Sleep and memory: more evidence

From the BBC:

The mechanism by which a good night’s sleep improves learning and memory has been discovered by scientists.

The team in China and the US used advanced microscopy to witness new connections between brain cells – synapses – forming during sleep.

Their study, published in the journal Science, showed even intense training could not make up for lost sleep.

Experts said it was an elegant and significant study, which uncovered the mechanisms of memory.

It is well known that sleep plays an important role in memory and learning. But what actually happens inside the brain has been a source of considerable debate.

Read the full article here: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-27695144 .

How to feel okay

1. Everyone wants to feel okay.

When we don’t feel okay, we do something to make ourselves feel better. There are good ways, and not-so-good ways, to do this. Good ways include going for a walk, calling a friend on the telephone, eating an apple. Not-so-good ways include making somebody else feel bad, gorging on sweets, or . . . sticking a needle in your arm. Just about all of us make ourselves feel better by using our strengths. If we are good athletes, we go with that. If we are very beautiful, or handsome, we rely on that. If we are very clever, we use that. This natural tendency to go with our strengths can, however, cause problems. For example, the star athlete may stop working at her studies because she doesn’t find the sort of easy, immediate success in class that she does on the playing field. Or the very clever person may alienate the people around him by constantly reminding them how smart he is. How do you make yourself feel okay?

2. Pain is your friend.

Pain is that little guy jumping up and down, waving his arms, trying to get your attention. “Hey, you! Look at me! You’ve got something to deal with here, and something to learn! Pay attention!” People who are not really our friends will give up on us. If we push them hard enough, even people who really love us will finally give up on us. Not pain. You can try to ignore him, run away from him, drown him in booze (or any other distraction you prefer) but he stays right there until you pay attention to him. He is trying to make you pay attention to some sort of problem, to fix it if you can and to learn from it so it doesn’t keep repeating itself. So then the question is . . .

3. What is your problem?

We all have problems. What’s yours? How can you fix it? How can you stop yourself from running into it again and again and again? This is the real work of being human, of growing and learning and developing. Think of a baby, just learning to walk. His problem is, he can’t stand up. Or if he does manage to stand up for a moment, he loses his balance and falls down. Once, twice, three times, ten times. It frustrates him, makes him angry, makes him want to scream, makes him want to cry. If he stops trying and just cries, it will take him much longer to learn to walk. The solution to his problem is patient, determined effort; the only way he can fail is to stop trying. Lots of other problems are just like this—but not all of them. In other cases, doing the same thing over and over again will get you nowhere. In still other cases the problem may be something we cannot change or control. So, what is your problem, exactly, and how can you best deal with it? That’s what you need to find out.

4. We can all use help.

That baby will learn to walk a bit sooner if somebody gives him a hand to hold onto and keep him steady on his feet. You and I will learn from our problems and move on, instead of staying stuck on them, if we get some help from someone who has been there before us, who can see the situation more clearly than we can, who can point us in the right direction. It might be a friend, a family member, a counselor or teacher or therapist or doctor, or a neighbour. Find someone who can help you, and ask for help. If the first person you ask is not the right person, keep searching: someone out there is able to help you and will be happy to do it. Because we all want to feel okay, and one of the best ways to feel okay is to help someone else.

Have a problem? Tell your teacher! [book excerpt]

Not every teacher will be sympathetic every time. But most will listen sympathetically if you speak with them—in advance, or as soon as you know—and explain the situation. Students who communicate with their teachers usually get the benefit of the doubt. If you have trouble talking with a particular teacher, find another teacher or school administrator who will listen, and ask for his or her assistance.

Teachers are not mind readers. It may be obvious to you that you have a problem, but your teachers may have no idea. Let them know. If it’s something personal, you don’t have to go into great detail. “Mrs. Johnson, I’m sorry if I’m not my usual self today, but I’m having some personal problems, and I’m kind of upset.” Most teachers will be sympathetic, and quite willing to offer special accommodations, if you need them. Students who have been reliable and honest in the past will almost certainly receive sympathetic treatment in such circumstances. (Those who have not been reliable may have more trouble earning their teachers’ trust—another good reason to develop the habit of being reliable!)

In most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again . . . . We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us.

—William James, American psychologist and philosopher (1842-1910)

Having trouble with homework? The same rule applies. Let’s say the assignment is due, but yours isn’t ready to hand in. What do you say when the teacher asks for your homework? If all you say is, “I don’t have it,” what is the teacher supposed to think? Unfortunately, teachers will often assume the worst: that you were lazy, or disorganized, or inattentive—and maybe even that you don’t really care about the class, or about school in general.

If you’re reading this book, then you do care about school and want to do well. So how do you let the teacher know?

You probably don’t want to have a conversation with the teacher during class. First, it will take up valuable class time. Second, it will probably be overheard by your classmates, and that might be a bit embarrassing—or very embarrassing.

A better approach: if you don’t have a good excuse for not completing the homework, write a note of apology and give it to the teacher at the start of class, or earlier in the school day if you can. (Apologize, fix it, and move on.) If you usually hand your work in on time, your good track record will encourage the teacher to go easy on you. Then finish that homework, and hand it in!

If you do have a legitimate reason for not completing the homework on time, write a brief note explaining the circumstances, letting the teacher know when you will be able to hand in the work and asking if that is okay.

Finally, if you know in advance that you won’t be able to complete the assignment on time because of some unusual situation, speak with the teacher in advance, explain the problem, and ask if you could have a time extension. If you’re going to have the same problem in several classes, speak with your homeroom teacher or advisor and ask him or her for help in informing your teachers.

If you’re honest, reliable, and responsible about communicating openly and courteously, you will have few problems with your teachers. Occasionally you’ll meet one who’s just mean. In that case be as polite as you can and walk the other way whenever possible.

Oak Outliner: a great note-taking tool for students

Students who have laptops in class can take notes quickly and easily using Oak, a plain-text browser-based outliner that is free, fast, and easy to use. The commands are quite simple and intuitive. Nothing more than an internet connection is required, and you can save your work simply by copying it and pasting it wherever you like.

Give it a try: http://oakoutliner.com.

Book excerpt: “Have a question? Ask your teacher!”

Good students ask questions.

Are you shy? Find a way to ask questions. Sometimes after class or after school is best. Sometimes a note to the teacher works well. Learn to tell when it’s the wrong moment to ask a question, and ask it later. But never leave a question unasked!

Many students are reluctant to ask questions. Sometimes the reasons are personal, but often it’s about what other students might think of you if you ask a question. This takes us back to moral courage. Be brave enough to ask questions, and brave enough not to care if some people put you down for it. Many others will respect you, and in the long run you’ll be better off.

Occasionally, a student will ask too many questions, or ask questions at the wrong time. If you’re not sure when or how to ask questions in class, find a classmate who earns good grades, and watch the way he or she asks questions.

The questions your teachers ask are often good models for you to imitate and learn from. Some questions are about the literal or factual meaning; some involve interpreting or reading between the lines; and others involve making judgments. A good student understands these different kinds of questions and knows when to ask each kind. Asking questions is a skill, perhaps even an art, that takes practice and experience to master.

Strange as it may seem, the most important questions are not those you ask the teacher: they are the ones you ask yourself as you think about the subject you’re studying. Good students, even when they aren’t asking questions out loud, are asking themselves questions and making notes about them. This is what is meant by active learning: the student’s mind is actively searching for answers, not passively waiting for them. And since all learning is active, if you’re not active, you’re not learning.

In some cultures, students rarely if ever ask questions in class. If you come from such a culture and are now going to school outside your home country, you’ll have to decide whether you want to try to change your own habits in this area. When it comes to the questions you ask yourself, however, you should definitely be an active learner who is constantly questioning what you are hearing and reading in class.

So start asking questions!

The brain seems to like habits

ArsTechnica’s John Timmer reports on a recent study with monkeys showing that when performing a habitual activity, the brain uses less energy to complete the task.

We are seeing more and more of such reports as neuroscience works to discover exactly how the brain works. What’s striking is how often these new studies seem to confirm what thinkers from Aristotle to William James have been telling us for centuries: turning a desirable behaviour into a habit has tremendous advantages!

What are you studying?

You think you are studying geography, history, science, math . . . and you are. But the real subject, whatever you are studying in school, is yourself.

Do you know yourself? Do you understand yourself? Do you know what sort of things stress you out? How do you dial the stress down to a manageable level? How do you respond to criticism? Are you a leader or a follower? What do you really enjoy? Why do you enjoy those things? What do you really hate? Why? Are you an extrovert, or an introvert? How do you learn? Why are you the kind of person you are? Are you like your parents, or one of them? Have you been shaped by childhood experiences? Are you like other people in your family? in your ethnic group? linguistic group? Are you like others who share your religion, or your nationality? How did you come to be the person you are? And so on.

The more you understand yourself, the more successful you will be not just in school, but in everything you do. And almost every moment of every day provides a new opportunity to learn more about yourself. Problems, disagreements, difficulties of all sorts offer especially good opportunities to think about how you are responding to a certain situation; and what that response tells you about the sort of person you are; and what that experience can teach you that will be useful in the future. As I used to tell my children when they were young, pain is that little friend waving his hand, trying to get your attention. “Over here!” he calls out. “Look over here, there’s something you need to know about! Something you need to learn from!” If you always run away from the pain, run away from conflicts, ignore problems or just endure them until they go away—then you will miss all those opportunities to understand yourself better.

If you do learn to understand yourself, then everything else you study—geography, history, science, math—will be much, much easier. You will earn better results, and you will enjoy your studies more.

Think of it this way: instead of having to learn six or eight subjects, you really only have to learn one: yourself. And the really good news? It’s a subject that you are actually interested in.

The Value of Reading

“Read every day!” is one of the most important good habits that I urge students to practice in Good Habits, Good Students.

Two items recently came to my attention that add to the evidence of reading’s benefits.

First, via Larry Ferlazzo, this study showing that reading actually makes our brains bigger:

Reading For Pleasure Makes Your Brain Grow (Literally)

Second, a study from Oxford University has concluded that among a long list of activities by 16-year-olds, reading is the only one that can be shown to result in higher educational attainment and better jobs when those teenagers leave school:

Reading at 16 linked to better job prospects

In addition, of course, reading enriches your life, whoever you are and whatever you do.

Conclusion? “Read every day!”

Setting Goals: The Path to Improvement (book excerpt)

Don’t try to solve all your problems at once. Pick just one area that needs improvement, and work on it until you’ve reached your goal. To turn your achievement into a new habit, repeat the behaviour you are practicing until it becomes automatic.

Set a realistic goal. Decide in advance what you need to do to meet the goal, how you will measure success, and what your deadline will be. If you fail to reach the initial goal, revise it and try again.

Improvement is like hiking up a mountain: you do it one step at a time. If looking at the peak discourages you, forget about it and concentrate on the next step, and then the next. On the other hand, if looking at the peak inspires you, just keep imagining the fabulous view from the top!

Defining a Goal

A poorly defined goal will be pretty useless. Look at this one:

“My goal is to improve my marks in English.”

This is a nice idea, but it’s not a well-defined goal, because it leaves many important questions unanswered. For example, how much improvement is desired? How will the improvement be measured? Over what period of time is the goal to be achieved? What action is required to achieve the goal? How will progress toward the goal be recorded and judged?

A well-defined goal answers these questions right from the beginning. Here’s an example:

Goal: To read for 15 minutes every day.
Action required: Establish a fixed time and place to read. Eliminate all possible interruptions, and set a timer for 15 minutes.
How often?: Every day.
Start date: [to be filled in]
Monitoring: Keep a daily record in your homework diary, and also on your wall calendar if you wish.
Time limit: One week. End date: [to be filled in]
Measure of success: If you read every day for 15 full minutes, give yourself a treat.
Revision: If you fell short, repeat for another week. When you read for seven straight days, give yourself that treat. Then continue, with a treat at the end of each successful week, until the reading itself is a treat. At that point—not before—increase the time to 20 minutes.

Defining goals like this takes practice. To help you out, I’ve included sample goals with many of the Good Habits described in Part Two of this book. For each of them, the time limit is one week, and I recommend that you begin all your goals with a one-week time limit. Why? It keeps you focused. If you start to slip, the worst that can happen is that you lose a week.

Some goals are hard to define in a way that can be measured or counted. My students, for example, sometimes want to improve their handwriting skills. They set a goal: to write more neatly. But how can someone know whether the handwriting is neater, or how much neater it is? Instead, I tell them to set a goal to practice the skill they want to improve. Goal: to practice neat handwriting for ten minutes every night. With a goal like that, you can keep a record and tell whether the ten minutes has been spent on handwriting. And if you do practice writing neatly for ten minutes every night, you can be sure that your handwriting will improve.

Monitoring your progress: Keeping a daily written record of your goal-setting activity is crucial. For example, you decide to read for 15 minutes every evening, but you don’t keep a daily record. A week later, will you be able to tell exactly how many minutes you have read, on which days? Maybe you will, but maybe you won’t. In addition, keeping a daily record means that you remind yourself daily, and these reminders really help keep you on track. And finally, if you can’t keep a daily record of your achievement, you probably haven’t defined your goal in a way that can be measured. If that’s the case, re-read the paragraph just before this one.

Many of you will be tempted to skip the monitoring—don’t!

Reminders: Try using a digital calendar or organizer that can send you reminders—a beep, a message on-screen, or an email. This can be a great way to ensure that you don’t forget, and an easy way to keep a written record of your goal-setting.

Support: Find a friend who wants to improve his or her habits, and work together to keep each other motivated and on track.

To build a new habit, all you have to do is set a goal, monitor your progress daily, and keep at it—perhaps for weeks, perhaps for months—until the behaviour you are practicing becomes automatic.

In Appendix A, you will find some goal-setting aids:

•Set a Goal, a form for recording your goal, assessing your success, and deciding on the next step.
•Form a Habit, a different version of Set a Goal, designed to help you work on a single goal over several weeks or months and form a new habit.
•The Learning Log, a sheet to help you keep track of your behaviour during class time.
•The Homework Tracker, a sheet to help you monitor your good habits regarding homework.
•The Daily Check Sheet, to get daily feedback from teachers on how you are doing.
•The Post-Report Evaluation, to help you figure out what your report card really means.

If you’re not sure where to start, ask a parent or teacher for help in choosing and defining a goal that will work for you. If you’ve never set a goal before, go ahead and try one that’s simple, such as the reading example above. Or choose one of the other sample goals provided in Part Two (also listed in Appendix B). Or start with what I think are the two most fundamental Good Habits: “Read every day” and “Use a homework diary in every class, every day.”

Once you have some practice setting goals, monitoring them, and revising them, you’ll be able to set goals in every area of your life. You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to improve your habits if you work at it systematically