Category Archives: *Affective: Motivation to Behaviour

Better Living: If Pedagogy is how to help students to best live and learn, then Tedagogy is about our (teachers’) development, growth and understanding of ourselves.

It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they don’t think they can succeed

I just attended a lecture by Roy Beaumeister. It was a wide ranging talk about the past, the future, and how predictions and prospections of the future influence decision making. One experiment that Roy spoke of piqued my interest when considering it in relation to what I’ve seen with my students, and their motivation, in the classroom.

The experiment had two conditions (let’s call them red and blue). To start off with, individuals in both conditions were asked to answer six questions. However,  the results were rigged such that individuals in the blue condition were told that two of their answers were correct, and those in the red condition were told that five of their six answers were correct. Then all subjects were asked to make a happiness forecast, they were asked a question like ‘We’re now going to give you six similar questions, how happy do you think you’d be next time if you got all six correct’*. Their happiness forecasts can be seen in the image below.

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 6.46.41 pm

That is, individuals who only got two questions correct the first time (blue) said something along the lines of ‘oh yeah, I guess I’d be kinda happy if I got all of the correct’, whereas those who got five correct the first time, and thought they had a pretty good chance of getting six correct, said something like ‘oh yeah, I’d be really quite happy to get six correct!’.

Then came the moment of truth. All were again presented with six questions and this time all participants were told that they got all six questions correct! So… how happy were they? Here are the results.

Office Lens 20170222-183320

When looking at this graph I thought about my own classroom. I thought about all of the students over the years who have said ‘I hate maths’ or ‘I don’t care about this anyway’. Could it be that it isn’t that these students don’t care, it isn’t that they hate maths, it’s just that they rate their chances of success so low that it’s a pragmatic decision for them to assume that they don’t care? This could in fact be a rational and calculated decision on their part that aims to lessen the pain of anticipated failure. Beaumister alluded to one of Aesop’s Fables

An hungry Fox with fierce attack
Sprang on a Vine, but tumbled back,
Nor could attain the point in view,
So near the sky the bunches grew.
As he went off, “They’re scurvy stuff,”
Says he, “and not half ripe enough–
And I ‘ve more rev’rence for my tripes
Than to torment them with the gripes.”
For those this tale is very pat
Who lessen what they can’t come at.

It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they don’t think they can succeed. It’s our job as teachers to teach in such a way that these students experience success and, bit by bit, they’ll come to value success higher because they’ll believe it’s achievable, and they’ll be willing to invest more effort to attain it. The good news is, as the right two columns of the graph show, the further behind the students come from, the more they’ll enjoy the achievement when they get there!

*I’ve recounted this experiment as well as I can remember, but this is currently in press so I wasn’t able to go over it to fact check my recollection of Roy’s explanation of the study.

Dealing with Test Anxiety: Avoidance, Acceptance and White Bears.

Have you ever heard of the white bear intelligence test? Whoever thinks of a white bear the least is the smartest. So, let’s try it out:

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 8.42.06 AM

The test starts now: Don’t think of a white bear…

I told you not to think of a white bear!  Ok, so you thought of a white bear. But now you really have to stop thinking about a white bear, the more you think about it the dumber you are. Just suppress the thought of a white bear so there is absolutely no image of a white bear in your head.

I said DON’T THINK ABOUT A WHITE BEAR, this really isn’t looking good for your intelligence score…

Obviously this isn’t a very good test of intelligence, so why are we thinking about white bears and trying to suppress these thoughts? Because this is an exercise used by Senay, Cetinkaya and Usaka (2012) to explore acceptance of test-anxiety-related thoughts as a means of  helping students to improve their test performance.

For many people, anxiety about tests is one of the main factors that reduces test performance. This occurs because anxious thoughts such as “I’m no good at maths” or “I’m going to fail” or “this is too hard” occupy space in working memory. This reduces the cognitive processing power that’s available to be allocated to actually doing the test (Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001). The default coping strategy for many students is to try to suppress these anxious thoughts, but what can often happen is that (as with the white bear whom we met above) the thoughts just keep on popping up, and sometimes trying to suppress them can just increase their prevalence!

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 9.21.27 AMThere’s a compounding factor at play here too, and that’s the fact that students often realise that these anxious thoughts are compromising their performance. This adds extra pressure on them to suppress these thoughts (pressure that I tried to simulate above by suggesting that the white bear exercise was in fact an intelligence test [but I probably didn’t fool you]) and can lead to the vicious cycle pictured to the right.

note: It can infact be more like a vicious spiral, with the student getting more and more stressed as the test goes on… but I didn’t know how to make a spiral in Microsoft SmartArt Graphics.

Senay, Cetinkaya and Usaka (2012) wanted to test ‘acceptance’ as a technique to help students deal with test-related-anxiety. They took 87 college freshmen, both male and female who were doing an intro-to-psychology class, and performed the intervention immediately prior to a class test. They split the participants into 4 groups. A control group (told to just do the exam is they normally would), a group who had a 10 minute training on anxiety avoidance techniques*, a group had a 10 minute training on anxiety acceptance techniques**, and a group who received training in both.

*ie: avoid the things that are likely to produce anxiety for as long as you can. In this case the main technique spoken about was to pass any difficult questions and come back to them once all of the easy questions were completed

**Here the students were told to 1: don’t try to suppress anxious thoughts (at this point the white bear example was invoked to prove that suppression doesn’t actually work), 2: not pass judgement on whether or not their anxious thoughts were justified (eg: ‘Am I having this thought because I actually am dumb?’ This equates to realising that the “White Bear Intelligence Test” is in fact not an intelligence test), 3: see anxious thoughts are something that are going to naturally pass through a person’s mind, and that they don’t have to do anything about them. From time to time, everyone thinks about white bears!

I’m keen to emphasise here that this intervention was only 10 minutes long, and immediately prior to the test, this makes the results even more interesting!

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Of course it was checked that there wasn’t any bias present in the groups prior to the training (ie: all groups had a similar distribution of ‘anxious’ and ‘not-so-anxious-ish’ people) and all that jazz, and in the end, this is what came out in the wash (see right, from pg. 423)

All 3 treatment groups did (statistically) significantly better than the control group!

The authors also looked at test scores as a function of how frequently test strategy was employed. This was measured by asking the participants to rate, on a scale from 1 to 7, whether they used coping techniques (7 being very frequently). This revealed an interesting result.

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 9.03.22 AMEssentially, the more often the treatment participants employed the techniques, the more successful they were in the test (correlation). Conversely, more frequent use of techniques by the control group (techniques of their own choosing) was correlated with lower exam scores. This was likely because it was simply an indication that they were having more anxious thoughts, which were not being effectively dealt with and thus compromising their performance.

Also interesting to note is that there was no statistically significant difference between the results of the 3 treatment groups. The authors suggested that this could have been due to a ceiling effect whereby maximum returns to technique were reached by either of the strategies used in isolation (acceptance or avoidance). Thus, using strategies in combination didn’t yield any significant improvements above the use of either of them individually.

So, in conclusion, you help your students to improve their test performance by letting them know that skipping hard questions and coming back to them later and by telling them that it’s ok and normal to have anxious thoughts. “When you have anxious thoughts you can just think to yourself ‘how interesting, an anxious thought, oh well, that’s normal’ and continue on with your test”. I’m amazed by how just a 10 minute intervention had statistically significant results!

I would be interested to see the effects of longer term acceptance strategy training, such as meditation, on an individual’s ability to deal with anxious thoughts. I’m personally really enjoying using the Headspace app at the moment to do daily meditation. And I do feel that an approach of ‘seeing my thoughts as passing cars on the road, there’s no need to get picked up and taken away by them, just watch them pass’ has really helped me to be more positive and let negative emotions go more easily since I started the training a few weeks ago  :)


Ashcraft, M. H., & Kirk, E. P. (2001). The Relationships among working memory, math anxiety, and performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 224–237.

Senay, I., Cetinkaya, M. and Usak, M. (2012). Accepting test-anxiety-related thoughts increases academic performance among undergraduate students. Psihologija, 45(4), pp.417–432.




S.A.(U).L.T : My 5 step approach to efficient learning and studying

This post is for application once you’re at the point where you actually WANT to learn. If you’re still struggling with motivation please refer to this post on motivation.

Efficient studying will look different for everyone. And there are many different techniques that can help. The path to efficient study for me has been ongoing, and it’s been something that I’ve been working on for several years. At this point in time I can distill my learnings to date into 5 steps that I feel encapsulate the main things that I’ve learnt about how to learn as fast and as well as possible.

I use an acronym to remember my approach. S.A.(U).L.T. The letters stand for

  1. Screen shot 2014-09-12 at 4.43.31 PMSurvey
  2. Acquire
  3. Understand
  4. Link
  5. Train

The U is in brackets for 2 reasons. Firstly, because depending on the content, understanding may come at this point, or it may only come after all other four steps. This may sound a bit counterintuitive, but it’s something that we have to learn to be comfortable with. Secondly, because putting U in brackets makes the acronym look more like S.A.L.T, which is easier to remember!!!

Survey is about working out what you need to learn. This can be thought of in the ‘ask around’ survey kind of a sense or the ‘survey the scene’ kind of a sense. If you’re preparing for a test, Survey is about finding out what is most likely to come up in the test, if you’re trying to learn a language, Survey is about finding the high frequency words, and learning them first. In this step we are sketching the outline of our learning and trying to recognise patterns in the information that we can take advantage of. Read the article on survey here.

Acquire: after you’ve pinpointed the key lessons that you need to learn to reach your learning goal, acquire is about finding the best information that you can in order to understand it. This step includes knowing when to bail on your lecturer and how to take notes effectively. See the article on Acquire here.

Understand: Some things you’ll understand straight away and the ‘understand’ step will easily fit in right between acquire and link. But sometimes this is a huge challenge. This is the step where we often are challenged in moving from concrete to abstract ideas, or the other way around. We can think of understanding as the lynchpin or keystone of learning. It needs to be there otherwise learning hasn’t really taken place. But, as mentioned, sometimes we have to be patient and follow through with the next two steps before we truly understand. Here’s the article on understanding.

Link: Ever understood a concept in class but the next day it was just as much of a mystery as before your revelation? This is because you didn’t Link your new knowledge to something you already know. Once we’ve gained an understanding of a concept (or whilst we’re trying to gain an understanding of a concept) we need to explicitly link it to something we already know so that our newly acquired knowledge doesn’t just float away. Here’s how to Link.

Train: Train/Practice/Review, all of these words mean the same thing. This last step of efficient learning can take as little or as much time as you like, it depends on what you want out of it. If you only want to remember the info for a multiple choice test tomorrow, your requirement for training will be minimal. If you want to remember it for life, this will be an ongoing process. This article first deals with why you should bother training then moves on to how to do it. Article on Training.

Train: The last of the 5 steps of efficient learning

This is the fourth in the five steps of efficient learning that are outlined here

Train: Train/Practice/Review, all of these words mean the same thing. This last step of efficient learning can take as little or as much time as you like, it depends on what you want out of it. If you only want to remember the info for a multiple choice test tomorrow, your requirement for training will be minimal. If you want to remember it for life, this will be an ongoing process. This article first deals with why you should bother training then moves on to how to do it.

Why Train?

Training facilitates the following process, each of outcomes is discussed below1.

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In the following I refer quite a bit to the importance of storing things in long term memory in order to make space in your working memory for thinking. If this doesn’t make sense to you yet. Read this article on how knowing things facilitates Critical Thinking.

From Short Term to Long Term Memory

This is the difference between remembering something for only a short period of time and having it available to call upon whenever you need it. As I explain in the critical thinking article I linked to above, without storing information in your long term memory you’ll be clogging up your working memory and be significantly compromising your ability to solve problems. Unless you’ve remembered it you simply don’t know it.

Making it Automatic

I remember one time when I was learning to drive I was travelling along the highway with my friend in the back seat and my mum suggested that I change lanes to take an exit. I checked my mirrors and started to do a head check when I felt the steering wheel move. I looked forward again and mum was holding the steering wheel. I glanced at my mate in the rear view mirror and he had a very worried look on his face. I had been veering off the road!

At this point in my learning-to-drive process I understood how to do it and I could physically drive. All the info of the process was stored in my long term memory, but the process wasn’t automatic for me yet. It took conscious concentration for me to drive and I’d have to go through the steps in my head. eg: when taking off:  “clutch in, turn car on, indicate, get the revs up, let the clutch of slowly till it bites, ease the hand break off, check mirror, shoulder check, move out onto road”. This was an attention consuming process and meant that if I got distracted by something my passengers were in a risky position!

This is the same for all learning. For something like maths, we want to make the basic rules of algebra automatic so that we can think about how to solve new problems without having our working memory clogged up with wether you need to divide or multiply both sides by 5 to isolate x.  Training to the point of automaticity is vital for taking your learning to the next level and especially for performing well in stressful situations.


I mentioned transfer in step 3: Understand. Transfer occurs when you’re able to apply an idea or concept to an unfamiliar situation because you understand it well enough. Transfer can happen shortly after a concept has been transferred to long term memory, but training helps to cement it, and automaticity frees up working memory space so that you can think of new and more creative ways and apply the concept to novel situations.

Other than just being able to solve questions that we’ve never seen before, there are other ways that we can test for transfer. One way to test for transfer is to ask if we could think of a new situation in which the principle in question could apply, this new situation could be just  an example, or it could be in the form of an analogy.

eg: If your english class has just been exploring the concept of Irony*, the teacher may ask ‘can anyone think of any new examples of ironic situations?’. A student may reply, ‘You’re walking to work then a piano falls on your head’ . If this is the case, you could conclude that this student hasn’t quite grasped the concept solidly enough for transfer to occur. If, however, they suggest ‘You poke your eye out whilst putting on your safety glasses’ or ‘The ambulance set out to save the lady but ran over a man on the way’ it would be clear that transfer had occurred.

*Irony: A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things. (In French ironie du sort.) -Oxford english dictionary.

How to Train

Screen shot 2014-09-12 at 4.36.05 PMThe most important and most ignored principal of revision is to SPACE YOUR PRACTICE. This is the case for mental tasks. For physical tasks ‘cramming’ can often be effective because muscle memory is different to mental memory. The best way to space out your practice is by using Spaced Repetition Software. If you have read many of the articles on this blog before then you should be familiar with the software Anki by now. This article I put together about Anki is one of the first articles I ever wrote on this blog, and it remains one of the most relevant.

Once you’ve got your head around spacing your training effectively here are some other tips. These tips have been written with maths and physics type questions in mind, but they apply to many other scenarios too.

  • Practice with questions that have solutions so that you know you’re practicing the correct thing!
  • ‘Batch’ your practice. ie: Practice one type of question at a time. Make  sure you understand how to deal with that type of question before moving on to the next
  • Shorten Feedback loops: This is related to batching. If you practice a question that’s too long, by the time you get to the end of it you won’t remember what you were doing at the start. It can be helpful to do one section of a question at a time and check your progress before moving on.
  • Time yourself: In a test situation you have a limited time. You need to develop the ability to answer questions quickly so that you get through the test in time. Ideally the questions that you know how to do you should be able to do them under the time allocated to them to free up time in the test/exam for you to deal with questions that you haven’t come across before.
  • Practice questions multiple times: A trap for young players, I’ve often heard the comment ‘I’ve done this question before’. That’s great, but can you do it again? More importantly, will you be able to do it in the test? You really want to be training to the point of automaticity.

EXCELLENT. So now you’ve Surveyed the topic, Acquired the best possible information, Understood it (maybe already, maybe understanding will come later), Linked new info to things you already know and you’ve just Trained your skills to the point of automaticity. Now it’s time to work out how to perform under pressure (article to come soon).


  1. See kindle Location 2074 of Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students LIke School?

Memory 201: Mnemonics – Supercharging Your Memory

If you’ve already read the  articles Memory 101 and Memory 102 then start reading from the “Mnemonics” heading two paragraphs below this message. 

In the previous two articles in this memory series I wrote about how, in order to remember something new, it’s necessary to link new knowledge to existing knowledge. We called this existing knowledge ‘memory anchors’. There are two main ways that we can link new knowledge to old knowledge. The first is anchoring for meaning and the second is through using mnemonics. This article addresses the latter.

Anchoring for meaning is a much stronger way of building memory connections than mnemonics is. Anchoring for meaning means we logically connecting ideas in ways that reflect how those concepts are actually linked in the real world. However, there will be times when anchoring for meaning isn’t possible (see the bottom of the anchoring for meaning article for examples) In times like these a Mnemonic are your best bet.

In this mnemonic, knuckles represent months with 31 days and spaces in-between knuckles represent months with 30 days (except for Feb of course)

In this mnemonic, knuckles represent months with 31 days and spaces in-between knuckles represent months with 30 days (except for Feb of course)


Mnemonics are an array of memory techniques that can be used to memorise something. They can be linked to something on your body, someone you know, or something you’ve imagined. One of the key things to be sure of when you’re making a mnemonic is that the thing you’re attaching the new info to isn’t going to disappear (ie: it’s a good memory anchor), eg: tThe hands in the above picture aren’t going anywhere… hopefully. Here are some of the key mnemonic methods.

  • Acronyms: This is when you create a word where each of the letters of that word is the start of another word. An example of this would be S.A.(U).L.T. This acronym stands for Survey, Acquire, Understand, Link, Train, and is the one that I use to remember the five steps of efficient learning. When making an acronym, it’s ideal to make it in such a way that the word that’s the basis of the acronym (S.A.(U).L.T) is easy to remember itself (this one looks like SALT, with a bowl of salt ‘U’ in the middle). These are great for remembering combinations of words or concepts.
  • The Link Method: The link method is when you link various things together in any way you like, often this works best if you visualise them being linked together. This is a great way to remember lists of objects. For an example of the link method in use see this article.
  • Method of Loci, aka: Journey Technique: Method of Loci is a fantastic method for remembering things such as speeches or essays. You think of a location that you already know well, such as your house, and you attach different points from the speech or essay to different locations in the house. For an inspiring example of this see Joshua Foer’s TED Talk on it.
  • Stories are pretty self explanatory. This is a good one for teachers. If you are looking to teach your lesson in the format of a story, the four key components of a good story are  causality, conflict, complications and strong characters (the 4 Cs). How to make this work is a bit harder than it sounds and for those interested in exploring storytelling further, Daniel Willingham in suggests the book:  Druxman, M. B. (1997). The art of storytelling: How to write a story.
  • Songs: Awesome! put the info you want to remember into a song : )
  • Analogies: I leave analogies at the end here because they’re half way between anchoring for meaning and mnemonics. They’re finding an example of something that we already know where some key characteristic/relationship reflects a key characteristic/relationship in the new thing that we’re trying to learn. Analogies are a powerful way of understanding difficult concepts and I discuss them in more detail in this article about understanding.

Mnemonics require creativity to come up with. Perhaps you struggle writing songs, so maybe that isn’t a good one for you, perhaps you have trouble visualising things, maybe the link method isn’t going to be that useful. Regardless, successful use of mnemonics is something that is going to take time and practice to develop. I must stress, mnemonics can be anything. It’s simply a creative way of linking ideas together in such a creative, funny, emotive, sad, etc way that you’re not going to forget it!

You can often find mnemonics that others have found helpful such as SOHCAHTOA or ELI the ICE man. That said, mnemonics that you make up yourself are more likely to stick in your head batter.

Once you got a mnemonic for a concept the next step is to practice it frequently enough that you remember it! This brings us to the last of the 5 steps to efficient learning, Train.


Link: The fourth of the 5 steps of efficient learning

This is the fourth in the five steps of efficient learning that are outlined here

Ever understood a concept in class but the next day it was just as much of a mystery as before your revelation? This is because you didn’t Link your new knowledge to something you already knew. Once we’ve gained understanding of a concept (or whilst we’re trying to gain an understanding of a concept) we need to explicitly link it to something we already know so that our newly acquired knowledge doesn’t just float away.

In Cognitive Science, linking new information to old is referred to as “Anchoring” (we can connect the concepts of ‘Link’ to an ‘Anchor’ by thinking about how anchors are usually on the end of chains that are made of links). For a more in-depth discussion of Anchoring you can read this article, Memory 101: Memory Anchors-The Basis of Remembering. 

If this concept intuitively makes sense to you then you can move straight on to exploring HOW to anchor information.

There are two ways to anchor a memory in your mind. You can either attach it to previous knowledge in a way that is logical and reflects connections in the real world. This is called “Anchoring for Meaning“. If this isn’t an option then you can link the new knowledge to old in a way that doesn’t make sense necessarily but that is memorable. This is called “Anchoring via a Mnemonic“. To explore these two concepts, check out the links below.

After you’ve got a hold of step 4: Link, you can move on to the final of the 5 steps of efficient learning, Train.


Understand: The third of the 5 steps of efficient learning

This is the third of the five steps of efficient learning that are outlined here

Understand: Some things you’ll understand straight away and the ‘understand’ step will easily fit in right between acquire and link. But sometimes this is a huge challenge. This is the step where we often are challenged in moving from concrete to abstract ideas, or the other way around. We can think of understanding the lynchpin or keystone of learning. It needs to be there otherwise learning hasn’t really taken place.

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But sometimes  it’s unrealistic to expect understanding to come straight away. Sometimes the content is just so hard that it’s going to take a while to sink in. In this kind of a scenario we may have to be patient and follow through with the next two steps (link and train) before we truly understand. Regardless, there are things we can do to boost our chances of understanding, and make it happen faster. This article details some excellent methods.

But first, Here’s my top tip for understanding: DON’T LIE!!!


This may sound like a strange place to start when we’re discussing understanding but it really is the basis. What I’m talking about here is lying to yourself or to your teacher. If you tell yourself that you understand before you do, or tell your teacher that you understand before you do, then the next piece of content will be moved on to and that just doesn’t help anyone.

I can’t stress this enough. It’s a lesson that has taken me a long time to learn. But not for myself, It’s never made any sense to me to lie about whether I understand or not. But it appears to be pretty common for lots of people*.

As a teacher I’ve been in the following situation countless times: I’ll explain a concept and a student says ‘aha‘ or ‘oh, I get it now‘ or ‘yeah, that makes sense‘. I think ‘great, we’ve really had an aha moment!’, only to discover that they fail the test and when I ask them ‘what happened’ they tell me they didn’t really understand in the first place.

As such, now if a student says ‘aha’ or another such exclamation I’ll say ‘great, now you explain it to me’…. 

Half the time, that’s what I hear. Which is great. It’s honest feedback. We can’t learn without honest feedback. If you tell me you don’t understand then I can take a different tack and approach explaining it from a different direction. Honesty: This is the first and most crucial step to understanding! 

*I’ve learnt that students behaving this way is probably because they have are performance goal orientated student rather than a mastery goal orientated student. This means that they are more concerned about other peopling thinking that they understand than they are about actually understanding. Therefore they’ll go to lengths to keep up the charade that they understand, even to the detriment of their education!

What is understanding?

Good question!!! At this point it’s important for me to comment on the connection between step 3: Understand, and step 4: Link. In many ways understanding is simply linking new things that you learn to things that you already know in a way that is going to help you remember. More links to things you already understand represents deeper understanding. Here’s an example.

-In year 10 you may learn about the derivative. You learn that the derivative tells you the slope of a line, and that for a straight line, the derivative is only a number.
-Then in year 11 you might learn that the concept of the derivative is more broad, it actually gives you the slope of the original function (whether it be linear or quadratic, etc) for any x value (don’t worry if you don’t know what I’m talking about, just keep reading).
-Then in year 12 you do a physics unit and find out that the derivative links displacement to velocity, and that acceleration is the derivative of velocity!
-Then years later someone points out to you that the formula for the surface area of a sphere is actually also the derivative of the formula for its volume! WOW!!!

Screen shot 2014-09-12 at 11.19.18 AMPerhaps in year 10 you did understand the derivative as it was taught to you, but every additional link that you made to other things you knew about (velocity, displacement, area, volume, etc) represented an increase in your understanding of the concept of a derivative. It broadened your understanding and increased your ability to transfer. Transfer is the ability to apply the concept to new situations where you haven’t seen it used before. This is the basis of creativity and is one true tests of understanding.

This concept map of derivatives can be found  on Darylin Barney’s page here. My derivative analogy can be found here

How do I get understanding?

As mentioned, linking is understanding, but sometimes the concepts that you’re trying to understand are so foreign that your brain doesn’t manage to naturally make any links. In situations like these there are a couple of things you can do.

Find an Analogy:

Maybe you’re trying to understand electrical circuits and you find it helpful to think of them as rivers, maybe you’re trying to understand what goes on in an atom and you think of how the planets orbit around the sun to try to understand how electrons orbit around the nucleus. Analogies are powerful tools for understanding. You can find analogies by googling ‘analogy for electrical circuit’ or ‘analogy for the atom’ and this can set you on track to better understanding. A good teacher should help you out with this! A good teacher or tutor can also introduce you to helpful analogies. Click here for a bit more info about analogies and to see an example of how analogies can be used to understand a complex concept like the derivative.

The Pokemon Card Method:

This is to be used when you’re really clutching at straws (as I have been many times). The idea of the pokemon card method is that when you’re a kid (and assuming you collected pokemon cards) you don’t really know why certain pokemon are good, or why they would make a good addition to playing deck, you just know that they’re good. You know they’re good because you’ve probably heard it from your friends (maybe they even tricked you, sorry younger brother…). So you do your best to collect a card of that particular ‘good’ pokemon. Over time you collect more and more pokemon and you learn how they can work together to win pokemon battles. Through the relations that you see between the cards (link), and how they interact with each other you get a better understanding of why the cards you collected in the first place were good (or you realise you were fooled!). In this analogy pokemon cards represent facts or phrases that you know are important, but you just don’t understand yet. So that’s basically the pokemon card method. You collect up key bits of info, even though you don’t understand them yet. As an example, here are some pokemon cards (key phrases) that I collected when I was trying to understand Wave Mechanics at Uni.

-Probability density: Is the probability of finding a particle at a given position. It is the wave function multiplied by the complex conjugate of the wave function
Eigenfunctions are: Solutions to the Time Independent Schrodinger Equation (TISE)
Eigenvalues are: allowed total energy values that are possible in conjunction to solns to the Time Independent Schrodinger Equation
Any linear combination of wave functions: is also a solution to the Time Independent Schrodinger Equation

Now, I can guarantee that when I wrote these things down I only knew 2 things. 1: It was important. 2: I had no idea what it meant. Then I went away, and I tried to get these phrases in my head**, I also brought them along with me to lecture (along with about 100 more of them) on my computer and when the lecturer said one of those words (eg: eigenfunction’) I could use the search function in my word document to pull up that line. Over time my brain started to see the words such as ‘eigenfunction’ as cues to bring up phrases such as ‘solution to the TISE’. As I began to internalise these ‘facts’ my brain began to automatically build connections between the concepts. This happened till eventually I was able to explicitly talk about the connections between these concepts, at which point I began to feel like I was ‘understanding’ wave mechanics!  At the end of the semester, I understood enough for transfer to occur. Ie: I was able to apply the concepts that I now ‘understood’ to situations that were unfamiliar… questions in the exam! Understanding success!

Since that time I’ve come to a better understanding of why this method actually worked. It’s because facts are the foundations of critical and scientific thinking.

**What I was doing to memorise them at the time was to print out two lists of them. One was the complete list and the other was a list with just the parts in bold on it. I’d staple the only-bold-bits page in front of the complete-sentences page and try to recall the full sentence from the cues on the only-bold-bits page. This method was pretty effective, but at the time I hadn’t heard about Anki. If I had have I would have used it to get these phrases into my head as it’s much more efficient.


Don’t lie, and keep trying! Ideally you’ll begin to understand after steps 1: Survey and 2: Acquire. But if you can’t, try to use the analogy or the pokemon card method, or just move straight on to step 4: Link then 5: Train. Understanding WILL come later if you keep on working and following through with the process. In the words of the great Physicist Erwin Schrödinger.

“In an honest search for knowledge you quite often have to abide by ignorance for an indefinite period… The steadfastness in standing up to [this requirement], nay in appreciating it as a stimulus and a signpost to further quest, is a natural and indispensable disposition in the mind of a scientist.”

Check out the next of the five steps, Link.

Acquire: The second of the 5 steps of efficient learning

This is the second of the five steps of efficient learning that are outlined here

After you’ve completed the first of the 5 steps of efficient learning, Survey, it’s time to acquire.

Here we’re talking about acquiring the best information that will enable you to get to a point of understanding as quickly as possible. Two main ways this is going to happen.

  1. If you’re in a live learning situation, such as at school or university or a conference, your acquisition is delivered straight to you (though you may need to supplement it with further info later on).
  2. If you’re undertaking a personal learning project, acquisition following the survey step should be quite straight forward. From downloading relevant technology to buying the materials or visiting the websites that you’ve pinpointed to be most relevant.
Which of the four live learning scenarios is this one?

Which of the four live learning scenarios is this one?

In personal learning projects the acquisition quite naturally follows the survey, so I don’t feel we need to spend much time discussing that, but for a live learning environment the distinction between the survey and the acquire steps can be a bit grey, so let’s explore that in more detail.

The first thing to note here is that which of the steps a lecture covers really depends on both the quality of the lecturer and the difficulty of the subject. Quickly identifying which of these following situations you’re in can greatly help you to learn efficiently. Consider the following Four Live Learning Scenarios.

  • Good lecturer, Easy subject-Awesome, the lecturer has already completed the survey step for you and distilled the key lessons that they’re going to try to impart. Acquisition is also taken care of, they’re delivering the key lessons in a format that’s ideal. If the subject is easy enough (or your background knowledge is good enough) you may even be able to make it all the way through the understanding and even link steps in a single lecture if the conditions are optimum. Here you may even want to skip the lecture and watch it later fast forwarded in VLC media player to save you time.
  • Good lecturer, Hard subject-Ok, so the lecturer has distilled the lessons and is imparting them in a practical way but alas, you’re struggling to take in any of the information. In this kind of situation you’re best to use the lecture as just the survey step. Pay great attention to all of the topic headings and the way that the lecturer has ordered the information and linked different things together. Take comprehensive notes to give you the best opportunity to review the info later on and learn from what this great teacher had to say after the lesson. Another approach is to not actually attend the lesson but instead to use lesson recordings (if available). This will allow you to
  • Bad lecturer, Easy subject-This is pretty common. A lecturer takes some material that isn’t too difficult and manages to confuse the whole class. In this situation don’t try to use their classes for either the survey or the acquisition step. Just skip them. Do however stay in touch with someone from the class to try to get an idea of the kind of stuff that is going to be on the exam. You can also survey past exams to achieve the same ends. Do your own independent survey for relevant info (ask someone who’s already completed that unit and try to get their notes) and try to find some good online tutorials.
  • Bad lecturer, Hard subject-this is very much similar to the ‘bad lecturer, easy subject situation’. The only difference is that it’s now more important to try to identify what you’re going to be tested on. Another key point is that it may be to your benefit to find a (good) tutor in this scenario. Tutors can help you to both survey and acquire. But if you do your survey first you’ll be in a much better position to get the most out of your tutoring session. You’re wasting your time and money if you rock up to your tutoring session with no idea of what you want to learn.

 Screen shot 2014-09-12 at 9.58.48 AMDespite the suggestions above of what you should/could do in each of the four live learning scenarios there will be times when it’s just not possible for you to run away, despite the warning signs. This could be for a number of reasons such as

  • Attendance is compulsory
  • Learning materials aren’t available elsewhere
  • You don’t trust yourself to study independently so think you had better attend!**

In this kind of situation we need to bite the bullet and do the best we can with what we’ve got. And that requires one key skill. Note taking. See this article on my method of note taking before moving on to step 3, understand.

*this was the case with me for the first couple of years of university but eventually I came to the realisation that I’d be better off leaving if the lecturer was bad. After I did it once and worked out how much easier it was to teach myself the stuff there was no turning back!

**If this sounds like you then I suggest you try to nip this one in the bud quickly and sort it out. Check out this post on motivation to try to get better control in such situations.

Survey: The first of the 5 steps of efficient learning

This is the first in the five steps of efficient learning that are outlined here

Screen shot 2014-09-12 at 9.08.03 AMSurvey is about working out what you need to learn. This can be thought of in the ‘ask around’ sense of the word, or in the ‘survey the scene’  sense. If you’re preparing for a test, surveying is about finding out what is most likely to come up in the test, if you’re trying to learn a language, Survey is about finding the high frequency words, and learning them first. In this step we are sketching the outline of our learning and trying to recognise patterns in the information that we can take advantage of.

The best way for me to explain this is through examples.

Example 1: Maths exam

2011, Semester 2, 5 days out from my Differential Equations and Linear Algebra exam. I’d really left things to the last minute. I’d just returned from a conference that I attended in the middle of study week and I now had less than a week to learn a 13 week unit that I really hadn’t been paying attention to*. The first step? Survey! The goal of the survey was to identify exactly what I needed to learn to get the maximum outcome with the minimum effort.

This was me doing my best to employ the 80/20 rule. Asking: ‘Which 20% of work will give me 80% of the results?’ Did I try to work through all of the lectures from the unit? No, not enough time. I began with the end in mind. I started by looking at past exams.**

My Survey of past exams spanned the 2002 exams to the 2010 exams (I chose these ones because these were the ones for which the lecturer had been the same, and he was my lecturer that year, so I assumed they would be a good indication of relevant info). I tried to identify similar questions in each exam and I grouped them into PDFs so I could see each ‘category’ of question in one place. Here’s what they looked like in my folder

Screen shot 2014-09-12 at 7.59.52 AM

And here’s an example of what one of the PDFs looked like.

Now, whether you have or haven’t studied Differential Equations and Linear Algebra before, it’s clear that doing this did one thing of great value. It allowed me to identify patterns in the past exams, patterns that I could use to target my study. I now could see exactly what I had to learn to prepare. I spent the next three days looking at one question every morning, and one question every afternoon, here’s a re-make of what my study timetable looked like

Exam study timetable

I teamed up with buddies to work through questions that each of us struggled with, and I and I got the  80/20 rule spot on, I got 80% for the unit.

*Since this time I’ve learnt a lot about learning and knowledge acquisition and have come to realise the massive weakness of this ‘leave it to the last moment’ approach. If you don’t space your revision you’re really doing yourself a disservice and you’re likely to have the info just fall out of your brain post-exam. Furthermore, I recently found out about the importance of actually memorising things long term for life learning and better comprehension/critical thinking. This completely changed my view of how I studied in my undergraduate degree. I include this example here to express the value of the survey stop, not to glorify cramming!

**Whether this exact technique will work depends on the nature of the unit and the lecturer. In the above, for dramatic purposes, I leave out the fact that I’d chatted to a number of previous students of this class and they’d all told me that the exam was pretty predictable each year. This pre-survey survey gave me confidence that I’d be able to use the survey technique to reduce my study time and learn the content in 5 days.

Example 2: Learning Mandarin

Tiàowàng: To scan from afar, to survey the scene from an elevated position

Tiàowàng: To scan from afar, to survey the scene from an elevated position

My primary learning project at present is learning Mandarin. I started in November 2013 (10 months ago now) .But how did I start? With a Survey of course. But this survey was different to the maths exam. I wasn’t learning for a test, I was learning for living. So I saw it in a different light. For this survey I employed the most important survey principle that I know: ‘Ask someone who knows.

This is a principle that I apply to absolutely everything I start, from calling my grandma to ask her how to cook a christmas pudding to reading books about how the stock market works. In the case of Mandarin, I knew of 1 person who I knew had learned languages quickly before, Tim Ferriss. So I read up on what he had to say about language learning.

This introduced me to Spaced Repetition Software  and the idea of Frequency Lists. I then spoke to someone else at a conference and they told me about ChinesePod. Finally, I tracked down a friend of a friend who had taught himself Mandarin and was fluent. We met up at the local library and I we had a great chat. He taught me two vital lessons in that conversation: Firstly, that communication is mostly nonverbal, so when communicating in the language that you’re learning, don’t stress too much about the words, think about the meaning (sounded strange at first but became more clear as I began to communicate more, and allowed me to accelerate my communication). Secondly, it’s ok if sometimes you don’t feel motivated. Just because you stop for a week doesn’t mean that you have to stop for ever. Just pick it up again and keep going.


By taking a step back at the start of a learning experience and asking ‘what exactly do I have to/want to learn and what’s the best way to do this?’ you can help yourself to first see the patterns of your learning task before you move into the detail. Ask someone who knows and sketch out the outline and the main points of the task before you begin. This is the difference between completing a puzzle when you know what the end picture is supposed to look like vs. when you don’t. Scope out the scenery. Do a survey.

I’ll note that both Tim Ferris and Josh Kaufman call this step ‘deconstruction’.

Note Taking How To

This post follows on from the post about Acquire: The second of the 5 steps of efficient learning. In that article it was suggested that note taking is a necessary skill to develop, especially when you are required to be conducting your learning in a live learning situation (such as a class or lecture, where you can’t pause the teacher!). Depending on the quality of your lecturer and the difficulty of the subject you could span all 5 steps of efficient learning in just on lecture and come out with a great understanding. But if the subject is hard enough and/or the lecturer isn’t that good, you may only be able to complete the first step, survey.

Successful note taking for everyone will look different. In the following I share the method that I’ve come up with that best suits me and really helped me to get through my double degree in Economic Analysis and Physics. This post steps you through a series of note taking exercises, first getting you to try your current method, then explaining my technique, and finally giving you a chance to practice my technique. I encourage you to give this technique, as well as many others, a go and to find what works for you. I’ll note that I developed this technique primarily to deal with lectures in which A LOT of content was covered and often in not such a clear way. As such, I consider it to be quite a resilient approach.

Exercise 1, have a crack

The idea of this exercise is for you to just take notes in the way that you normally would whilst you watch this clip on turning points.  Here is the first video (also below) , do your best to take notes whilst you watch it (without pausing it, this is meant to be simulating a live learning situation).

Reflect on how your note taking went. How did you feel when you were taking the notes? on top of things? confused? If someone else looked at your notes now would they make any sense? more importantly: if you look at your notes tomorrow will they make any sense to you? Were you actually taking in anything of what I (on the video) was saying or were you just rushing to try to get it onto the page?

The idea of the note taking technique that I describe in the following is to help you to sit back and relax a bit more in class. To take in the content in a less stressful manner and to come out understanding more and with the power to study more successfully.

How I take notes

Throughout school and the early stages of my uni degree I had a lot of trouble taking notes. There was always far too much going on, the lecturer was talking and writing at the same time, how was I supposed to write that fast!? Or even worse, they had a heap of powerpoints that they were just flicking through at lightning speed. I’d often get lost in the maths that they were doing and leave lectures with a page full of stuff that didn’t make sense and not much in the way of understanding either….

Eventually I came up with a solution… listen for key points and phrases. I came to the conclusion that I would inevitably get lost in the maths if I tried to copy it down at the speed of the lecturer and what I was better off doing was to listen out for the conceptual reasoning behind the maths (I refer to maths because it’s the mathematical elements of my Physics degree that I got confused about most frequently). This would would then allow me to go home and work through a similar problem myself and actually understand what I was doing. I began to type my notes instead of hand write them* and to listen for key take home messages. I found that within hours I was understanding better and feeling better about attending class.

Another point that backed this method up was (at uni at least) the lecturer would often make their working available online. If they didn’t, I would just sit at the front of class and use my phone to take a photo of their working on the boardFailing that I’d just ask a friend (who could write fast and had neat handwriting) if I could take a photo of their notes of all of the working and I would tell them the key points that I had taken away from the lesson. Double win, you get your key points and all the notes, and your mate is happy too : )

IMPORTANT POINT! You’re not always going to understand what the lecturer is saying. That’s O.K. It’s something we have to accept. When this happens, take a deep breath and reframe the lecture in your mind. Think of it as a survey and see your task as note-taker to identify the key concepts and links between them that will allow you to build on the picture after class. This happened to me many times in Physics. See the bottom of this post entitled ‘when you have no idea what they’re talking about’ for more info on how to deal with such a situation.

Here is a video (also below) of me applying this listen for key points and phrases technique to the video in exercise 1. Hopefully it will give you a good idea of what this note taking technique looks like.

(This note taking technique somewhat relies on the fact that you can type faster than you can hand write, if that’s not correct you can just use the same ‘listening’ technique and hand write. But I strongly suggest developing touch typing abilities, it’s a life skill).

Exercise 2, apply the new technique

Now’s your chance to practice the note taking technique. Here’s a video with another mini lesson, this time on linear graphs and break even points. Do your best to apply the new note taking technique. (Reminder: Type your notes, you’re listening for key phrases and key take home points). At the end of the video I explain what a good set of notes from this lesson could have looked like.  Here’s the video (also below)

A few more things to ‘note’

As mentioned at the start, note taking is a very personal thing and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. For more info on note taking and to see other people’s techniques see this lifehacker article or check out other articles like this one on flow based note taking by Scott Young.

My University Note Taking Technique in More Detail: At Uni sometimes lecturers make powerpoints/lecture slides available before class (if they don’t, ask them if they can!) This is even better, and this was the case when I was studying my undergraduate degree. I would ensure that I saved the slides as a PDF prior to lecture then open them in preview or adobe and use the annotation tool to make notes right there on the pdf during lecture. Here’s a quick video of me showing you an example of some of my notes taken in this way.

This picture below is of the annotations I made on a particular lecture slide during one economics  lecture.

Screen shot 2014-09-11 at 2.35.16 PM


You can see that the terminology on this slide is pretty confusing, so with the yellow stickies I wrote all the stuff that the lecturer said relating to this slide that seemed to make sense to me and/or seemed to be important. I would then go home and turn these notes into a summary. The summary for this particular slide looked like this.

Screen shot 2014-09-11 at 2.35.28 PM

As can be seen, the slide was greatly compressed with only the key info that I needed for the test remaining. A more extreme example of dealing with difficult content can be seen in the following.

When you have no idea what they’re talking about…

As mentioned previously, there would often be times when we cover so much content in a lecture that I had no chance of understanding it first time around. In this case I would take notes as comprehensively as I could and then would go back through those notes on Saturday morning and give myself 2 hours to turn them into more structured notes (ie: 2 hours to go over the week’s 3 hours worth of lectures). That was for physics anyway. Here’s an example of one of those “I have no idea what he’s talking about” slides from a unit on Nuclear Physics…

Screen shot 2014-09-11 at 2.31.38 PM

It’s important for me to emphasise at this point that a significant portion of what I wrote down during lecture (in the above image), I probably didn’t understand at the time. That’s O.K. What I was doing was collecting the best and most relevant information to make it easier for me to understand the content later on. And it worked. As I learnt more and more I would often go back to my previous notes and see one of those yellow tabs and suddenly it would make so much sense. But at the first encounter I simply didn’t have the background knowledge required to order to comprehend the information at the rate at which it was being taught.

Why do I tell you all this? Because I want to make it clear that sometimes learning is hard. Really really hard, and to just let you know that it’s OK to not be able to understand something first go. If you do understand everything first go, it’s probably just a sign that you’re learning adventures aren’t challenging you enough. No matter who you are, if you keep pushing yourself there will be a time in your life when you hit a learning wall. Being comfortable with that and having patience to break through it is what Angela Duckworth talks about when she speaks of grit, and it’s arguably the most important skill that you can develop. Good luck with your notes!

For how to get from taking notes to deep understanding, see the post Understand: The third of the 5 steps of efficient learning.

Edit: I just found this amazing article on The Conversation about how to take notes. Especially check out the link that’s contained therein, summarising key research on note taking.