Sleep is for wimps – oh and successful students

July 31, 2014

Get some sleepAlthough I am sure someone is preparing for an exam this very minute, July/August are the traditional months to take a holiday and get some well earned rest. A holiday can be exactly what you need especially if you have just come to the end of a long period of study followed by in some instances, weeks of exams.

I have to express a personal bias in so much that I believe holidays are essential if you are to be at your best. For me this years holiday has to provide some degree of relaxation after what has been a particularly busy 6 months. I am looking forward to a change of scene, meeting different people and the freedom to wake naturally, feeling rested after a good nights sleep. Holidays are of course very personal and for some an adventure holiday, travelling to new places every day, might be far more desirable.

But one thing that all holidays should provide is the ability to relax and catch up on sleep, even if that means you climb two mountains, swim for three hours before crashing out in a state of satisfied exhaustion on the evening.

Sleep is essential for learning 

Of course sleep is something you should do “properly” every day, it’s just that we don’t. Modern life steals that vital rest time, this is acutely the case when trying to balance both work and study. Studying is often undertaken on an evening and sometimes late into the night as you effectively try to do, too much in too little time.   We now sleep less than we did 50 years ago, it used to be around 8.5 hours, it’s now only 6.5. The sleep should also be of high quality, yet our sleep is interrupted by the lights of mobile phones, and sounds made when texts arrive late into the night. In order to sleep better it is a good idea to avoid light approximately 30 minutes before going to sleep, yet how many read in bed from iPads or equivalent with the bright light emitted from the screen telling your brain to stay awake.

Why sleep is important

We have known that sleep has been important for many years but we didn’t know why, cognitive scientists now have some of the answers. There are three views as to why sleep is beneficial:

One restoration – some of our genes only turn on when we sleep, their role being to make essential repairs.

Two conservation – we sleep to conserve energy, and

Three consolidation – our brain revisit events and experiences, and begins to make sense of them, moving data into long term memory and solving complex problems.

Susanne Diekelmann at the University of Tubingen in Germany says “sleep helps stabilise the memories and integrate them into a network of long-term memory, it also helps us to generalise what we’ve learnt, giving us the flexibility to apply the skills to new situations. So although you can’t soak up new material, you might instead be able to cement the facts or skills learned throughout the day.”  Bodies need rest – the brain needs sleep Sometimes you may find yourself having to push sleep to one side and in specific situations thats fine.

It’s when lack of sleep becomes the norm that problems arise, the result is greater stress, poor judgement and ineffective learning.   So now the exams are over, take a break, get some quality sleep and try and make a few simple adjustments in you life so that sleep takes more of a priority.

It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.

John Steinbeck  

Music to help you sleep and two video to watch but not just before you go to sleep

TED neuroscientist Russell foster  explains more about why we sleep  

Arianna Huffington talks about the importance of sleep


Teaching to the test – Interesting research but the fat lady is still in good voice

June 30, 2014

Fat lady still singingThis week researchers from the University of East Anglia released some very interesting findings that resulted from testing 594 bio-science students in their first week of term at five universities.

The students selected would be considered by many more than competent in their subject, almost all had a grade A*, A or B in biology at A-level. Yet when they were given 50 minutes to answer 38 multiple choice questions on cells, genetics, biochemistry and physiology from their A level core syllabus, they only got 40% correct. The period of time between the students sitting their A levels and the test was three months.

Lead researcher for the study, Dr Harriet Jones, said: “What our research shows is that students are arriving at university with fantastic A-level grades, but having forgotten much of what they actually learned for their exams.”  She went on to say that the trend to teach to the test, to ensure good results for schools’ reputations, was the problem.

The schools are to blame then

The facts of the research are clear, students who had successfully passed a test, were unable to pass a similar test three months later. The conclusion reached is that the students did not understand (see my blog on understanding) their subject well enough and passed their A levels probably using little more than memory. And who is to blame, the schools of course, for teaching to the test. Why the school do this is worthy of further debate, but government pressure and the impact of league tables will certainly be in the mix.

But do employers not accuse Universities of delivering up similar ill prepared students. The test is different but from the employers perspective the result is the same. A University student who professes to know something but when tested “in the real world” doesn’t.

Does this mean that Universities are also teaching to the test!

It’s about the test etc

The problem is not in teaching to the test; the problem is with the test, the pass mark and possibly the marking. If the test was more Testing but for what!aligned to what the student needs to know/do at a fundamental level, the pass mark sufficiently high and the marker having some degree of autonomy to form judgements, then the results would probably be different. It could of course be that the exams are easier – Exam chief: ‘you don’t have to teach a lot’ for our tests.

The big criticism of teaching to the test is, it results in a narrowness of understanding, little in the way of depth and does not push students to think in abstract and creative ways. But if the test, which incidentally does not have to be in the exam hall or on paper/PC was able to “test” for these qualities then teaching towards it would perhaps be more acceptable.

Bottom line

Teaching to the test is unlikely to change, in fact given the popularity of league tables  in education just now it may well increase, but with more effective testing the results might be better students, happy Universities and even happier employers.




Twas the night before ………..the exam – but what to do?

May 31, 2014

Well not exactly all night

For students May and June are the main exam months. Studying and learning can be enjoyable…. honestly, but the fun has to come to an end and it does, with the exam. It cannot be avoided and so is best embraced, treat the exam as a game and you the player. What you need to do is give yourself the very best chance of winning.

Become a professional exam taker, someone who follows a process of preparation, very much like a top sportsperson. This means you personally need to be in the best physical and mental shape and have a series of exercises that will get you match fit.

Below is your training regime from the night before the exam – good luck

The night before

You should by now have:

  • Read through and reduced your class/tuition notes down to approximately 10 pages (20 max) of revision notes, see March Blog on how to prepare notes. You may have some professionally produced revision notes, but it is still best to make your own.
  • Practiced past questions on the key examinable areas both under exam and non exam conditions.
  • Started the process of memorising the revision notes.

Be realistic – The key to the night before the exam is to be realistic. You don’t have much time, so don’t think you can cover everything. Let’s assume you have 3/4 hours, 6.00pm – 10.00pm maybe.

Put to one side the large folder that contains all your notes taken throughout the term/year, and concentrate only on the 10-20 page revision notes.

Focus and memorise – In the 3/4 hours that you have you want to get an overview of the subject and focus on the areas that need memorising. These should be the key examinable areas and are most likely to be standard formats, definitions, lists, formulas s not given in the exam etc.  Memorising should include some rewriting of notes, but very little, talking out loud, drawing pictures, writing out mnemonics etc. See my blogs on memory, in particular: Thanks for the memories  and To pass an exam do and exam.

Admin – make sure you have set to one side everything you will need the next day. This includes your exam entry documents, calculator, gum, mints etc. You don’t want to be thinking of these in the morning. And of course make sure you know exactly what time you need to leave to get to the exam with about 1 hour to spare.

Physical and mental preparation – Drink lots of water, avoid tea, coffee etc as you will need to get a good night’s sleep. Exercise is an incredibly effective method of reducing tension and stress. So you may want to build into your 4 hours, 30 minutes for a run or brisk walk. This could be at the half way point of your evening, combining a well earned break with the exercise maximises your time.

Getting sleep is important, so avoid reading your notes and then going straight to sleep. Pack you notes away, put them ready for the morning, then physically go into another room if possible or even outside, watch TV for 10 minutes, something trivial or read a book. You need to break the state of mind from that of studying, relaxation leads to sleep not stress.

And finally keep a positive attitude, think about what you know and are good at and not what you don’t know and are bad at. Keep telling yourself that you have done everything possible, and if you follow these steps you will have. Thinking you know nothing and should have done more will not help at this stage, it’s a pointless thought strategy and not what the professional exam taker does.

The morning before

Set your alarm sufficiently early to give you at least another hour of revision. You don’t need to get out of bed, just continue memorising your notes. This is now about little and often, short 10 minute intervals. Don’t worry about falling to sleep in the exam; the adrenalin won’t let you.

1 hour before

What you do after arriving at the exam centre/School etc  is personal. Some will prefer to sit on their own going over the revision notes; don’t bother taking your folder of course notes. This is still very much about short term memory. Others will prefer to talk, chatting about nothing, just to stop them worrying. Both are fine.

After the examExam post it!

Afterwards is also a little personal, most will go home, but some will want to talk through what was in the exam, looking perhaps for some conformation they have not made a complete mess of it. Most importantly, if you have another exam, go home, put your old revision notes to one side, forget everything and start on your next subject.

The American basket ball player Art Williams had a good saying that I will leave you with. I’m not telling you it is going to be easy — I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it”

And although personally I found exams difficult I have never regretted the hard work, it was for me worth it.

And something to watch

How to: Cram the night before a test and PASS

Or you could try this

This blog is for Beth – good luck xx


Eureka – I Understand Understanding!

April 29, 2014

I Understand!If you understand the subject you are studying your chances of passing the exam must be good.

A simple and perhaps obvious statement but what does understand mean and what do you have to do to truly understand something? Of course understanding is a key part of passing but it is not enough on its own, you can understand something yet fail because you run out of time, misinterpret the question, thought you understood but didn’t! etc.

To understand

The dictionary defines to understand as, to know what someone or something means, to grasp the meaning, to be familiar with, make sense of etc. Understanding is clearly different to knowing, for example, you may know that gravity is a force that pulls objects to earth but that does not mean you understand what gravity is or how it works. Of course you need both knowledge and understanding, the one is no good without the other. Examiners try to test for understanding by asking questions that require you to compare, contrast, explain, interpret etc.

Understanding is not a Eureka moment, it has different levels. It might seem that there is a point where you didn’t understand and then suddenly you did, a Eureka moment. In reality what you have done is move closer to gaining a better and fuller understanding. Ask any lecturer or teacher, often they will tell you they never fully understood something until they had to teach it, they just thought they did.

Proving you understand – The 6 facets of understanding

Understanding by design, Wiggins and McTighe (1998) is one part of an instructional design process that provides a very helpful framework we can use to explore the depth of understanding and perhaps more importantly what you can do to develop a deeper understanding. Think of it as a hierarchy with the easiest one first, the greater you’re understanding the higher the number.

1. Explain, the classic exam question – Explain to someone what the concept/idea means and say why. Explaining out loud to yourself or making a recording can be just as effective.

2. Interpretation – Relate the concept/idea to your own experiences, tell a meaningful story. Try to add something personal into your explanation. To do this you will need to reflect on past events, whilst attempting to find parallels with the concept/idea.

3. Application – Use the concept/idea in a different context. The ability to apply knowledge in different contexts (transfer) is a key milestone in learning as well as understanding. It should result in you never being caught out by a difficult exam question. Understand to this level and it doesn’t matter what the examiner asks.

4. Perspective - Read around the concept/idea, get other people’s views, and see the big picture. If your struggling with understanding, read another text book or my favourite is to go onto you tube and watch a video. The internet is great for discovering alternative views.

5. Empathy – Try to get inside another person’s feelings about the concept/idea. This is difficult as it requires you to put aside your feelings about the concept/idea and accept that it is not the only way of thinking about it.

6. Self Knowledge – Ask questions about your understanding, ask what are the limits of your understanding, what are your prejudices, become aware of what you don’t understand. Often called metacognition, the ability to think about thinking.

The Eureka moment

Understanding, like Eureka moments are not of course the result of sitting in a bath and suddenly finding you understand something you had previously found confusing. It is the gift of hard work and long hours of study, hopefully by trying some of the techniques above your depth of understanding will only improve.

Ps apparently the jeweller was trying to cheat the king….

Understanding by Design

Want to know more about understanding by design, watch this. 




An illogical great idea – Tips for making study notes

March 31, 2014

Illogical my dear WatsonLogic is a process driven by reasoning. Here is a logical argument: Everything I need to know is in this book, if I read this book I will know everything.

And yet this is what most students do. Read the book, then begin the laborious and time consuming process of re writing some of it, which bits are chosen can at times be a little random.

On the face of it this, dare I say is illogical. If the book contains everything you need to know then why re write it, and why only parts?

The answer – because as every student knows, if they are to stand any chance of learning what’s in the book rewriting is essential. This is one of the arguments for taking notes. But notes are not just made from a book they are also used to capture what is said by the lecturer or teacher.

But first……

Here is a simple example borrowed from a colleague (thanks Gareth). Below are four opposites, can you find the missing letters?

  • Pa-s & Fail
  • Amate-r & -rofessional
  • -ccid-ntal & Intenti-na-
  • Co-p-ls-r- & V-lun-a- -

I will come back to this at the end.

Student own notes?

Making notesThere are two reasons for making notes, one because it helps with learning (Encoding) and secondly so that you have a copy for reference later (External storage). I will focus on the encoding in this blog.

Encoding – Three factors have an impact on the effectiveness of students making their own notes.

  • The amount of effort - If you take notes but make very little effort to understand what is being said, simply recording the lecturer’s words, the value of taking your own notes is limited.  It is far better to identify and highlight the key points being made and add your views and inferences.
  • The nature of the input – If the lecturer is speaking quickly or giving little time to consolidate what is being said then the quality of the notes will be affected. The most effective rate for speaking is thought to be around 84 words per minute. A second factor is the density of facts to words, if the density is low, 106 facts to 2,000 words then student notes are far better than if the density is higher at say 206 facts to 2,000 words.
  • The learner’s purposes and goals – Of course each student will have an objective for being in the lecture in the first place; often this is to pass the exam.  Research shows that students will take down what the lecturer  says  and therefore learn more if, the topic is believed to be examinable, is written out by the lecturer, dictated or repeated.

Pre-prepared (lecturer) notes

What the above shows is that making your own notes is probably the most effective way of learning as long as you are not simply recording what is said without thought. The more you add and personalise the notes with your own views the better. However as can be seen taking notes in class has its problems, the quality is affected by the speed and density of delivery and the learner’s goals. So maybe the best notes are those prepared by the lecturer?

Although I was not able to find any definitive research on this very point, Fisher and Harris (1973) did conclude that students “who reviewed (used for revision) their own notes outperformed those who reviewed the lecturer’s notes.”

What we can say is that pre-prepared (lecturer notes) can help overcome some of the problems with students own notes. But they should not be complete; they should not contain everything the student needs to know. If they do not only will the notes become too large but they will leave the student with few opportunities to add their own thoughts and as a result learn.

And last…….

At the start of this blog I asked you to find the missing letters. I hope the task itself was not too onerous, it was meant to show that when you have to think and make an effort you are far more likely to remember at a later date. So tomorrow when you reflect back on this blog, ask yourself which ones do you remember – it should be the ones lower down the list.


I have written before on making notes and mind maps – click the links below

Mind Mapping unplugged – How to Mind Map from beginning to end

The De Vinci code – Mind Mapping to pass exams

Also to read more about the research used to write this blog click here

The answers just in case

Pass & Fail – Amateur & Professional – Accidental & Intentional – Compulsory & Voluntary

50 Shades Darker – How much to test

February 28, 2014

How much to test

In August last year I wrote how Professional accountancy bodies believe that competency can be measured by a candidate scoring 50% and failure if scoring 49%. This all or nothing approach seems neither fair nor useful; hence the idea that grades of competence could be introduced e.g. 50% pass, 65% commendation, 75% distinction etc.

But the mark a student gets in an exam is only part of the story when it comes to measuring competence. Can a student be considered competent if the exam they pass only includes questions from say 75% of the syllabus? Yes the whole syllabus might be covered in an 18 month period but in any one exam 25% is not tested. Equally the 75% is often considered core and so examined every sitting, this means that a student need only focus on the 75%. Admittedly if the pass mark is 50% they need to score 50% out of 75% (67%) but with practice this is possible. One final observation, it is unlikely the student will score 0% on the non-core part of the syllabus. They may get say 5% or even 10% out of 25%. Not a great score but the 67% pass mark now becomes 58%. This logic sits at the heart of the exam driven approach.

Objective testing might be the answer?

Objective tests (OT) – test that are relatively short and can be unambiguously marked, are considered by some to be a weaker form of assessment, they are part of the dumbing down of examinations. The beauty of an OT question is that the marking is completely accurate, no marking bias at all. This is often ignored in traditional exams and not seen as a problem largely because it’s not that visible. But the OT does not solve the “how much to test” problem, in fact it makes it worse. If you are asking for less then you are examining less. So if the only benefit is the avoidance of marker bias why are more examining bodies using OT style exams, is it just about saving money…….?

An example

Imagine that you have 4,500 OT style questions that cover every aspect of the syllabus, let’s also assume that the student only has to answer 50. The 50 questions are randomly picked from the 4,500 in the question bank. Is it fair that a student is considered competent if they are only being tested on 1% of what they need to know?

I think the answer is Yes, because in order to be sufficiently prepared to answer 50 questions from a bank of 4,500 when there are no core topics you have to have be capable of getting all 50 correct (assuming a 100% pass mark) and because you don’t know which 50 are coming up this effectively means you have to be able to get all 4,500 correct. The examining body can of course control  the effectiveness and level of difficulty by changing the pass mark.

All OTs would be OTT

This is not an argument to suggest that all examinations should be assessed using OT type questions, they should not. For example they are not Less-is-Morevery effective at measuring a student’s ability to communicate or evaluate complex and ambiguous situations, but they should be considered part of the tool kit that examining bodies have in assessing competence.

So on the face of it OT’s may look like a soft option, anyone can tick a box but they are certainly not easy to get right. Maybe less is actually more…..


Carrots and sticks – Motivation and the thinking Donkey

January 31, 2014

Donkey carrot and stickMotivation is one of those topics that is so important to learning and passing exams that we will constantly keep coming back to it.

If you are motivated when studying then you will study for longer, more frequently and be more focused.

As a result I have written about motivation in the past Motivation – How to want to study, Rocky boxing No – it’s about motivation to name but two.

I have always liked the simple idea that if you want to motivate someone to do something then you give them a reward (carrot) or a punishment (stick). You will probably have used carrot and stick techniques on yourself. If I answer these exam questions by the weekend I will have Sunday off or if I don’t answer these exam questions by the weekend then I won’t have Sunday off.

But are we more complicated?

In his book Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us, Daniel H Pink (a former Al Gore speech writer) argues that there are in fact three motivational systems. One survival , motivated to eat, drink and reproduce. Two, seek reward and avoid punishment, the so called carrot and stick and three, intrinsic  motivation, the idea that motivation comes from within not from external stimuli.

These are not mutually exclusive, you are still motivated to eat, drink and reproduce, equally carrots and sticks do work, but what are these intrinsic motivators.

Type X and Type I

Type X behaviour is fuelled more by extrinsic desire, how much money will I get, I don’t want to have to work Sunday, this fits with carrot and stick. Type I behaviour requires intrinsic motivation and is concerned with the satisfaction gained from an activity. Pink argues that extrinsic motivation works better for algorithmic/routine tasks that require little cognitive processing. But if you have to think, understand, create then intrinsic motivation is more effective. Got it……

And the point is……

Studying and learning require a huge amount of cognitive processing (It is a type I behaviour) and so rather than using carrot and stick motivators you would be better using intrinsic ones. Pink explains that intrinsic motivators can be broken into Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

  • Autonomy – This can be achieved by making your own decisions as to how you study when you study, rather than listening to others or being rewarded for doing it. It’s about taking ownership.
  • Mastery -This is a mind set and involves you believing that what you are learning is not something in isolation but contributing to a greater and longer term skill set.
  • Purpose – This links nicely back to goals, which has been the topic of previous blogs. You must feel that what you are learning has some value and purpose possibly beyond simply passing the exam. Will it help you do your job better etc

Motivation can be difficult to understand, personally I feel that it does come from within (intrinsic), it’s my desire to do something not someone else’s and so the argument that you should not use carrot and stick (extrinsic ) type rewards makes a whole lot of sense.

Let me know what you think….?

Listen to Daniel H Pink at TED And an RSA animated lecture 


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