Are Zero-Hours Contracts Bad for Your Health?

Pic: Social Psychologist Dr Gary Wood on BBC's Inside-OutFor the BBC Inside-Out  (08/2/2016) programme I was asked this question: are zero-hours contracts bad for our health?  In this blog post I expand on the themes in the programme, offer some examples of pertinent psychological theories, suggestions as to what appropriate research might look like, and offer some links for further information on zero-hours contracts.

The Benefit of Flexibility?

Having worked in a zero-hours contract research job as a student, I valued the flexibility. It operated as a semi-formal arrangement where I had to phone in each week to see what hours I could get. It varied from week to week and often we were at the mercy of a capricious supervisor. For me, it wasn’t so bad. I just had to grin and bear it and grovel a little and in those days students had grants too. I wasn’t going to starve if I couldn’t get as many hours as I needed in one particular week. The work was repetitive and boring and the working conditions wouldn’t exactly meet today’s health and safety guidelines, but It was flexible and many of the people there were really good fun to be around. In many ways it was ideal for my circumstances at the time but for many people it was there many source of income.

The Benefits of Zero-Hours Contracts to Employers

Today’s zero-hours contracts are a very different arrangment. I got paid for the hours I worked and only had to be on-site for those hours. In the modern day versions, employees have had to be on-site and only paid for the hours they are required to work. This means they could spend all day at the work-place and may not earn a penny. Some ’employers’ even though they asserted no liability to provide work still demanded exclusivity clauses that prevented people from seeking gainful employment at other jobs. It’s easy to see how this arrangement benefits the ’employer’ but what are the likely impacts on the employee?

The Psychological Impact of Zero-Hours Contracts

When asked the question ‘are zero-hours contracts bad for our health?’, a number of psychological concepts and theories came to mind:

  • Reactions to stress
  • Martin Seligman and ‘learned helplessness’ (being able to exercise control)
  • Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of needs (survival and security needs)
  • Barbara Frederickson and the concept of ‘broaden and build’.

There’s a whole body of evidence that demonstrates the links between stress and ill health, including depression and a suppression of the immune system. This happens when stress becomes a chronic (i.e. long-term) condition. If we accept the argument that one of the reasons people go to work is to provide for basic survival needs and security, it’s not difficult to see the detrimental impact of not being able to predict income (and working hours) from one week to the next.  Not being able to effect changes in our circumstances can lead to ‘learned helplessness’, which in turn may lead to depression. To be able to thrive rather than merely survive, we need to be able to build on other emotions and feelings, other than fear. It’s difficult to think aspiration when you can’t even meet basic needs.

Evidence of the Mental Health Impacts of Zero-Hours Contracts

Exploring the Parliament.uk website someone proposed the question (No 19559, December 2015): To ask the Secretary of State for Health, if he will make an assessment of the effects of zero-hour and uncertain hour contracts on the mental health of people holding such contracts.

The reply, from Alistair Burt MP (Department of Health) was short and to the point:

The Department has no plans to make any such assessment. Research undertaken by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that, compared to the average employee, zero hours contract workers are just as satisfied with their job (65% versus 63%) and happier with their work-life balance (62% versus 58%).

The research was carried out in 2013. However, the imposition of zero-hours contracts is becoming a increasing trend. It is therefore important to continually monitor the situation. Research findings in 2013 are only  remain valid if the situation remains static. Alistair Burt’s answer focuses on the people who are happy with zero-hours contacts, mainly because they value the flexibility. But what of the people who do not chose to work in this way but are forced into it by necessity?

Research also conducted in 2013 by the Resolution Foundation reaches the opposite conclusion:

[I]t is clear that for the majority of those employed on zero-hours contracts this freedom and choice are more apparent than real. For those individuals who require a minimum number of working hours per week to ensure their family is financially secure or those who, confronting severe power imbalances in the workplace, fear that turning down hours as and when offered will result in future work being withdrawn, life on a zero-hours contract is one of almost permanent uncertainty. For those who have had their hours zeroed down on the basis of a perceived unwillingness to work the hours their employer requires or following the lodging of a workplace complaint, this uncertainty can be coupled with the anxiety that comes from exploitation.

What Further Research Do We Need?

The key factor is whether people choose zero-hours contracts or have these contracts forced upon them. When chosen it is most likely that the flexibility the contracts supports a chosen life style. This is in stark contrast to people who have no choice to accept the contracts in order to survive. Clearly the impacts n mental health are going to be different for each of these cohorts. This is what we should be comparing in research. It’s spurious if not down right dishonest to compare ALL people on zero-hours contracts with ALL people in secure employment.

Of course, not everyone in secure employment is happy with their job. Some people might like to be in a better job. Others might be unhappy because their job does offer the flexibility to support their lifestyle. Also, it wouldn’t be surprising to find people who’d prefer not to work.

So ideally, we’d to consider four groups on a range of mental-health measures:

(i) Zero-hours contacts – satisfied with terms and conditions (by choice);  (ii) zero-hours contracts – dissatisfied with terms and conditions (or not by choice) ; (iii) Secure contracts – satisfied with terms and conditions, and (iv) Secure contracts – dissatisfied with terms and conditions.

This would be the simplest model and would not just rely on comparing descriptive statistics, such as percentages. Part of my job involves research design and analysis. Often many people’s idea of research is just comparing percentages. Sadly, it’s what I’m most often asked to do. However this should be only the first phase. The stage that gives us answers is the inferential phase. This is where we can meaningfully talk about statistical significances between the different groups. The very basic research design above should be the absolute minimum. Merely comparing percentages barely qualifies as statistical foreplay.

Conclusion: Are Zero-Hours Contracts Bad for Your Health?

We don’t currently have the research data to answer this question. We can only infer from anecdotal evidence and from what we already know about human psychology. Although we shouldn’t equate common sense with a scientific approach, what seems most likely is that conditions that restrict an individual’s ability to take control over basic survival and security needs is likely to have a detrimental psychological impact.

Considering the political impact, some have argued that zero-hours contracts take us backwards to the working practices in a bygone age. Here’s a summary by Professor Roger Seifert – University of Wolverhampton Business School (for full article see link below):

In the Victorian era there were sweatshops, child labour, few worker rights, and casual employment with no guaranteed income. We view this with horror as a sign of gross inequality, ruthless exploitation, and as bad times in which the rich and powerful were able to maintain their idle privilege through laws, customs, and a deeply religious conservatism where everyone was born into and knew their place.

Scratch the surface of our modern world and we can find signs that progress has not been as spectacular as we like to believe.

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If you enjoyed this post and/or found it useful then please use the ‘like’ and share ‘buttons’. Your comments are also welcome.  

If you are concerned  about or affected by the impact of zero-hours contracts, here are some useful links:

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About Gary Wood

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodDr Gary Wood is a chartered psychologist, life coach and broadcaster specializing in applied social psychology, personal development and life coaching. He is the author of Unlock Your Confidence: Find the Keys to Lasting Change Through The Confidence-Karma Method (Buy: Amazon UK  /  Buy: Amazon USA ) Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his coaching and training practice and research consultancy.

End of Year Review: Top 10 Psychology, Coaching and Confidence Blog Posts for 2015

Ask about life coaching with Dr Gary WoodThe top ten most visited psychology, coaching and confidence posts of 2015 for this blog are a mixture of newer posts and a few classics. Many of the posts are based excerpts from my books on tools and techniques I use in my coaching practice.

  1. Body Language Myth: The 7% – 38% – 55% Rule (2009)
  2. What Does “Don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim out to meet it.” Mean? (2011)
  3. Psychological Hardiness, the Confidence to Embrace Change, and Coaching (2012 
  4. Sex and Gender are NOT the Same Thing! All Gender is a Drag! (2009)
  5. Tips for Handling Compliments and Praise ( – giving, receiving and why it’s important) (2014)
  6. Preventing Mental Fatigue – Good Study Habits (2012)
  7. Tips for Making Small Talk, Confidently: Why do it and how to do it (2014)
  8. Treating Low Self Confidence and Low Self Esteem as ‘Self Prejudice’ (2013)
  9. Why You Shouldn’t Ask Why? And What Open Questions You Should Use Instead (2014)
  10. Tips for Making Small Talk, Confidently: Why do it and how to do it (2014)

Thank you for taking the time to check out my blog. If you liked the posts on this blog, please use the buttons below to share with your friends, colleagues and readers and if you have a suggestion for a blog post topic, please get in touch using the form below:

 About Gary Wood

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodDr Gary Wood is a chartered psychologist, life coach and broadcaster specializing in applied social psychology, personal development and life coaching. He is the author of Unlock Your Confidence: Find the Keys to Lasting Change Through The Confidence-Karma Method (Buy: Amazon UK  /  Buy: Amazon USA ) Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his coaching and training practice and research consultancy.

 

 

Is Stand-Up Comedy a Science?

Is Stand-Up Comedy a Science? No, that’s not a joke. Watching confident, established comedians ‘trying out new material’ reveals the use of scientific methods. This approach is also taught on stand-up comedy courses. In this post I’ll outline some key issues in science, how comedians adopt these principles to hone their craft and how this approach can be applied to all areas of personal and professional development.

Science is all about probabilities not absolutes

One of the biggest misconceptions about science is that it deals in absolutes. It doesn’t. Scientific method is all about probability. Scientists don’t prove anything but simply demonstrate, statistically, that there’s a slim possibility that their results occurred due to chance. Scientists design experiments to control for noise, those extraneous variables that may confound results. The aim is to demonstrate a strong probability that there is a cause and effect between variables (by eliminating chance). For the stand-up comedian, the aim is to demonstrate that a joke causes laughter.

Objectivity versus subjectivity in science and comedy

It’s often stated that science is all about objectivity. In my own research work (as a social psychologist) I challenge this notion. I maintain that science is about bounded subjectivity. If you claim to be objective you are still taking a stance. This is not objectivity. The only true form of objectivity is indifference. Scientists as human beings will have a vested interested in the outcome of their research. There is a whole body of research in psychology to demonstrate experimenter effects. Sometimes scientists are blinded by their own unconscious biases and see the results they want to see. The idea of ‘bounded subjectivity’ is a useful concept for stand-up comics. It’s ludicrous to suggest that comedians don’t care about the results of their efforts. However, it’s helpful to control for unconscious bias. This is achieved by trying jokes out in front of different audiences, at different times and in different places.

The science of stand-up comedy

Watching professional (and gifted amateur) stand-up comedians emphasizes the value of taking a detached, scientific approach. A stand-up comedian begins by writing some material (jokes) and then tests them out in front of an audience. It begins with what makes the comedian laugh (subjectivity) and then the hypothesis that ‘this stuff will make other people laugh’. Testing the material yields results: people laugh or they don’t. People may laugh in unexpected places. This feedback is useful in refining comedy hypotheses. Of course it’s important to replicate the experiment and test the material out on a number of samples and in different contexts (bounded subjectivity). In research terms this is similar to controlling for confounding variables. With this approach, it’s the smallest of changes that can make a joke work on a more consistent basis. I have seen comedians who repeated try out a joke (that they particularly like) without a change and without a laugh, over and over again. If they took the time to use the feedback they might see where to make the adjustment.

The art of not taking it personally

I’ve heard my scientist colleagues complain that they got bad results, which emphasizes the lack of objectivity. Science is often built on a determination to get the ‘right’ results. ‘Mistakes’ in science can be expensive. I’ve also seen comedian friends allow a ‘bad gig’ to send them into a ‘depression’ for days. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard for comedians is The Eleven O’Clock Rule by British stand-up comedian, Sarah Millican. Put simply, after a gig, you have up until eleven o’clock the next day, irrespective of whether it’s a ‘disaster’ or a ‘triumph’. You can either whine or gloat until then. After that, you move on.

One comedian who also adopts a scientific approach is Tom Stade. I was lucky enough to attend a new material night and Mr Stade turned up as a special guest to try out new material. He takes to the stage and switches on a digital recorder, places it on a stool and then he’s off. After ‘bringing the house down’, he turns, switches off the recorder and off he goes. I saw him perform the same material in a more polished form a few months later and get even more laughs. Many comedians would have been overjoyed with the first attempt. I suspect there were a few recordings between the first and subsequent version. Tom Stade is economical with words. He doesn’t waste them. Pauses and gestures and tone all wring laughter from the material. Another more extreme example of a scientific approach is Emo Philips where not a single word is wasted. His idiot-savant like manner disguises the absolute precision.

Some comedian friends adopt  a scientific approach and record everything, as you are advised to do on comedy courses. Others ignore the advice and keep delivering the same punch lines in the same way and come off stage bemused and frustrated when they don’t get the laughs they think it deserves. One comedy friend set himself the goal of coming up with a great five minutes of material and continually honed this material. His persistence paid off as he persistently wins gong shows up and down the country. I’ve seen others, randomly throwing together sets and complaining when it doesn’t ‘go down a storm.

The scientific approach just doesn’t have to apply to the material but also about other aspects of the performance, such as what needs to happen for me to have fun at the gig, relax and create rapport with the audience? The science shouldn’t take the heart out of it, just help to encourage continuous development and help to create a bit of distance, a buffer zone between the disciple and the discipline, the art and the artist.

Extending the scientific approach to personal and professional development

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodI went on stand-up comedy course, in part, as research on my book Unlock your Confidence. The same approach works for all goals in any area of personal and professional development. Use personal experiments to ‘try things on for size’ with the threat of failure. It’s all about the feedback. There’s no beating yourself up when things go wrong or taking things to personally. Just as with the stand-up comic, the lack of a laugh (‘the right result’) shouldn’t reduce you to tears. Neither should it be taken as an indication of self-esteem. It’s just a sign that you need to make adjustments and try again. Building confidence in anything takes two types of courage: the courage to take the first step and the courage to persist (in line with feedback). Confidence is a process.

Be scientific, be detached, be persistent, collect data, use the data, refine your approach, have fun!

Links:

Coping with Challenges and Change – How Do You Do It?

Taking Stock of Transferable Skills

Working as a psychology lecturer I routinely encounter students who don’t make connections between different aspects of psychology. Working as a (life) coach I often encounter clients who don’t take stock of their transferable skills. Now, the first time I attended a meeting of the Professional Speakers Association I was asked ‘Have you done any public speaking?’ My knee-jerk reaction was to say ‘no’. At the time I had over ten years experience in teaching, I’d fronted media campaigns, appeared on radio and television and yet I still said ‘no’. In my mind I obviously didn’t class any of this experience as public speaking.  Sometimes we keep aspects of our life and experience in discrete ‘little boxes’. This may have an impact on how we view change and new challenges and our ability to cope.

How to You Deal With Change?

Consider the following questions relating to how you made previous changes in your life. Get a sheet of paper and write down your answers.

  • Knowing yourself as you do, what pattern, routine or process do you usually go through to make changes in your life?
  • What are the steps you go through in your decision making process?
  • With whom would you normally confide when considering making changes?
  • What things would you discuss with them when considering making a change?
  • What considering change, what attitudes did you have that helped make it happen?
  • Of all the strategies you have used in the past to make changes, what do you think might be the most helpful in handling the situation now?

Take time to answer them fully. It doesn’t have to be a major change, in fact, think of all types of change from switching brands of fruit juice to changing jobs.

How to Cope with Challenges?

Now spend some time considering previous challenges and successes and answer the following questions. Again take time to consider the questions fully and write down your answers.

  • Despite the challenges you encountered, how did you manage to persevere? How did you cope?
  • Where do you get the determination when others might have given up?
  • Knowing yourself as you do, what attitude to previous challenges did you have that helped make it through?
  • Considering a previous success, despite the challenge and the circumstances, how did you manage to succeed?
  • What is it that enables you to get through challenges and succeed?
  • What personal qualities, strengths and skills enable you to get challenging times?
  • What would a supportive close friend, partner or family member say are your qualities that help you get through challenges?

Solution-Focused Thinking for Challenges and Change

Making an inventory is a key strategy in solution-focused thinking and one of the things I work with clients to do in (life) coaching. When we become stressed we go into survival mode – fight or flight – which limits our perception of the options available to us. Considering our options and writing down the answers means it is more likely we will recall how we coped with past challenges and how we dealt with change. It is a key confidence building strategy.

Whenever you are faced with challenge and change, it helps if you begin by taking a few long slow deep breaths to lower your stress levels. You are then better placed to take a broader view and consider your transferable skills, strengths, skills, coping mechanisms and past successes.

Links:

Briefly Describe the Problem Then Focus Intensely on Solutions

Feeling ‘Listened to’

Talking about problems allows us to hear the problem outside of our own inner dialogue. Simply by finding the precise words to explain our problems to another person can cause a shift in perceptions. Some people seek coaching based on a perception that it is a lot like counselling. Of course, there are cross-overs in terms of some of the basic assumptions of Carl Rogers’s Person-Centred Therapy. Rogers talks about creating the ‘necessary and sufficient conditions for change’ and recognizes clients as the experts in their own lives. The therapeutic relationship is also paramount. It’s unusual to be another human being and feel totally ‘listened to’. It rarely happens in everyday life.

General description of the past and a detailed picture of the future

Now some clients, encouraged by the therapeutic relationship, feel the encouraged to explain in the finest details the issues that brought them to seek counselling. The idea is that greater understanding helps to facilitate change. In coaching it’s not necessary to know how you got here in the minutest of detail. As part of my coaching training I underwent the coaching process as a client. I quickly realized that I favoured the convoluted explanation to ensure that the coach understood every minute detail of the problem, how it had arisen and so on and on and on. The coach asked me ‘Where is this taking us?’ The question stopped me in my tracks. Early in my coaching practice I had experienced clients who felt the need to give me the fullest possible picture. This simple principle of ‘where is this taking us’ helped me to shape the sessions to better focuses them on the future. My own version of the intervention is ‘I’m getting a very clear picture of what you want to move away from. I’m less clear about what you’d like to move towards. Perhaps you could fill in a few of those details’. There is a fine line between hearing the client and getting bogged down in so much detail that all avenues of possible solutions are closed off.

If there ain’t goals then it ain’t coaching

Coaching is ultimately about goals. There’s a mantra often quoted that ‘if there ain’t goals then it ain’t coaching’. It’s been a long recognized research finding that all forms of therapy have pretty much the same outcomes. It’s called the equivalence paradox. However I would argue that some therapeutic models lend themselves as better bases for coaching than do others. Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a problem-focused type therapy that emphases changes in the ways we perceive the world and the way we act in it. Gestalt therapy is focused on the ‘here-and-now’ which has parallels with coaching. However with psychodynamic approach with its emphasis on unconscious processes the common factors are not so clear.  A former psychodynamic practitioner colleague proposed a model of coaching called ‘Cognitive-Analytic Coaching’ as an alternative to CBT. Apart from being a somewhat unfortunate acronym, the strong emphasis on analysis seems at odds with basic principles of coaching. There might be lots of thinking and analysing but the action element appears underplayed. It’s almost an afterthought.

Meaningful and practical steps to change

TV therapy-based programmes invariably pay homage to cod-psychoanalysis and often parents or teachers get the blame for everything. However it’s not necessarily the case that this insight will inspire any move forward in life. It might help to reinforce helplessness and become the justification for things to stay as they are. As well as digging over the past such programmes are also heavy on the symbolism. It just so happens that symbolic gestures look good on camera. However it’s unlikely that the programme producer asks the ‘client’ if standing at the seashore, letting balloons go at sunset chanting to the great baloon god is personally meaningful. Such TV-friendly dispays create the illusion of doing something without actually doing anything at all. Unfortunately, some ‘inspirational’ models of coaching follow a more ‘poetic’ approach to personal development. However, evidence-based coaching has a stronger emphasis on meaningful empowerment and practicalities. In my practice, any kind of exercise is based on client insights and always meaningful to them. If a coach tries to cajoles you in to trying ‘hocus pocus nonsense’ against your better judgement, then find another coach. Bullshit never takes precedence over meaningfulness.

Following the 80:20 principle

Coaching is often about making small significant insights rather than waiting for ultimate mysteries in life to be revealed. In my practice I operate the 80:20 principle to structure coaching sessions. This is in line with the CBT approach and the Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) approach. So, you would describe the problem or issue for 20% of the session and in the remaining 80% we would explore solutions. It follows the principle that the more we talk about the problem, the bigger it gets. Giving more time to solutions (even tiny little ones) can create a shift and begin building confidence and motivation right away. Solution-Focused Brief Coaching is about creating a different mindset. The coaching relationship begins with the coaching helping you to explore things from different perspectives. As the coaching process continues, you the client, get to learn the solution-focused perspective so that it becomes an automatic alternative to the problem-oriented mindset. Part of this mindset is to consider the smallest shifts and smallest actions to tackle the issue rather then trying to tackle the whole problem head on. Often a seemingly insignificant change leads to a significant change in perception.

Links:

Other coaching and confidence blog posts from Gary Wood

Was Little Boy Blue a Gender Stereotype or a Gender Bender?

The poem Little Boy Blue (from around 1744)  is sometimes offered as evidence for early gender colour-coding of ‘blue for a boy’ but a close reading of the text shows that it’s exactly the opposite! Until the early 20th Century blue was deemed a delicate, feminine colour and that’s what the poem demonstrates.

Picture: Little Boy Blue

Little Boy Blue being not particularly ‘boyish’

Little Boy Blue,
Come blow your horn,
The sheep’s in the meadow,
The cow’s in the corn;
Where is that boy
Who looks after the sheep?

Under the haystack
Fast asleep.
Will you wake him?
Oh no, not I,
For if I do

He will surely cry.

Little Boy Blue appears to have a rather delicate constitution. He doesn’t have the strength to blow on his horn, he’s  sleeping on the job and easily prone to bouts of hysteria! This is not behaviour typical of the male gender stereotype. So, if the colour blue is to be associated with anything here it’s ‘effeminacy’. It was until the 1920s that the colour-coding switched (to blue for a boy, pink for a girl) and there is no convincing reason as to why this happened. However what the colour-switch does show is that colour-preference is not ‘hard-wired’ but is a cultural convention.

Other gender related blog posts:

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:

Testing versus ‘On the Job’ – Theory versus Practice?

The University of Life

Recently I overheard someone on the phone loudly proclaiming that ‘on the job’ training is better than ‘all this testing nonsense’ because it allows people to go at their own pace. Of course makes intuitive sense to many people, especially those who gained a ‘BScliche’ at The University of Life.

For me, the theory informs the practice (and vice versa). I graduated from a University in an applied psychology department as a mature student (with plenty of prior life experience).Whenever we decide to come down on the side of testing or on the job training we lose half of the experience and advance a half-psychology.

Performance Improvement by Testing

Testing gets a bad reputation from in some quarters because it is seen as stressful and lacking ecological validity, that is, real-word relevance. One of the most common tests taking, even for those not academically inclined, is the mundane driving test. The stress mainly comes from not knowing what to expect. That’s why we have mock tests under near-test conditions. However the driving test is heavily reliant on practical abilities. The test sets objective standards that a learner needs to meet.

Critics of testing most often comment of the meaningfulness of the test and the unnecessary stress placed on the learning. Of course with school testing there is a political and financial dynamic which the learner shouldn’t be burdened with. The great benefit of testing, when done properly, is that it sets out, transparently, an objective standard. It also helps us to set goals that stretch us. Inevitably this involves a degree of stress. However, a little stress is good for improving performance. We often talk about a performance-enhancing adrenaline rush. The secret is to keep the stress within optimal limits.

So often it is not testing that it is the issue but how it is communicated and implemented and how it is related to the real-world. The key feature of testing is that it offers feedback. Research has shown that feedback improves performance irrespective of age. A little well-applied testing can give us that extra push.

On the Job Training

We learn most things by on-the-job training. Learning to talk, walk, swim and just about any other skill are from on-the-job training. We learn to how to interact with each other in the same way. A night on the town can be on-the-job training. However culturally there are many standards of conduct to which we adhere. We often use the phrase that ‘some people test us’. So ‘on-the-job’ training is rarely devoid of testing.

The main pitfalls of ‘on-the-job’ training are that it depends on the mentor, the feedback and the motivation. How well does the mentor give the appropriate feedback? is there a personality match between learner and mentor? Do their learning styles match? Perhaps most importantly, does learning ‘on the job’ mean that the learner just does what is necessary rather than pushing the limits?

Theory, Practice and Performance

I used the phrase ‘theory versus practice’ but testing and examination can be something that develops practice. Repetition and review are important factors when learning, however recall is improved by deeper levels of processing that testing offers. Conversely, ‘doing’ aids understanding. So, looking at learning from a holistic viewpoint, just as with the humble  driving test, we need a combination of both ‘on the job’ training as well as testing. Both are essential. The key is that each should inform the other in a way that is meaningful to the learner.

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Body Language for Confidence?

True inner confidence

I’m often asked the question ‘how can I use body language to more appear confident’. This is based on the ‘fake it until you make it’ approach to confidence building. It’s what comes of watching too many reality TV shows where the phoney ‘put on a show’ approach prevails. This is anything but real! Confident people aren’t those who walk into a room and say ‘look at me, look at me’. Confidence is about being comfortable in your own skin and that doesn’t have to be loud and ‘in your face’. True inner confidence is a quiet confidence. Outer displays of brash bravado are primarily based on deceit.

The Opposite of Stress

The ‘fake it to make it’ approach is about creating a false display to mask feelings of anxiety and stress. This is nothing but a cover up! Stress triggers the fight or flight response and narrows our focus to physical and mental (cognitive) processes associated with survival. Putting on a show is a survival strategy. It’s a subtle way of putting up a fight. Inner confidence comes from a different place, that is, the breadth of emotions and experience than are more than just mere survival. To tap into the breadth of human experience, we need the opposite of mere survival and stress. That is, we need to tap into the emotional, physical and mental state in which you will flourish.

Relax and Use Your Strengths

In my confidence building workshops I ask people when they feel most confident. invariably the answers reveal two themes: (i) when doing something relaxing (ii) when using skills and strengths. So rather than consider fake, up-tight, survival driven displays, instead consider what it feels like in your body to be relaxed and ‘laid-back’. Top athletes begin by controlling their own stress/relaxation response. That’s the basis of elite performance. It’s also the basis of true confidence.

Get in Touch With Your Body

The ‘fake it’ approach is about covering up how you truly feel. This is rather like dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause. Instead we need to take a deeper (longer term) view, such as taking yoga or Pilates classes, going to the gym, meditation, dance or Zumba classes. Try out a range of things to find something you enjoy. Try acting or improvisation classes. All of these activities will get you more in touch with your body and your feelings. People often say they ‘feel good about themselves’ after these activities. That’s confidence! All of these activities will all help to improve good posture which has positive impact of your general health. Get outside regularly for walks. Research has shown the regular walks in nature boost self-esteem.

Practise deep breathing techniques which help to oxygenate the blood and keep hydrated. Football trainers teach that even if we are dehydrated by a few per cent, it can adversely affect cognitive functioning, that is how we process information. On top of these take a hobby or spend time practising your existing skills (playing to your strengths). Do something you are good at and relish the time you spend doing it.

Body Language Will Take Care of Itself

Decide which of these suggestions you try.  It’s important to give them a good chance to work so try things out as personal experiments for a month or two. It needs something that you do regularly and frequently. At the end of the trial period review the impact on you and your life. When you hit on the thing that’s right for you, the confident body language will take care of itself. As a bonus, you’ll also probably feel a lot fitter too!

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Being Happy: Memories and Goals

In a recent radio interview I was asked about the process by which we recall happy moments in our lives whilst less happy times tend to fade. Of course, it’s not the same for all everyone. Some people are adept at recalling past events as reasons for not engaging with the present or the future. I’m not referring here to recalling serious trauma but more the refusal to move on in the coaching context.

Working with mature students there have been numerous examples of people who have held on to the callous remarks of (poor) teachers. It took some of them 30 years to go back into the classroom. It wasn’t that they had suddenly found the confidence to do so, it’s just that the ‘pain’ and regret of not doing so became greater. As well as teach the syllabus it was also my job to convince them that it was the right decision. These students are the main reason I got into (life) coaching.

Social Media and Memories

A recent research study at Portsmouth University by Alice Good and Claire Wilson suggests that we use social media like Facebook, not just to interact with others but also to interact with our former selves. Some people spend a great deal of time looking through the old photographs the post on networking sights. The process of looking back can create have an emotional buffering effect especially during tough times. It can create a sense of well-being and optimism to help us to deal with present challenges and to face the future.

Constructed Memories

The human memory is not an infallible storage device. Cognitive psychologist  Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in the 1930s that memories are highly constructed. When things don’t make sense or when there is missing information, we fill in the gaps based on memory default values based on our experiences of likelihood, Often our memories bear little relation to what actually happened, which is why the accuracy and reliability of eye-witness testimony (in the justice system) has been challenged by psychology, most notably by cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. In cognitive-behavioural therapy questioning techniques centre on cognitive distortions, most often on black-and-while, absolutist thinking. Similarly by exploring exceptions to negative evaluations, in the solution-focused approach, we can reveal small nuggets of possibility to build upon. In classic psychoanalysis we have he concept of defence mechanisms, where sometimes memories of painful experiences are blocked at an unconscious level in order to protect us emotionally and psychologically. Often memories seem to have a life of their own.

Being Happy

Happiness is no longer just in the realm of pop psychology, it has become a legitimate topic in academic psychology led by pioneering Positive psychologist Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For Seligman, happiness is about living our lives according to our values and strengths. For Csikszentmihalyi happiness is about setting goals that stretch us and put us into a state of flow. ‘Flow’ is that state of total engagement in what we are doing, when we are totally ‘in the present moment’ and lose a sense of time and of ourselves. We can actively do something about our own happiness. Along with confidence-building it is one of the main motivations for seeking (life) coaching.

The Past-Present-Future Balance

As with all aspects of life, balance is key. It’s good to reminisce and look back and be reminded of the good times. The best times in our lives are often when we most in tune with our strengths and values. For some people the past has a powerful lure, so much so that it taints the present and the future. Philosopher Walter Benjamin said that ‘History is an angel blown backward through time’.  It means that, essentially, we walk backwards into the future. We cannot help but look back but still need to move forward. It’s important to value the past for its lessons, for uncovering our strengths and for providing us happy memories to see us through challenging times. Perhaps it’s greatest value is to help propel us into the future. There lie new opportunities to live according to our values, to use our skills and strengths and more opportunities to experience a sense of flow, those moments where time appears to stand still. Over the past few years there has been an explosion of interest in mindfulness – the ability to live in the present moment for what it is without letting it get crowded out by the past or the future. It’s all a delicate balance that becomes a whole lot easier when we take a few moments out of our day to settle our minds and take a few, long, slow deep breaths. Taking control of our stress/relaxation is the first step to confidence and happiness.

(In conversation with Annie Othen, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 21/3/13 )

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