that the goal needs a tweak. With the new information that ‘what you’re doing isn’t working’, review the GO-FLOW process to see if you can diagnose the problem or make an amendment.Think of it as going back and checking for leaks. It sometimes takes a few attempts before we get a watertight action plan.

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Music to Study By

There has been some research into the effects of background music on learning, in particular the Mozart Effect with young children. Essentially babies focus on novelty when learning and the complexity of classical music provides plenty of novelty for their young ears. It boosts mental arousal which means, in theory, they are more attentive generally.

From the research on human performance we learn that faster tempo music helps to boost mental arousal levels when tackling boring tasks, so you could try this with the dull stuff. It doesn’t have to be classical musical, although it should be instrumental as words tend to get in the way. You want to focus on the learning material not the chorus to your favourite rock anthem (such as Alice Cooper’s School’s Out). You could also try putting on your favourite music with the dull stuff. It should help a little with motivation and a little of the music’s magic may even rub off on the dull material. After all, we do tend to learn more effectively when we are in a positive state.

For the more complex material requiring a greater degree of concentration, music with a slower tempo would be more useful, for two main reasons. Firstly, it will help to focus attention and blank out background distractions. Secondly, when trying to get to grips with tougher material to study, which can be stressful, slower music can help to relax us and focus our attention.

There are CD collections of slower classical pieces, such as largos and adagio. Music stores also often have a ‘Meditation’ rack in their classical section which are ideal. My recommendations are confined to European classical music but any type of instrumental music is fine. There’s also a wealth of  new-age type meditation and relaxation music that you could use, if that’s your thing.

Overall, it’s important to remember that music tastes are very personal. So, when choosing music for studying, go for something you like or at least feel neutral about. It’s really all about helping you to focus and improving the leady environment and experience. Forcing yourself to listen to music that irritates you is going prove more of a hindrance than a help. Ideally make yourself short collections that last around 30 minutes and study intensely for this time, then take a short break. See also my study skills tips for further details on this technique of short study periods followed by short breaks.

Recommendations:
Try pieces like: Vivaldi’s Largo from ‘Winter’ from The Four Seasons; Bach’s Air on a G String (no jokes please); Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor for Strings, or  Pachelbel’s Canon in D. You could also try ambient music such as Brian Eno’s Music for Airports.

PS: After reviewing the evidence on subliminal learning tapes for Evidence of Things Not Seen, we concluded that there was no evidence to support the bold assertions made. Any effect, if any, is most likely down to the placebo effect and you’d be better off just making your own compilation tape of favourite stuff, as outlined above. Being in a positive mental attitude is far more beneficial for learning.

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