Categories
Education

The Role of a Tutor

“Children are educated by what the grownup is and not by what he says.”

Carl Jung (Archetypes of the Collective Unconcious)

I’ve been a private tutor for the better part of 7 years now and I have to say that it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It’s also the thing I think I’m best at, considering that every semester my demand is overwhelming. Every semester, I connect with most of my students in a meaningful way and I’m often told explicitly that I’m the best educator they’ve ever worked with.

I understand I have a serious bias here. Of course I think I’m an amazing tutor! All the students that love me let me know and all the students that don’t go off and find another tutor. So I don’t really know what people think when they aren’t happy with my services. The thing is though, I’ve only had a handful of families over my 7 years of tutoring that decided not to work with me, and every time it was because of reasons unrelated to my competency.

Despite the consistent, positive, and generous feedback I get from my tutoring expertise I still struggle with believing that I, Christopher Mukiibi, know enough to tell people “the truth.” I’m constantly worried that what I’m telling people isn’t true, outdated, or foolish so I’m (maybe to a fault) always learning about the best ways to teach, connect with, and engage my students.

I’ve had educators who wasted my time, squandered potential, and didn’t take responsibility for their presence and I found that to be some of the most abhorrent behavior I’ve ever had to endure. Educators have the power to change the world and unlock the limitless potential of the future, if only they gave it everything. To say that I will measure up to that standard isn’t realistic, but I do try my hardest to strive for that ideal in every way that I can.

And here I am writing this post. My way of articulating what an excellent tutor is, what they do for their students, and how they conduct themselves. At least in the capacity that I can.

This piece, like many of my other pieces, is part of a bigger picture that I hope will enlighten the minds of the future, but I also want it to be a stand-alone piece that demonstrates one of the better parts of me.

A lot of people see tutoring as a cheap profession, but it’s serious and has detrimental consequences if done wrong. By the time my students see me, they usually have little faith in their educational institution. Once I step into their home and assume the role of tutor, the student will unconsciously associate me with the entire education institute. Suddenly, I’m no longer just Chris the Tutor, but I am their representation of the education whether I like it or not. What I am to them is what education is to them.

If I’m useless, so is education.

If I’m interesting, so is education.

If I’m deplorable, so is education.

If I’m admirable, so is education.

Who we are to others is always much bigger than we think.

So as a way to do my part, I’m going to explain the proper way a tutor must conduct themselves in order to ensure a better future with powerful and independent thinkers who have faith and respect for the institutions that have come before them.


Understand the Power

Most people don’t see a tutor as a position of power.

Unless you’re the student.

The student is aware that they don’t know enough and that the tutor probably knows the answers. There’s an innate power imbalance when a tutoring session starts, especially when the student doesn’t know the tutor very well and it’s up to the tutor to take responsibility for that imbalance.

A good tutor must be friendly and approachable. These people are vulnerable and we need to be able to provide the space for them to be vulnerable and wrong. The tutoring session cannot continue if the tutor hasn’t given the student an opportunity to show their underbelly, so to speak. The best way to do this is to focus on the relationships – get to know the student and who they are as a person. Likewise, let them know who you are. Connection is everything.

People work with people – humanize everything and move with ease.

Initiate Support

Students typically don’t like asking for help, especially if we’re dealing with boys. Asking for help is implicitly admitting that we’re wrong and don’t know what to do. Some students won’t even admit this to themselves, so it is up to us to ask them if they need help. The good tutor initiates support. Sometimes the students have no issues with this and you can just get down to brass tax, but if you see that the student is stuck and won’t ask for help, be the helping hand.

No one wants to feel vulnerable, and extending the helping hands makes it a little easier to deal with.

Personally, I make a small effort to have the students ask for help because it primes their minds to take in new information but I am sensitive to my student’s emotional states when I’m doing this.

Clarify the Task

Sometimes students don’t know what to do simply because they don’t understand the instructions. My first line of support, so to speak, is to clarify the task. I just ask the question in a different way, usually in simpler language. Most of the time the students understand the question when I ask it differently.

As a tutor, our job is to meet our students at whatever level they’re at and illuminate the path. In my post, Understanding Development and Mentors, I talk about the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and it’s the tutor’s role to meet their student right at the edge of their competency, which is known as the ZPD. The ZPD is where productive tutoring happens, it’s where learning happens.

Provide Guidance with Questions

Too many tutors just straight-up give out the answers to their students.

THIS HURTS THEM IN THE LONG RUN.

Part of our learning process is suffering, pain. It’s one of the many tragedies of life, but it’s not needless. The negative emotion helps the information stick. The systems in our brain that we’re developed for negative emotion were originally used as a survival mechanism. For example, when we touch a hot stove we forever remember to never touch a hot stove because it was painful. If we just give the answer, the student may know it for the time being, but it won’t stay for the medium to long term. Searching for an answer can be a tough and painful process, but it’s where transformative learning takes place.

As a tutor, sometimes we may need to give an answer. Maybe the student won’t ever get the answer no matter how hard they try, that’s fine. It’s our role to meet them wherever they are, but we’re calling upon the highest parts of them. Most of the time, it’s best to lead them with questions. I try to answer their questions with questions.

Check for Understanding

Part of our role is helping the students understand the material, not get their assignments done. This can look different for different classes, but the main idea is the same. There are certain concepts that the student is responsible for knowing and it is the tutor’s job to assist in making those concepts clear for the student.

I usually check for understanding towards the end of sessions in the form of Active Recall questions. I try think along the lines of what is the main idea of the lesson and can the student explain it back to me?

Step Away, but Check Back In

This goes hand in hand with letting the students struggle through their work. It is the role of the tutor to help the students understand their concepts and part of that is letting them struggle on their own.

This would probably surprise many parents, but I spend a solid portion of the sessions just waiting for the students to get the answer or to work out problems.

I would try to have little tasks on my phone or tablet to work on so I don’t accidentally help my students more than they need to. (I do this more often than I would like to admit.) But it is crucial for the student to struggle through the work.

The Master does nothing, yet he leaves nothing undone. The ordinary man is always doing things, yet many more are left to be done.

Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching)

The real masters of tutoring do (next to) nothing.

Teach Procedures and Concepts, Not Answers

Do not teach answers or particular questions. I would argue that it’s crucial for the tutor to be familiar with answers and particular questions, but it would be our role to teach the procedures and concepts associated with solving those problems.

Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.

Teach a student a question and help him for a day. Teach a student a concept (or procedure) and help him for a lifetime.

Hands down, the most valuable thing I got from getting a degree in Chemical Engineering is learning how to solve complex and difficult problems. All the individual questions that I learned most definitely left my brain, but the concepts and procedures are still with me so I can solve similar types of problems.

Additionally, it’s much more difficult to forget a concept as opposed to answers to specific questions.

Encourage Contructive Habits

As tutors, we’re in a special position to influence our students in a powerful way. We aren’t teachers or their teachers, so the authority is slightly different. In my expereicne and many other tutors I know, students open up to their tutors in a special way and hold their opinion in high regard (as long as the tutor conducts themselves in a way that deserves that). On top of that, we’re providing support in a place where they have none so the students are more likely to take what we say as true.

This is a great privilege and responsibility and we should treat it as such. The good tutor encourages constructive habits like asking questions, attempting difficult questions, voluntarily taking responsibility, pushing themselves to improve, and many others.

Do not take your position for granted, be a force for good.

Be Compassionate Towards Their Struggles

It’s hard to do something well the first time. No one is good at anything when they first do it and we need to have empathy for that.

For tutors and educators, the material is literally easier to do because we’ve had the time to develop and strengthen the neural pathways necessary to run those concepts. If we’re learning it for the first time, we need to understand that we would also struggle regardless of who we are.

I often reflect back on the times when I struggle with certain concepts. 9/10 times my students make the exact same mistakes I made when I was learning a subject. This also gives me an edge in pinpointing their mistakes – they’re all the same one’s I made!

Admit Defeat, but Don’t Give Up

We have to be able to admit when we don’t know an answer, but we also cannot leave our students dead in the water. Have a bank of resources to refer back to when you don’t know something. This is much easier in the 21st century. I have a google drive folder with pdfs of textbooks, workbooks, lecture slides, and notes for all the subjects I specialize in. I also recommend connecting with other tutors in your area that are willing to help answer questions when you get stuck. Currently, I’m working on a resource bank on my website that educators and my students can use.

Promote Academic Honesty

Like I said earlier, tutors have a special kind of authority when it comes to academics. Our students look to us to learn what is right and wrong with academics. We have to take this role on with seriousness and responsibility. As tutors, we represent the institution of academics and the students are developing their relationship to the academic institution through us. This means how we approach our work will influence how our students will approach theirs.

Here’s where it gets serious, the way people approach their work (or anything else) also influences their relationship with themselves. The approach of their work influences how they know themselves and what kind of people they think they are. This decides which challenges people are willing to take or ignore, which ultimately decides their lives.

This may seem dramatic for some, but as I like to say we cannot fathom the impact of our actions. As tutors, we have to take on the responsibility of being the vehicle that people use to develop their relationships with not only academic institutions, but all institutions.

I’ve used my position to help students see that the whole system isn’t set up to hurt or control them. They can see this through me. Through my actions, I show them that there are parts of this world that actually have their back and want them to win.

With that said, plagiarizing is a weak move. Don’t give them work that they can turn in as their own. Turning in “bad” work is better than turning in fake work.

We can also promote academic honesty by discouraging dishonesty. Suffocating the behavior right when we see it is the best way from keeping things whole. I try not to encourage things that aren’t sustainable over the long term.

Lead Them to the Answer

People can only perceive what they can conceive. So just telling them the answer will be like talking to a wall. If we didn’t think of it, then we can’t perceive it. As tutors, we need to lead them to the answer. They need to see how the answer comes to be and why it’s important. Just giving the answer is like showing someone something that doesn’t exist.

Things stick with us when we come to the conclusions on our own.

I know I mentioned this in other sections, but I want to emphasize that this goes along with the idea that the tutor meets the student at their level of understanding and guides them through. This means waiting until the students get the right answer and rewarding them for hitting the mark. It’s okay to nudge them in the right direction, but telling them the exact answer never works in the long run.

Be a Mentor

Hindsight is 20/20 and everyone could use more guidance. As a tutor, we have a unique position to offer that mentorship and wisdom. The good tutor has a desire to pass along knowledge that they would love to have known earlier. The good tutor suffers for the greater good, learning the material the hard way and teaching the lessons so other’s don’t have to.

If we can take on the role of mentor, our tutoring automatically levels up because now we aren’t just there for the student’s academic performance, but for the student as a whole.

Contextualize the Information

I can’t tell you how many times a student has told me “When am I ever going to need this?” This is a classic case of not understanding the context – how the information fits into the bigger picture of their life. Context is specific to every individual and how something fits into my life will be different from how that same thing fits into someone else’s.

The good tutor helps the student make this connection. They help them see why it’s important to educate themselves and learn what’s in front of them. The trick is framing the information in a way that is relevant to that particular student. In order to do this effectively, we have to know what the student is aiming at. What kind of life they want, what kind of things they want to do. When those goals are made clear, putting most things in context is fairly easy.

If a student isn’t clear on exactly what they are aiming for, I try to show them that their academic challenges are opportunities to develop themselves in the face of things they don’t want to do. Life, regardless of which path we take, is full of things that we don’t want to do and knowing ourselves as the type of people who can get shit done even if we don’t want to will give us a serious advantage in life.

Putting things in context will help us understand the why.

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

Go Deeper

The good tutor must be able to take each concept 7 times deeper than it needs to go.

There are two main reasons for this.

The first is that the student may not understand how the first method works. If that happens, the tutor needs to be able to explain the concept in a different way. The second is that the tutor needs to be able to learn and update new methods of problem solving when they encounter one. Both of these reasons require a deeper knowledge of the concepts.

The deeper knowledge also prevents us from simply memorizing different ways of solving problems or concepts. The deeper knowledge allows us to accurately synthesize the data so we can present the ideas in a way that our student can understand. Each students has unique perceptions and a deeper knowledge can ensure that we accurately communicate those ideas no matter how unique.

Own Your Presence

The good tutor takes responsibility of their presence. We own 100% of the feelings of our student and take it upon ourselves to moderate our behavior accordingly.

Sometimes we need to be tough, sometimes we don’t.

Sometimes we need to give the answer, sometimes we don’t.

Sometimes we need to speed it up, sometimes we need to slow down.

The flow of the session depends on the student. The tutor should be able to adjust to the needs of the student, not the other way around. Some tutors expect the student to form to their methods of teaching, but that creates resistance and unnecessary effort for both parties.

We can’t force a horse to drink, we can only lead it to the trough. But coming from a place of 100% ownership, we are able to think of solutions we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Be Flexible

The good tutor is flexible. We must be able to move and keep up with the student. Sometimes that means speeding it up, sometimes that means slowing it down. Either way we need to be capable of both.

Changing our teaching style to accommodate for their understanding is one of our primary roles. While, if possible, the primary role of the student is to open their minds and pay enough attention to understand the information regardless of how it is presented.

The good tutor is also easy going and not too rigid. Flexibility creates an ease which encourages an environment of growth and vulnerability. Additionally, flexibility can mean to be rigid when necessary as well. Sometimes structure could be the the environment we’re looking for.

Maintain Visions

The best tutors can perceive and maintain visions for their students, even if they can’t for themselves. Most of the time, tutoring is not a quick process and lasting results take a long time to see. The only way to see them is to maintain a vision of the long term. The good tutor sees this and holds it as the target even when the student is blind to it. When things get stressful, we shorten our time horizons which means we lose our vision for the future and stop moving towards it. If the tutor can keep this vision alive for the student during times of hardship, then the student is much more likely to actually reach their goals. The tutor needs to be able to see what the student cannot.

Maintaining a vision is the bare minimum to realizing a goal, but it’s hard to do on our own.

Focus Intensely

A good tutor can focus, knows how to focus. A tutoring session should never be limited but the attention span of the tutor. If it’s easier for the tutor to get off track than the student, then the student is better off working on their own.

Now if you have trouble focusing don’t think that you can’t be a phenomenal tutor. Focus and attention span is like a muscle and can be improved over time with tracking. When I first started tutoring I had to push myself to flawlessly focus for an hour, but now I can go 2-3 hours without an issue.

Pay Respects to The Before & After

A good tutor understands that the world is loaned to us from our children, but also given to us by our parents. So it is up to the tutor to embody gratitude to the ones who came before us and enrich ourselves with their greatest accomplishments and ideas, but also pay respect to the minds that come after us and nourish them properly.

If we can arm our future with the wisdom of the past, we make the world better.

The good tutor learns how to plant from the ones who came before and plant seeds so the ones who come after can enjoy beautiful flowers. I try to leave bits of knowledge so that the students can make good choices when the time comes. Most of the time they don’t make the good choice, but sometimes they do and that would not have happened without the seeds.

Match Their Efforts

The good tutor matches their student’s efforts. There is no use in trying harder than the pupil.

All of our victories are our own and we should not take that from them.

When we meet the student who is ready to give it their all, we rise up.

The tutor should never be the limiting reagent.

Track Their Cognitive Load

A good tutor is attuned to their student’s cognitive load. Cognitive load can be thought of as our brain’s processing power. As I mentioned earlier, a 1-hour session was exhausting and it usually is for the student too. Now I can do 2-3 hour sessions without even thinking about it, but I have to keep in mind that my students don’t perform at that level.

Sometimes parents just want to have the sessions go as long as possible, but the student is only capable of working for an hour. It’s our job as the tutor to recognize when the student is tired and stop the session if the student isn’t processing adequately. There is no use in pushing our brains to work when we’ve hit our cognitive load limits. All we get there are diminishing returns.


This was a pretty long list, but it’s not entirely comprehensive either. Like my other posts, this is full of methods and tactics, but what I want is for people to understand the principles behind them As so that they may create tactics that are more effective than mine.

Tutoring is a beautiful thing.

We shape thinkers. We open minds. We design the future. We help people realize their potential.

Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

Creating Systems

“Systematize everything, and find peace”

Brandon Turner (The Book on Rental Property Investing)

Why create systems?

Having goals is a fantastic way to be productive and build a life by design, but the most productive results come from having systems. When we have a goal, there are a series of choices we have to make. Usually, goals are things we haven’t done before, so all the choices we’re going to have to make require a lot of attention and energy. Even if the goals have been accomplished before, having to deal with the challenges that arise time and time again can be exhausting.

Systematizing everything makes these processes a lot easier, especially if there are goals that need to be completed regularly. Creating systems gives us the opportunity to make fewer choices and the freedom to do other things. Despite what many people think, our energy is like our time, limited and nonrenewable. The return on saving energy is virtually infinite. Systems allow us to be more productive as well, in terms of quantity AND quality.

Systems also make processes easier when we have to do them. Having a reliable proven strategy for conquering whatever scenario in front of us cuts the effort down tremendously. It’s much easier to just “start the process” than to try really hard just to discover that it wasn’t going to work anyway.

Focusing on systems, not goals, is the key to long-lasting, reliable, and fruitful results.

In order to focus on systems, we first have to understand what they are and how they work. I wrote two posts on systems so far: Gall’s Law & System Components and Analyzing & Improving Systems. I highly recommended checking those out, I go over the fundamental information about systems and how they work. This post synthesizes some of the information discussed in those two posts and emphasizes the concepts that will make creating systems much easier.

When we understand how systems work and how to create our own, then we can engineer our own systems to fit our unique needs perfectly.

Marks of an Effective System

Human beings need purpose and intentionality in order to have fulfilled lives and content with existentialism. I talk a little bit about that in this post. We need something to aim at and a system is no different.

What is the purpose of a system & how we do know if it’s working well?

According to author of The Personal MBA, Josh Kaufman, an effective system does the following:

  • Fulfills its functionality
  • Has great infrastructure
  • Ready connectivity with other systems
  • Versitile
  • Adaptable
  • Reliable
  • Produces benefits which far exceed the initial investment

Keep in a mind, all of these criteria don’t need to be met to have a functional system. A system can work without all of these, however, these are all qualities that a great system can build towards.

How to Create Systems

“If you want to build a system that works, the best approach is to build a simple system that meets the Environment’s current selection tests first, then improve it over time. Over time, you’ll build a complex system that works.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)

Keep Gall’s Law in mind when you first start – work on creating a simple system, then add complexity over time. Don’t try to make a system that does too much at once right off the bat.

Creating a complex system immediately will result in failure.

When it comes to building a system from scratch, just try to figure out how to get the task done in the first place. Once we’ve completed the task, we developed a neural pathway that knows exactly how to get that task done. Every single time we work on that task in the future it gets easier and easier. (Exactly like Active Recall.) Once we’ve gotten to this point, it will be much easier to create a system because we will know the steps intimately. Creating a system will speed that process up even more!

Once we know how to get the task done, we need to identify the key components of the system and improve each step of the process so it becomes more efficient and effective. Just make one change at a time. Creating a good system takes time and patience, like building habits.

Systems are almost never correct right off the bat. It takes a few tests to get all the details right and have a system that runs smoothly. All systems start off terribly, but all the best ones improve over time and the only way to objectively improve a system is through experimentation.

Fans of history can probably name a few times human beings have tried to create something but had to revamp the system because they found out it wasn’t working too well. I remember working with a student on history work and I was stunned to discover that this process is the exact process that the American government evolved from. Today, the American government is a massively complex system with multiple branches and precedence for almost every conceivable situation but it did not start off that way. It started off with just the Articles of Confederation, and that system didn’t even have an executive or judicial branch. Then it grew with the Virginia Plan, then the Constitution, then the Bill of Rights, and finally with the amendments we have today. The point is that this extremely complex system didn’t start off how it is today, it grew over centuries through experimentation.

Humans never get anything right the first try.

When I was a noob at creating systems, I thought that I needed to know each step of the process and it had to work perfectly before I even started, but that prevented me from even starting in the first place. There’s no way to know every single step and account for every single variable without testing a system.

All, if not most, problems can be handled with systems. If there isn’t a system for it, then we can create one. We just have to go into the process expecting the system to fail and be willing to make adjustments or we won’t have any systems at all.

Guiding Questions

If you’ve read some of my Importance of Questions post, then you know that I believe questions hold the key to everything we want in life. They can allow us access to other people’s minds as well as guide our thinking to solve problems that we haven’t seen before.

Here are some questions that could be useful when creating systems:

  • How do I make this process easier next time?
  • How can I make this process more reliable next time?
  • How can I prevent ____ from happening again?
  • In a perfect world, how would I want to deal with this situation?
  • How can I make _____ happen again?
  • What is the end result? What am I producing?
  • What are we starting with? What do I need to get this going?

Tips for a Great Checklist

Systems can take many different forms. One of the most simple forms, checklists, have also been proven to be one of the most effective. I talk a little about checklists in my post Analyzing & Improving Systems and in that post, I mention how checklists are fantastic for creating processes that haven’t been articulated yet. Checklists are my go-to method for ordering the chaos and are fantastic simple systems to build upon later.

In Dr. Atul Gawande’s fantastic book, The Checklist Manifesto, Gawande lays out the proof that checklists are more reliable than the instincts of even the highest trained professionals. Pilots, especially when confronted with an emergency, are more than willing to turn to their checklists.

The first tip for making a great checklist is to have normal and non-normal checklists. Normal checklists are for normal everyday situations, things that come up often. Pilots have normal checklists for things like take-off and landing. Non-normal checklists are less often used but are for emergencies or other scenarios that wouldn’t occur on a regular basis. Pilots have more non-normal checklists than normal checklists. They have checklists for all conceivable emergency situations.

There are two types of checklists: do-confirm and read-do. Do-confirm lists are when team members perform their jobs first, then pause and run the checklist to make sure that everything was done correctly. Read-do lists are when people do the tasks as they read them on the list. Do-confirm lists act more like a double-check while read-do lists are more like a recipe. Know which type of checklist you are creating and when to use it.

Great checklists are specific and precise. If a checklist is too vague and inaccurate is becomes hard to use and impractical.

They also need to be short and to the point, if a checklist is too long it becomes another hurdle. Try to keep the length of the list within the bounds of our working memory, 7+2 items (5-9). They can be longer, but keep in mind that if checklists take longer than 60-90 seconds then people start shortcutting and they become more hassle than they’re worth. Focus on the critical few.

They also have to be easy to use in the most difficult situations, keeping it short and sweet helps a lot with this.

Contrary to popular belief, a great checklist should not spell everything out. They just simply provide a reminder of the crucial steps. Operators of the checklist should be trained and know what they are doing. The checklist is just an aid, not an instruction manual.

Checklists must, above all, be practical.

Checklists cannot solve problems for us, they simply help us manage complex processes and clarify priorities. They are not comprehensive guides, just reminders of the critical steps. If we include every little step, then the checklist just adds friction to the system. Checklists are designed to remove friction and add ease and clarity to a scenario.

When creating a checklist, I highly recommend clearly defining a point WHEN the checklist will be used.

Like all systems, checklists have to be battle-tested in real life. Experiment with the checklist and pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. The first drafts never stick and revising is always required.

A Few Systematic Principles

A few principles that I’ve noticed systems follow. It’s helpful to keep these in the back of our minds when planning and executing systems.

The Matthew Effect

“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

Gospel of Matthew (25:29 Revised Standard Version)

I talk about this in my post The Myth of Motivation, when I talk about aiming for success spirals.

The Matthew Effect is pretty simple — success breeds success and failure breeds failure. The best part is that this relationship is not linearly, it’s exponential. If we do something like writing a book and some people like it, then we’re more likely to write another book which makes it more likely that more people are willing to like it.

We can see spirals like this is so many things. If we get an A on an exam, it’s easier for us to get an A on the next exam. We know the concepts and are more likely to sacrifice because our sacrifice led to a positive outcome last time. Likewise, if we fail an exam, it’s easier for us to fail the next one. We don’t know the concepts, so we’d have to learn those ones on top of the new stuff. The previous failure adds friction to the next challenge. Our actions compound on each other and it can stack up quickly. This is definitely one of the reasons for the massive wealth inequality in the modern world. It’s much easier to make money when you’re already making money.

When building a system, try to keep in mind that the actions of the system will affect the actions of the system later. The Matthew Effect also provides a fantastic foundation for another systemic phenomenon, the Pareto Principle.

Pareto Principle (The 80/20 Rule)

The Pareto Principle definitely needs it’s own post because it’s such a pervasive idea and we can dive into it for hours. Famous entrepreneur and investor, Richard Koch was able to write 4 books on the topic! 4 books!! While the principle itself isn’t complex nor long, Koch focused more on applying the principle to every aspect of our lives. I’ll go more into that later.

While there is a lot to say about the Pareto Principle and its accommodations, it can be summed up relatively quickly:

80% of the output of any system is from 20% of the input.

This principle can apply to all domains of human creation. This shouldn’t be a surprise though. For most of us who have worked on a group project, we know that most of the work ends up getting done by a small portion of the group. This also happens in companies too – 80% of the work is done by 20% of the employees.

There are many names given to this idea because it shows up in so many places. The Pareto Principle is also known as the 80/20 Rule or the Square Root Rule: being that 50% of the work is done by the square root of the number of employees. The numbers aren’t perfect, but the idea is the same:

The majority of the results come from a critical minority of effort.

This principle is game-changing when it comes to creating systems. Knowing that the majority of the results comes from a critical few, we can focus our energy on optimizing for those critical few inputs rather than wasting energy on processes or steps that yield a lower rate of return.

I talk a bit about how the Pareto Principle came to be in my post Analyzing & Improving Systems.

Vilfredo Pareto, the 19th-century economist and sociologist, discovered an interesting pattern when analyzing data regarding land ownership and wealth distribution. He discovered that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. Pareto didn’t just find this pattern in wealth and land distribution, he also saw it in his garden. 20% of his pea pods produced 80% of peas.

We can see this in book sales and album sales too, pretty much any domain of creative production. 80% of the book sales are from 20% of the authors. 80% of music streams are from 20% of the artists.

Richard Koch also noticed a similar pattern when studying for his final exams at Oxford. At Oxford, the students are graded by their performance on a final exam which is a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics. Richard determined that in order to prepare for every possible question they could ask him he would have to memorize somewhere around 550 essays. Obviously, this wasn’t reasonable so Richard found another way around it. He analyzed all the past exams and discovered that every exam asked questions on similar topics. 20% of the topics accounted for 80% of the questions. Upon realizing this, Richard figured that all he had to do was prepare for 20% of the topics. This significantly cut down the work he needed to do to prepare for the exam.

Spoiler Alert: he did great on the test.

The best part about the Pareto Principle is that it can apply to all systems, in business and our personal lives. We can a Pareto analysis of our own lives, as well as any systems that we’d like to optimize.

I love doing the 80/20 analysis of everything. I’m constantly trying to figure out what I really need to do. Trimming the fat automatically maximizes our time and effort. It’s much easier to just focus on what is important than trying to find ways to do everything better.

It can apply to happiness – What 20% of things give me 80% of my happiness?

It can also be applied in reverse – What 20% of things are giving me 80% of my unhappiness?

It can be applied to anxiety, relationship satisfaction, costs, food, anything our hearts desire.

This principle helps us optimize.

Whenever I’m creating a system I try to keep in mind that principles are more valuable than knowledge. If we can understand the principles behind something, then we have the ability to predict and manipulate the system across many different scenarios.

Richard Koch likes to ask people:

“What would happen if we spend all of our time on the critical aspects?”

Parkinson’s Law

I first talked about Parkinson’s Law in my post 5 More Tips for Better Scheduling because I first learned it as a scheduling principle but now I see how it can be applied in a broader sense.

Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allotted for it.

So if we have a week to get a project done, it will take us a week. If we have a day to get a project done, then it will take a day. Parkinson’s Law helps explain how people are able to finish massive projects the day before it’s due or how an unmotivated student finds the strength within them to get something turned in. It’s not that we aren’t capable of doing the work, it’s that we know we still have time and we’ll use all of it if we can.

What I do to try to account for this is give myself less time than I think I need to complete a task or I set finite deadlines to work on a project. Either way, they both prevent me from spending extra unnecessary time on something.

There’s something about having our backs up against the wall that makes us perform. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s definitely there and we can use it to our advantage if we want.

However, Parkinson’s Law is more than just a cool scheduling hack. It can also apply to budgets and other resources too.

Parkinson’s Law applied to budgets – spending expands to fit the budget allotted for it.

Now, the spending doesn’t have to expand to fit the budget but it usually will.

The resources we allocate for something determines the fundamental perspective of our approach.

If we are pressed for time or if we don’t have a lot of money, then we’ll be on the lookout for creative ways to solve problems that could otherwise we solved with time or money.

Parkinson’s Law really just highlights another quality of human nature which is that humans are creatures of necessity and we will always try to solve problems with the least amount of effort possible. Keeping this in mind when building systems is extremely valuable and perhaps we can go further with what we already have.

Categories
Education

Solo Studying vs. Group Studying

“Surround yourself with good people that compliment the areas where you are weak”

Jacko Willink (1971 – )

The professor just announced the exam is coming up. We’re a little stressed, but not too stressed. Luckily, we’ve read Chris’ blog posts and understand the fundamental principles of studying Active Recall and Spaced Repetition. We also read my posts of Strategies for Better Studying 1, 2, 3, & 4, so we know a thing or two about how to studying for this exam effectively.

On top of that, we read his posts on time management and scheduling Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 so we know exactly when and where we can start applying the study strategies. We even read his post on Conquering Test and Performance Anxiety, so we have some strategies to handle that too.

It’s safe to say that we know a little bit about kicking academic ass, but then our classmate turns to us and asks a question.

“Hey, do you want to join our study group?”

Suddenly, we’re present to the fact that we don’t know if we actually want a study group or not. We aren’t sure if the study group will help or harm the progress we already made.

Maybe there will be people in the group that know way more than us and this study group will be the difference between a pass and fail.

Or maybe they’ll constantly go off-topic and spend too much time on the concepts we already understand.

Study groups and solo studying each have their own benefits and drawbacks. What determines if a study group will be beneficial is based on a few variables. The best way to decide for ourselves is to be knowledgeable of the benefits and drawbacks of group vs. solo studying and weigh them according to our particular situation.

Benefits of Solo Studying

The first (and possibly most obvious) benefit of solo studying is fewer distractions. When we are left on our own, we have the minimum amount of distractions available to us. Fewer distractions mean a higher probability of accomplishing deep and substantial work. If we can minimize our distractions, we have a greater chance of reaching flow and making significant progress.

Fewer distractions also mean higher access to focus, which is a fundamental ingredient to deep work.

When we study on our own, we have complete control over the study environment and study schedule. This means we can study whenever and wherever we want. Want a midnight study session in the parking lot of McDonald’s? You got it.

Although I don’t recommend studying at midnight in a Micky D’s parking lot, it is nice to be able to choose when and where we study. This way we can minimize excuses. No waiting on other people. No scheduling conflicts. It’s just us and our material.

Studying solo gives us maximum flexibility. We can take breaks whenever we want and spend as much time as we need on whatever concepts we need to. When I was in O-chem, I spent an ungodly amount of time going over reaction mechanisms. I would come home at around 7 pm and review the mechanisms over and over until midnight or 1 in the morning. This was possible because I was studying alone. I didn’t need to wait for anyone or make sure that everyone was cool with the time. I was simply able to use the time I found and didn’t need to qualify it. Most of my classmates wanted to study when I had work, so I had to go about it on my own.

Another fantastic benefit of studying solo is not spending extra time on concepts that we already understand. For me personally, there are some topics that I get faster than others and some topics that take me longer to understand. When we study solo we don’t have to hold anyone back from their studying and no one has to hold us back from ours. We can spend our time focusing on the concepts we don’t really know, which is crucial for effective and efficient studying.

Drawbacks of Solo Studying

When we’re working on our own it’s easy to talk ourselves out of studying, especially when no one else is counting on us to study. It can be extremely motivating when we have people around us who are focused on the same goal as us. If sticking to commitments is challenging, I recommend checking out my posts The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 1) and Maintaining Purpose.

Another drawback of solo studying is increased potential inaccuracy with facts. It’s hard to make sure that we’re studying something correctly if no one is around to double check out work. Yes, we can refer to the textbook, lecture notes, or other resources, but it’s still possible to support evidence that supports our incorrect beliefs. When we are studying solo we have to be mindful of cognitive bias, particularly confirmation bias.

When it’s Best to Study Solo

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Self-Reliance)

There are a few indicators that let us know when it’s probably in our best interest to study on our own.

If the group is too talkative or off pace, then it’s probably time to switch gears and study solo. Now, this isn’t to say that study groups need to be quiet. After all, coming together and studying requires conversation but that conversation should be in service to the greater purpose of understanding and learning the information that we’re responsible for knowing.

Pay attention to where the group is headed. If you sense disaster, run immediately.

Another sign that it’s best to study on our own is if the sessions are rescheduled. In order to maintain a healthy relationship with ourselves, we need to maintain commitments to ourselves, no matter how small. If the group decides that 4-5 pm after class on Friday isn’t good enough, we can still study at that time. If the group bails, no worries we can still kick ass all on our own.

Although there are many indicators, the last sign I’m going to discuss is if the group has a different level of understanding that we do. It is a colossal waste of time to study in groups if the group is far ahead or far behind our own understanding. Trust me, I’ve tried it both ways. It’s best to study with people of similar or equal competency, too much time is wasted otherwise.

Benefits of Group Studying

While studying on our own is effective, studying in groups can provide many advantages. With groups comes an opportunity to discuss concepts with others which tests our comprehension as well as creates more intricate neural connections. The more connections we have to a particular piece of information, the easier it is for us to recall it.

The group setting can also be a place to get our questions answered. If someone in the group knows more about a concept, then they can explain it to us exactly how we need it. Our group members may have a fresh understanding of the subject, so they know precisely what we need to know to go from ignorant to expert. This is a fantastic place to break down complicated topics.

Additionally, being around other students can be motivating. I know I’m less likely to slack off if I’m in the library with a group of other academics trying to prepare for this test. Especially if the test is graded on a curve and I have to perform better than my classmates.

It’s been known that social interaction makes people feel safer and calm their nerves. Group studying can work the same way. Studying alone can be an anxiety-inducing activity, especially if we’re seriously behind, but studying with a group could help calm the nerves too. The sense of “all of us are suffering together” makes things a little less painful and nerve-racking. Working with a group to solve a bunch of problems is a lot less daunting than working along to solve a bunch of problems.

When we study in groups, we get to teach each other. The opportunity to teach others is one of the most powerful study methods at our disposal. Teaching to our group mates puts us in the role of “expert” and it is from that place where we confront the gaps in our knowledge.

This happens to me with tutoring all the time. There are two possible outcomes when I try to teach something – I either teach it flawlessly or I don’t and realize that I don’t understand something. The best part is that if I mess up teaching the concept, the less I mess it up in the future. Honestly, it’s embarrassing, stressful, and painful to teach something that we don’t understand and that negative emotion gives a strong enough jolt to make me remember all the things I didn’t know the next time I have to teach. It’s kind of like putting our hand on a hot stove, the pain helps us remember.

Drawbacks of Group Studying

Studying in groups can be extremely powerful, but that’s not at a price.

With groups comes a higher chance to get distracted. All it takes is 1 person to derail the whole group. The group is only as strong as it’s the weakest link. This isn’t to say that all groups are distracting, some groups could offer a perfect study environment but that has to be intentioally selected for.

Groups are also less flexible when it comes to studying schedules. We risk spending too much or too little time on concepts which is an inefficient use of our time. Additionally, we can only study when EVERYONE’S schedule allows for it, which drastically limits convenience. A certain time may be optimal for everyone’s schedules, but that time may not be optimal for studying. I recommend scheduling study sessions during the hours you feel the most alert, for me that’s around 11 am – 2 pm. Knowing thyself is key here, as with most things.

One last point, including more people tends to make systems run slower, be mindful of that when picking groups.

When it’s Best to Study in Groups

“In the crowd one feels no responsibility, but also no fear.”

Carl Jung (Archetypes & The Collective Unconscious)

Here are a few things to look out for when determining if we should study in a group:

If our classmates are high performers and highly motivated, a study group could be the difference between success and failure. I’ve had study groups with struggling students, average students, and high achieving students and I can say that without a shadow of a doubt that studying with the high performing students gave me better results than the other two groups. Be cautious of groups if other people tend to distract you more than motivate you. Know thyself is the most useful piece of advice here. If other people motivate you more than distract you, then go for it. Sometimes our classmates can help keep us focused when we get distracted.

Additionally, it has been proven that it is easier to recall information through discussions because the conversations allow us to make multiple connections to the information. The multiple connections we create make the recall easier. Study groups are great for having a discussion about a concept or idea.

I recommend group studying when we are comfortable with a subject. If there isn’t much deep work to be done, groups are a fantastic way of studying more efficiently, However, if there’s a lot of heavy lifting that needs to be done I suggest studying solo or with one other person.

What to Look for in Study Partner (or group)

There are a few things I like to keep in mind when looking for people to study with —

  1. Make sure that they are looking for the same type of study partner. They have to be able to match our needs as we can match theirs. Some questions to ask can be: How often will we be studying? What kind of studying will be do – more learning or more reviewing? Will it be online or in-person? Are they someone we can easily communicate with? Are they someone who is mindful and respectful of our time as well as their own?
  2. Make sure that they have a similar study plan and test date. This is easy if someone is in the same class as us, but not so easy for standardized tests where people have different dates and times. If they have a different test date than us, then they will inevitably have a different study plan and our time together may not be as constructive as it would be if we had to same test dates. A test coming up in 2 days requires a different strategy than a test coming up in 2 months.
  3. Make sure they have complementary or similar struggles. This is the best way to utilize group studying. Refer to the first quote I put at the beginning of this post. We get an opportunity to learn from our classmates when we surround ourselves with people who understand the concepts that we don’t. In my experience, if a student understands a concept proficiently, they can explain it to a fellow student better than a professor. Additionally, if they have similar struggles, then we can spend most of our time tackling the things we don’t know together.
  4. Make sure they have similar study habits. Maybe they like silence and we like some chill lo-fi in the background. Maybe they like larger groups and we like smaller ones. Maybe they prefer to study in the afternoon and we prefer to study at night. Paying attention to our own habits allows us to understand what we need to create our own optimal study environment.
  5. Make sure they are someone that you can share resources with. They should be knowledgeable in efficient and effective study techniques, (and if they aren’t then share my content with them so they can be) so they can teach us new methods or whatever else they learn. I showed my girlfriend Anki when she was studying for her MCAT and she showed me Anki plug-ins, which brings active recall to a whole new level.
  6. Make sure they can motivate you and keep on on track. It’s easier to hold ourselves accountable when we have partners. They can lift us up when we’re feeling down and keep us on the straight and narrow.
  7. Make sure that they are comfortable to be around. This helps us with actually asking for help when we’re stuck. When I’m tutoring my students, I try to make the environment as comfortable as possible because I know that we’re spending most of our time together working on something that makes them feel inadequate or is at least proof of their incompetence. These things are impossible to work on if we aren’t comfortable.

Bottom Line

I’ve had study groups save me, like my first exam for O-chem 2. I wouldn’t have studied anything that my group was studying, but thank God I did because all of that stuff was on the test. But I’ve also had study groups sink me, like in P-chem. I studied for my 2nd P-chem exam with a group of peers that I share multiple classes with. We studied for hours and hours but when it came to testing day, we all got D’s.

Group studying and solo studying — one isn’t inherently better than the other. Their benefits only shine through once we know what we want.

Determining the superior method depends on what we want to accomplish.

If there is a lot of work to catch up on I recommend studying solo or with 1 other person. If we’re more comfortable with the material and just have to focus on review, then groups are a fantastic option.

I’m a little bias because most of the powerful study techniques I talk about don’t require groups, but circumstances change and it’s better to be educated about the options so we can pivot rather than just picking one side and brute-forcing it.

Know what works best for you in terms of study techniques and do that. If you prefer flashcarding alone, do it. If you prefer discussion groups, do it.

The bottom line — get those neurons firing.

Categories
Education Productivity

How to Actually Read Textbooks Effectively

“To be better equipped for the tests that the year will bring — read a textbook. To prepare for the tests that life will bring — read a book.”

Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Textbooks are not the same as the every day books that people read.

The Fundamentals of Chemical Engineering was a very different read than Man’s Search for Meaning. Textbooks require different methods of consumption. Since they’re are mostly filled with factual information that we are expected to understand and regurtitage, they can seem like a giant ball of chaos. This is a huge part of the reason why we don’t like reading them in the first place.

In my past blog posts, I talk extensively about the human mind and a multitude of theories describing how it works. A commonality in these posts and the writings of others I have read suggest that people are purpose oriented creatures. We need a clear purpose in front of us when we are reading textbooks. What stops people from reading textbooks is the ambiguous nature of it. Looking at a 1000+ page book with the intention of “learning everything” is too unclear and pushes us towards not doing anything at all.

We need a clear purpose when we are reading the books. This helps us articulate exactly what we are trying to learn. We can create purposeful and intentional reading by scanning the textbook before hand.

A Specific Method for Scanning Textbooks

This video is a fantastic resource for understanding efficient textbook consumption:

Here are some of the highlights from it.

Matt DiMaio suggests that students should flip through and scan each page so they can receive an overview on what is coming. This gives us our minds purpose when we flip through these pages.

We see unfamiliar images and phrases which will stick out to us as landmarks of recognition. The best way to maximize the results of method is to keep an eye out for things you don’t understand and lean into the questions that come to mind when we first see them.

Another key to reading textbooks efficiently is to skip to the End-Quiz. This lets us know exactly what to look for. Doing this right after an initial scan is the best time to read the end quiz questions because we have a small idea of what this chapter would be about, but we don’t know enough to know what to keep an eye out for. Reading the quiz before reading the actual chapter helps bridge this gap. Seeing the questions at the end provides a deeper level of articulation when it comes to our purpose when reading this chapter.

By this point, we should have two sets of questions bouncing around in our heads – one set that we created from our initial scan and the second are the questions at the end of the chapter.

If the chapter doesn’t have end of the chapter questions, there is most likely going to be a summary of the main points. These can also be turned into questions that could be answered. The idea is to keep developing questions that YOU genuinely want to know the answer to. This helps keeps our mind engaged when we are going through the text. There’s no substitute for genuine curiosity.

The next suggestion Matt DiMaio makes is to read the bold print because the information has already been broken down for you. The author(s) of the textbook (more often than not) layout the concepts in smaller chunks which usually come together to build a solid and thorough understanding of the overall concept. The bolded print keeps the information organized and are usually highlighting an important idea necessary for understanding the concept as a whole.

After, read the first and last sentence in a paragraph. The first sentence is usually an introduction and the last a conclusion. This is to get a quick, but slightly deeper understanding of the idea and it’s components. You get the jist of it but this point.

This method takes more time than just reading the chapter in one go, but it’s way more effective. During each of these stages, our brain is developing more and more questions which it will consciously and subconsciously look for. This helps us stay more engaged with the text, but is also in line with Active Recall, which is the most efficient learning method we currently accept.

Scanning doesn’t have to take more than 5 minutes and should be done before any intense reading happens. Students should almost never be reading textbooks cover to cover like we would novels. People are purpose driven creatures and firstly we need to know what we’re looking for. Scanning provides purpose when reading. Scanning a chapter multiple times will prime our brains perfectly for effective textbook consumption. Don’t shy away from repetition.

Repetition is the mother of learning.

3 Main Goals of Reading

Sometimes when I see people study for huge exams or quizzes, they will bust out their textbook and just start reading. Not only does this requires extreme amounts of cognitive load, but it’s also terribly ineffective. We are purpose driven creatures and just reading a textbook with the intention of “learning everything” is a slow moving trainwreck.

Here are 3 main goals we should keep in mind when we are reading textbooks:

1) Getting the correct information – we want to make sure we are reading the information that we are actually responsible for knowing. I can’t tell you how many test I’ve studied for that had completely different content than what I was studying. We want to know the right stuff.

2) Retaining that information – when we find this information, we want to make sure that we can remember it! We want to be able to remember it easily and over the long term, otherwise our efforts are wasted.

3) Spending less time – because honestly reading textbooks can be a drag and our time is usually better spent doing the things we’d rather do.

A Quick Tip on Goal Setting

These goals are assuming we agree with the fundamental axiom that there are ways to get better results with less effort. Now I can focus my energy on studying better, instead of trying to convince myself that there are better ways to read textbooks. I try to create goals with underlying assumptions that remove obstacles and push me forward. It’s a nice way of tricking our brain into getting things done.

Another example is what I do with these blog posts. My goal is to improve my blog posts at least 1% every week – that goal is created with the underlying assumption that I will be putting out a blog post every week. Now I’m not focused on just trying to get myself to write, that will come as a byproduct of focusing on improving the overall blog every week.

Methods to Test Comprehension

Reading textbooks out of order seems like a sure fire way to misunderstand the text. However, it’s actually more effective as long as we test our comprehension. Here are a few ways of testing yourself to make sure that you actually understand the key bits of information.

Answer all the Questions Included in the Chapter

Like I mentioned earlier, most textbook chapters have end of the chapter multiple choice quizzes. These are excellent active recall resources and a fantastic way to test your understanding of the key points.

Sometimes a textbook will include practice MCQs sprinkled throughout the chapter. This idea doesn’t just stop with multiple choice questions, they can apply to free response questions as well.

Write Out the Main Ideas in Your Own Words

Jordan Peterson said articulation is the deepest levels of understanding. First, we act out what we understand. The next level is thinking about what we understand. The deepest level is saying or writing it so another person can also understand the information. I should probably write a blog post on the different levels of understanding. When we write something down in our own words, we are forced to confront exactly what we know and what we don’t, which is a fantastic way of testing our understanding.

Evaluate When the Text was Published

The meaning in writing, no matter what kind, is nested in the words and pages of the text. But the text is also nested in its relation to everything else around it. The dominating thoughts of the times determine which ideas are presented and in what manner.

If the text is slightly outdated, it may fail to take into account new and precedent-breaking research. Questioning the text also key in testing understanding. Here are some questions you can start with:

Why are these ideas being presented in this order?

Is there anything included in the text that may have overlooked?

Questioning things naturally gives us deeper understandings. Shallow answers provide an opportunity to breed suffering and should rarely be accepted.

Summarize to Teach

This is a bite off the Feynman Technique. The idea is to summarize the material so a 5 year old can understand it. Try not to use any specialized jargon and address any questions that a 5 year old may ask when presented with the summary you write. When we teach, we put ourselves in the role of expert and our identity gets tied up with knowing the information thoroughly.

Explaining something at the level a 5 year old can understand is not a demonstration of simplified knowledge, but masterful understanding. True masters know what information to leave out so their pupil can best understand with their current frameworks of the world.

Practice Active Reading Over Passive Reading

I’m sure it seems like I’ve beaten this dead horse plenty, but I can’t stress this enough. Active Recall and Spaced Repetition are the two biggest pillars of studying less while learning more, and we would be foolish to not integrate that into how we read.

Instead of just reading line after line, we can engage with the text through the different methods of scanning outlined earlier or practicing these Methods to Test Comprehension. Keeping our brain active in the process, not only makes the learning more efficient, but keeps us interested and happy.

A good study session can be like being engaged in an enlightening conversation, it doesn’t have to be dull.

Determine the Focus

When you are reading it is important to know what kind of reading you will be doing. There are two main types of reading in this case, reading for main concepts or reading for details.

Are you reading to understand main concepts or details?

I recommend treating the main concepts like a framework for the big picture and the details as things we hang on the frame. Learn main concepts first, then fill in the blanks with the details.

Other Techniques for Effective Reading

A majority of these tips came from the notes I took while watching Marty Lobdell’s famous lecture on studying smart. You can watch the video for yourself here – but keep in mind, it’s an hour long.

If you don’t have time to check it out, don’t fret, I tried to include most of the value from this video in this blog post.

Do a Pomodoro Session, then Do Something Fun or Go Away

I talk about breaking up our work into smaller chunks all the time. Working for 25-30 minutes on a task, then walking away makes the task much easier to initiate. The reward makes us more likely to do it again! I go more in depth about the pomodoro technique and its modifications in this post. The main idea is to just break up the work into manageable time intervals. This is how I get all my blog posts done!

Reward Yourself After Finishing Your Entire Day

Do this not only because the reward is so much sweeter after finishing a day of work, but because it makes it easier for us to start again next time. If we know that we’re going to get a reward at the end, we can’t wait to get it done! Rewarding ourselves also solidifies all the newer neural pathways created in that session. Additionally, it prevents burnout and we ought to treat ourselves as people we are responsible for. If we committed a dog to a whole day of work, we would want to reward it afterwards for doing so well. We should give ourselves the same encouragement. We’ll die without it.

Study Concepts First, then Study Facts

I talk about this in my Strategies for Better Studying (Part 3) post and touched upon it earlier too. Studying just pure facts is impossibly difficult and we will never retain any information without tremendous effort. If we learn the concepts and understand how the facts fit into the bigger picture, then it is much easier to remember more facts with less effort. Create a framework of understanding, then hang the facts on the framework.

Highlight the Important Terms, but with Caution

I try not to highlight if possible. I layout some of the disadvantages to highlighting in [this post]. Highlighting triples our workload and increases the likelihood of focusing on lower yield information. If you find yourself in a situation where you must absolutely highlight, keep it at a minimum. Whatever is highlighted is considered important. When we highlight too much, we destroy prioritization. Not all information was made equal.

Our Brain is Better at Recognizing than Recalling

This is why Active Recall is such a powerful method of learning. The heightened difficulty of recalling information trains our brain more powerfully than simple recognition.

This is also why I suggest we scan our textbooks in the method laid out above. When we scan, we create points of recognition that allow us to hang the facts and intricate details of the information.

Flesh Out Notes to Solidify New Concepts

Right when we finish reading or get out of a lecture, we have an unstable understanding of the new concepts we’ve just learned. This is partly because we have very limited access to the information in terms of neural connections. With more neural connections, recalling specific information gets easier and easier.

Fleshing out our notes helps solidifies concepts in our mind, especially if they are a little fuzzy. The expansion gives us multiple neural points of connection, which allows for easier recall in the future. If fleshing the concepts out on your own is beyond your ZPD, I recommend comparing notes with a friend or discussing the topic with the professor in office hours.

Use Mnemonics to Memorize

Memorizing sucks and it’s nearly impossible to memorize random facts without connecting them to something else that we already understand. One of the best ways to memorize is to use mnemonics, little devices designed to help with remembering patterns or associations.

One version of a mnemonics are acronyms. Not to be confused with initialisms (which can be great mnemonics too), acronyms are words or names formed from the initial parts of a bigger name. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is pronounced like a word, but stands for a larger name.

One of my favorite acronyms are used for remembering the colors of a rainbow – ROY G. BIV. It sounds like the name of a man, but it stands for red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indego, and violet.

Another type of mnemonic devices are coined sayings. These are crazy phrases used similarly to acronyms. One of my favorite coined sayings is for memorizing the Krebs Cycle intermediates is “Can I Keep Selling Sex for Money Officer?”

C – citrate I – isocitrate K – a-ketoglutarate S – succinyl CoA S – succinate F – fumarate M – malate O – oxaloacetate

It’s easy to remember because it’s about sex. The more sexual, vulgar, and ridiculous are, the easier they are to remember. So don’t be afraid to get a little crazy.

The last type of mnemonic that I’m going to talk about here are image associations. Some people also refer to this as the “Mental Mind Palace” or the “method of loci.” The main idea is to picture a place that we are extremely familiar with, like our home for example, and place the different bits of information in places across your house.

This sounds a little woowoo, but the core of this method is to connect our familiar environment as triggers of recognition to the information that we want to memorize. This works wonders for some people and not so well for others. I wouldn’t recommend this method over the other ones, but what is powerful is knowing that we can associate any information we want with images.

Using images to solidify a concept in our minds is powerful because the human brain is mainly designed to function around sight. We are relatively visual creatures and using visualization to enhance memory is like a cheat code. Similar to coin sayings, the more sexual, vulgar, and ridiculous the image is, the easier is will be to remember.


Reading is like working out. It takes time to get better at it. Reading a textbook is like learning how to work out a specific part of your body. Stick with it. All principles regarding skill building also apply here too, so things like The Valley of Disappointment, The Transition Curve, and The 20 Hour Rule are also at play. See each reading session as a practice in developing the “textbook reading” skill.

Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

20 Things We Need to Know About Sleep

“The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.”

Matthew Walker (1973- )

Dr. Matthew Walker is a British Scientist and the world’s renown sleep expert. He has a fantastic book out called “Why We Sleep” and a wealth of knowledge all over the internet from Talks at Google to The Joe Rogan Experience.

After familiarizing myself with some of Dr. Walker’s work, I couldn’t help but to share it with everyone and include it in my blog because sleep is so damn important for learning.

This post will just be a few of the things I’ve learned about sleep, but I highly recommend checking out Dr. Walker’s work for yourself!

I’ll start with this fun fact:

The number of people that can operate of 7 hours of sleep or less without any deficits is zero.

Literally no one can function at their best without a full night’s sleep. Typically people consider 8 hours to be a full night’s sleep, but that can vary by the individual. Even with just missing out on an hour, there are noticeable differences in performance. No one is exempt from this, we are all human beings and sleep is essential for everyone.

Hunter-Gatherer cultures have no sleep problems.

Probably because they don’t have alarm clocks! Really though, if you have an alarm clock that goes off every morning, then you may be depriving yourself of necessary sleep. If we still feel tired when our alarm clocks go off, then we aren’t done with sleep yet. A lot of hunter-gatherer cultures don’t have the temporal restrictions that many modern people do and that gives them the ability to sleep as much as they need.

Beauty sleep is a real thing.

People who sleep more look better! I mean we’ve all heard it at one time or another – we have a bad nights sleep and someone tells us the next day “Geez, you look like crap.” or “You look tired.” The meaning is the same, we don’t look as good as we could. Skimping out on sleep means skimping out on looking good and the sad truth of life is that looking good is more important than most of what we can bring to the table. If we don’t look the part, we are rarely offered opportunities to perform. Get sleep, get opportunities.

Prefrontal cortex activity decreases with lack of sleep.

I talked a little bit about brain anatomy in my post The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1). The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for executive functioning. That’s basically all of our self-regulation and complex decision making. So if we don’t sleep, we lose our ability to regulate our emotions, actions, reponses, as well as discipline and planning for the future. Without a strong prefrontal cortex, we are likely to feel our emotions more strongly which could result in anxiety or higher levels of stress. Everything is harder when we have to fight our amygdala, we should get adequate sleep so our prefrontal cortex can fight that battle for us.

Lack of sleep leads to a higher sensitivity to negative emotion & an increase in impulsive reward seeking behavior.

This goes hand in hand with the last fact. If we don’t have a strong way of regulating ourselves, then we feel our negative emotions more intensely and seek out the easy reward. Unfortunately, most things that are worthwhile are difficult and require delayed gratification. If we aren’t sleeping, it’s hard to thing past the present moment and delaying gratification is less attractive.

Sleeping “hits the save button.”

Moving information from the short term memory to our long term memory happens during sleep and is known as consolidation. We need to consolidate because holding information in our short term memory uses up cognitive load, which can be thought of as our brain’s physical processing power. Sleeping is what resets our cognitive load. As our days go on, we take in more and more information and store it in our short term memory – this is known as acquisition. When we sleep, we move all of that information into our long term memory, which clears up space in our short term memory. This is why it’s important to sleep every day. I talk a little about this in the memory section in my post The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 2).

Simply moving information from short term memory to long term memory is a massive oversimplification of the actual process. I won’t go too in depth here, but it’s helpful to know that only certain kinds of information gets consolidated during certain stages of sleep. There are 4 stages of sleep and they happen in a cycle. Throughout the night, we experience these 4 stages over and over and over until we wake up. An entire sleep cycle last from about 90-120 minutes.

Stage 1 – this is when someone would be moving back and forth between consciousness and sleep. On an EEG, they would be exhibiting alpha waves. They would look pretty drowsy at this point. This only lasts about 5-10 minutes.

Stage 2 – this is when we really start to sleep. Our body releases chemicals that make it difficult to wake up. Our heart rate and body temperature start to decrease. On an EEG, we’d notice k-complexes and sleep spindles. This lasts about 20 minutes.

Stage 3 – We are in pretty deep sleep at this point. We can have dreams at this stage, but the brain isn’t as active on an EEG. The brain would be giving off delta waves. This is also when information consolidation really happens, but not all information is moved to the long term memory. In stage 3, only a certain kind of declarative memory is moved from short term to long term. Declarative Memory holds information regarding facts, things that we “know”, or things that can be “declared as known,” are consolidated and saved for later. Keep in mind, this process just saves the neural pathway, to strengthen them requires practice. Consolidation of declarative memory occurs in NREM (non-REM) sleep if the information is emotionally neural or simple. Once the declarative information is emotionally charged or complex, then our brain uses REM sleep to consolidate that information.

REM Sleep – This is our deepest stage of sleep, but yet our brain is the most active on an EEG. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement on account of our eyes moving so much during this phase. We do our most intense dreaming here and if we’re woken up during these phase we’ll feel groggy and disoriented. REM sleep is necessary for the body and mind to function properly. REM sleep allows a reset for our cardiovascular systems by lowering heart rate and blood pressure, and restocks our immune systems. Most of the benefits from sleep coming during REM sleep, so don’t be fooled to think short naps are a replacement for long deep sleep. During REM, we consolidate a different type of information – Procedural Memory. This includes the knowledge of how to do things, typically with motor skills. REM sleep is essential for learning how to play an instrument or a sport, anything that requires a knowledge of moving ourselves in a certain way. When we’re in REM, we can brain run through the procedures (fire the specific neural pathways) 30-40 times during one nights sleep! If you’ve read my Active Recall and Space Repetition post, then you know that means we’ve improved that specific skill overnight literally in our sleep! Studies have found that people are about 20-30% better at a skill after a night of proper sleep without any extra practice.

When I was first learning the guitar, I always had trouble learning a song in one sitting. I could never get it perfectly right, but I knew that if I went to sleep, the next day I would be able to do it!! I thought it was my superpower, but after reading a little bit about skill acquisition I know now that brain was practicing those procedures in my sleep over and over again. No wonder I was so much better the next day!

The Sleep Cycle but really simple.

Being awake is low level brain damage.

Our body has this system known as the Glymphatic System which is responsible for cleaning the brain during sleep. It’s similar to the more commonly known, lymphatic system, which is responsible for cleaning the body. The glymphatic system washes away beta-amyloid, which is a protein that builds up in our brains during wakefulness. Too much of this beta-amyloid in our brains will prevent us from firing our neural pathways correctly. It is the main component of the plaque found in Alzheimer’s patients.

Lack of sleep is the most determining lifestyle factor in developing Alzheimer’s.

After learning about how essential sleep is for the brain, it is not surprising. Living is hard work, our brains are doing a lot, and if we don’t give them a break, then we can’t expect them to work well over the long term.

If you know that you have a proclivity toward Alzheimer’s, then I recommend taking your sleep seriously.

It’s a myth that you need less sleep as you get older, adults will always need 8 hours of sleep.

People like to think that as we get older, we need less sleep. After all, you see it all the time! The old people are always waking up early and going to their early bird specials or gardening at odd hours, but what many people fail to consider is what time they go to bed too. Old people tend to wake up earlier because they go to sleep earlier. They don’t need less sleep, their circadian rhythms are just slightly shifted from the norm.

There are many stages of our lives when we circadian rhythms “aren’t normal”, so to speak. Teenagers also have a shifted circadian rhythm! No one knows for certain the reason behind the shifts, but there are a lot of theories. People think we need less sleep as we get older, but that isn’t true – we always need 8 hours.

The teenage brain has a shift in circadian rhythms that should dictate when schools start.

In addition to the older folks, teenagers have a shifted circadian rhythm which causes them to typically sleep and wake later than the average person. After I learned this, I was so surprised that me entire high school education started class at 7:30 am. My brain never really woke up until like 3rd period and now I know why! We should change the schools to adapt to our body rather than use extra energy to adapt our bodies to our poorly informed institutions. Schools shouldn’t start until at least 10 am.

Men who sleep less have smaller testicles and less terstosterone than men who get a full night’s sleep.

As if we didn’t need another reason to take sleep seriously. Men who sleep 5 hours of less per night have smaller testicles than men who sleep 7 or more hours per night. Men who sleep less than 5 hours per night also produces as much testosterone as someone 10 years older than him.

Cutting sleep shrinks your balls and ages your hormonal production by 10 years. Don’t do it fellas. Just sleep.

Women are less likely to get pregnant when sleep deprived.

Skipping sleep doesn’t just mess with men, women have trouble conceiving if their sleep deprived as well. If you’re trying for kids, make sure you’re well rested!

There is a strong connection between lack of sleep and cardiovascular diseases.

Heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure increases by 24% the day after daylight savings, but in the fall when we gain an hour of sleep we only get a 21% increase. There is a similar profile for car accidents, suicide rates, and federal judge sentencing severity as well. Just a single hour of sleep can influence a lot! Maintaining a consistent sleeping schedule is crucial to a healthy cardiovascular system.

Driving sleep deprived is more dangerous than driving under the influence.

People love to demonize drinking under the influence, but will not think twice about driving sleep deprived. There are multiple reasons for why driving without sleep is worse than driving drunk. Seep depravity lowers our IQ more than alcohol intoxication, so we are literally dumber when we don’t sleep. Additionally, drivers under the influence has slowed reflexes which is dangerous when you are in charge of a 2,000 lbs metal moving moving at 70 mph, but sleep deprived drivers don’t react at all which is way worse. Slow reflexes or no reflexes, which is worse behind the wheel?

Getting a handle on our sleep is difficult because of poor social perception.

The inconvenient truth is that we live in a society that does not value sleep as much as it deserves. People who sleep often are labeled as lazy and are shamed if they need or ask for more sleep. People flaunt their sleeplessness as badges of honor as if it is something to be coveted.

If we want to get control of our sleep as a society, then we need to start rewarding people for sleeping adequately! I try to encourage everyone I know to sleep as much as they need to and shame them for skipping sleep. It’s the opposite of what most people do and I know a lot of people think I’m crazy for it, but sleeping properly is more important than others’ poorly informed opinions of me.

Sleep is typically the first thing people choose to sacrifice when they get busy.

I know many people live their lives this way because things get difficult. It’s easy to think believe that sleep is optional and sacrificing a little bit won’t hurt anyone except maybe ourselves, but the opposite is true. Our bodies will work against us if they aren’t properly maintained, and sleep is essential for that maintenance. People have time for what they prioritize. Make sleep a main priority. Sacrifice something else in order to achieve your goals, don’t be quick to think that trading sleeping for anything is an even exchange. Sleep debt is difficult to pay back and natural will always collect what she is owed.

Blue light from our devices delays and interferes with our sleep.

The blue light from our devices delay melatonin (the hormone that gets us ready to sleep) release by 3 hours and cuts it’s concentration by 50%. Something as simple as exposing ourselves to a blue lights will delay our onset of sleep by 3 hours!

Let’s say we need to sleep at 10, so we stop using our phones and turn off all the lights. Our bodies aren’t going to release melatonin for another 3 hours! We won’t be able to start feeling tired until about 1 am. Those blue frequencies tell our brain that the sun is still out and we should still be up! On top of the later onset of sleep, our REM sleep is of lower quality when exposed to these blue lights during the evening hours.

Many of us know this and many devices have a night mode setting to block out the blue frequencies so we don’t mess with our neural biochemistry too much, but I’m not so sure that night mode works well enough.

Artificial lighting in our homes can interfere with proper sleep.

It’s not just blue light that we are sensitive to (although they affect our sleep tremendously), it’s all light. Keeping lights dim at night signals to our body that it’s nighttime and we should start physiologically preparing for sleep. This lowers our blood pressure, keeps our circadian rhythms in their most natural states, and improves the quality of our sleep.

Alcohol and caffeine really mess with sleep.

Some people like to call some alcohol in the evening a “nightcap” to help them go to sleep but the truth is alcohol doesn’t help us sleep. Alcohol may knock us unconscious, but that is not the same as sleep if we are looking at it from a physiological perspective. Alcohol blocks REM sleep and fragments our sleep throughout the night. The frequent interruptions keeps us sleeping in the first two stages of the sleep cycle and even if we stay asleep, REM is blocked and that is where most of the benefits from sleep are. This is usually why we wake up feeling exhausted after a night of drinking. Alcohol doesn’t induce sleep, it sedates us.

Caffeine is another fun drug to keep in mind when we are thinking about sleeping properly. Caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours, so this means that it takes the body 6 hours to process half the concentration of the caffeine out of the body. Let me put it like this, if we drink a coffee at 6 am, half of that caffeine is still circulating around in my body at noon, and a quarter of it will be there at 6 pm. But most of us don’t just have one coffee, we’ll have one in the morning then one at lunch to get us through that afternoon slump. Let’s say we drink that coffee at 2 pm, that would mean that half of that 2nd cup of coffee is still in our system by 8 pm and a quarter of it at 2 am. We may feel tired, but our brain is still physically dealing with the caffeine and studies have shown that it interferes with sleeping properly. The bottom line is that coffee stay in the brain hours after we drink it, if we don’t want our coffee to mess with our sleep, Dr. Walker suggests drinking coffee 14 hours before bed. Even if we manage to fall asleep with the caffeine in our brains, we will experience a 20% reduction in sleep quality which is equivalent to aging our brains 20 years.

We can induce sleep by lowing our body temperature.

The body needs to drop by about 1°C to start sleeping. There are many ways to make this happen. My favorite is to take a super hot shower before bed. The hot water will make the heat radiate from us when the shower is over and our bodies are way more primed for sleeping. Keeping the room cool when we try to sleep is a great way to help get to sleep faster while increasing sleep quality! This makes sense if we think about it, when the sun goes down, it gets cooler and it’s time to sleep. It’s no wonder why we get tired when we lower the temperature just a little bit.