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One Big Advantage Your Parents Had When Learning (and How to Use it Yourself)

One Big Advantage Your Parents Had When Learning (and How to Use it Yourself)

Back when I was in college, the typical laptop weighed about 9,000 pounds. So most students actually took a notebook and pen to class.

(Millennials: By “notebook,” I mean a binder of actual paper, made from trees. By “pen,” I mean a handheld device that looks like a stylus but actually records information by transferring ink to paper.)

What an advantage that gave us!

At least, that’s one takeaway from an important new book called Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, whose coauthor professor Henry Roediger I recently heard interviewed on a radio show. His findings give us more good reasons — as if we needed them — to singletask our learning and to use more focus, less tech.

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As Roediger explains, the typical university student today takes notes in class using a laptop — furiously typing as much as she can of what the professor says (in between posting Facebook updates like, “So borrred!”).

Here’s the counterintuitive finding from Roediger and his coauthors: When we take notes on a computer, we learn and retain far less than when we hand-write our notes.

That’s because we can type far faster than we can write by hand, so note-taking on a laptop is essentially dictation. We don’t have to stop to process what the lecturer is saying, because we can type almost every word of it.

When we write by hand, though, we can write only so much. That forces us to listen more intently and process what the professor is saying, so we can jot only the essential words and still keep up.

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A second and more intuitive reason it’s difficult to learn by laptop in the classroom is that the laptop also offers a zillion ways to distract the student — email, Twitter, eBay, CNN, Farmville.

I often listen to mp3s of college lectures on iTunes U. (I know: Nerd alert!) I remember listening to a course on public relations taught by a professor named Sam Dyer. What struck me was that professor Dyer actually made a point of telling his class to keep at least one browser window open during class, so they could easily navigate to whatever site he wanted them to view as he lectured. What Dyer was acknowledging, of course, was that he knew his students were at best splitting their attention between his class and whatever other personal business they had going on their computers. He was teaching the best he could to a room of tech-savvy multitaskers.

Dyer’s courses on media relations and business writing are terrific. But I wonder how much his students actually get from them, and how much they’re missing because they don’t have the advantage of attending his lectures in the pre-laptop era.

Now, am I suggesting that all of the previous generation’s students learned more in class and got better educations than those in school today? Of course not. We often let ourselves be undermined by the technology available to us, too — the tape recorder, for example.

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In fact, one hilarious story that made the rounds at UCLA, where I studied, illustrates the ridiculous lengths students and teachers would go to avoid attending class altogether. According to legend, a professor at our school recorded all of his lectures on audiotape. For each class session, he’d walk in, say hello to the students — and then press play on his tape player, set it down on the front table and leave. After a while, of course, the students got wise. They would wait for a minute after the professor left the room, pull out their own recording devices, set them on the front table and leave too.

So if you happened by this class and peeked in the window, you’d see a completely empty room with 100 tape recorders on the front table — 1 on play, and 99 on record.

The More Focus, Less Tech Approach Applies to Lifelong Learning

Students in my day had little choice in class but to listen to the professor (or cover our ears). We had far fewer distractions than students do today. So we had a natural advantage.

Today, anyone attending a class has to make a conscious decision not to be undermined by all of the electronic distractions easily available on the very devices that students are expected to use in class.

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But you can do it. Close everything not essential to your learning. No Skype, no iMessage, no iTunes. Just whatever site your professor wants you viewing and your note-taking app — Word, most likely.

This advice also applies to us in our professional lives or in any learning environment. If you’re attending a meeting or conference or industry panel, stay on task. If you’re using your laptop, close all apps you won’t need for that event. Better still — leave the laptop in your bag and take out your notebook (the paper kind) and pen (the non-stylus kind).

Learning in any setting requires us to be rested, alert and fully attentive to the material. Those of us who attended school in the High Middle Ages had the advantage of learning in a pre-Internet environment.

For learners today, getting the most from class or any learning setting is going to take some effort and self-control. But as professor Roediger and his Make It Stick coauthors discovered, the benefits of old-school, no-laptop learning are significant — including far greater understanding and retention of the material. Yes, it’ll be be hard not to check email for an entire meeting/class/conference/whatever. Hard, but worth it.

Featured photo credit: Busy children studying with digital laptop and tablet inside the school via shutterstock.com

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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