Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Revising for exams...

As the weather improves, for many young people exams loom. In the UK, GCSEs, AS levels and A levels are a big reality check for most 16 to 18 year olds over the summer, and many face the prospect with apprehension, knowing that the one word they are going to hear a lot of over the coming weeks is REVISION. But what's the best way to revise?

First of all, understanding that revision really means to revise what is (or should be) already known is helpful, and to understand what this might mean for different subjects. Fact-led subjects like the sciences, history and geography, demand just that - facts remembered that can be drawn on to answer the questions that come up in exams. Other subjects require ongoing knowledge, like maths or languages, which is where practicing these skills is helpful. Identifying what each subject is going to need in terms of revision can be a useful first step.

Then there is the mapping out of a revision timetable that most students find invaluable. Some are able to do this on their own, but for most - and teenagers in particular - this sort of organisation is a learnt skill and requires help, as many can feel overwhelmed.

* Map out what needs to be done, creating a revision timetable with realistic daily goals leading up to the exams, allowing enough time to avoid feeling stressed too close to the actual exams.

* Make sure the notes, past papers, books and other sources from which to revise, are available to revise from. Check with teachers and make sure everything needed is in hand.

* Utilise natural learning styles. Auditory learners find that reading or saying things out loud, recording these and playing them back to listen to, may help things stick. Visual learners find taking notes or making diagrams a useful way to remember as they revise.

* Allow enough uninterrupted time during a revision period to reach a point of concentration where information is actually retained and transferred from working memory into long term memory, from where it can be retrieved when taking the actual exam. Without this process occurring, the possibility of actually remembering what has been revised is limited. This means revision periods of 20-30 minutes minimum, building on this to stay concentrated for up to 90 minute before taking a break (although for most teenagers, this will take practice!).

* Take time to wind down before sleep, however. The brain works best when well-slept, and chronic tiredness just exacerbates feelings of being overwhelmed.

* Cut out distractions - all of them! - during each allocated revision period. This means turning off mobile phones, instant messaging, email, Facebook and other social networking sites, and making revision a primary and exclusive focus. After every interruption, it takes at least 5 minutes to concentrate fully again. Much better to focus exclusively for an hour, then take a 15 minute break, than work for 3 hours with constant interruptions that prevent the brain from retaining information.

* Schools and colleges often run revision sessions which can be a good way of concentrating on subjects that need extra focus.

* Regular exercise in between daily revision sessions - just taking a walk, going for a run, swimming, playing football - are all excellent ways to relieve physical and mental tension, and also increases the brain's ability to work well.

* Eat well - the brain thrives on complex carbohydrates to keep it going, and lots of fluids to stay well hydrated, but avoid highly caffeinated drinks (like Red Bull) that can hype the body up and increase feelings of stress.

* Keep a sense of perspective. Exams are a means to an end, not an end in itself and those who don't achieve great exam results can still go on to live happy and accomplished lives.

For parents, this can be a difficult time as they watch their moody teenager avoid ways of getting down to the revision that they feel is necessary. Wallpaper parenting, as I call it - being around but not too interventionist - can help. Create a calm atmosphere that is conducive to study, keep meals regular, help devise a revision timetable, encourage some time out and bedtime at a reasonable hour, but avoid increasing stress by being heavy handed. 

It can be a tricky time, especially as the teenage years often coincide with a general lack of confidence about life, which can be exacerbated by exam stress, but learning how to revise and work independently in preparation is a useful lesson for later studies at college or university. 

Schools and colleges are very keen to help their students to do their best, so if in doubt about what you can do to support your child, check in with them about what might be helpful.

Further information on how to concentrate from The Art of Concentration, published by Rodale priced £9.99

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Multitasking - just because you can, does it mean you should?

So, you think you’re really good at multitasking, and that you can concentrate just as well doing more than one thing at a time?  Think again.  You may be giving the impression you are doing a lot, but the reality is often something different. Now that we have access to functional MRI scans, we can actually see, monitor and record what our brains are doing while we’re doing it. And what we now know is that multitasking could mean that you are doing nothing well enough to gain any benefit from doing it.

In an experiment carried out at the University of California, Los Angeles a group of 20-something students were asked to sort through index cards in two trials.  The first time, the students worked in silence and during the second exact same task they were asked to listen out for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds.  The way their brains coped with this was to transfer from the hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores and recalls information, to the striatum, which handles repetitive activities.  They had no trouble doing the same task while distracted, but they found it much more difficult afterwards to remember what, exactly, they had been sorting.  So their ability to do the task in a way that meant they later remembered what it was they were doing was compromised. What this tells us is that if you are trying to learn a new skill, you won’t do it as well, or as easily, if you are distracted while you are doing it.

The neuroplasticity of our brains means that they are built to manage a variety of tasks at once, but only up to a point.  It seems that this physiological balancing act we ask of our brains comes at a cost. By constantly switching back and forth, and by stimulating parts of the brain that are concerned with visual processing and physical co-ordination, as in the experiment described above, we appear to distract from the higher areas of the brain related to memory and learning. We can end up concentrating of the process of concentrating rather than on what we were supposed to be concentrating on!  Much of the time, it probably won’t matter much, but it’s easy to see how inefficient a way of learning it is.  Concentrate well, do it once: distract yourself and you may have to do something several times before it’s learnt. And when it comes to storing information that you want to recall later, perhaps when revising for an exam, you just won’t learn it so well if you don’t concentrate while you’re learning.  Focusing or concentrating well means that you store information in the part of the brain necessary for later recall.

True, there are some forms of multi-tasking that do work, but this usually involves only doing a maximum of two things at once, one of which is done automatically, i.e. washing-up and listening to the radio.   Washing-up doesn’t really take much thought, so 95% of your concentration can be given over to the other task in hand.  This wouldn’t apply to doing three tasks, though: washing-up, listening to the radio and reading a book.  It’s just not possible to absorb either the book or the radio adequately, so – along with the practical difficulties of doing all three at once – you probably wouldn’t bother.  

However, there are some activities that appear automatic, but actually require good concentration to be safe, as the ban on driving while simultaneously using your mobile phone now recognizes. It may appear to be an automatic skill but driving is a complex activity, requiring excellent concentration and good reaction times, both of which will be impaired if focusing on something else.  Talking on a mobile phone, while driving, is now illegal in the UK and many other countries and with good reason since fatal accidents have been the result. Many experts also believe that talking on a hands-free phone is also too distracting to be entirely safe.  “Multitasking is always going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,” says David Meyer, a cognitive scientist and Director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, in the US.  “Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”

It is impossible to precisely measure lost productivity, caused by multi-tasking, but in 2007, Jonathan Spira, chief analyst at Basex, a business-research firm, estimated the cost of interruptions to the US economy at nearly $650 billion a year.  This figure was based on surveys and interviews with professionals and office workers, which concluded that 28% of their time was spent on what they considered to be interruptions (and recovery time) before they returned to their main tasks. Spira conceded that $650 billion is a rough estimate, and work interruptions will never, and shouldn’t be eliminated, because this is often how work is done and ideas are shared.  But even if half of all those constant interruptions at work are worthwhile, it still represents a lot of money lost,
There may also be another cost to distraction resulting from multitasking.  The process of constantly switching, multi-tasking, call it what you will, carries with it a degree of stress.  Not necessarily one that you would even notice, but one that requires the key stress hormones, (cortisol and adrenaline), to be secreted at higher levels to help you stay on top of what you are trying to do. These are the same hormones that are secreted when we need short, rapid bursts of energy necessary for ‘fight or flight’, but they are not designed for long-term use. 
In the short term, feeling constantly “hyped” by high levels of stress hormones can result in a persistent ‘brain fog’ many of us experience, and in the long-term, bombarding the brain with stress hormones that are neuro-toxic when secreted in large quantities, may cause premature ageing and other brain damage. Interestingly, cortisol is what is known as a universal donor which means it can attach to any receptor site and block the feel-good hormones, dopamine and serotonin, which help us feel calm and happy. So, not only are we stressed when we multitask, we are also missing out on the more positive effects of the body’s own, natural antidotes.  
Hyper-vigilant, over-alert and anxious, it’s hardly surprising we feel too stressed to concentrate.