Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Feeling inspired

I went to a party on Saturday night.  Not that unusual, but this was a special party - it was to celebrate a colleague's brand new doctorate.  He'd done a few papers as a mature student a few years ago, was inspired, and decided to give up work, apply for a scholarship, and get his PhD.

Only three years later he's achieved his goal, and now proudly wears the title Doctor in front of his name.

I left the party feeling reinspired.  I can't afford right now to give up work and study full time, so it'll take me a bit longer, but I'm determined to keep slogging away one paper at a time and finish this degree, then on to the next one, and maybe one day I'll be the one throwing the party and hearing my friends call me Doctor.

Can't wait! :-)

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Memory and association

Many years ago I was living in a very small town on the West Coast, a long way from anywhere. To get my fill of city life (read: good bookshops) I’d catch a bus over to Christchurch for a weekend every few weeks. On the way home, the bus driver (and by extension, all his passengers) would listen to the radio for as far out into the countryside as the signal lasted, then would switch to the cassette player (I said it was many years ago!). She always put the same compilation tape on, and because the radio signal always ran out at the same spot, the songs on that tape became strongly associated in my mind with certain spots along the road.

The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” always came on just as we left the plains and started up the first steep incline towards the pass, so when I heard that song on the radio the other day, my mind was immediately transported to that hill. Despite the fact I last caught that bus more than 20 years ago, and it’s probably at least 15 years since I’ve even been in that part of the country, I could remember every detail – the way the road curves, the types of trees that grow alongside, even what the road signs said. If you’d asked me to describe the road in normal circumstances, I’d have had no hope, but because of the strong association from the music, my memories were crystal clear.

Great story, Jen, you might be saying, but what’s your late 80s nostalgia got to do with studying in 2013? Actually, quite a lot. It’s been shown that this kind of sensory association can aid learning in all sorts of situations. By purposefully stimulating one of your senses in a particular way while learning material, your recall of it will be improved by replicating that same stimulation at a later date – in an exam, say. Of course, you can’t play The Bangles in an exam room, but you can set up other sensory associations.

At the simplest level, when you’re studying towards an exam where recalling facts is going to be important, try and replicate some of conditions you’re likely to encounter when in the exam room. So as far as possible, study in silence (sorry, no 80s music). Try and get your comfort levels to match, too - wear the same sort of clothes (including shoes) to study in as you’ll wear on the day, and sit in a chair of a similar type (it doesn’t have to be identical, but don’t study sitting in a comfy armchair if you’ll be on hard plastic seats for the exam). If you’re into essential oils you could even set up olfactory clues (which are often said to be the strongest form of sensory memory jogger) – perhaps a few drops of a particular oil on a handkerchief that you can sniff when the need arises?

Of course, none of this is a substitute for hard work, but it can give your memory a little boost just when you need it most. And let’s face it, when it comes to exams, every little bit helps!

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Good habits

After taking such a prolonged break from writing this blog, I find I’ve fallen out of all my good habits around writing.  Even though I’ve had plenty of ideas for topics over the last few weeks, I’ve lacked the discipline to just sit down and start writing them down.  I need to redevelop good habits by setting myself a writing and posting schedule and sticking to it until it’s second nature.

Good habits are important in study, too.  It’s no good getting to exam week and suddenly realising in a panic that you need to start hitting the books – you need to be developing good study habits from the very beginning of term (if not earlier) so that when exam time comes around all you need is a slight stepping up of your usual study schedule.  But how do you develop good habits?

1. Develop one new good habit at a time

It’s tempting when you decide to improve your study habits to try and fix everything at once, but that’s a guarantee of failure.  After a few weeks of initial enthusiasm you’ll find yourself slipping in one area or another, and it’ll be all too easy to give up completely.  So pick just one area you’d like to improve and work on that.  Maybe it’s “I’ll revise and rewrite my lecture notes every evening after class”, or “I’ll read one chapter of the text a week”, or even just “I’ll block out one hour of every day as study time”.  Once that good habit is firmly entrenched, you can start working on another one.  That’s one advantage of being a part-time student, at least – we have a lot of semesters to practice our good habits in!

2. Start early


They say that it takes about 50 repetitions of a behaviour for it to become habitual, so, as there’s only about 13 weeks in a semester, it’s never too early to get your good habits in place.  Even in the first week, when you’re unlikely to have much real studying to do, you can start working on the habits by doing related tasks.  For example, if you’re trying to improve your lecture notes, then after the first lecture, even though it was probably mostly admin and not much actual course content, you could still spend some time making sure you’re clear on all the course requirements, writing due dates into your calendar and planning your reading schedule.

Some habits you might even be able to start during the vacation.  For example, if you want to read a chapter of the text every week, then why not get out a few related books from the library and read a chapter of them each week – you’ll not only get a head start on developing your good habit, but you’ll start the course pre-armed with a bit of knowledge.

3. Be strict but forgiving


Whatever your new habit is, stick to it.  Set yourself a schedule and be rigorous about following it.  If you’re going to read a chapter of your text every week, then decide when you’ll do that – say on Wednesday nights straight after dinner – and force yourself to sit down with your book at that time no matter what the temptation to do something else.  It’ll be tough at first, but as the weeks go on you’ll find yourself just naturally doing it, because that’s what you always do on Wednesday night after dinner.

But while you’re being strict on yourself, do forgive the occasional slip.  If you forget, or some crisis happens that means you can’t keep to your schedule, then don’t beat yourself up, just catch up if you can (maybe read that chapter on Thursday night instead?) and make doubly sure you get back on schedule the next week.  Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of thinking “I missed one week, so I might as well just give up now.”  Forgive yourself, move on, and do better next time.

4. Reward yourself


I find I develop habits best if I give myself an incentive to do so.  If my aim is to spend an hour a day studying, then I’ll keep a track of how many days I’ve managed to stick to my schedule, and when I reach a week I’ll reward myself by going to a movie or reading a book that’s purely for pleasure.  Or if you need something more immediate, how about promising yourself an hour of your favourite TV programme once you’ve finished writing up your lecture notes?  Or a bar of chocolate on the way home from the library?

A less tangible but often just as satisfying reward can just be recording the progress of your habit and watching it grow.  One useful technique is to make a mark on the calendar every night you successfully carry out your new habit.  As the row of ticks (or smiley faces, or whatever symbol you want to use) grows, so does the urge to not break your streak, and to beat your own record for number of days without a break.

Good luck with developing your new good habits!   And I promise I’ll try and make updating my blog more of a habit this semester...