The physicist Richard Feynman believed that simplicity was the key to learning. Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project when he was only 20 years old. He went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1965 for his work in quantum electrodynamics, along with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga.
Feynman believed that truth lies in simplicity and that things are easier to learn and retain when they’re simpler. When your knowledge of something is full of complex explanations and terms taken from textbooks, you’re less likely to grasp it.
He’s famously been quoted as saying, “You must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” The goal of learning is to understand the world better. But more often than not, the way we learn doesn’t help us to achieve this.
You end up memorizing something exactly as it’s written in a book or as the teacher explained it to you, so it doesn’t take long for this knowledge to disappear. This is where the Feynman technique comes in.
The idea is to make things simple enough for anyone to understand. In doing this, you can acquire a deep understanding of the topic you’re studying. The Feynman technique has four steps.
1. Choose a topic and start studying it
Feynman’s technique isn’t limited to mathematics or physics. You can apply it to anything.
2. Explain the topic to a child
This step allows you to establish whether you’ve learned what you studied or you just thought you had.Explain the concept in your own words as if you were trying to teach it to a child.
When you try to break things down into simple ideas with plainer vocabulary, you’ll realize whether or not your knowledge of the subject is sufficient. This makes it easy to identify any gaps in your knowledge.
3. Go back to the study material when you get stuck
Only when you can explain the subject in simple terms will you understand it.This means the knowledge will stick with you and not disappear, as it can when you try to memorize something.
Review your notes and study material for anything you still don’t understand.Try to explain it to yourself in an easy way. If it’s too difficult or if you have to use terms from a textbook, then you still haven’t got it.
4. Organize and review
Don’t stop until you can deliver a simple, natural explanation.Go back to steps two and three as many times as you need. It probably won’t take as long as you think.
Classroom-based experiments in productive failure. Expanding the space of cognitive science: Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, Boston, Massachusetts, July 20-23, 2011. Cognitive Science Society. pp. 2812–2817.
A producer for a television business show called and asked if I was available. He described the theme of the segment and asked if I had any ideas. I offered some possibilities.
“That sounds great,” he said. “We’re live in 30 minutes. And I need you to say exactly what you just said.”
“Ugh,” I thought. I’m not great at repeating exactly what I just said. So I started rehearsing.
Ten minutes later, he called to talk about a series he was developing. I almost asked him if we could postpone that conversation so I could use the time to keep rehearsing, but I figured since I had already run through what I would say two times, I would be fine.
Unfortunately, I was right. I was fine. Not outstanding. Not exceptional. Just … fine. My transitions were weak. My conclusion was more like a whimper than a mic drop. And I totally forgot one of the major points I wanted to make.
Which, according to Hermann Ebbinghaus, the pioneer of quantitative memory research, should have come as no surprise.
Ebbinghaus is best known for two major findings: the forgetting curve and the learning curve.
The forgetting curve describes how new information fades away. Once you’ve “learned” something new, the fastest drop occurs in just 20 minutes; after a day, the curve levels off.
Yep: Within minutes, nearly half of what you’ve “learned” has disappeared.
According to Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn, what we learn doesn’t necessarily fade; it just becomes less accessible. In my case, I hadn’t forgotten a key point; otherwise I wouldn’t have realized, minutes after, that I left it out. I just didn’t access that information when I needed it.
Ebbinghaus would have agreed with Carey: He determined that even when we think we’ve forgotten something, some portion of what we learned is still filed away.
Which makes the process of relearning a lot more efficient.
Suppose that the poem is again learned by heart. It then becomes evident that, although to all appearances totally forgotten, it still in a certain sense exists and in a way to be effective. The second learning requires noticeably less time or a noticeably smaller number of repetitions than the first. It also requires less time or repetitions than would now be necessary to learn a similar poem of the same length.
That, in a nutshell, is the power of spaced repetition.
The premise is simple. Learn something new, and within a short period of time you’ll forget much of it. Repeat a learning session a day later, and you’ll remember more.
Repeat a session two days after that, and you’ll remember even more. The key is to steadily increase the time intervals between relearning sessions.
And — and this is important — to make your emotions work for you, not against you, forgive yourself for forgetting. To accept that forgetting — to accept that feeling like you aren’t making much progress — is actually a key to the process.
Forgetting is an integral part of learning. Relearning reinforces earlier memories. Relearning creates different context and connections. According to Carey, “Some ‘breakdown’ must occur for us to strengthen learning when we revisit the material. Without a little forgetting, you get no benefit from further study. It is what allows learning to build, like an exercised muscle.”
The process of retrieving a memory — especially when you fail — reinforces access. That’s why the best way to study isn’t to reread; the best way to study is to quiz yourself. If you test yourself and answer incorrectly, not only are you more likely to remember the right answer after you look it up, you’ll also remember that you didn’t remember. (Getting something wrong is a great way to remember it the next time, especially if you tend to be hard on yourself.)
Forgetting, and therefore repeating information, makes your brain assign that information greater importance. Hey: Your brain isn’t stupid.
So what should I have done?
While I didn’t have days to prepare, still. I could have run through my remarks once, taken a five-minute break, and then done it again.
Even after five minutes, I would have forgotten some of what I planned to say. Forgetting and relearning would have reinforced my memory since, in effect, I would have quizzed myself.
Then I could have taken another five-minute break, repeated the process, and then reviewed my notes briefly before we went live.
And I should have asserted myself and asked the producer if we could talk about the series he was developing later.
Because where learning is concerned, time is everything. Not large blocks of time, though. Not hours-long study sessions. Not sitting for hours, endlessly reading and rereading or practicing and repracticing.
Nope: time to forget and then relearn. Time to lose, and then reinforce, access. Time to let memories and connections decay and become disorganized and then tidy them back up again. Because information is only power if it’s useful. And we can’t use what we don’t remember.
Learning is the process of acquiring new understanding, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, attitudes, and preferences. The ability to learn is possessed by humans, animals, and some machines; there is also evidence for some kind of learning in certain plants. Some learning is immediate, induced by a single event (e.g. being burned by a hotstove), but much skill and knowledge accumulate from repeated experiences. The changes induced by learning often last a lifetime, and it is hard to distinguish learned material that seems to be “lost” from that which cannot be retrieved.
Human learning starts at birth (it might even start before) and continues until death as a consequence of ongoing interactions between people and their environment. The nature and processes involved in learning are studied in many fields, including educational psychology, neuropsychology, experimental psychology, and pedagogy. Research in such fields has led to the identification of various sorts of learning.
Paradise, Ruth (1994). “Interactional Style and Nonverbal Meaning: Mazahua Children Learning How to Be Separate-But-Together”. Anthropology & Education Quarterly. 25 (2): 156–172. doi:10.1525/aeq.1994.25.2.05x0907w.
Lopez, Angelica; Najafi, Behnosh; Rogoff, Barbara; Mejia-Arauz, Rebeca (2012). “Collaboration and helping as cultural practices”. The Oxford Handbook of Culture and Psychology.
Bolin, Inge (2006). Growing Up in a Culture of Respect: Childrearing in highland Peru (2 ed.). Austin: University of Texas. pp. 90–99. ISBN978-0-292-71298-0.
Terry, W.S. (2006). Learning and Memory: Basic principles, processes, and procedures. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
Baars, B.J. & Gage, N.M. (2007). Cognition, Brain, and Consciousness: Introduction to cognitive neuroscience. London: Elsevier Ltd.
Lovett, Marsha; Schunn, Christian; Lebiere, Christian; Munro, Paul (2004). Sixth International Conference on Cognitive Modeling: ICCM – 2004. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers. p. 220. ISBN978-0-8058-5426-8.
Moore, M.G. (1993). Theory of transactional distance. In D. Keegan (Ed.), Theoretical principles of distance education (pp. 22–38). London and New York: Routledge Hassard, Jack. “Backup of Meaningful Learning Model”. Archived from the original on 29 October 2011. Retrieved 30 November 2011.
At Newcastle this year, we’ve been beyond fortunate to have an incredible Student Union exec, a team of formidable and inspiring Sabs who have not only worked their hardest to support their fellow students through what they couldn’t have known would be one of the hardest academic years ever due to the pandemic, but who have also somewhere found the reserves of energy to engage with another critical and timely issue, decolonizing the curriculum. Their Decolonise NCL campaign has to date included a series of online events attracting a seriously impressive array of speakers, as well as pulling together resources and pushing the University to pledge a commitment to decolonisation and anti-racist work at all levels. It’s simply awe-inspiring.
Their work has got me thinking about the place of decolonisation in what’s commonly called ‘study skills’, and how it impacts on the role of Learning Developers. I wrote a while ago about coming to understand the related and tricky value of emancipatory practice, a related concept, which I feel is the defining Learning Development value, but even at the time felt I was only just beginning to get a handle on it. Since then, my Leeds colleague Sunny Dhillon has written eloquently both about his ambivalent feelings about emancipation in LD as well as questioning whether universities can feasibly decolonise themselves. Working on projects around student induction this year, at the time of the Black Lives Matter protests, I’ve also examined ways in which an uncritical approach to inducting students to our academic community could be oppressive. The Student Union campaign has prompted me to further this thinking and tie these disparate threads together in the context of my own profession.
To this end, I offered to contribute a session to their programme of Decol NCL events, NOT because I have any expertise in this area, but because I wanted to pick up the challenge they had thrown down and explore how this ‘well-meaning middle class white woman’ might begin doing her own anti-racist work within her professional context. I’ve since taken this discussion to a meeting of my own profession of Learning Developers in Scotland (ScotHELD). This post draws together some of the questions and avenues I explored in those sessions. Our NUSU sabs talk about brave spaces as well as safe spaces, about the need to let people take risks to step outside their comfort zone, and I’d like to take that idea up and step out.
“…universities remain white middle-class spaces. They require students to adopt particular ways of being and doing – those which conform to middle-class practices that define success in higher education – ways of writing, speaking and the use of academic language. Universities measure a particular type of success that is possessed by those from white middle-class backgrounds.”
As I’ve written before, my role is often understood as teaching students to write ‘properly’. Implicitly, that means as white, middle class and male. I’d extend this understanding of ‘academic literacy’ also beyond just academic writing to other practices covered by a Learning Developer, from seminar participation to independent study, reading to critical thinking, time management to revision, which are equally situated in socio-cultural expectations of what it means to be a “good” student – the default norm being a white, middle class, male student with all the resources, privilege, cultural capital and opportunities they possess.
“Academic practices are usually presented as neutral, decontextualised sets of technical skills and literacy that students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are seen to lack”
These practices are not neutral, and those of us who teach them must interrogate what it is that we are doing, and whether it is reinforcing a colonial, oppressive education system rooted in white, middle class, western norms of how we should think, act and communicate at university, thereby positioning Black, Asian, working class etc students in terms of deficits to be remediated. While it may be true as Bourdieu says that ‘academic English is […] no one’s mother tongue’, it’s a language closely related to my own RP middle class English, and one I can learn with greater ease and inhabit more comfortably without challenge to my identity and sense of belonging.
“Through taken- for-granted academic practices, constructions of difference are formed, often in problematic ways. The tendency is to project a pathologist gaze on racialist bodies that have historically been constructed as a problem, and as suffering from a range of deficit disorders (e.g. lack of aspiration, lack of motivation, lack of confidence and so on’)”
What I’ve learned from the speakers at NUSU’s events so far: Decolonisation is not synonymous with other concepts such as diversity, inclusion, equality or widening participation, laudable as those initiatives may be. They imply an extension of the status quo, an affirmation of it, additive rather than transformational. Decolonisation, while related to these concepts, demands a fundamental change, a dismantling, decentring, disruption, a relinquishing, restitution, restoration. It has a revolutionary quality. “Decolonisation”, we are told, “is not a metaphor” (Tuck and Yang, 2012). Moreover, decolonisation cannot be achieved simply through inclusion or widening participation measures, as the structures and processes of an oppressive system are ill suited to fundamentally dismantling its underlying issues: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde, 18984). To decolonise the HE curriculum means
an underlying transformation from a culture of denial and exclusion to a consideration of different traditions of knowledge. To diversify our curriculum is to challenge power relations and call for deeper thinking about the content of our courses and how we teach them.
How does this relate to Learning Development? Well, by extension, to decolonise the curriculum means not only what we teach and how, but also how we expect students to learn. Lea and Street’s tripartite framework of approaches to the teaching of academic writing offers us a lens to examine our practice. The second level, the academic socialisation model, maps onto ideas of inclusion and widening participation: “ [it] is concerned with students’ acculturation into disciplinary and subject-based discourses and genres. Students acquire the ways of talking, writing, thinking, and using literacy that typified members of a disciplinary or subject area community” (Lea and Street, 2006). These ways also typify the ideal or assumed white, middle class, male member of that community, for whom that system was created and in whose interests it operates. This is Academic Literacy as The Thing That We LDers Teach to students.
A Learning Developer whose primary guiding model is an academic socialisation approach is upholding this status quo. No matter how welcoming the gatekeeper, no matter how wide we throw open those doors and how helpful we are in orientating those we admit within the walls, we are still insisting that students enter on the terms of a white, middle class academy. We are also closing our ears to our students’ experiences; what is just a surface feature and linguistic or practice quirk to us is a troubling challenge to their identity or weighty burden to enact, for some students.
Colonialism assimilates or destroys; this is Learning Development as colonial assimilation. Become like us, or fail. We don’t want the bits of you that don’t conform. But not only does a predominantly academic socialisation approach assume that “once students have learned and understood the ground rules of a particular academic discourse, they are able to reproduce it unproblematically”, it also assumes that those ground rules are unproblematic.
‘Inclusion tends to be more about fitting into the dominant culture than about interrogating that culture for the ways that it is complicit in the social and cultural reproduction of exclusion, misrecognition and inequality.’
The third model identified by Lea and Street maps more closely onto the decolonisation agenda. It not only notes that academic writing is not homogeneous but a multiplicity of practices or meanings, but also acknowledges that these meanings are bound up with epistemology and identity, that they consist of socio-cultural practices situated within hierarchies of power and authority and are therefore contested on unequal terms. I’d like to raise an observation I’ve frequently made when listening to or reading accounts of Academic Literacies as a model, both in Learning Development and EAP. Very often, these accounts focus on one implication of Academic Literacies, that academic writing is not generic or monolithic and therefore our work needs to differentiate multiple discipline-specific discourses and tailor provision, at the expense of the other: that these discourses are situated in hierarchies of power and authority. That critical, radical observation is right there in the model, and yet is frequently downplayed or overlooked.
Similarly, it positions study skills not as surface tools to be adopted at will, but fundamentally entwined with identity, and therefore belonging. Education is supposed to change you, but not to the extent that you can only learn if you become someone else entirely, or fragment your identity, your self. And if Learning Development’s defining value is its emancipatory practice, then it is these more critical implications that we need to foreground, or what we have is a tailored academic socialisation model (Ivanic’s 2004 four tier model acknowledges this better perhaps than Lea and Street’s, separating out writing as a contextualised event from writing as a sociocultural and political practice).
The principal function of student writing is increasingly that of gatekeeping.
Due to the nature of our work, Learning Developers have a special relevance to the project of decolonisation in Higher Education. Decolonisation is often spoken of in terms of adding a more diverse range of authors to a reading list, or including broader topics in a module, mostly applying to Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Put a few Black authors on the English Literature curriculum, hire a couple of BAME lecturers and be done with it. But decolonisation applies to the whole system of how we teach, the way we expect students to learn, and how we recognise and assess that learning, a system which, if it’s not designed for you, makes everything harder, if it doesn’t exclude you outright. It forces you to learn on someone else’s terms, and ‘Study Skills’, the core remit of Learning Development, cross-cuts and underpins all aspects of the curriculum at every level, in every discipline.
It’s our role to not only to help students better understand their curriculum, institution and discipline better, but also to negotiate it successfully. Negotiate – it’s a wonderful word in this context, meaning both to find your way through obstacles, but also to bring about a desired outcome through discussion between parties. Negotiation demands dialogue and change on both sides to progress. I’m not sure decolonisation is something Learning Developers can really choose to disengage from or remain neutral on.
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Unfortunately, time management is far more difficult now versus pre-pandemic. The findings from Doodle’s “Time Management in Education” study support this, with over a third of the surveyed college students (37 percent) saying it has been harder to manage their time and stay productive now that lectures have moved online. This is a serious issue, as a majority of students (66 percent) say that time management is extremely important in regards to their ability to meet their academic goals.
On top of this, nearly half of students (42 percent) say that they’re working more now that classes have gone virtual. And they’re very concerned about the long-term impact on their academic success, with 71 percent of students saying that they’re either extremely worried, or somewhat worried, that the shift to online-only education will negatively impact their academic success.
On the surface, these stats might seem like they paint an abysmal outlook for the future of education in a COVID-19 world. But I think there’s a way to right the ship and technology will play a huge role in doing so. This is a great opportunity for academic institutions to change their processes and implement new technologies. It’s not about stripping away all existing processes and systems that have been in place for decades.
Rather, it’s about making small, impactful changes. It’s also about implementing the right technology solutions to facilitate the kinds of change that will allow academic institutions to deliver the best experience possible to students, faculty members and administrative staff, while helping them to be highly productive, focused and successful in achieving their goals.
For students who are already digital natives and accustomed to using upwards of 15 digital tools/apps daily, technology can be tremendously useful in cutting down on administrative tasks like coordinating office hours with their professors, 1:1 guidance sessions with faculty advisors and group study sessions with classmates. That’s time that can be refocused and reinvested into studying, writing papers and devising their graduation strategy.
Not only does technology make learning more flexible and convenient as 55 percent of the surveyed students reported in the Doodle study, but it also creates a more engaged and collaborative environment. For example, 16 percent of students say they value how technology makes it easier to collaborate with classmates and 13 percent see it as being useful in increasing access to their professors and faculty members.
Now consider introverted students who may have once shied away from speaking up in front of their classmates. They can be more active participants in their online classes in the safety of their homes and with the option to turn off their camera to reduce their anxiety and shyness of being ‘seen’ while participating. It takes some of the pressure off, allowing them to focus on learning and excelling in their classes.
Technology can also add efficiencies for busy educators by cutting down on context-switching. For example, using a scheduling tool that is integrated with video conferencing software like Zoom will eliminate the need to toggle back and forth between both solutions. It can also address the all-too-common problem of forgetting to create, copy and paste a Zoom link into each calendar invite. If it’s integrated into your scheduling tool, then the Zoom link is automatically populated and added into each calendar invite. That’s less tedious work for educators and more time spent on guiding students to academic success and achieving their own goals.
To help, I have outlined some useful tips for professors, faculty, administrative staff and students.
Tips for teachers/professors, faculty and administrative staff:
Use a communication platform, like Slack, to interact and pass essential messages on to students, fellow professors, faculty members and administrative staff. Answering questions in a way that all can see means you won’t be asked the deadline for that paper 40 times. Having an open, real-time communication link between students and professors means more questions are likely to be answered online, rather than during lengthy one-to-one meetings, while students get answers when they need them.
Schedule one-to-ones with individual students whom you teach or advise. Use this time to gauge how they’re feeling. Don’t talk about the class curriculum, their grades or academic performance. Focus on their emotional wellbeing.
Set up group meetings with your department heads and administrative staff to understand how everyone’s workload is being affected. Does anyone have concerns? Are everyone’s needs being met? Does everyone have the necessary resources and tools to be effective educators? Asking these questions is critical to empowering your faculty and staff to do their jobs well and support your students.
Record key sessions so students can revisit them when studying for exams, catch up on them if they missed a lecture and even use the recordings for future study groups.
Tips for students:
Slice and dice projects into smaller, manageable chunks.
Focus on one task at a time. Don’t switch back and forth between assignments. Only move to a new task once a single task has been completed.
Automate administrative tasks, like scheduling study sessions and office hours with professors, so time can be better spent on engaging in class, studying and getting feedback from professors.
Pay attention to your productivity flows and energy levels. When your productivity is highest, use that time to focus on a larger, high-priority assignment.
Use time blocking to make yourself unavailable for meetings, activities or anything else and dedicate that time to important tasks/projects. So if anyone tries to book time in your calendar, it will appear as unavailable.
Set up assignment/project deadlines in your calendar so your grades don’t suffer simply because you forgot a deadline.
Renato Profico is the CEO of the leading enterprise scheduling tool, Doodle. A qualified executive with 20 years of professional experience in digital companies, he most recently held the position of CEO for four years at a leading job platform network in Switzerland, JobCloud. In addition to his extensive leadership experience, Renato is an expert in B2B sales, marketing, business development, customer relationship management, as well as organizational structure and development.
Three years ago, I coined the term The 5-Hour Rule after researching the most successful, busy people in the world and finding that they shared a pattern: They devoted at least 5 hours a week to deliberate learning. Since then, I’ve preached The 5-Hour Rule to more than 10 million readers. The reason I keep writing about it is two-fold..I believe it’s the single most critical practice we all can adopt to ensure our long-term career success, Almost no one takes this rule as seriously as they should…Recently, I’ve realized that The 5-Hour Rule is more than just a pattern. It’s more like a fundamental law in our current age of knowledge. And it’s backed up by basic math and a growing body of research……..