Tuesday, 25 September 2012

All Night Essay Crisis Syndrome

Is there a genuine excuse for your essay crisis ?
    If you leave all your essay work until the last moment, will the result be a disaster? Are you risking the tragic demise of your academic career? Is there a survival strategy?

    First, let's confess that some students work well under pressure. Last minute writers argue that you are less likely to be distracted if you have six hours left to finish, than if you have six days of leisure, sleep and study combined. Also, with less time you are less likely to be bogged down in wider reading, excessive contextualisation, and profound but confusing speculations. Crisis-driven writers maintain a sharp focus that helps them to maintain a clear sense of priorities and relevance in their work.

     While many great works have been the labour of many years of apprenticeship, and multiple arduous revision and drafts, there are admittedly examples of poets and writers who have achieved prodigious success by working in short bursts, under the pressure of a deadline, or simply the need to earn money quickly.

    For the writer who is a genius there is some impressive evidence of writing at high speed:

  • Jack Kerouac composed his novel On the Road in 21 days. It was typed on 120 feet of paper.

  • Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler in 26 days

  • British Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in one night of creative melancholy. 

  • Eighteenth-century writer Dr Johnson wrote The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759) in one week in order to help pay the costs of his mother's funeral. with an intended completion date of January 22

  • Muriel Spark apparently wrote The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in one month. I say apparently, because I'm writing this blog under pressure and don't have time to check my facts.

    On the other hand, poor contextualisation, narrow reading, and a lack of originality, combined with a shallow understanding of key concepts may leave you with an essay that scores less than C, or 50%. More seriously, running out of time may mean that you fail to re-write and revise your essay. As a result, the language may lack the academic elegance that you are capable of. With careless mistakes, an unclear argument, and a weak structure, your grade may fall below 40%. Fail!

   If you are having an essay or study crisis, why not thinking critically about what led you to this situation. If you have a genuine excuse then shouldn't you be seeking an extended deadline from your tutor. Try to avoid invented excuses. Tutors may, for instance, recall that this is the sixth death of a much-loved grandparent. So it's best to avoid careless funerals and crocodile tears.

   In fact, constant essay crises may be bad for your health. Creative flow is not quite the same as stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation. While modest amounts of caffeine may help to keep you awake they also harm concentration and may decrease the efficiency of you work. Concentrated sugar filled drinks provide a short term energy boost then dump you in a pit of despair. Another side effect of writing under stress is that yo may mis-read a question. That means that all your efforts have been wasted because you were barking up the wrong tree!

   If you are poorly organised then that's something that you can work on. Remember that it's not actually a genuine excuse to state that you have three essays due on the same day. In most cases, you will have been given the essay or project titles a month before the deadline, so you should have self-planned your workload. And remember that effective and successful essay writing involves many stages

Attending classes
Asking questions
Sharing ideas
Reading texts
Re-reading
Note-making
Wider reading
Find an argument
Deciding on a structure
An essay plan
A First Draft
A second draft
Final revisions
Checking references, works cited, bibliography, spelling and grammar

Remember that padding out your essay with long quotations is one of the oldest tricks in the book of forgotten failures. Relying on a cut-and-paste from Wikipedia also = FAIL.

The title, perhaps, should read "All night essay crisis sin-drome?"  Do you really have any excuse for leaving your work until the last moment? And did you spot ANY fabrications in this blog?

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Turning Exams Upside Down and Inside Out

Is this a question?
- Is this an answer?

It's quite stressful for children to sit exams at the age of 10 or 11. It is perhaps fortunate that many young people are not fully aware of what is happening to them, and have a poor understanding of its rationale or relevance.

Typically, children are trained how to revise, and they are taught exam technique, but no one really explains why they are being asked questions based on their comprehension of a text, or their verbal reasoning. Obedient children simply get on with the task, and some of them succeed from will-power alone. Creative children tend to become bored and rebellious, no matter how much you tell them that this is vital for their future career prospects.

In order to begin to fix this problem of justifiable resistance, we need to step back from the compulsory testing regimes and the machinery of educational selection. New strategies are required. I'm sure testing is here to stay, but I do think that children should be granted an opportunity to interrogate it, and perhaps understand what's happening in this process, as a consequence of this educational regime ...

One approach that I developed in University seminars was to rethink the 30 questions that I had planned to deploy in order to stimulate seminar discussion of a literary text. What I asked the students to do instead was to compile a set of questions that they thought I would ask them. Taking this exercise a step further, they crafted questions based on what they thought we ought to be asking. In effect the learners became teachers, and the learning became collaborative rather than hierarchical. By better understanding the questions, essentially they developed a profounder sense of what constituted an answer.

Children also really enjoy making up their own 11+ style exams. I call this The Alternative 11+ as it should incorporate some humour, and certainly employ more creativity than the narrow iQ test that dominates these exercises !

This game can be fun and creative as the children compete to invent killer questions. Furthermore, this process allows them to learn effectively, by turning the exam process upside down and inside out. The result is both increased confidence and a deeper understanding of what and why questions are set. It's called meta-learning. Why not give it a try?

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Towards Healthy Memory


For the Ancient Greeks, memory was a highly prized skill, and a crucial faculty of the mind. Orators, poets, performers, lawyers and philosophers developed astonishing powers of memory. Their capacity for recall was prodigious. Because their culture valued orality, and the authenticity of speech as direct communication, memeory was a key skill. In a sense, the devaluation of the role of memory could be deemed to be progressive. As writing progressed the key role of memory became less significant. You did not have to remember everything if the answer was in a book, or indeed if it had been recorded acccurately somewhere, in some form.

Nonetheless, memory work has often been perceived as a necessary regime and a desirable discipline for character formation and spiritual rectitude. Medieval monks and renaissance scholars devised memory systems to help them to meditate on the circles of Hell, or to focus on aspects of theology; or simply to remember the sacred texts. Learning to recite the Koran, as the divine word incarnate, remains a significant exercise in the modern world.

In the nineteenth, and most of the twentieth century, rote learning was a key feature of the educational system, from infancy through to University. And indeed memory plays a vital function in many areas of the sciences, medicine, and law. Music and sport also require skill development in motor function by learned memory repetitions. So memory-based work and memory related tests and exams continue to play a key key role in education.

Yet, in our modern culture everything is simulated and digitised. Since everything is recorded in all its abundance and plenitude is there any need to practise the art of recall? Is our affection for rote learning rather than creative skills not rather sentimental and nostalgic? Or perhaps we practise memory discipline as a form of punishment? In Great Britain (UK) the government has recently proposed that children should be able to recite poems from memory!

When was the last time that you remembered anything as simple as a telephone number? Before the advent of mobiles and cellphones we often knew many numbers by heart. Nowadays you have difficulty recalling your own number, let alone other people's. Under pressure, we don't have time to learn phone numbers, and we don't feel guilt about this loss, either!

If we need to find something out, or check some fact, a quick google search provides all the answers. So is the faculty of memory, once so prized, now over-rated?

First, several studies in psychology have pointed to a correlation between short term memory and performance in intelligence tests. These tests in turn play a significant role in some systems of selective education, and in assessments for some professional jobs. So cultivating your short term memory may support and enhance your career progression, and your future prosperity.

Second, memory competence is essential to social interaction. It's quite difficult to have a meaningful dialogue if you can't remember what was said several minutes ago. Forgetfulness in this regard may give the impression that your are not listening to the other person(s). Poor listening and social engagement skills may even lead in turn to a decrease in emotional well being, depression and loneliness.

Third, strong memory of component parts of a project or concept may support the speed and effectiveness with which you deal with larger and more complex issues and problems. Again there is both an emotional and intellectual component in such cases. Feeling overwhelmed is a common feeling when faced with larger problems that you are unable to break down into their component parts.

Fourth, ineffective memory and high stress appear to be inter-related. Stress actually decreases brain function and impairs memory. So poor memory may mean that you have stress issues that require urgent attention. Conversely, decreasing stress where possible may help your memory (and other brain functions) to flourish. A characteristic example of stress impacting on effective memorisation and recall is exam revision that has been poorly planned. Learninbg is very ineffective if you are anxious. Also risky is excessive pressure from your family or from your school. You might even been putting yourself under too much pressure to succeed and actually hampering your performance as a result.

Fifth, memory is related to confidence. Recalling people's names is an obvious example of a practical use of memory skills to enhance social effectiveness. Also, relatedly, if you consistently tell yourself that you have poor memory skills, you will have weaker memory skills. Just being positive about your memory will help to re-enforce it. Memory is fundamental to finding links and connections. It thrives on a world that is more joined up, inter-personal and interactive.

Sixth, memory can be understood at a deep level in relation to our ongoing sense of self, and our construction of our identity. In this case memory is far more complex than we perceive. In fact we are constantly shaping our memories, and being re-shaped by them, in a remarkably imperfect fashion.

Accordingly, Kathryn Hughes's recent review of  Charles Fernyhough's new book eloquently noted that

"Every act of remembering is an act of creation, a confabulation stitched together from an array of different cues. We know this, really, when we get into a muddle over whether we actually recall an incident from childhood or whether we've simply been told about it or seen a photo."

It appears that the memory process engages multiple parts of the brain, and it is both intellectual and emotional. Indeed, smells and sounds, rhythms and spatial awarenss are are contributory factors in effective use of our memory.

The memory is multi-sensory but it is also fundamentally flawed and open to radical mis-remembering. This realisation perhaps carries important lessons for how we should proceed to work on improved memory function, and in the evaluation of the efficacy of the strategies employed. Clearly, we need to rethink the role of memory in education, and its significance in our lives.

At one extreme, perfect memory recall is associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. In this case, we are haunted, or rather terrorised, by traumatic memories that we are unable to delete, or move away from. In fact, our brains are not like computers that simply delete files, or overwrite them! The fact that many memories are allowed to fade and recede - often imperceptibly over time - is crucial to the healthy process of grieving.

 The key point is that our memory skills are part of our humanity, rather than just bits of data being processed by a supercomputer.

So the lessons are that to cultivate your memory is healthy, but that to wish for total recall is not. Leave that to science fiction and to horror.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

Further reading

For and Against Memorizing Poetry

63 Tips for More Effective Memory and Recall of Quotations, Texts and Speeches. Here

Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough 

- reviewed in The Guardian and in The Daily Telegraph.

"Memory is an essential part of who we are. But what is a memory, and how do we remember? A new consensus is emerging among cognitive scientists: rather than possessing a particular memory from our past, we construct it anew each time we are called upon to remember. Remembering is an act of narrative as much as it is the product of a neurological process. Pieces of Light illuminates this theory through a collection of human stories, each illustrating a facet of memory's complex synergy of cognitive and neurological functions. Drawing on the latest research, case studies and personal experience, Charles Fernyhough delves into the memories of trauma victims and amnesiacs; and of the very young and very old - visiting medieval memoria and scent-museums along the way. Exquisitely written and meticulously researched, Pieces of Light blends science and literature, the ordinary and the extraordinary, to illuminate the way we remember and forget." - Amazon.  

Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

"Delete looks at the surprising phenomenon of perfect remembering in the digital age, and reveals why we must reintroduce our capacity to forget. Digital technology empowers us as never before, yet it has unforeseen consequences as well. Potentially humiliating content on Facebook is enshrined in cyberspace for future employers to see. Google remembers everything we've searched for and when. The digital realm remembers what is sometimes better forgotten, and this has profound implications for us all.
In Delete, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger traces the important role that forgetting has played throughout human history, from the ability to make sound decisions unencumbered by the past to the possibility of second chances. The written word made it possible for humans to remember across generations and time, yet now digital technology and global networks are overriding our natural ability to forget--the past is ever present, ready to be called up at the click of a mouse. Mayer-Schönberger examines the technology that's facilitating the end of forgetting--digitization, cheap storage and easy retrieval, global access, and increasingly powerful software--and describes the dangers of everlasting digital memory, whether it's outdated information taken out of context or compromising photos the Web won't let us forget. He explains why information privacy rights and other fixes can't help us, and proposes an ingeniously simple solution--expiration dates on information--that may." - Amazon