Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Monotillation of Traxoline

Brad Hoge at the HUNBlog wrote a very poignant post regarding the problems that can come about through lecturing and test making; in this post he makes reference to the monotillation of traxoline: in this post he floods you with jargon from an imaginary field, then quizzes you on the same.

I’ll give you an example from biochemistry, if you don’t feel like reading his post and because it hits so close to home for me:

Regulation of Glycogen Metabolism

The primary mode of glycogen regulation is through covalent modification of enzymes. Protein kinase A is a second-messenger activated member of the phosphorylation system. It in turn phosphorylates phosphorylase kinase, glycogen synthase (inhibiting it), and phosphoprotein phosphatase inhibitor. It is important to note that only phosphorylated phosphorylase kinase works to phosphorylate glycogen phosphorylase, activating it, thereby increasing glucose-1-phosphate concentrations. With reference to phosphoprotein phosphatase inhibitor, it only binds to and inhibits phosphoprotein phosphatase in its phosporylated form. It is clear that phosporylation works to promote glucose synthesis and dephosphorylation works to promote glycogen synthesis.

I was going to ask you some questions about the blurb above, but I think you get the point.

While Dr. Hoge later speaks about this in terms of constructionism, I’d like to deal with it in a different light.

First, I would like to address the nature of teaching; then I would like to talk about the student’s level of understanding.

Pedantic teaching

Sometimes I wonder if teachers know they are being so dull. Sometimes I wonder if they are trying to be confusing. As I try to see things in a better light however, I don’t think either of these is true. Teachers, professors, etc. are quick to assume that students have completely absorbed the content of their previous lecture. Of course, there is a lot ofonus (responsibility) on us to learn the material; however, as with learning a new language, one must first be immersed in the new knowledge, then given time for that new vocabulary to be incorporated into one’s lexicon (personal dictionary).

Ancient wisdom tells us that we must walk before we can run. In terms of knowledge acquisition, we must be familiar with ideas before we can use them. To use the language-learning example, we should learn to listen and read before talking and writing.

Hey, so what does this mean for us (students)?

In the absence of sympathetic teachers/professors, we will have to work to become familiar with the knowledge faster. How can we do this you ask? I’m sure you can feel it coming: We have to immerse ourselves in the content, by listening and/or reading more. Try to assimilate as much of it as possible, but don’t fret too much if it all doesn’t sink in right away. Even that reading, as incomprehensible as it seems, is starting to build those neural pathways in your brain that will lead to understanding.

Stick with it; the comprehension will come. Case in point: You know that biochemistry blurb up there? I couldn’t have written is unless I had a relatively good understanding of the concept. A week ago, I couldn’t tell a phosphotase from a kinase—in simpler words, I couldn’t tell an apple from an orange.

What does this mean for teachers?

For teachers this means, giving students the opportunity to become familiar with these new ideas before making them the foundation of future lessons. Some more ancient wisdom: Build your house on sand and when the winds come, it will be a great fall. (That’s adapted from the bible, by the way.) I realize there are time constraints, but there’s no point in teaching, if no one is learning.

How can one find out if people understand? Try to ask students candidly if they understand the material. Students of all sorts, however, are not always willing to stick their necks out. You may have to probe their knowledge base with key questions. It can be hard, but awareness of the students’ level of comprehension is very important to teaching and learning.

Level of Understanding

I was in one of my labs, and I heard someone say, “Yeah, [that professor] knows too much to explain things easily.”

Initially, I thought this sounded silly, but I realized there was some credence to this comment. When one is at a certain higher level of knowledge, it’s hard for them to speak in terms of a former lower level of knowledge. Its hard to talk about politics simply, if you are so used to understanding and using political jargon, for example.

This is why teaching is such an art. The best teachers have learned to speak in terms of a common lexicon, so that more of their students may have a chance of understanding them.

The highest level of understanding is not when one can explain a concept in a complicated way, but instead when one can explain a complicated concept in a simple, succinct way. (I know there is another ancient wisdom quote that espouses this, but I couldn’t find it.)

For students, this means that we should strive for that higher level of knowledge. When we can explain concepts simply, we truly understand the material.

Often, I find that when my friends ask me about a recently learned concept, they cannot understand what I am talking about. This isn’t purely their fault; my explanation is weak, because my level of understanding is low. Once we augment our knowledge, we can give better explanations. That is true mastery.

So, inspired by the hilarious graph-based comic Indexed, I have decided to create a graph showing the relationship between Level of understanding and Complexity of explanation. (It looks a lot messier than I expected.)

Parabola of knowledge:

So students and teachers alike, remember to strive for the simple and clear explanation: it shows that you truly understand the material, and it will make everyone else’s life a lot simpler in the long run.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Life's a Business: Value-Added Proposition

One way to gain control of your own life and to empower yourself to achieve successful living is by treating your life and everything about it like a business. A lot of people, myself included, spend a large portion of their time on activities that yield no value. For example: Every time I watch TV, I’m really not learning anything and although I’m entertained, I’ve extracted zero long-term value out of that 2 hours of Jack Bauer ripping into necks and breaking heads. Businesses don’t make money when they spend their time on things that don’t add value.

All new businesses start off in a mess, with zero controls and poor management, but with great ideas. Similarly, people in general want to lose 20 lbs, they want to start running 5 km everyday and they want to be at the top of their class, but sadly most people don’t really know where to start or they simply lack the drive. Any business has four functions: operations, marketing, financials and human resources. Success in every element is crucial to the longevity and ultimately financial upside of any business.

The fundamental element of any business as well as personal success.
· Think about time: A normal week has 168 hours. Assuming you sleep 8 hours a day. That leaves 112 awake hours. Now assume you need to eat and groom. Being extremely generous, lets say it takes 2 hours a day, which equals 14. Which leaves 98 awake hours. If you’re an arts student you’re in class 20 hours a week. That leaves 78 hours. If you’re an engineering student or working you’re doing that for 40 hours a week. That leaves 58 hours a week to do learn something new.

· The point is that you have so much free time you can work another job or go to another school. This is all money making time, single moms know it, so should you.

· Adding Value: If you’re not spending time making money, you should be spending time on activities that yield money or other returns (wink wink, nudge nudge). So you analyze your week and realize you spend 2 hours riding a bus everyday. Go to your library and take out some books and read for those two hours while riding it. You run everyday for 30 minutes or drive? Get some audio books.

Taking out the trash: Stop doing activities that don’t add value. Stop watching tv, stop playing video games and stop wasting time. Instead of watching tv learn to play an instrument, instead of playing video games, play some real games outside and get some exercise. Instead of wasting time use it.

Stay tuned for all other functional areas of business.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Biochemistry makes me laugh

Usually, I try to keep things pretty informative, but when I saw this I decided I had to post it:

This is only a very small portion of all the chemical reactions happening in your cell. Click the image to see entirely too much cellular metabolism.

Don't worry, I don't need to learn all of this. I just thought it was a testimony to what we can discover. And how absurb these discoveries can be.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

You can remember everything

... Almost.

More and more, just from experience and from learning about cognitive psychology, I’ve found that we can remember much more that we thought. Even seemingly lost facts, places, faces, etc. can be found.

How can we perform such amazing feats? Through associative memory. (Those of you with some psychology background may not be too surprised.) In fact, this post is inspired by one cognitive neuroscientist who won $500,000 on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (A highly recommended read.)

The thing here is that while some people may have heard this before, it is something else completely to understand and apply this. Personally, I use 3 methods for extracting factoids from my head.

Think about:
  1. Related words/ideas
  2. the Situation you were in when you learned it
  3. Insane, random ideas
So for related ideas, if you are trying to remember the name of a perfume, think about a bunch of other perfumes or people that advertise them. I was trying to remember the type of perfume that my mom likes: Hmm, what was it? Not Channel No. 5. What person? Jennifer Lopez? Hell no. Elizabeth Taylor. Got it, White Diamonds!

Maybe that example was too metrosexual for you, maybe these other ones will make more sense.

For situational memory (or episodic memory), sometimes smelling something like a musty basement can bring back a flood of memories about playing table tennis oh-so-many years ago. In the same way, sometimes remembering where you were in the hallway in front of a washroom, when your friend mentioned magic mushrooms, the chemical muscarine (one chemical in some “magic mushrooms”) and your over-excited/under-clothed friend, can bring back memories that will help you on a pharmacology exam.

Frankly, when I’m really stuck, I like thinking of really insane, random things. If you have extra time during a test or anytime in life, I recommend this; it gets your brain moving in on a totally new path, which can get you out of that mental rut.

I’m going to use one of my dreams as an example, because I know people are getting a little tired of my arcane life sciences examples.

I had a dream last night, but when I woke up I only had the “feeling of a dream” left. Since I wanted to remember the dream, I stayed positive (important for letting those thoughts come back) and started looking around my room for associations. I looked at my headphones, and thought about a memory program I was listening to. Then I thought about books: from this I got a strong feeling that a book or books were important. Then I looked at the books in my room and saw one about the Korean language—suddenly I remembered my whole dream. (If you’re that curious as to what it was, you can ask in the comments.)

To get some free associations (to start the brain cascade), I don’t just look around wherever I am; sometimes I use a preset A-Z list of items (a peg list), body parts, random songs. It doesn’t actually matter what you choose, as long as you create some associations, and you go along with those that pull at your intuition.

I’m not saying that you will remember everything with this sort of thinking. If you are confident in yourself and your brain, however, you will remember a lot more than you previously thought possible.

Try it! Seriously! Try to connect “string” to your past, and just go with it. Appreciate all the rich associations that you make, and you’ll begin to appreciate what sorts of connections you are capable of. Inside of those connections and associations is an insanely large amount of information.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A new memory philosophy for a new year

Toward the end of last semester I’ve come across a different way of thinking about memory. It comes from an audio program from Vera Birkenbihl called Memory Optimizer.

She describes memory as construction: when you attempt to place a fact – say someone’s name – in your brain, you must first construct the idea of that name in your head. Every time that you recall this idea, you are reconstructing it in your mind.

The power of this idea lies in what it means for recalling or forgetting information. Previously, I thought that if I could not remember someone’s name, for example, it meant that I was stupid or inconsiderate. With the above memory philosophy, this is not the case. The person’s name is not available for me to recall, not because I am “stupid”, but instead because I did not construct it properly in the first place—I may not have heard/understood the name properly. So if I ask to hear the name clearly (maybe even a few times) and if I can associate it with something/someone familiar, I am much more likely to recall (reconstruct) their name in the future.

The quality of the reconstruction depends on the quality of the initial construction.

So we shouldn’t beat ourselves up if we can’t remember something, it is simply a case of poor construction. This is one of the main points I wanted to make in this piece, so I’m going to reiterate it. Go easy on yourself when you can’t remember something. You are still an intelligent person and it is with this intelligence that you can improve your idea construction. Maybe it’s just me, but after coming across this simple philosophy, I felt extremely liberated. That’s why I felt that you should know it as well.

Now, now, in the wake of Danny’s post regarding independence and accountability, it would be remiss of me to say we should leave the poor construction the way it is. Once we see that our idea structure isn’t as well built as we want it to be, it is up to us to fill in those cracks. Again, this is why it is important to quiz yourself before an exam so expose and repair those cracks while you have the time. And there’s only one construction worker on this site, and he/she works just as hard as you do.

So put on that hard hat and bring on the spackle! This is going to be a good year for mental construction. I can smell it.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Beginnings of Personal Growth

For the longest time, I was always fascinated in how things work and the little intricacies of life's puzzles. That fascination developed into a burning desire to learn and excel in my academic life. I'd read hundreds of books before I turned the age of 6. That continued into my adolescent life right up until the end of high school where my self-motivation and desire to do much of anything peaked and then came crashing down like 747. After that, it took me about 2 years to get back to where I once was, and here I am today.

My theory is that personal growth is rooted in two things: Accountability and Independence

If you want to start to get out of whatever rut you're in, you need to get those two things.

Accountability - what is it, and where can I get some?

What it is:

It is the simple concept of taking. Taking control of your life, taking what belongs to you and taking every and all opportunities available to you. It is taking responsibility for your actions and reaching a level of maturity that accepts and faces the consequences of said actions. A person who doesn't run from negative consequences is a person who is accountable. If you only take the positive and do not take the negative, then you are not accountable, you are a coward.

Gettin' Some:
  • Make a conscious effort to be accountable. Think it. Believe it. Do it.
  • Do not blame others, no matter what. Even if it appears to be some one else's problem and you are affected, you, in almost every circumstance, can do something about it.
    • Ex: Roommate pissing you off? Leave. Talk to the person. Move out.
    • Ex: Not liking school? Stop going. Change Programs. Find something you love.
  • Internalize every aspect of your life. You and only you have the ultimate control on what direction your life heads into.
  • Grow a pair. Face your fears. I believe someone said, there's nothing greater to fear but fear itself.
Independence -

What it is:
It is solitude. Being alone. Being NOT DEPENDENT. Yes, I realize you, me and everyone else understands the definition of independence, but few and far between experience it. True independence is when your reliance on others is minimal or nonexistent.

Gettin' Some:
  • Lose some friends. Face it, some friends you have are useless. Cut them out.
  • Rely on no one. Until you can satisfactory say, "I am happy. I can survive by myself." You should not be dependent on others, especially if you can't even depend on yourself.
  • Do it yourself. Stop seeking help, do it yourself for a change, learn something.
Those are the things a person has to do to truly grow. Obviously, I'm no suggesting blaming yourself for everything, but you should definitely seek your own faults before you seek others. Since you're reading this website, I was presume you've probably experience to some degree accountability or independence, but I challenge you to push it to further boundaries and achieving greater goals.

Personal growth is not like Christianity, you can't pay lip service every Sunday and expect results. You gotta be like a Mormon, go out there, believe it, breathe it, be it, and convert some heathens.

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Welcome Danny!

I'd like to formally introduce Danny Dang to The Gravy Way. Since he has already given his intro in the previous post, I cannot add more on that front.

However, I will use this opportunity to praise Danny. Danny Dang is an intelligent, creative, ambitious, sexually attractive man (there's more but I don't want to make people envious of him). When he contacted me about contributing to this site, I was tingling with excitement, because I know he'll bring a lot of amazing advice from a different perspective.

This is going to be a Dang-tastic new year!

(Sorry about being so slow on the introduction Danny. I'll blame it on jetlag and the alignment of position of Venus.)

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Making an Entrance from Stage Left.

Since Josh is a little slow on the times and hasn't bothered to introduce me, I shall introduce myself. For those that know Josh prior to being consumed with medicine then you probably know me, otherwise you're going to read some posts by yours truly, Danny Dang.

My posts will be centered around the same topics with a twist of anthropology. Less what to do, and more why and how. Most of my academic posts will be focused on Business and/or Math, as that's my program at the University of Waterloo. So for you crazy Queen's commerce kids, keep an eye out as I will be discussing studying for my CSC and eventually the CFA exams.

As Josh aspires to be a doctor someday, I aspire to be an senior investment banker on the sell-side or a portfolio manager on the buy-side.

Well stay tuned, as I will be posting in the next day or so.

If you enjoyed these learning tips and motivational strategies, maybe you'll enjoy the other posts. Please bookmark this page (Ctrl-D) or check out the archive/categories to the right. Better yet, tell a friend! (Click the envelope below this.)