Sleep well. Learn Well.

We have discussed this issue a couple of times during the semester. But since finals are approaching, I though important to refresh our memories.

Sleep deprivation is a major problem among college students. A 2001 study revealed that 11% of college students have good sleep quality while 73% have sleep problems. Sleep deprivation in students has been linked to lower GPAs because sleep affects concentration, memory and the ability to learn. Research have shown that good sleeping habits have a positive impact on your cognitive skills and your health.

Writing for Time Magazine Alice Parks explains the positive impact of sleep:

It’s nature’s panacea, more powerful than any drug in its ability to restore and rejuvenate the human brain and body. Getting the recommended seven to eight hours each night can improve concentration, sharpen planning and memory skills and maintain the fat-burning systems that regulate our weight. If every one of us slept as much as we’re supposed to, we’d all be lighter, less prone to developing Type 2 diabetes and most likely better equipped to battle depression and anxiety. We might even lower our risk of Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis and cancer.

But how many hours is a good night sleep? It depends. Guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep for young adults (ages between 18-25), a little less if you are older. Here’s a graphic with the full recommendations by different age groups:

Sleep and memory

Sleep also helps the brain consolidate memories. According to Andrew Bodson, MD, in this article from Harvard Health Blog:

When you learn new information during the day, it is temporarily stored in the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped part of your brain behind your eyes. The hippocampus has a limited storage capacity. If you exceed it, you may have difficulty adding new information — or you may actually overwrite an old memory with a newer one. Fortunately, that doesn’t usually happen. Each night while you sleep, the connections between neurons (called synapses) shrink to reduce or eliminate the memories you don’t need — such as what you ate for breakfast last week and the clothes you wore yesterday. This selective pruning of synapses during the night prepares you to form new memories the next day. Sleep also helps us consolidate the memories we want to preserve, transferring them from transiently accessible memories to those that can be recalled years later. Memories for facts and skills both show greater retention over a 12-hour period that includes sleep versus a 12-hour period while awake. Much of this consolidation occurs during stage 2 sleep, a light sleep phase that occurs most in the hours prior to awakening. This means that if you get up early without a full night’s rest, you may be impairing your ability to hold onto your memories.

So, the next time you decide to pull an all-nighter to prepare for a test or write a paper be aware that it could do more harm than good.

The following TED Ed video provides a great explanation of the benefits of a good night’s sleep and the effects of sleep on your ability to remember:

Shai Marcu’s Ted Talk on the benefits of a good night sleep

Succeeding during finals

Final exams are approaching and things could get a little tougher. No need to panic; you have already developed the success strategies and coping skills needed to manage the experience. So let’s recap some old ideas and expand with some recent ones. The following concepts and resources are meant to help you in your quest of becoming a more successful test-taker and perform better on your final exams.

Practicing retrieval

According to Dr. Jeffrey Karpickey, researcher at the Center for Cognition and Learning Lab at Purdue University, if you want to become a better test-taker you should spend more time practicing retrieval techniques:

“We continue to show that practicing retrieval, or testing yourself, is a powerful, robust tool for learning. Our new research shows that practicing retrieval is an even more effective strategy than engaging in elaborative studying.”

Remember, you need to review your class content regularly and read your textbooks if you want to perform well on your exams. But those activities alone might not be enough to achieve the highest grade possible. Reviewing notes and reading books become powerful learning tools when combined with self-testing on a regular basis (not just a few hours before your exams).

“Educators, researchers and students are often focused on getting things ‘in memory,’ so techniques that encourage students to elaborate on the material are often popular. But learning is fundamentally about retrieving, and our research shows that practicing retrieval while you study is crucial to learning. Self-testing enriches and improves the learning process, and there needs to be more focus on using retrieval as a learning strategy.”

Self-testing is possible by focusing on questions that you create from your readings and your notes. Quizzing yourself regularly with flash-cards or testing apps is another example of a retrieval technique. Testing sessions could also be implemented by studying with a partner or in a study group (via online meetings if not possible in-person).

This short video from UC San Diego provides practical examples of how to implement retrieval strategies:

Avoid common test errors

Some of the difficulties students face taking tests are related to bad study habits. However, that’s not always the case. Even when you study sufficiently, you can still get a bad grade if you’re not careful enough. Here are some typical mistakes you should prevent when taking exams (from the book Winning at Math by Dr. Paul Naulting):

  • Misread direction errors – these errors occur when you skip directions or misunderstand directions but answer the question or do the problem anyway. To avoid this type of error, read all the directions.
  • Careless errors – mistakes made which can be caught automatically upon reviewing the test. To avoid type of error, watch for simple mistakes carefully as you review the test.
  • Concept errors – mistakes made when you do not understand the properties or principles required to work the problem. To avoid this type of error in the; future, you must go back to your textbook or notes and learn why you missed the problems.
  • Application errors – mistakes that you make when you know this concept but cannot apply it to the problem. To reduce this type of error, you must, learn to predict the type of application problems that will be on the test.
  • Test Procedure errors – mistakes that you make because of the specific way you take tests, such as:
  1. Missing more questions in the 1st-third, 2nd-third or last third of a test. If you find that you miss more questions in a certain part of the test consistently, use your remaining test time to review that part of the test first.
  2. Not completing a problem to its last step. To avoid this mistake, review the last step of a test problem first, before doing an in-depth test review.
  3. Changing test answers from the correct ones to incorrect ones. If you are a bad answer changer, then write on your test “Don’t change answers.” Only change answers if you can prove to yourself or to the instructor that the changed answer is correct.
  4. Getting stuck on one problem and spending too much time. Set a time limit for each problem before moving to the next problem. Rushing through the easiest part of the test and making careless errors. If you do this often, after finishing the test review the easy problems first, then review the harder problems.
  5. Miscopying an answer from your scratch work to the test. To avoid this, systematically compare your last problem step on scratch paper with the answer on the test. Leaving answers blank Write down some information or try at least to do the first step.
  6. Study errors – mistakes that occur when you study the wrong type of material or do not spend enough time studying pertinent material. To avoid these errors in the future, take some time to track down why the errors occurred so that you can study more effectively the next time.

Managing test anxiety

As explained by Dr. Craig Sauchik, from the Mayo Clinic, test anxiety can affect anyone, whether you’re a primary or secondary school student, a college student, or an employee who has to take tests for career advancement or certification. But with the right mindset and effort you can overcome it.

Here are some strategies that may help reduce your test anxiety:

  • Learn how to study efficiently. [aka: Apply the concepts learned in ES EPSY 1259]. You’ll feel more relaxed if you systematically study and practice the material that will be on a test.
  • Study early and in similar places. It’s much better to study a little bit over time than cramming your studying all at once. Also, spending your time studying in the same or similar places that you take your test can help you recall the information you need at test time.
  • Establish a consistent pretest routine. Learn what works for you, and follow the same steps each time you get ready to take a test. This will ease your stress level and help ensure that you’re well-prepared.
  • Talk to your professor.  Make sure you understand what’s going to be on each test and know how to prepare. In addition, let your teacher know that you feel anxious when you take tests. He or she may have suggestions to help you succeed.
  • Learn relaxation techniques. To help you stay calm and confident right before and during the test, perform relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, relaxing your muscles one at a time, or closing your eyes and imagining a positive outcome.
  • Don’t forget to eat and drink. Your brain needs fuel to function. Eat the day of the test and drink plenty of water. Avoid sugary drinks such as soda pop, which can cause your blood sugar to peak and then drop, or caffeinated beverages such as energy drinks or coffee, which can increase anxiety.
  • Get some exercise. Regular aerobic exercise, and exercising on exam day, can release tension.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Sleep is directly related to academic performance. Preteens and teenagers especially need to get regular, solid sleep. But adults need a good night’s sleep, too, for optimal work performance.

Additional video resources:

Making stress less stressful

While stress has been made into a public health enemy, some research suggests that stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal urges us to see stress as a positive, and introduces us to an unsung mechanism for stress reduction: reaching out to others. Watch her TedTalk:

Improving presentation skills

Three-quarters of American companies say they have difficulty recruiting the right people and according to the Society for Human Resource Management critical thinking is one of the top job skills requirements that is hard to find, but not the only one. As reported in this article from the World Economic Forum, the top three “missing” soft skills in the workplace are:

  1. Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, Innovation, and Creativity
  2. Ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity
  3. Communication

During this week our learning focused on developing better presentation and communication skills. Both as listeners and speakers, we learned a few tricks about persuasion and presentation skills.

We started via Aristotle’s three means to persuasion via this short video:

Key Points on Aristotle’s Rhetoric The 3 Means to Persuasion:

  • Logos (Idea must make sense from an audience point of view)
  • Ethos (reputation, credibility, trustworthiness, authority)
  • Pathos (emotional connection)

We also discussed factors that influence decision-making:

Key Points on Science of Persuasion

6 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion (shortcuts that guide human behavior):

  1. Reciprocity (people most likely to say yes if they owe you)
  2. Scarcity (less availability = more wanting)
  3. Authority (credibility of the messenger)
  4. Consistency (voluntary, active and public commitments)
  5. Liking (get people to like you)
  6. Consensus (if others like you agree, you’re more likely to agree)

And finally, we dissected the presentation techniques of the late Steve Jobs:

Key Points on Presenting like Steve Jobs:

  • Set the theme (single headline)
  • Make theme clear and consistent
  • Create headline to set the direction (provide a reason to listen)
  • Provide the outline
  • Open and close topic/section with a clear transition
  • Demonstrate enthusiasm
  • Make numbers and statistics meaningful (provide context)
  • Make slides and visual tools easy on the eye (simplicity)
  • Rehearse, rehearse and rehearse 

Learn to communicate. Communicate to learn.

Effective communication requires not just knowing how to talk to others but also mastering how to engage in constructive arguments and how to communicate with the intent of listening and learning.

We live in a time of permanent confrontation. If we take the public-political discourse as example, most people don’t engage in dialogue. People pretend to listen, but in reality most can’t wait for the other to finish talking before they start rebutting or counter-arguing what’s being said.

Learning about Arguments

The ideas you will learn through the following resources are meant to help you become a successful and engaged communicator. We’ll start by watching the video “For Argument’s sake.” Philosopher Daniel H. Cohen shows how our most common form of argument — a war in which one person must win and the other must lose — misses out on the real benefits of engaging in active disagreement.

Cohen discusses three models of arguments:

  1. Arguments as war [must win at all cost]
  2. Arguments as proofs [no opposition]
  3. Arguments as performance [the audience is involved – uses a rhetorical model]

From these models, argument as war is the dominant one and it elevates tactics over substance; the only foreseeable outcome is triumph. But what if we learn something from an opposing argument? Are we the losers if our argument is defeated?

The main lesson – Focus not on always winning an argument, but on having a cognitive gain and becoming a better arguer:

  1. Learn to benefit from losing
  2. Include yourself in the audience

How to criticize with kindness

Today everyone is a critic. And some people have learned how to become critics with just 140 characters or less, right? But as philosopher Daniel Dennet once asked, “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”

In the following article, writer and blogger Maria Popova describes Dennet’s Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently. To summarize, if you want to compose a successfully critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

10 ways to have a better conversation

Finally, on this video from journalist Celeste Headlee, you’ll learn that it takes courage to have a meaningful conversation.

VIDEO DESCRIPTION: When your job hinges on how well you talk to people, you learn a lot about how to have conversations — and that most of us don’t converse very well. Celeste Headlee has worked as a radio host for decades, and she knows the ingredients of a great conversation: Honesty, brevity, clarity and a healthy amount of listening. In this insightful talk, she shares 10 useful rules for having better conversations. “Go out, talk to people, listen to people,” she says. “And, most importantly, be prepared to be amazed.”