Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Synchronicity and Your Future

Recently, I've been pondering what sort of route I should take with my education and eventually career. For me, this sort of thinking is always rooted in preconceptions about what I should do based on what my parents think, what job makes money, etc. There are always problems that seem to arise when this topic comes up.

Through some funny coincidences this topic has come up 4 times in 30 minutes in my life. Maybe someone is trying to tell me that this is an important issue that needs resolving.

An article from Steve Pavlina called "To Thine Own Self Be True" gives us another approach to help us decide what we will do with our lives. As with most of his articles, his methods are radically different; however, the radical views are the ones that change our lives.

I was already beginning to feel what he mentions in his article - having a career that caters to your talents and personality, rather than the other way around - but I couldn't fully internalize it until reading this.

So once again, "To Thine Own Self Be True" the words of Shakespeare and Pavlina ring ever true. It is well worth the read.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Little Help?

I was wondering if anyone wanted me to talk about any specific problems or solutions you have regarding learning and such. I'd like to know where to focus my attention in the coming weeks, especially since the exam season is coming to a close.

I was thinking of ways to keep your mind active in the summer, or something like that.

As well, I was hoping that if you like my site you could do any or none of the following:
  • Tell people about it.
  • Keep coming back (to bookmark press Ctrl-D).
  • Tell me ways I can improve the site/content.
  • Tell me what you like.
I promise I will read all the comments and emails I receive. And for the comments made within the posts, sorry if I didn't reply. I really do appreciate all the good things people have said. Oh, but could we try not using any names that end in "poo" on the internet... Thanks.

So thanks again for the support and just for visiting, there's a new post right below this one. Unless you were here like 5 minutes ago.

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Sometimes we all feel down. "Man, I’m so tired of studying. Why am I doing this anyways?"

I was having one of those moments while lying in my bed after finishing a lecture set. Then I remembered a story I heard from a professor (Dr. Dean Tripp) at my university. I don't remember the details – I'm sure someone will correct me somewhere, like in the comments section – but I’ll give you what I remember.

There was a promising young man in high school, definitely bound for university and greater things. After enrolling, his long-time girlfriend got pregnant. He did what he had to and dropped out to take a crappy job and support his new family.

I don’t remember how long of a period there was in between, but eventually things got a little more stable. This young man wanted a university education. He more than wanted it, he craved it.

However, there were some problems: He hadn't been enrolled in school for so long. No university would take him. This did not stop him.

He went to the administration office everyday, and just stayed there. He politely greeted the admissions officer, but not did not go anywhere. After a long period of this, the woman (officer) finally gave in. She let him enter on a probationary basis with a smaller course load; if he slipped up, he was toast.

Well of course he excelled, he was so driven. He eventually went on to receive his Bachelor of Sciences, then a Masters and eventually a PhD. That man went on to teach at Queen’s University and give many lectures. All of this while developing quite a student fan base.

That man was Dean Tripp.

Whoa, I’ll let that sink in.

So, I'm thinking to myself: Self, what would you have done if you didn't get into university? Well, I would probably have to work. But I know I wouldn't be content there. As much as exams can get me down sometimes, I still love learning. Acquiring new knowledge drives me.

If I had a choice between university or not, I would very quickly choose university. But what if it meant working hard? What if it meant some unpleasant courses? Would it be worth it?

Hell yes. A thousand times over, yes. I am extremely grateful that I am in a nice university with nice (and attractive) people. I am glad the content is challenging. If it was easy to the point of boredom, then I wouldn’t even be learning.

We should realize how lucky we all are. Even if you aren’t in university, look at what you do have. Like most of my posts, this goes much farther than the small world of academia.

I thought I lost my wallet today. So as I was walking back to the cafeteria through the rain, after walking halfway home (I was soaked), I started thinking to myself. At least I have a wallet to lose. I'm not even that screwed if I don't find it. And I have a jacket on (no hat though). No one has even tried to punch me in the groin. Things are pretty good.

Well, my wallet was lying on the ground in the cafeteria, right where I was sitting earlier. Everything was still in there.

Gratefulness: It can be hard to remember, especially in the hard times; however, if you had to choose again would you choose differently? I wouldn't.

If you would, maybe it’s time to change now; but that's for another post.

Excuse me, but I have to make the most of my choice to go to university.

Thank goodness.

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Read Instructions Carefully

Those directions are there for a reason. For your sake, mostly.

I was making some popcorn in a pot – I was trying a healthier alternative to the pre-flavoured microwave stuff. I read some instructions on the internet saying that if you coat the bottom layer with kernels, the popped kernels will expand 6 inches from the bottom of the pot. He emphasized that the depth of the pot was key.

I took a look at my pot – 4 inches tall – and figured it would be fine.

No such luck.

Once the popcorn gets popping, it really gets popping! Lid was shaking because I was shaking the pot. So far so good. Then the lid started rising… “Oh well,” I thought, “it looks like it’s going to stop any minute now” Of course it didn’t. The very dry and starchy popcorn fell over the sides of the pot and hit the element. This in turn, you guessed it, started a small series of fires.

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed. After a sprinkling of water and profanities, the fire was quenched.

So, why am I telling you all this?

This minor disaster could have been prevented if I had done the following:
(a) Paid attention. (b) Followed some easy instructions.

Since this site is about learning, education and such, I hope you are starting to see how this can apply. In particular, mere seconds after extinguishing the flames, I thought about how this could apply to testing.

Have you ever screwed up something on a test, just because you didn’t read the directions properly? I’ll use a history example: you were supposed to write down the location beside a series of battle names, but you were so used to memorizing the years that you put those instead. Misreading a question that could have been really easy can waste a lot of time or cost you marks.

This is a very simple message; the trick though– like so many things – is in the follow-through. We should keep a cool head and read things slowly, maybe even a few times. This will ensure we don’t make any silly mistakes, and will prevent minor disasters.

Well, unless you set your paper on fire, but then you probably have bigger problems.

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Concentrating, The Gravy Way

I was wondering to myself: Why don’t you have more titles that go "Verb-ing (Gerund), The Gravy Way"? Not only is that creative, but it is hilarious. Hence, the title.

Back to good stuff...

I find that concentrating is one of the biggest barriers to learning. Given that the course has a learnable amount of content, we should be able to handle it. So we sit down, get out those mechanical pencils and multi-coloured pens (only the finest will do) and we start working.

But first we’ll just check our email. Oh, we’ll leave MSN Messenger on. And a little music will be nice. Hey, someone added some pictures of us on Facebook! How much money do we have left in our bank account? Time to check.

You know the drill. Four hours later, you’ve only managed to open your book, and it’s not even on the right page.

I’ll start out with some fundamental tips to keep you focused, then I’ll move on to some specific techniques that have worked for me over the years.

Concentration Basics

Eliminate all distractions.
People don’t seen to like this one, but it is the most important thing. Turn off your instant messaging program, set that cell phone to silent and let the voice mail take it. Either no or light music. If your roommates are loud, kill them or leave. Pee, etc. before you start working. You know what distracts you, and I know you can figure out how to stop it.

Outline what you will accomplish.
We all need goals, even for the short term. Let say you are reading some history text. Set a goal to read two chapters before you move. Don’t get up unless you finish. Seriously.

Take small breaks.
I have to emphasize small here. We all need to cool off after studying for a while, but when this rages on for 4 hours, there’s a problem. Try to do something that’s relaxing, but not too enthralling. And if you know something usually pulls you in for the long haul, avoid it like a Chinatown garbage bin. Yesterday, I thought I was going to watch TV for 15 minutes, it turned into 3 hours (Lord of the Rings). Today, I didn’t turn on the TV.

Switch it up.
Sometimes if I get sick of a subject, but I still have a good groove going, I like to switch to other subjects or sometimes just other aspects of the same subject. Sometimes I move from reading lectures to answering problems or even making cue cards (depending on the subject). There are a lot of differing views on this though. Well, just two I guess: a) Some people think it’s best to switch it up, while others think b) We should stick to one subject and just plow through it. You should experiment to see what’s best for you. It seems that the second option is better for assignments, while the first is better for studying.

Specific Concentration Techniques

Make a worry list.
If you are anything like me, then you remember silly things that you have to do only when you are studying. Instead of breaking your flow, quickly jot these things to do on a piece of paper, then go back to working. I do this with my sticky notes, and when I take a break in studying I try to do them as quickly as possible. I think it took me 15 minutes to email four people, call someone, transfer some money, and message 2 people about some random stuff. This is probably faster than the cumulative time it would have taken me if I had interspersed it with my studies. And best of all, I kept my flow.

Be conscious of where your focus lies.
There are many variations on this. One I’ve heard is trying the Buddhist koan “Be here now.” Just tell yourself where you need to be. Steve Pavlina tells us to tell ourselves “Do it now!” (BTW, Steve Pavlina is an insane genius.) An idea that I got from 43 Folders [via LifeHacker.com] is to simply relax and focus on your work, when you feel your attention slipping, take note and gently turn yourself back on track. I really recommend you take a peek at it, I’ve been trying it and it has worked nicely so far.

Create a role that forces you to study.
I’ve taken this from Steve Pavlina as well, I don’t know which section though. You can create a study group where you have to teach one section of the course. Since you don’t want to disappoint people with shoddy work, you’ll study very hard. As well, you can simply pretend that you have to teach this to some others. This only works if you can trick yourself well. But give it a shot!

Give yourself some incentive.
Often times it is easier to continue running if you dangle a carrot in front of your nose. So reward yourself if you complete a set of tasks. If you finish 3 lecture sets, you can watch a movie or maybe go for a nice walk. Try not to make it anything too destructive like binge-drinking or a pie-eating contest. You might just end up in a world of hurt.

Those are the tips I have for you guys so far. If I think of any more, I’ll be sure to post them. So, good luck studying and focusing. Remember: like most things, concentrating becomes easier with practice; so start today!

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Taking back control

More and more, I’ve been noticing that people refuse to take responsibility for their actions. People aren’t willing to admit when a mistake is their fault. People don’t like the idea that we are the only ones in control of our future.

Someone might be performing poorly in school, so they might say:
  • "My parents didn’t push me hard enough."
  • "This professor sucks."
  • "My friends won’t help me."
  • "My underwear is too tight."
Well, I don’t really know what to say about that last one, other than ‘buy another pair’. For the other excuses though, while they can be true, they are usually just ways of shifting the blame away from themselves.

If we continuously externalize the burden of learning – pushing the onus on our parents, friends or even inanimate objects – then self-development is impossible. We won’t feel compelled to grow because the factors controlling personal growth are always out of our hands.

Well after all this negative talk, does this mean there is no hope? Of course not.

The solution: Take back control of your life.

Once we realize that we are in charge of our lives, we become empowered to create sweeping changes. This is a pretty important point, so I’m going to elaborate a bit, just to drive it home.

Your success or failure in anything really only hinges on one factor: You. Your drive and dedication, your attitudes, your knowledge – all of it, stems from you.

It doesn’t really matter what your dad says, or what your friend thinks or what your grade 3 teacher wrote in the comments box. When it comes down to it, it is just you and your thoughts before you go to sleep. Well, there may be someone else with you, but that’s none of my business.

Once again, when we take back control of our lives and take responsibility for shaping our future, we can break free from limited thinking and affect drastic changes.

For example: You are hesitant to begin reading your text. You cite a number of people who have distracted you, causing you to lose focus, leaving you with little time to read the text. How dare those people force you to talk to them?

Aaah! This is garbage. You start to realize that you are allowing yourself to be distracted. Once you realize only you can change this, you move to the library (without your computer, come on) and finish your readings in record time.

This sort of process can only happen went accountability lies with a specific person. Can you guess with whom? Yes, you. *gives a cookie*

I have to point out, that this sort of responsibility-shifting is actually quite insidious, because most of the time, people don’t even realize that they are doing it. I’m not one to name names or point fingers, so I recommend we all do a little introspection to see if we can catch ourselves doing it.

While shifting responsibility away from ourselves may make things easier in the short term, in the long run, it only robs you of your potential. So take your life back!

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

Quiz Yourself First

So you read that chapter from your textbook a few times. You seemed to have a strong grasp on the material. Then the test rolls around and… that whole chapter is a blur. You remember some major concepts, that picture at the beginning of the chapter (yet another molecule – real creative…) and maybe you remember question 17.3 – but it wasn’t even that hard.

This is not what you were expecting. Sucks doesn’t it?

How can we prevent such disasters from occurring?

Preparation. And lots of it.

It isn’t enough to merely read the text a few times, and expect to do well. How will you know if you are absorbing the material? This is where problem-based learning comes in. In this case, problem-based learning encompasses asking yourself some questions about the material.

In questioning yourself on the material, you are forcing your brain to go into the retrieval mode that is oh-so-necessary for any test.

Problem-based learning can help you in another way. One of the keys to learning is to have multiple mental pathways that can lead you to the same set of facts.

For example: Let’s say that you are trying to remember how Hamlet’s father was killed.
  1. The first thing you remember is that he was murdered while sleeping; because you know that Claudius is a rank man-whore. Oh, he was killed in some weird way, no knives or anything like that… something with poison… poison in the ear! Claudius poured poison into Hamlet’s father’s ear!
  2. Or, you could have only remembered ‘ears’ and eventually reached ‘poison in the ear’ through another pathway.
Where am I going with this? Questioning yourself (especially from different tacks/approaches) helps to create these mental pathways. The more you create, the greater chance you have of landing on at least one of them on a test.

So to get on the problem-based learning train, you will have to get some questions to ask yourself, or have others quiz you. Ask around, usually people would like this opportunity as well.

Now when asking questions, you have to be real with yourself. Include all material that might show up, even if it is difficult. It is better to get a question wrong in your room seven times, than to lose those marks on a test.

I may have mentioned that I love giving myself questions to learn. If possible, I prefer to incorporate them into broad concepts. It is easier to learn one large idea and its subtopics rather than a bunch of disjointed concepts.

I’ll give you an example of a question I’ve asked myself to study for anatomy (apologies if it flies over your head, I’ll do my best to translate):
How do the epithelial cells (cells lining a space) change along the urethra as we move distally (from the bladder to the external opening)? And relate these changes to functional changes.

(That question sounds a lot harder than it is.) With that question, I am forcing myself to recall the varieties of epithelium along the urethra, while also relating that variation to the change in function.

I do this so that when I have to recall this information later, the potential for numerous mental pathways is large, because the remembered concept is itself large. This increases the likelihood that I will remember the information more readily on a test.

If you are wondering what process you should go through to learn in this manner, it is fairly simple:
  • Quickly scan over a small section – i.e. a lecture or one chapter.
  • Go through the lecture/chapter again and write questions that will extract the answers in the text from you.
    • You may want to put the answers afterwards – it takes more time, but it is easier to retrieve the answer if you are stumped.
  • Read the information again.
  • Try to answer the questions.
  • Find out what you don’t know.
  • Do something else (e.g. the next lecture set, jump in some puddles, eat a 72oz. steak, etc.)
  • Try answering the questions again.
Generally speaking, I try to ask myself the questions until I run out of time, or I know the information so well that I barely even need the question sheet. In this way, I ensure that I know pretty much everything for the test.

With this technique, you will find that you can recall information more readily by creating new mental pathways and putting your brain in retrieval mode. So go and ask yourself some questions! Seriously, ask!

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New Post on Sunday

OK, I know it's been a little while since I've posted, and for that I apologize sincerely. I've been studying pretty intensely for my exams (especially for the Anatomy practical exam), so I haven't put as much energy as I would like towards new content.

I have written an article about problems-based learning, which I will type up and post tomorrow. Oh, if you are wondering why I'm not posting it now, it's because I'm excrutiatingly tired. Learning about the penile urethra takes more energy than you would expect.

Once again, sorry for the delay. I will try to write a few more posts to make up for the down-time.

Ooh, I just remembered something: Thanks to those who have been leaving comments, I really appreciate them. (Yes, even that one from Jason.)

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Priming yourself to be smarter

In my continuing fascination with how our brains work, I decided to pick up Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (new window), after reading his earlier book, The Tipping Point (mentioned in the post: Knowledge and Relationships).

Once again I am highly recommending this book. This book is just as, perhaps more, fascinating than The Tipping Point.

To the point: Gladwell suggests that we can be prepared or primed to think in a particular way with some simple and subtle suggestion.

From Blink by Malcolm Gladwell:
[T]he effects of priming aren’t trivial. Two Dutch researchers did a study in which they had groups of students answer forty-two fairly demainding questions from the board game Trivial Pursuit. Half were asked to take five minutes beforehand to think about what it would mean to be a professor and write down everything that came to mind. Those students got 55.6 percent of the questions right. The other half of the students were asked to first sit and think about soccer hooligans. They ended up getting 42.6 percent of the Trivial Pursuit questions right. The “professor” group didn’t know more than the “soccer hooligan” group. They weren’t smarter or more focused or more serious. They were simply in a “smart” frame of mind, and clearly, associating themselves with the idea of something smart, like a professor, made it a lot easier – in that stressful instant after a trivia question was asked – to blurt out the right answer. The difference between 55.6 and 42.6 percent, it should be pointed out, is enormous. That can be the difference between passing and failing.
The implications here are wild! To me, it seems that before any sort of testing situation, it is possible for us to prime ourselves to think in that “smart” frame of mind.

Rather than thinking about hooking up with that cute guy/girl right before the exam, our thoughts should be of greatness and intelligence. It may help to think of someone you think of as smart, or what it means to be smart.

And hey, even if it improves your mark by only 1%, it’s a free percent that takes only minutes before an exam. Two minutes for one percent? I’ll take that any day.

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Monday, April 03, 2006

Open your mind

This is probably the greatest tip I will ever give – not just regarding learning but life in general.

In everything that you do, try to keep an open mind. Do not be so quick to judge.

Some of you may be wondering how this can relate to education at all. Have you found that you have a professor that you just don’t take a liking to, for whatever reason? And from then on, everything that professor says doesn’t even count. Your attention span falls and suddenly shiny things become a lot more interesting. This isn’t hurting them, it’s hurting you. We have to open our minds to different possibilities. We have to realize that maybe this person wasn’t birthed from Satan’s loins. They could have had a very hard life

If you are anything like me, you find that a certain subject (or several) have become anathema to you. Sometimes you find that you hate this subject so much that it is actually causing you to develop a twitch. Upon further reflection, we have to consider the possibility that this material is not that bad. Maybe there is a reason that you are learning it. There is always some interesting material to be found within the course. However, this can only happen if you allow yourself to find it.

Once we are mired in our negative preconceptions about a professor or course, how can we hope to learn anything effectively? So we are basically giving away a huge portion of our marks. For what? Our silly pride and rash decision-making. All that time and effort is being used inefficiently because of our petty conflicts. This is really not worth it.

So then, the question is: How can we resolve this problem? How can we get over our seemingly unwavering contempt, and start learning again?

The answer, like many things in life, lies within us. First we must establish what it is that is preventing us from being receptive. Do you dislike the professor? Why? Do you actually find the material uninteresting, or is just the way it is being presented? In some cases (mine), it is simply that the material is being taught in an unfamiliar way – making it much more difficult to absorb. Even in the case of identifying problems, we must open our minds to all possibilities.

As a side note, I find that I become very quickly agitated when I don’t understand what is being taught at all or if the person is presenting it in a queer way. I thing that you know the feeling I’m talking about.

It is these sorts of feelings that can distract from the real origin of the “barrier”. Initially it may seem that the professor’s beard is too long and distracting or their accent is too thick. These might be small problems but they are not the true sources of the barrier. Thus, we must be careful when assessing the problem, and once again: Keep our minds open.

Once we have identified the problem, we have to work towards a realistic solution. If the material is being taught in a weird way, then something must be done to improve comprehension. Possibly previewing the material will help, maybe more time needs to be spent on this subject.

After that all you can do is continue to work dedicatedly. A lot of people won’t like hearing that, but this is the way things are.

As well, I wanted to mention that there are many more applications of this to learning and life in general, without making this a 2000 word post, I’ll briefly address them.

Even in the knowledge we have already acquired, we have to remember that we are not always right. It is possible that we haven’t learned a concept completely, or that we learned it improperly. So if someone comes along and challenges your knowledge, do not simply ignore this person because “they must be wrong”. Instead, investigate further to see if there is some merit to their point. Then change your brain accordingly.

After reading that paragraph again, I see how that can apply quite nicely to learning and life.

Further, we must keep our minds open to new ideas. Maybe the way we perceive the world could use a tune-up. Maybe we don’t know the best learning technique. Maybe we don’t know everything.

Maybe if we keep our minds open and stay receptive, we can learn more about the world and ourselves.

On a more interpersonal level, please do not be so quick to judge people. I find that people (including myself, even 5 minutes ago) are too quick to assume the worst about others. This can only result in trouble.

Once we have a negative image of a person in our mind’s eye, we react to that image accordingly. We start treating that person poorly; they react to that as expected. This begins to breed poor relationships with those around us.

Maybe if we were to assume better of everyone, or at the very least reserve judgement for much later, then all of our relations would be good ones. And that sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me.

So think about it, look how much we can get just from keeping an open mind: elimination of silly learning barriers, a new understanding of ourselves and the world, better relationships with others… and that’s just what I could fit into this post (which is already way too long).

All of this, for the low, low price of 3 payments of $14.99 $0.00. What an amazing bargain!

Call now, operators are standing by.

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