How to Massively Improve Your Chance of Success, Now!
article by Tim T Dingle BSc (Hons) MIBiol PGCE MBA, Chief Development Officer at the Academy of Vocational and Professional Training (AVPTglobal)
I sometimes wonder what an alien might think if they were monitoring our schools, downloading training course and looking at how students try to learn. They would be forgiven for thinking that they have been artfully designed to train students in the art of forgetting. Throughout the time you take most conventional courses (excepting, of course, the cutting edge ones at AVPT www.avptglobal.com) it may seem that you spend your time ‘learning’ and ‘revising’ for tests. What then follows is extraordinary; we forget that information within weeks.
This pattern seems continue throughout schools, professional training cycles and college courses. This heroic shuffling in and out of knowledge from our cerebral hemispheres seems to be a constant cycle. Then students are tasked, days before a crucial exam, with relearning everything that they have managed to forget over the course of the year. This is the classic ‘summative assessment’ situation with a history of failure in so many cultures. This often takes almost as much time as if we were doing it from scratch. It seems that the UK Education Minister, Michael Gove is known to be an admirer of this system.
The reason that forgetting is so common in traditional learning cycles is that the way we are taught to encode and recall memories, causes fading over time. Those memories that can be recalled are the one that get repeated and are strengthened. They are prepared for the long term and placed within the Long Term Memory System (LTM). This is important because (from an evolutionary point of view) repetition correlates with importance. Meaningful or important things tend to happen again; random things tend not to.
One of the problems with most learning systems lies in a distinction between two ways to go about this repetition. It can be separated into ‘spaced learning’ (SL) and ‘massed learning’ (ML). Massed leaning is sometimes called cramming. You may remember those long sessions; students love them and believe the longer they stare at their notes /books, the more it is effective. The spaced repetition method is where the repetitions are spaced out over a period of time. The best analogy is to think of memories as plants in the garden of your memory; then think of repetition as watering with your watering can.
The ML system is like watering a plant by emptying the whole watering can all at once; then failing to do so for months. The mechanism for SL Learning is to imagine watering the plant once a week in measured amounts from the can, over a period of months. This regularity, combined with a systematic approach and by using a ‘chunked up’ seems to be crucial to success; an approach that, we believe at AVPT, is how all online learning must develop. The long term effect of these totally different techniques of watering (but the same total volume of water) results in two very different plants (one is probably dead).
Now imagine something else that can radically improve memory and success. Incredible as it seems the greatest advances in improving our chances of success can be had for free, right now. I’m talking about improving your brain from the outside in. If you take it seriously it can and will lead to faster and more accurate decision-making. It will yield greater productivity and inspire innovation. If you want to be mercenary about it, it’s the kind of smart that starts making money.
All you need to ‘invest’ is approximately 30 minutes a day. And maybe a decent pair of trainers. Over the last 30 years I have seen many articles describing how aerobic exercise is beneficial to health. There is no doubt there is a lot of truth in what has been written. Improving oxygen distribution in the body… reducing the chances of heart disease… losing extra pounds… exercise has many benefits. But cardiovascular exercise goes way beyond reducing blood pressure and cholesterol. Current research shows that exercise can alter the very structure of the nerve cells in the brain. You could read the evidence in (fairly dull) scientific papers, of which over 1000 have been produced in the last 12 months.
There are many people like me who recognise the impact that cardiovascular exercise has had on their career and every aspect of their life. It may surprise you that there is a growing cohort of business people and entrepreneurs who credit exercise not as just a component of their successful lives, but as the biological catalyst in all of their achievements.
In very basic terms, our brains function due to groups of chemicals ‘jumping’ between the neurons (nerves) within. My research indicates that BDNF – Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor – is one of the most significant of these chemicals. BDNF is a protein that is controlled by the BDNF gene in our DNA. BDNF acts on brain cells by encouraging the growth and differentiation (dividing and deciding what they want to be) of new neurons and synapses. The neurons start growing new connections on their branch- like ends (called dendrites). The more dendrites that grow, the more connections are made. The more connections you have in your brain, the greater your capacity to think: using another plant analogy, BDNF is a ‘miracle grow’ for your brain cells.
It works in the areas of the brain vital to learning, memory, and higher thinking. BDNF itself is important for long-term memory. Which is why it makes you smarter. So, exercise increases BDNF – great! But… when you are stressed, you release the hormone corticosterone. This has been shown to decrease the amount of BDNF!
In other words, being stressed makes you less smart and less able to make good decisions.If your exposure to stress is persistent, this can cause an area of the brain called the hippocampus to actively shrink. This has been shown to take place in humans suffering from chronic depression. The secret of creating change within the brain that can boost your intelligence, memory and decision making qualities (as well as relieving depression) is
The optimal amount seems to be 30 minutes of aerobic activity a day. Running, swimming, active walking – they’re all good as long as you do them regularly. I’m always interested in finding new ways to learn better and faster. I am a busy and driven individual. I try to read one book every day on top of a full time business career. The amount of time I have available to spend learning new things is limited. It’s important to get as much educational value out of my time as possible, so retention, recall and transfer are critical.
I need to be able to accurately remember the information I learn, recall it at a later time and utilise it effectively in a wide variety of situations. One sure-fire way to become a more effective learner is to learn new things and keep practicing them. The Science backs this up. A 2004 article in the journal Nature reported that people who learned how to juggle increased the amount of grey matter in their occipital lobes, the area of the brain associated with visual memory.When these individuals stopped practicing their new skill, this grey matter vanished.
So if you’re learning a new language, it is important to keep practicing the language in order to maintain the gains you have achieved. This ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ phenomenon involves a brain process known as pruning. Certain pathways in the brain are maintained, whilst others are eliminated. If you want the new information you have just learned to stay put, keep practicing and rehearsing it.
One of the key secrets of memory is how brain cells connect without actually touching. The gaps are called synapses – remember those chemicals that ‘jump’ across the gaps? Circuits are formed that retain memory, but they disappear if they are not used over and over again.
So go juggle right now!
 Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Busch, V., & Schuierer, G. (2004). Neuroplasticity: Changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature, 427(22), 311-312.