Factors for Successful Learning

As an educator, one of the things I have spent years trying to understand is the factors which determine whether or not a student succeeds in his or her study. The model I describe below is one that has evolved over the past decade. Currently I think there are five primary factors.

Natural ability – This can be a somewhat overemphasised factor, however, in life there are some topics and activities which we find easier than others. And when we find things easy it can have a reinforcing effect – we like it because it is easy, therefore we spend more time doing it, therefore we get even better at it. However, by itself natural ability does not result in success. Every great sportsperson, academic, tradesperson or artisan excels at what they do because they also continually practice and refine what they do. This is where the next factor comes in.

Motivation – to spend the time required to succeed you need to be motivated. Some people are motivated by the sheer intrinsic joy of what they are learning. For others it is more challenging. Where a topic or field of study does not bring intrinsic happiness there are other ways to keep motivated. One of the best in my experience is to focus on long term goals – e.g. if I successfully learn this material and pass this test, then this course and then this qualification I will be in a career I love/earning a good wage/making my loved ones proud of me etc. Visualisation can be useful here, vividly imagining what things will be like for you 5 or 10 years from now in the perfect career. Rewarding yourself for key successes along the way is also a good approach.

Resources – Even the brightest student cannot succeed without resources.  Resources may include textbooks, online resources, extra readings, practical experiments and on the job experiences. Teachers/tutors/lecturers also fall into this category, as successful students are often the ones that seek help from their teachers when they get stuck.

Study Skills – As well as having access to resources, knowing HOW to use them effectively is important. For example, for most people rote learning is less effective that doing activities which apply what is being learnt.

An understanding of your own learning style is important and so is trying different ways of learning to see which suits. For example, the most effective way for me to learn many things is to understand and visualise the “big picture” by drawing all the key concepts into diagrams. When I can see how everything connects I remember things better. However, this may not be the best way for others. Understanding how you learn best is an important skill which can be developed by exploring different methods (some of which I hope to blog about at a later date).

Support – One of the things which assists with an individual’s success is the support of those around them. A supportive partner, whanau (family) can make all the difference through emotional and physical (e.g. doing household chores for them) support. Supportive learning environments where both teachers and peers provide a positive learning environment also support success.

All five of the above factors contribute to success. Not all five are necessarily required for success but the fewer that are available, the less likely success is. In many ways they are interconnected, e.g. well designed learning resources can guide a student on how to learn, while whanau (family) support will bolster motivation.

If I had to pick one as most important it would probably be motivation. In every field there are those who were initially judged not to have the “right stuff” (natural ability) yet through perseverance and practice were able to excel in their chosen fields. Knowing how to motivate oneself, even in the face of adversity, is one of the best skills we can have.

5 learning factors

Diagram 1: Five Factors for Success in Learning

 

Having a Growth Mindset

In her book “Mindset”, Stanford University professor of psychology, Dr Carol Dweck, describes how her over 20 years of research has determined that “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life” and, if I may add, what you get out of life.

She describes two different mindsets:

If you have a FIXED mindset you are most likely to believe that your qualities (and those of others) are unchangeable. That you are born with a certain IQ, a certain personality and certain other characteristics and these cannot change. Then you fail at a task it is a bad reflection on you, so you are less likely to take chances, acknowledge when you do make a mistake, and are more likely to blame others. Failure is an indictment of your worth.

However, if you have a GROWTH mindset, you believe that with effort you can improve your qualities and attributes, moderate personality traits and other characteristics. When you fail at a task you use it as a learning experience, you are open to new experiences and challenges, and you take responsibility for your own actions. You accept that outside factors can affect your success or failure, but you are less likely to blame other people. Failure is a learning experience, a problem to be solved.

As you might have guessed from the previous paragraphs. having a growth mindset is the option which best allows us to flourish, though for many people it is doesn’t come naturally. For myself, a growth mindset did not come naturally but developed over time as I observed and reflected on the world around me. If you do feel you have a fixed mindset I would recommend reading this book for its many examples which can guide you towards a growth mindset.

It is worth noting that mindsets may vary in different aspects of our lives. For example, I find it easier to have a growth mindset about my ability to learn something technical than I do about my ability to draw or to sing. Our previous experiences do have some effect on our mindsets.

A growth mindset is not only important in how we view ourselves, it is also important in how we view others. Research has shown that children do better in class when their teacher has a growth mindset. Similarly, a growth mindset in the workplace is likely to encourage collaboration, ongoing professional development and reduce stress.

In conclusion, “Mindset – How you can Fulfil your Potential” by Professor Carol Dweck is a very thought provoking and potentially life changing book, especially if you find fear of failure or the need for constant validation holding you back from what you want to achieve in life.

Resources

There is an excellent visual summary of Mindsets here which is particularly directed towards how to support children to growth.

Mindset – How you can Fulfil your Potential by Carol Dweck

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Stoic Philosophy in 5 minutes

Stoic philosophy (Stoicism) flourished amongst Romans and Greeks until about the 3rd century. If I had to sum it up in a single sentence it would be

Shit happens, and when you can’t do anything about it, look for the best way to improve the situation

A slightly more elegant way of putting it is in what is known as the Serenity prayer

Lord, grant me the Serenity to accept things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

And the Wisdom to know the difference.

Wikipedia sums Stoicism up rather well as

“a philosophy of personal ethics which is informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting this moment as it presents itself, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner.”

In some ways Stoicism was a product of its’ time – life could be blatantly unfair and dangerous – slavery, disease, war, violence could all make life unpleasant or end it all together. However, amongst all of this, hard work and grit could help people succeed, – slaves could become prosperous free men for example. The principles of Stoicism described above are applicable to the modern as well as the ancient world. No matter what happens to us, the only choice is to move forward, and hard work, reason and trying to make positive changes in our lives and those of others seems the most sensible way forward to me.

There is a lot more to Stoic philosophy than I have covered here. I currently have “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, a noted Stoic, on my desk to read and Derren Brown’s book “Happy – Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine” has a good section and discussion on Stoicism. (His book is another one of the list I thinks I would like to write about).

 

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Creating Positive Emotions

Many people think emotions are something we have little control over – that they are something we have to put up with experiencing. However, there are a number of different ways we can change our emotion states short term and long term.

It is also worth acknowledging that negative emotions have value. Fear, for example, can encourage us to be cautious in appropriate circumstances, anger when focused constructively can be used as motivation, while sadness, is an appropriate way to express loss; from a physiological point of view crying can be a good way to relieve stress.

Over the years I have learnt a number of different techniques to shift into useful emotional states. Some work better for me than others, but you may find different ones work better for you.

 

1) Use the Mind/Body connection

Most people understand that our mind controls our body, however, fewer people are aware that this connection works both ways, our bodies affect our minds. You can see this yourself if you use the following example which increases confidence.

Imagine a thread attached to the top of you head being pulled upwards. As it pulls upwards your back straightens, your shoulders move roll back and your chest puffs out. You should now feel more confident. Research clearly shows that this sort of visualisation/straightening of the body boosts our emotions. I have similar examples where people imagining angel wings unfolding from from their backs causing their bodies straightening and chests expanding as the wings expand. (Seriously what could give you more confidence in any situation than have wings 🙂 )

You can also demonstrate the reverse effect by hunching your shoulders into a slouch – feeling less confident and even a little depressed – it’s simple physiology.

 

2) “Fake it till you make it”

I’ve heard many a successful person make this comment. As well as moving into a confident posture, focusing on a confident tone of voice and confident gestures can boost your confidence. I know one prominent public speaker who overcame her shyness and discomfort with public speaking by creating a stage “persona” which she shifts into when speaking in public (Twelve Questions: Dr Michelle Dickinson aka “Nanogirl”).

 

3) The Power of Music

This is one that works exceedingly well for me using specific music playlists when I need a boost of confidence/energy or need to relax. Personally, I favour high tempo music for energy and confidence, and slower music to relax. Some of my favourites (please don’t judge!) are listed below. If you want to put together your own lists, you can find suggested songs by searching in Youtube and Pinterest for example.

Also, because I am quite a visual person, if I am using Youtube, I will often select versions of these songs which have strong visual themes.

For Energy/Confidence

Never Back Down, Dragon Rider, Freedom Fighters and Ride to Victory – Two Steps from Hell

What Heros Do – Thor Ragnarok Soundtrack

Fight Song – Rachel Platten

Holding Out For A Hero – Bonnie Tyler

Unstoppable – Sia

To Relax, Calm Down

Carribbean Blue, Book of Days, The Celts – Enya

The Dance – Colm Keegan

Sound of Silence – Simon & Garfunkel

Happy Mood Music

Moana – Alessia Cara

Can’t Stop the Feeling! – Justin Timberlake

Age of Aquarius – The 5th Dimension

On Top of the World – Imagine Dragons

 

4) Recognise and filter that “little voice” in your head

Most of us will recognise that “little voice in our head” which gives us a running critique on what we are doing and what we should or shouldn’t do. For most of us this is quite a fearful and risk-averse voice which tells us things like

“don’t ask a question in class, because everyone will think you are stupid”

“don’t assert yourself, people will think you are pushy”

This little voice makes some silly assumptions, for example, that everyone else is constantly watching us and judging us. Most of the time they are too busy worrying about their little voice and looking stupid themselves. By acknowledging that this voice is often wrong and overcautious is one step towards becoming more confident in oneself. By consciously challenging these assumptions and then acting confidently, through practice we can develop more confidence.

 

5) Visualisation

Visualisation has developed a bit of a bad rap from all those who claim that ALL you need to do for good things to happen is to visualise them. Visualisation is a good way to get our minds focused on what we want or need to do, so long as it is followed by actions which support your vision.

One way I have seen visualisation shift to positive emotional states is start by visualising all the times you have succeeded just before you do something that you want to succeed in.

Another approach is to think about all the times you have done something well or been successful and while doing this carry out a small action (e.g. by tapping the back of your hand). By doing this repeatedly, your mind connects success (or another positive emotion) with this movement. After a while, all you need is the movement to shift state.

I use this sometimes when I need to put aside my natural shyness and speak up about things important to me, I have a small action which reminds me of my four core values.

 

6) Understanding Emotions

Knowledge is power, and the more I have learnt about how emotions and people “work” the easier I have found it to shift into positive emotion states. For example, understanding that most people tend to annoy others out of misunderstanding and not malice has help me understand that it is pointless to get angry, particularly if they are going to have no idea what I am angry about. Far better to focus on working out what the problem and solution actually is.

One of the things I have found most helpful in this area is reading about different philosophies. In particular Stoic philosophu has been most helpful.

The list above is not an exhaustive list, simply techniques I am aware of and have tried myself. As I learn more I will add to this list.

Also, don’t assume from this post that I can always control my emotions. Like most people, I have periods of sadness, depression, and anger. What the techniques described above have helped me do is shorten these periods, and spend most of my time in a positive emotional state.

 

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Wisdom from History

There is a lot we can learn from those who have come before us, particularly those who have made the world a better place through their thoughts and actions. The following are a list of links of inspiration words and quotes from some of history’s great minds.

Mahatma Gandhi – 10 rules for changing the world – An insightful collection of inspiring and thoughtful quotes from Gandhi whose view that to change the world you had to take responsibility for yourself and others

Top 10 Eleanor Roosevelt Quotes – My favourites are numbers 9, 6 and 3

 

 

Art and literature also provide wisdom through the words of their authors and characters:

29 Wise and Inspiring Shakespeare quotes

 

 

Quotes from Science Fiction Writers

I love science fiction because it pushes us to think beyond what we already know and understand (and spaceships and lasers are cool!).

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” (Foundation series – Isaac Asimov, author)

“We have to create the future, or others will do it for us. … we have to care for each other because if we don’t who will? “(Babylon 5 TV series, written by J Michael Straczynski)

“Understanding is a three edged sword. Your side, my side and the truth.” (Babylon 5 TV series, written by J Michael Straczynski)

 

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Personality Tests (e.g. the MBTI) – What can they tell you?

The first thing I will say about personality tests is that they are simply tools which we can use to try and better understand ourselves. Like tools, some work better than others, and some have more specific uses. Our personalities are incredibly complex and no tool can describe that complexity. If any personality test doesn’t seem to mesh with how you see yourself, probably the first thing to do is question the test and not yourself.

One of the most commonly used tests is the Myers -Brigg Type Indicator (MBTI®) which focuses on four aspects of personality based on the work of psychologist Carl Jung. These aspects are

Introversion/Extroversion – are you outgoing and enjoy dealing with lots of people (extrovert) or do you prefer time to yourself and typically have a few close friends (introvert)?

Sensing/Intuition -how do you gather and process information about the world around you? Do you focus on the basic information/details of what you observe around you (sensing) or do you tend to interpret it and create a big picture view (intuition).

Thinking/Feeling – What is more important when you make decisions, logic and consistency (thinking) or how people are affected by those decisions (feeling)

Judging/Perceiving – Do you like to get things sorted and finished (judging) or do your prefer to stay open to new opportunities and information (perceiving)?

Typically a Myers -Brigg test will consist of a series of questions designed to understand where you sit on the continuum for each of these four dichotomies. These should however be viewed as continuua and not either/or categories. For example, the same person may be introverted in some circumstances and not others, and while they take into account only the facts in most decisions, in some case they may put the feelings of others first. The test simply is a tool for understand which can help us understand some of our general preferences.

Note – The MBTI has received significant criticism within the psychology community regarding how valid it is as a description of indicator of personality. A detailed description of this can be found here.  However, others continue to defend it (e.g. here). I personally think it has some merit as a framework for reflecting on how I think and behave, however, if you use the MBTI and find it isn’t useful, then my advice would be to ignore it.

My Myers Brigg test about 15 years ago determined that I was INTP which seemed like a fairly accurate assessment. I am introverted, generally preferring to spend time by myself or with small groups of close friends. I tend to take a big picture view of situations (more N than S) and tend to like to stay open to new opportunities (P more than which means I tend to finish tasks as close to the deadline as possible. On the Myers-Brigg test my thinking/feeling leans slightly towards thinking which means that although I favour logic and reason in my decisions, I still tend to take into account the effect those decisions have on the people involved. Interestingly enough a more recent test suggested that I am now INFP. This is an interesting potential change, particularly as my roles over the past 8 years have involved working with people more, and I have reflected that I probably do consider more the effect my decisions have on people than I did 15 years ago. Of course one of the criticisms of the MBTI is that people can unconsciously sway the result, so it is possible I unconsciously tweaked the results to match how I perceive myself to be.

The Myer-Brigg personality indicator (MBTI®) has been used to help decide what career choices might best suit you (“What’s your Type of Career?” by Donna Dunning) and also to better understand how to work effectively with others, however, beware the danger of categorising yourself or others based on this test. It is best used as a tool to reflect on these different aspects of personality not to stick yourself in a box and unnecessarily limit your choices in life.

There are a number of websites which provide information about, and testing of the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator. The Myers & Brigg Foundation is probably a good place to start. Commercial tests are available online, for a cost and probably are more reliable that the free tests you may come across (although this one seems ok).

Give it a go and let me know what you think. But NEVER let it limit you. For example, just because you are an introvert doesn’t stop you from being a leader – Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Eleanor Roosevelt are all introverts who have led in their own distinct ways.

 

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Understanding our Brain

Unlike a new computer, our brain doesn’t come with an operating manual. Fortunately, over a century of research in biology, psychology and related fields has provided us with some understanding of how the human brain (and mind) works. In the same way that we get the most out of a new computer by reading the manual and understanding how it works – by understanding how our brain works we can learn how to make the most of ourselves.

The following are things I have learnt about the human brain which have helped me better understand how people think and why they behave in different ways.

 

1) The Balance of Reason & Emotion

Studies of the human brain show that it can be divided up into different areas which have different responsibilities. Here I’d like to focus on two specific areas which have very different contributions to how we think (and act).

At the core of the brain, near the brainstem which connects the brain to the rest of of body is the limbic system. This is one of the oldest parts of the brain, and is responsible for our instincts and emotions. It has been an important part in our survival as a species, allowing us to react rapidly to threats.

A more recent addition, from the point of evolution, is the frontal lobe. Located at the front of our brain, this is where reason and logical thought take place. We know this because studies of patients who have damaged frontal lobes show that that they lose the ability to think logically.

When we compare these two parts of the brain and the behaviour they produce there are some interesting differences.

When we react emotively – our emotions come effortlessly, they are fast, instinctive and they drive us to action.

When we react with reason it takes more effort and is much slower. It takes conscious effort to reason and think logically.

So how does understanding this help us?

First, knowing that when we experience a new, challenging situation it is helpful to understand that typically the first thing we experience is an emotional response. By knowing this we can train ourselves to wait for our more logical thinking to kick in when we need to make an important decision.

Advertisers are well aware that our emotions respond faster than our logical thinking to new stimuli. This is why many advertisements will start with images and sounds which appeal to emotions (e.g. fast cars, attractive people, intense feelings) to try and sell their product, only introducing facts towards the end of the ad, if at all.

Second, because our emotions are more driving – we can use this to motivate ourselves. For example, people have more success losing weight when they use visualisation techniques to imagine how they good they will feel if they lose the weight.

Reason AND emotion, when understood, work together to help us flourish. While reason can help us work out what the best course of action is in any situation, our emotions can help us to drive and motivate us when things get challenging.

 

2) Brain Power is a Limited Resource

Our brains are constantly receiving massive amounts of information both from our senses as well as processing our various internal thoughts and feelings. In order to cope with all of this information our brain filters out only that information which is deemed to be important and ignores all of the rest. This is why, for example, many people have difficulty remembering the details of an armed robbery for example, because most brains are too busy processing the intense fear and trying to work out how to get out of the situation alive, rather than remembering what the robber looked like or which way the getaway car went.

The information our brains decide to process is based on a wide range of factors – what our current goals/motivations are, the environment we are in, and our previous experiences.

This filtered experience of the world leads to a number of interesting behaviours which can be useful or produce challenges. For example, when we want to prove a point we focus on the information that supports our position and ignore that which doesn’t. Similarly when someone is newly in love they focus on all that they love about the other person and are completely oblivious to the things that may later provide challenges in the relationship. On the other hand the ability to focus on specific input and discard the rest is what enables a brain surgeon or sportsperson to do achieve success.

 

3) Type 1 and 2 Thinking

Because our brain has limited resources, this can lead to two different types of thinking.

System One thinking is essentially our autopilot mode. It relies on things that we have previously learnt and experienced to make quick, instinctive decisions without occupying too much intellectual resources. For example, when we make our usual coffee order or answer “what is one plus one?” most of us will answer automatically, without much thought or effort.

System Two thinking is what we reserve for the important decisions in our lives (or at least what we decide are the important decisions). Different people will assign different importance to different decisions, for example, a bride engage in far more System Two thinking than their husband to be (at least according to common stereotypes).

We cannot spend our life analysing every situation so system one thinking is important, however, it can cause problems. If we are trying to break a habit (e.g. reducing sugar in our coffee) these automatic responses can be problematic. Automatically using a money machine without noticing it looks slightly different due to the addition of a scam card reader, is another example of where this can work against us.

One of the techniques I use is to every now and then take the time to re-evaluate what I am doing and/or take time out to actually take in the world around me. It is amazing the things that you don’t notice.

 

4) We ALL Experience a DIFFERENT Reality

If our brains filter and interpret information based on our different priorities and previous experiences then we essentially experience a different reality, or at least a different perception of reality. Imagine the different people that might visit a bar one evening. A single man and a happily married man will have different priorities and therefore a different experience. Someone who is introverted will have a different experience from someone who is extroverted. A person new to town will likely have a different experience to a regular. A firefighter might be distracted by violations to the fire code while a chef may critique the venue based on the food. We all look and, indeed, remember different things.

If we were to ask everyone who attended the bar about their experience the following day, we would hear a wide range of experiences based on the information they filtered and how they interpreted events based on previous experiences. Some of the experiences may sound so different that it may seem they weren’t in the same place.

When we remember a particular event we typically create a story in our head about it, but typically we have gaps. Our brain is very good at filling in these gaps by extrapolating information. The problem with this is that sometimes our brains just make stuff up to try and create continuity for the stories in our head. Our memories can also be influenced by others. When a friend describes something they thought happened at the bar, your brain may try and integrate that information into your recollection of the event. This is one of the reasons why accurate eyewitness testimony can be difficult as witnesses can unconsciously “rewrite” their memories when they are questioned.

The fact that we all experience a different perception of reality is something to be very mindful of. In my experience the major cause of conflict is not because people are being purposely hurtful or careless, but because they are interpreting the same situation differently based on the information they are filtering and how they are interpreting that information based on their previous experiences.

 

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