In a previous article on the power of habits, we discussed how habits are a tool our brains use to be more efficient. Instead of consciously analyzing every situation, thinking about various courses of action, and then deciding what to do, we use habits to automatically do this or that to save time. In theory, this allows us to decide to use our brain power to focus on things that really matter and really do require conscious deliberation. This is sometimes a good and sometimes a bad thing. It’s good when the habit is brushing our teeth each morning and night, or looking both ways before we cross the street. It’s bad when we grab a few cookies without even thinking about it when we are bored, or react negatively to constructive feedback.Read More
Improving Academic Performance
We write a lot on this blog about how academic success (and other types of success) is much more a function of the choices you make and the effort you put in than a function of your intrinsic or genetic talents. In other words, most recent research suggests, and we firmly believe, that academic skills are built through practice and success comes through developing better strategies and making better choices.Read More
MyGuru is launching a new book summary program where we summarize and analyze books that discuss recent research on what drives academic performance and leads to success inside and outside the classroom.Read More
The average person probably believes that a critical key to success in life, particularly one’s academic life, is intrinsic intelligence as measured by IQ.
Yes, most of would say, hard work matters a lot too, but at least in many academic situations, no amount of hard work can really make up for a lower level of raw intelligence or aptitude for certain types of academic or cognitive skills.
Some of us are “math people” and some of us just aren’t, right? Not really.Read More
When a student is really struggling in school or on standardized tests, reversing the trend can seem like a truly daunting task. One of the first things a parent might say to student who comes home with a “C” or “D” on a report card might be, “are you paying attention in class?” This is indeed a very important question, because paying attention in class is critical to performing well in school. Paying attention while taking a standardized test is also critical, yet oddly it probably seems so obvious that you may have never actually thought about the fact that it’s important. In this article, we’ll discuss a seemingly obvious concept in a new light: paying attention.
The idea that “paying attention” is important seems simple, but it actually operates on a variety of different levels. In this article, we’ll address the following three questions:
- What does it really mean to focus on paying attention? What are the different dimensions of “paying attention” that a student or parent should be thinking about?
- Why is paying attention so important?
- What are some strategies for improving your ability to pay attention (follow up post)
1. What does it mean to pay attention?
Let’s start by thinking about your typical high school or college student sitting in class. I’d submit that there are three level of paying attention to consider:
- Just listening to the teacher vs. staring out the window or day dreaming about something else
- Actively listening to the teacher, and focusing on when she explicitly calls things important, not important, assigns things, asks questions, and perhaps most important, when you do vs. don’t understand what is being said
- Fully engaged listening to the teacher, in which you are really trying to understand and digest what she’s saying (which I recognize is not easy if you aren’t also very interested in what is being discussed) to challenge and enhance your understanding of it
You might call (A) the bare minimum and (C) the gold standard of paying attention. (A) is fundamentally about being committed to being a part of the situation at a high level. The first step in this direction is, of course, attending vs. skipping class altogether. But, once you’re there, you really have to focus on listening to what’s going on. If you are day dreaming, it’s almost as if you aren’t there at all. The next step is actively listening, where you focus on identifying when something important has been said. Finally, in C), when you are fully engaged in the lecture, you will naturally ask a question when you don’t understand or want to make a point.
As you move from A through B and toward C, you are essentially realizing that listening to words being said out loud is only the first step in understanding an idea. When you are really paying attention, you are constantly breaking down explanations and ideas, re-phrasing them, creating linkages to other ideas you understand to be true, and making sure you understand.
2. Why is paying attention so important?
Many students think that reading and homework assignments are substitutes for attending or really paying attention in class. But, they are wrong.
When it comes to a typical academic subject, the more obvious reason that paying attention is so important is that classes are typically structured such that you learn things in class, they are reinforced in assigned readings, applied through homework and projects, and your knowledge is then evaluated through quizzes and tests.
However, it’s a little messier than that. Many of us have probably found that, when explained in layman’s terms by a teacher, a given concept or idea is much more digestible than when described in a text book. In other cases, something might be covered in class that actually isn’t covered in a text book at all. So, you can’t skip class, or sleep through it, and think that you’re going to be well positioned to do well in the class. You will literally be missing information that you need to have.
The more subtle reason that paying attention is so important is that our brains and minds don’t just learn things upon hearing or reading them. They learn through the struggle of trying to understand what is being said. The process of trying to digest what is being said in real time, ask questions if necessary, and synthesize information together to form our own opinions and perspective. If you aren’t really paying attention, you won’t be able to identify what it is about a concept or idea that you don’t understand, and therefore won’t be able to struggle to understand it. You might, in fact, not realize that you don’t understand something.
Finally, many people don’t realize that standardized tests explicitly measure your ability to pay attention. When you read a question that says “which of the below answers is not correct?” You may need to know algebra to correctly answer the question, but if you aren’t paying close attention, you might pick A), because it is the answer to the equation. Unfortunately, you would be answering incorrectly, because the question is asking for what is NOT correct.
At the end of the day, if you compare the straight A student with a 4.0 GPA to the straight B student with a 3.0 GPA, or the high school student that scored a 31 on the ACT to his friend that scored a 27, you might just find that the ability and commitment to pay attention is the only real differentiator.
In our next post, we'll explore some strategies for improving your ability to pay attention.Read More
A 1961 study entitled "Project Talent" found that college students in those times spent an average of 24 hours per week studying. Fast-forward 50 years to 2011, and students were studying only 14 hours per week on average, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement.
Some have attributed this drop to the adoption of more pass-fail courses, so students need only do the bare minimum. Others have posited that foreign language requirements (and the long study hours associated with them) are being phased-out, while grades are becoming less important to job recruiters in lieu of extracurricular activities.
But grades don't necessarily have to suffer because you're studying less. Efficiency is more important than quantity when it comes to preparation. Here are a few ways to maximize the effectiveness of shorter study sessions.
Divide and Conquer
This phrase is a negative when referring to government strategies but is golden for college students trying to get the best grades possible. In courses that require a lot of reading, find a couple classmates who are dedicated and committed to getting good grades. The three of you can divide the reading assignments equally by three, take solid (yet brief) notes, then have a study session during which you all exchange the information. Each student can make copies of the other's notes after discussions about the main ideas. This method can literally cut your time spent reading by more than a third.
Variety Is King
A 2010 study by University of South Florida researchers examined a group of fourth-graders trying to learn new mathematical equations. Half of the group studied one type of equation at a time, calculating the solutions for several in a row, then moving on to the next type of equation. The other half studied a mixture of all four different types of equations simultaneously. When the students took a test the next day, the ones who studied the mixture of equations fared twice as well on the test than their counterparts.
An August 2011 study published in Psychology and Aging similarly tested adults using the same method. The first group viewed mixed collections of paintings by various artists, while the other group viewed a dozen paintings from each individual artist, then a dozen from another artist, etc. The previous group was better able to distinguish the styles of each artist upon testing.
What this means is that students should vary their studies as opposed to spending five hours on one subject on a given night. Do an hour of calculus, then read your literature assignment for an hour, then log onto your Lenovo and post your required discussion group response for your online history course.
There is absolutely no better brain food than blueberries. Researchers at Reading University in the U.K. gave lab rats a steady diet of blueberries for three weeks. The blueberry-fed rats were not only able to improve memory by 83 percent when navigating through a maze vs. the control group, but also experienced a reversal in age-related declines in memory. College students and adults over 50 should eat a half-cup of blueberries per day to get the benefit of the flavonoids that regenerate nerve endings. Some doctors have even considered blueberries as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease. Blueberries are also tasty and rich in anti-oxidants.
About the Author
Neal Ortega - Neal is the co-founder of a student charity group at his university.Read More
We have all come across genius, people who are exceptional, admirable, and undeniably perfect. Some have graced our history books and televisions many times over (Einstein, Mozart, Jordan), while others are our neighbors or friends who are just awesome at something - imagine that girl or boy wonder in your AP Physics or English class that seems to immediately understand absolutely everything the teacher says and ace every test.