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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Mental Preparation: Look for What Sparkles

As a coaching psychologist I’m often asked for tips on mental preparation for interviews, exams or presentations. Recently I was asked for help on something that didn’t really fit any of those categories and so I used a technique that I used in coaching, called ‘looking for what sparkles’.

Personal Resourcefulness

At the beginning of the first coaching session I spend a little time finding about about how you like to spend your time. It’s not idle chit-chat. What I’m looking for is a topic where you come alive more. So that might be flower arranging, baking, horse-riding or what ever else ‘floats your boat’. It doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it’s somewhere or doing something where you lose sense of yourself and feel more resourceful. Once you have discovered what sparkles in your life, you can transfer it to another less resourceful area or task.

Learning by Association

We learn by making associations between concepts, ideas, thoughts and events (classical conditioning). Think about Pavlov’s somewhat cruel experiments with dogs at feeding time. The dogs learned to associate the sound of a bell with food and eventually would salivate over the mere sounding of the bell. One of the most evocative aromas in British culture is the small of fish and chips. We can’t help pass a chip shop and have positive memories flooding back of family holidays and so on. We can use this innate ability to make associations to prepare for new challenges.

The Luxury of Learning

Having taken a fair few exams one of the importance of the context of learning was perhaps the most important thing I learned. In academic coaching I work with students who haven’t yet made the connection between attitude and knowledge retention. They resent the time spent revising for exams when they could be out enjoying life’s many luxuries. I suggest that learning is a luxury. Everything above basic survival is a luxury.  We then discuss ways to make studying more enjoyable. Now for me that was getting in some great coffee and biscuits and creating a really comfortable place to learn. Resentment acts as a barrier to learning. If you let go of the resentment and realize that learning is a luxury and will lead to further luxuries, this positive mental attitude makes learning easier. If you remove the block to learning then ironically you don’t have to spend so much time and working so hard to force the new information in. Context is a vital component of learning. The positive attitude and the positive environment become encoding with the information.

Preparing for New Challenges

One of the main techniques I use for exam preparation  is active rehearsal of the material. I don’t just sit down with the books and try to cram the knowledge in. Not only is it more passive it’s usually quite boring. Instead, I give lectures or presentations to an empty room! I pretend I have an audience and with just a handful of flash-cards or a few brief notes, I stand up and talk to my imaginary group for 20 minutes. If I struggle I can look at my notes but I can’t stop until the 20 minutes is up. What this does is put me under a mild amount of stress and forces me ‘think on my feet’. As new connections occur spontaneously they are added to existing information. Understanding deepens and it becomes more memorable.

Another way it which we can prepare mentally, is to learn the material while we are doing something we love doing. So if you’re preparing for an interview and you love baking, then combine the two. If you’ve got a presentation, rehearse it on horseback. Or it may be something as simple as going for a walk in nature. This is a great way to generate new ideas, connections and associations. Research has shown that a humble walk in the park can help to boost self-esteem (and confidence). You achieve the same by combining learning with something that you love doing.

The new information takes on a positive association with what sparkles in your life and so is easier to recall. Then once you have worked everything out in your head, you can take a more formal approach of dressing up as you would for the presentation, interview or exam and use the ‘lecture to an empty room approach’ and talk for 20 minutes.

Finally, when studying or preparing for anything, never underestimate the effects of a relaxation.

The Importance of Relaxation

When we are stressed we switch to survival mode which tends to narrow our range of thoughts and behaviours. When we are relaxed, that range is broadened. The effects of working with what sparkles in your life is that you are more likely to be in a relaxed state and are able to tap into a broader range of emotions and cognitions. In short, you are more resourceful. So never underestimate the benefits of taking two minutes out of your busy schedule to take a few, long, slow deep breaths. It will give you a physical, emotional and mental boost.

So there you have it. Mental preparation is about exploiting a few key, innate learning abilities. Relax, adopt a positive mental attitude and use the associations of what sparkles in your life to create positive context for new learning.

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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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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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