Exercisers Think and Learn Better

by Race Bannon on October 19, 2013


“Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very fast.” Thomas Jefferson

Research shows that people who exercise outperform more sedentary people in long-term memory, reasoning, attention and problem-solving tasks. And this makes a lot of sense. Human beings evolved over time as movers. We walked a lot. And as we walked around we learned. So it’s not surprising that our biology is wired to learn best when our bodies are in motion – in other words, exercising. The human brain ended up having the most powerful brains of any living creature under conditions where we were always moving.

I’m not talking about short-term exercise though. I’m talking about ongoing, regular exercise. Researchers discovered the benefits of exercise kicks in as early as four months into an exercise program. Engaging in some form of exercise exertion (aerobic exercise in particular) ends up providing us with many benefits, one of them being that we learn a lot better than if we don’t exercise. John Medina writes “A lifetime of exercise can result in a sometimes astonishing elevation in cognitive performance, compared with those who are sedentary. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluidintelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material in order to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work.”

Such exercise need not be complicated. Exercise and fitness is one of my own big interests and I’m always advocating that people adopt the simplest exercise program that they’ll stick to that will reap the biggest benefits. When it comes to aerobic exercise, there is one truly ideal type of exercise I recommend – walking. Yes, simple walking. Brisk, fast-paced walking ideally. When researchers tested out the effects of exercise in the laboratory they discovered that a maximum effect is achieved with about 30 minutes of aerobic exercise done two to three times a week. They also discovered that if you add in some strength training exercises as well you get even more cognitive benefit.


Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

by Race Bannon on October 6, 2013


“Twice and thrice over, as they say, good is it to repeat and review what is good.” Plato

In instructional design and learning theory circles there is a famous, if somewhat troubling, fact that has plagued educators and instructional designers for years. The person who first identified this troubling fact was Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist who was a pioneer in studying memory and how memory ties to learning.

What Ebbinghaus discovered through his research is often referred to as the “forgetting curve.” In short, the forgetting curve demonstrated that students in a classroom tend to forget about 90 percent of what they learn in class within about 30 days. 90 percent, in just 30 days! Even worse, most of this forgetting occurs within the first few hours after class is over. So, that’s the bad news.

The good news is that Ebbinghaus also discovered that a student could improve the length of memory retention simply by repeating the information in timed intervals. And, logically, the more the repetition the more retention.

So what does this mean for the self-educator. Figure out ways you can repeat what it is you have learned regularly. This might mean repeatedly going over your notes, explaining to yourself out loud the information and concepts you have learned, telling others about what you have learned, creating your own flash cards you use periodically, repeating a particular skill over and over, and so on. Do whatever it takes to repeat, and repeat often.

As for when to begin repeating, I suggest you start immediately after you initially learn something. Why? Because research shows that thinking or talking about something immediately after it happens dramatically improves the retention of the information.

Always keep in mind that research shows that memory may not be fixed at the moment you actually learn it. However, if you utilize repetition and do such repetitions at regular intervals, you are much more likely to place that information in your brain in a more long-term form. Also, try to figure out ways to expose yourself to information and repeat it in smaller chunks rather than in huge streams. Optimal learning takes place when we gradually incorporate new information into our memory as opposed to trying to absorb it all in one fell swoop.


The Changing Economic Landscape And Jobs

by Race Bannon on September 27, 2013


In addition to some of the obvious changes regarding the contemporary workforce, the underlying economy that supports the workforce is changing also. Some economists and trend pundits believe that the United States, and indeed the entire world, will see an adjustment to the very foundation of our economy in terms of wealth distribution and fewer jobs being created.

What does this mean for the skilled self-educator? In a world where there is going to be an ever increasing need to keep up with the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in the job and career market, along with a shrinking number of jobs available, the self-educator has a huge advantage over anyone who relies primarily on traditional formal (classroom-based) learning to learn new things to compete and stay ahead.

Famed economist Tyler Cowen in his book, Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, details why the widening gap between rich and poor means that from now on if you are not at the top, you’re at the bottom. What does he means by that?

Tyler contends, based on his research and economics experience, that the global labor market is quickly changing due to growth at both the high and low ends of the spectrum. Low wage job creation has been robust while jobs at the higher end are leveling off or retreating. Amid all this the number of American millionaires and billionaires continues to skyrocket..

Due to what he terms “machine intelligence” (essentially computerization) high earners are taking advantage of data analysis and achieving ever-better results. At the same time, low-wage earners who have not jumped on board the continuing learning bandwagon to make the most of these new technologies have poor employment prospects that will only get worse over time.

Tyler says that what was formerly considered a steady and secure life somewhere in the middle (the middle class as it’s often called), in other words “average,” is over. You will either be part of the workforce that continually learns and adapts to embrace and leverage new technologies and the new realities and do well economically, or you will be part of the workforce that does not embrace learning and rapid adaptation and will not do so well.

Self-education will be the difference in having a fulfilling, meaningful and profitable work life as opposed to a mundane and low-paying employment future. I contend that using only formal schooling to keep up with such rapidly changing technologies, knowledge domains and skills will be cumbersome and ineffective for many workers who must learn and work simultaneously in sync with the modern realities of our lives.


Skimming To Learn

by Race Bannon on September 6, 2013


The art of skimming is a too often denigrated skill. When I encourage people to skim a book, long article or any other type of reading, I am often met with stares of disbelief that I would encourage skimming over what must surely be important material. Well, I am most definitely encouraging skimming.

Skimming is not only a generally useful skill, but I think a vital one for good self-educators. Since I think skimming nonfiction books is a particularly useful form of skimming, let’s use the example of skimming a book about a subject you want to learn. Yes, of course you might want to read the book in its entirety, and in many cases I would encourage that, but there is tremendous utility in skimming a book first to lay a foundation. Especially if you are new to the subject area you are studying.

When you carefully skim a book, you are constructing for yourself a basic, foundational schema of the subject matter – a mental map of sorts. If it is a subject area entirely new to you, this mental map will help to organize your learning. It will help you identify high-level topic areas on which to focus your learning. It can serve as a simple introduction to the subject at the same time.

You might read the book’s introduction, then skim each chapter’s headings and sub-headings, perhaps reading the first sentence of each sentence below a heading to add a bit more depth to the overall architecture of the subject. Taking a few simple notes during this skimming process can produce a great outline that will guide your learning going forward. How can you proceed to learn something if you have not a clue what it is you are supposed to be learning in the first place. Skimming and the subsequent optional outlining gives you the foundation and structure to guide your learning in the right direction.

If you already know something about a subject, skimming still has a use. Skimming new material can augment your already existing mental map of the subject or create new mental connections between ideas, concepts and facts. It is by creating new mental connections between all that you learn that your knowledge and skill become most useful and also more likely to stick with you longer.

In his article Continue Your Own Learning and Development Jason Womack mentioned what is essentially a skimming technique for nonfiction books. He suggests three quick steps in the process. First, read the table of contents, glossary and index to familiarize yourself with the main topics in the book. Second, read titles, subtitles and any text that’s bolded or otherwise emphasized. Finally, read the first sentence of every paragraph to delve a bit deeper into the content. Womack claims that with this technique you can read the average business book, for example, in about an hour. He also wisely suggests that if you find something particularly interesting in your quick scan, go ahead and read more of that section. (Note: Fewer books today have glossaries and indexes, although you will likely still find them in books such as academic textbooks or other scholarly books.)

Womack’s advice is a classic example of a skimming methodology and a pretty good one that will serve any self-educator well if applied to their learning.

So foster your skimming skills. No, you are not wasting time when you skim. In fact, you are likely speeding up your learning by providing yourself with a much needed structure upon which to base your learning efforts.


Mix Up The Inputs When Learning

by Race Bannon on August 22, 2013


A lot of research points to the fact that people learn best when more than one sensory input is utilized. The more types of inputs, the better the learning. For example, if you take one group of people and teach them by telling them (so they utilize their hearing), take another group and teach them by showing them (so they utilize their sight), and take another group and teach by using both means (hearing and sight), the third group that was taught using both senses will always learn better than the groups who receive the information through just one sense. If you can throw in yet one more sense, let’s say the sense of touch, learning increases even more.

So what does this mean for the self-educator? When you’re trying to learn something, see if you can engage more than one of your senses in the process. This will improve the effectiveness of your learning. Sight, hearing, touch and, perhaps less often, smell should be combined to make the learning experience as robust as possible.

Also, people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone. So try to access visual images to support your learning along with any reading you’re doing. When images and words are presented simultaneously rather than successively the learning is improved. So as you read and reference images consider going back and forth between them to have each support the other in the learning process.

When you are trying to use various senses as you learn, remember also that research shows that vision (sight) trumps all other senses when it comes to learning. The more visual you can make what you’re learning, the better the learning that takes place. As an example, if information is presented to people verbally, they will remember about 10 percent of what they were told. However, if you add in an illustrative picture to accompany the verbal information, the people will remember about 65 percent. That’s an amazing difference. So leverage visual images as much as you can when learning.

The incredibly effective nature of visual images is also why I consider image creation literacy to be an important part of the communication skill set needed today. It’s not just important to be able to communicate well with the written and spoken word, but to also have the skills to create at least basic visuals and images to illustrate what it is you are trying to communicate. And the drawings or images you create don’t need to be complex. Research has shown that simple or rough images are quite good at communicating information, and are sometimes superior to more complex or lifelike images that can distract from the learning.

So along with honing your writing and speaking skills, consider learning some basic graphic design, videography and other visual imagery development skills as well. It will serve you very well in life if you have these skills.

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Brain Rules To Help You Work and Learn

by Race Bannon on August 19, 2013


Every so often I read a book that offers me information and insights that provide me with a foundation of knowledge that will serve me well for the rest of my life in so many ways. John Medina’s Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School is one such book. It has made it on to my list of top 10 favorite books and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Medina offers 12 “rules” to adhere to if you want your work, home and learning life to function optimally based on the latest information that today’s brain science can tell us. Medina translates the complex research results of some of the world’s greatest neuroscientists into useful, simple rules that help us apply the latest science can offer to our daily lives in meaningful and useful ways.

As pointed out early in the book, most of us have absolutely no idea how the brain really works. Medina points out that this has serious consequences:

“We try to talk on our cell phones and drive at the same time, even though it is literally impossible for our brain to multitask when it comes to paying attention. We have created high-stress office environments, even though a stressed brain is significantly less productive. Our schools are designed so that most real learning has to occur at home. This would be funny if it weren’t so harmful.”

For each of the brain rules presented, Medina presents the science behind the rule and then offers ideas for investigating how the rule might apply to our daily lives, especially at work and school.

As an example, Medina’s Brain Rule 1, “exercise boosts brain power,” lays out a rather compelling explanation of why people who exercise outperform the more sedentary among us in long-term memory, reasoning, attention, and problem-solving tasks. Want to work, learn and generally live better? Exercise.

The remaining 11 rules are all equally simple gems of wisdom that will help anyone trying to improve the effectiveness of what they are doing, especially when working and learning. Since the contents of this book speak directly to two topics I write about often, Self-Education and Learning and Work, Career and Business, it resonated with me deeply. It’s also written well and in a friendly, accessible style that delivers the information in a manner that draws you into what might otherwise be off-putting subject matter.

Read this book. You won’t be sorry.


Looking At The Big Picture

by Race Bannon on August 18, 2013


Research shows that those people we consider highly knowledgeable in their fields (experts, although I usually hesitate to use that word) do much more than simply retain and regurgitate the facts and formulas that pertain to their domain of expertise. They instead hang these facts and formulas on the big picture or big ideas.

Experts organize their knowledge around core concepts represented by high-level themes, big picture concepts or generalized big ideas. They don’t start with the details. They start with key concepts and ideas and in a hierarchical manner form the details around the larger concepts and ideas.

Use this same approach when learning something. Try to grasp the major concepts in an area of study. Don’t try to focus too much on the intricate details of a subject area right away. Be content at first to understand the primary concepts and only after these are understood satisfactorily should you attempt to learn the deeper and more complex specifics.

Think of the big ideas and concepts as the “outline” of the subject area. Only once the top level headings of an outline are in place should you further expand upon the outline with more specific details.

So what do you do if you have no idea where to start? What if you’re not even sure how to begin identifying the big, overarching ideas and concepts that pertain to a certain area of knowledge. I find introductory textbooks to be an excellent starting point. I’m not necessarily a big fan of our formal educational system relying so heavily on textbooks, but they do serve an extremely useful function, if well researched and written, of presenting to the reader some of the big ideas and concepts from which to start your self-education efforts. And the reading or deep scanning of a good introductory textbook is likely to give you a pretty good foundation for the rest of your study.

You can also find course syllabi online and they can serve the same purpose as a textbook in helping you identify the big picture items from which your self-study will emanate.

As Kio Starks says in her book, Don’t Go Back To School: A Handbook for Learning Anything:

“For linear learning, school use to be the only place to get access to a map that charted a tried and true path to learning a particular subject. These maps, such as syllabi and textbooks, were scarce, restricted resources. But school is now far from the only place to find thes kinds of maps. Open courseware, experimental learning platforms, and the generosity of individual teachers in sharing their work mean that school isn’t the only place to find a well traveled path anymore. They’re widely available without paying tuition. Good old fashioned textbooks can be found cheaply and easily online.”


Creating Your Personalized Learning Portal

by Race Bannon on August 15, 2013


Educational institutions, companies and organizations often create online learning portals to act as entryways into learning resources and opportunities for their students or employees. Search for “learning portal” using your favorite search engine to see some examples. You can create your own learning portal using just your browser.

No matter what type of browser you use, they all share the common feature of allowing you to bookmark a web page and to categorize those bookmarks. You can leverage this capability to create your own learning and reference portal.

Online learning destinations tend to fall into a few general categories. By categorizing your bookmarked web pages under appropriate category names, you can emulate the links you would find in a typical learning portal, and this one will be tailored to your specific needs.

The trick is to decide upon the right categories. Here are some suggestions, but you should use these only as a starting point. Your learning portal should be individualized and relevant to what you want to learn, how you learn, and your areas of interest.

You might create these categories under a single browser category of My Learning Portal.

  • General Reference
  • Libraries
  • Professional Organizations
  • Tutorials
  • Blogs
  • Videos

Within each of these categories you might break it down into sub-categories related to specific subject areas. One alternative categorization strategy could be to use subject matter and topic categories as the first level of categorization rather than these higher level categories. Do what works for you. Ultimately, how you organize your links is up to you. Only you know best what organization makes sense.

Keep your links and their categorization current. Over time it’s easy to get lazy about organizing your bookmarked pages and that will significantly reduce the usefulness of your learning portal. If well maintained, your personalized learning portal can serve as your pathway to ongoing learning for the rest of your life.

Here’s a great site that learning guru Marcia Conner suggested to me as inspiration regarding the power of a well-organized link collection. Chuck Green’s field of expertise is specifically design, but you can clearly see how such a link collection could prove valuable for a self-educator.


Social Learning

by Race Bannon on August 12, 2013


These days a popular term has emerged in learning circles – social learning. It’s not an entirely new term. Discussion about social learning has roots going back as early as the late 1800’s. In recent times it has become somewhat synonymous with social media learning. While learning theorists will rightfully disagree that the two terms mean the same thing, common usage has blurred the meanings and the two are now often used interchangeably.

Social learning is currently a hot topic in the corporate world. Many organizations are adopting social learning practices that focus on employees often learning best from peers and internal subject-matter experts. Collaborative and multi-faceted learning is the key to social learning. Mechanisms such as communities of practice, wikis, blogs, discussion groups and expert directories are being used to bring about more efficient and useful learning in the workplace.

Outside of the workplace, social learning takes place in similar ways with a contemporary focus on social media as the primary vehicle to loosely organize and facilitate this type of learning. Again, the focus is on learning from others in an informal manner.

Whether taking place in the workplace or in other aspects of our lives, social learning is a concept that will only grow over time as we network further with each other and in more robust and intricate ways. Technology will continue to facilitate social learning to the point where I believe it will significantly challenge, head-to-head, traditional classroom approaches to learning. A tipping point is approaching at which time social learning will be considered a viable alternative to classroom-based education. I look forward to that day.

However, when talking about social learning, it’s important to remember that social learning is really a subset of the larger topic of self-education. Informal learning, self-directed learning, social learning and social media learning are all so closely related to each other that we must continue to think of them within the context of the broader topic of self-education.

I believe self-education is the future cornerstone of all education. In truth, it always has been, but the dominance of formal education in the community consciousness has been so overwhelming that it’s drowned out any reasonable discussion of self-education until fairly recently. I hope the rise of social learning’s importance will help to usher in a new era of more useful, cost-effective and personally-relevant learning gained primarily through self-education.


Welcoming Feedback

by Race Bannon on August 11, 2013


We all make mistakes. Nothing we do is perfect. That’s how life is supposed to be. If we ever achieved perfection in all aspects of life we’d be very unhappy. Much of our joy in life, whether we realize it or not, comes from learning, from improving, from fine tuning this wonderful journey we’re all on.

Some folks don’t get to experience such joy because they don’t accept feedback very well. Walls go up the moment they receive any type of criticism, even when it’s delivered with the best of intentions. Sometimes people take feedback badly even when they have specifically asked for the feedback.

I’ve observed that those who learn best are those who are the most open to correction and advice. In fact, I believe that the ability to easily assimilate feedback from others is one of the key learning skills necessary to learn optimally. If someone is closed to feedback, their learning will suffer significantly.

So as you live your life, consider making a conscious effort to welcome feedback with open arms. You’ll learn more and you’ll learn better.