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Exam Prep for Slackers

When I was a student at the University of Denver, I did not want to pay for parking. So I parked far enough away so that I did not have to, which meant a ten minute walk to and from campus every day. Sometimes twice a day. Which means I probably wasted about two hours per week just doing this. Oh, and I stopped at Starbucks pretty much every day, which is very near the business school. So that probably gets us to three hours per week of completely wasted time.

When I was at DU I did not think of that time as being wasted. I just did not care to pay for the parking, the walk did not bother me much, and I need coffee in my life every day. Wasted time is exactly what that was though. Apps have the capability to change this. The stuff we could have studied for but did not? Those three hours per week, when I was literally not doing anything, would have been well served by using an app that made me better prepared. Whether it was for the material in a certain class or for a licensing exam, studying through my phone during these wasted moments would have made me a better student and enabled more achievement.

The old way is to know that you need to prioritize your tasks. Whatever is most important needs to get done first in your day. You need to set goals and they need to be measureable. You need to set aside a couple of hours where nobody can bother you and get to work.

The old way is not dead. There is still a need to sit down and study. But mobile technology is enabling new possibilities that never existed before, and the one that we are focused on is the wasted time in your day and how to make those moments productive so that you don’t have to wreck yourself trying to pass that exam and get licensed or certified.

 

 

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Brain Breaks and Learning New Stuff

 

For the majority of my educational career, the end of class went something like read chapter 7 by Thursday and review the questions at the end of chapter review. Getting through the chapter usually took at least an hour, and by the time I was done there was no way I had any interest in looking at any of the end of the chapter questions. While this is not the point of this particular blog, it does seem that a good textbook reading strategy would be to go over those questions before you start reading the chapter. The person who wrote the book almost surely wrote those questions, and it would help to alert your mind as to what that author thinks is important.

It ends up that reading that chapter from beginning to end no matter how long it takes is not the best strategy for learning the material. If you don’t want to read about the basics of how your brain works, just know that especially for new or challenging material, you should probably take a three to five minute break for every 20 to 30 minutes of studying.

For new information to become memory, it must pass through the amygdala (emotional filter) and then reach the prefrontal cortex. Feeling anxious or overwhelmed eventually leads the amygdala to reach capacity for letting new information into the pre frontal cortex. Brain breaks should be planned to allow the amygdala to return to its optimal state.

Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that carry messages from one nerve cell to the next across gaps between the cells called synapses. Neurotransmitters are in limited supply and can deplete in as little as ten minutes. Your neurotransmitters might be depleting just as you read this. Brain breaks, which essentially means switching the type of mental activity, can shift brain communication to networks with fresh supplies of neurotransmitters.

As I said earlier, generally speaking 20 to 30 minutes of studying calls for 3 to 5 minute breaks. These breaks should be something like physical activity, something that produces laughter, or listening to music. The key is to keep it to three to five minutes and then go back to studying for another 20 to 30 minutes.

Please remember that this applies to learning new information. If you are studying something you already know a lot about, you can probably go for much longer. In standardized exams, many of us have knowledge gaps that make the exam quite challenging. The fact that there are knowledge gaps means that we can feel overwhelmed very quickly. This is where it is important to remember to take brain breaks. Brain breaks also fit very nicely into how our app works, which is to try to take advantage of little pockets of time where you are not doing much of anything (waiting in line, for example).

 

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Dopamine and Exam Prep (Studying)

 

There are four brain chemicals, but I am going to focus on dopamine. Dopamine is the joy of finding things that meet your needs. You know that “Eureka- I got it” feeling? That’s dopamine. Dopamine motivates you to get what you need, even when it takes a lot of effort. It is not always all that rational. Your inner mammal decides what feels good and seeks rewards that feel good. This mammal brain scans constantly for potential rewards, and dopamine is the signal that it has found some. It is important to note that the expectation of rewards is what triggers dopamine.

There are examples all over the place. Video games are filled with potential dopamine releasing behaviors. They almost all have levels and challenges of some type. As the game gets harder, the release of dopamine gets more intense as you pass through a level that required many tries. But once you have done it, the dopamine release is not as strong the next time. You need a new challenge to get that dopamine activated again.

Social media is even better. They don’t usually have levels, but most of them do have a feed. And you need to scroll through the feed before you finally find something interesting. The game of finding that interesting post or image releases dopamine and makes you addicted to the platform.

So what does this have to do with education? It should have a lot to do with it. Shouldn’t education be implementing products that make you more addicted to using it? Shouldn’t education involve something that produces a feeling that you want to have again?

It seems that most of education operates with the opposite in mind. The basic process of studying through a textbook and then answering some questions is not going to release euphoria for most people. I suppose the argument would be that dopamine is released by the expectation of acing an exam. That’s probably true, but obviously it only works for a very small percentage of the population (those who are A students). Everyone else has shorter attention spans and will inevitably do something that meets their dopamine needs more immediately. For a lot of people, some of those things will surely be the examples we gave above (social media and gaming).

The challenge for education technology companies is not to produce the content. That already exists. Just making books available in digital form does not actually improve the user experience very much. What is needed is for the product to be based on releasing dopamine from the student’s brain so that they become addicted to the expectation of reward. What exactly that reward should be requires creativity in developing a good product.

 

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Studying and Study Breaks: How Long Should Each Be?

 

 

 

Most of us have mastered the art of cramming. That is, waiting too long and then studying like crazy for that test. We always knew it was wrong. Didn’t need anyone to tell us that we were procrastinating. Should have planned ahead. However, ends up that those of you who just loved to put your nose into a textbook for hours at a time were also going about it ways that did not maximize your productivity.

In 2014, DeskTime, a productivity app that tracks employees’ computer use, peeked into its data to study the behavior of its most productive workers. The highest-performing 10 percent tended to work for 52 consecutive minutes followed by a 17-minute break. Those 17 minutes were often spent away from the computer by talking a walk, doing exercises, or talking to coworkers.

Also, in 1999, Cornell University’s Ergonomics Research Laboratory used a computer program to remind workers to take short breaks. The project concluded that “workers receiving the alerts [reminding them to stop working] were 13 percent more accurate on average in their work than coworkers who were not reminded.”

While I could not find studies detailing the amount of time to study with new or challenging information, I can tell you that if studying new material or material that you are not all that comfortable with, then a 52 minute period is probably too long. The frontal cortex just gets tired. So adjust accordingly.

If you decide to try for the 52/17 rule, the challenge that you will surely face is that 17 minutes is not a lot of time. Your favorite shows last longer than 17 minutes, and most people have a hard time limiting their social media/fantasy football/online shopping/gaming time to a 17-minute period. What you actually want to be doing is moving. Going for a brief walk or doing some light stretching is much better for you and your productivity than taking five selfies and texting your friends for several minutes. We were not designed to spend our whole lives sitting down.

 

 

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Why Education Should Act Like A Game

 

 

Have you ever read the questions and answers at the end of a chapter in a textbook? All of them? If they were not assigned? Most people have not. I certainly didn’t. Usually I felt good about having read the whole chapter and underlining a bunch of stuff. It’s interesting that we do this. The author of the textbook almost certainly put those questions there because they think the answers to those questions are the most important aspects I needed to learn from reading the chapter. But usually reading the chapter was slow and tedious, and I would get back to it later. Or so I told myself.

Reading the chapter is essential. There is no getting around it. However, the process of answering the questions at the end of the chapter is done in the most boring way possible. There is room for massive improvement here. It should look and act like a game. This is one of the central concepts that we have built our app around. And if you think about it for a minute, it makes perfect sense. Most games are based on learning something. Level 1 starts off pretty easy. Learn a few basic moves and you have “mastered” that level and you are on to level 2. Level 2 will make you use the stuff you learned in level 1, but add a couple new jumps and kicks that you have to do at exactly the right time in order to keep progressing. The levels progressively get harder, so that getting through level 9 or 10 will probably take you some time and feel like a real achievement when you do get through it.

Interestingly, most video game developers refer to moving on to the next level as mastery. Mastery Based Learning is a great form of education. It is better because so much time is wasted in classrooms where the student is either bored because they already know the material or they are lost because the material is too difficult. If you follow the model of the video game, this would never happen. Or it would only happen in a poorly designed game that was either too easy and boring or too hard to figure out how to play it.

Too much of digital education looks like we just took the classroom or last night’s homework and put it in an app or a website. Too many one hour plus lectures that you can see online. Or they are basically just digital flashcards. Nobody has ever enjoyed the process of using flashcards. It is possible that somebody got a good grade by using them, but the user experience is absolutely awful. Video lectures, on the other hand, tend to be very long and take a while to finally get to the part where they help me understand the part that I don’t understand. And these videos are intended for millennials, right?

A game developer knows that they need to entertain you. They need to create an engaging environment if they want the users to care. Most games require points, point animations, levels, badges, challenges, trophies, and more. And yes, if the user doesn’t learn fast enough, they should probably die. Isn’t that what happens in almost every game?

The point is that games are based on learning. Learn some stuff and move on to the next level. And they must be interactive and engaging or else nobody will use them. These concepts could and should be the basis for learning things that are actually important to one’s educational career and not just for games that we play for fun with our friends.

 

 

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Nutrition for Your Brain

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 This isn’t science class, but you should really know the basics here. Diet also has a major impact on how your brain functions. The effects that things like sugar, simple carbs rather than complex ones, and lack of omega 3 fatty acids have on you is significant. Diet can have a major impact on your ability to concentrate and focus. This means that a poor diet could, and likely will, have a negative impact on your test score. This is by no means an exhaustive list of what you should be putting in your body, but maybe gets you started on knowing how nutrition impacts your brain function.

Nutrition and Brain Function

The impact of nutrition on normal brain function can be demonstrated by the performance of neurotransmitter activity (chemical messengers that carry information from brain cell to brain cell). The brain, like many other vital organs, is affected by nutritional intake. Amino acids found in proteins, and essential nutrients like choline are responsible for the normal production and use of neurotransmitters in the brain (serotonin, acetylcholine, dopamine, and norepinephrine). We obtain these substances in the food we eat, so it is no surprise that what we choose to eat directly influences how our brain functions.

What You Need and What It Does

There are five vital components for proper brain development and function and they are all found in food.

▪ Proteins (meat, fish, milk, cheese) are used to make most neurotransmitting substances. Lack of protein causes fatigue and withdrawal and has been associated with poor school performance.

▪ Calories are the measure of the amount of energy delivered by food. They get a bad rap but we all need calories.

▪ Carbohydrates, such as grains, fruits, and vegetables, are used to produce the body and brain’s main fuel. Complex carbs, such as green vegetables, whole grain foods (oatmeal, pasta, and bread), starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, and pumpkin) provide sustained energy along with fiber and assorted nutrients. Many nutritionists suggest that complex carbs make up 50-60% of your caloric intact. Simple carbs offer only sweetness and short bursts of energy.

▪ Fat makes up more than 60% of the brain and assists the body in absorbing fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). Omega-3 fatty acids (fish and nuts) are especially important to brain function Fat should not make up more than 30% of the diet.

▪ Vitamins (A, C, E, and B complex) and minerals (magnesium, folic acid, potassium, manganese, and fiber ) are also essential for brain function. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, says that since most Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables each day, they miss out on these essential vitamins and minerals. Many females do not meet their daily calcium needs, which might increase their risk of poor bone health later in life.

▪ Make small changes to your usual diet and dump those power drinks as a replacement for water — they are nothing more than salted sugar water.

▪ Start reading food labels. If you eat a lot of packaged and processed foods, you may be surprised to see how much fat, and sugar and sodium, is in the foods you eat every day.

 

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Fake It Til You Become It

I think that standardized exams and job interviews can have similar feelings associated with them. It seems that the exam and/or the interviewer could ask you practically anything under the sun. What I have for you is a video that suggests that our non-verbals can govern how we think and feel about ourselves by increasing testosterone and decreasing cortisol (the stress hormone). Which is to say that if you feel unconfident or even scared, if you portray confidence and practice some power poses, it can actually change how you feel about yourself. The old saying is fake it til you make it. Can the body actually change the mind?

Watch this TED talk and let us know what you think. http://www.ted.com/playlists/171/the_most_popular_talks_of_all?gclid=CjwKEAiAs_PCBRD5nIun9cyu01kSJAA-WD-rVooFDcX6bNNF4asqOsK0LNByiVE8mv5agZdxCyJBbBoCZu3w_wcB

 

 

 

 

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Wasted Time

TIME-WASTEDWhat I want to talk about for a minute is not the huge waste of time, but the much smaller micro moments that each of us more or less wastes every day. I am not talking about the unbelievable amount of time per day spent on Instagram, Snapchat, Netflix, fantasy football, online shopping, Candy Crush, and whatever else you are into. Speaking of fantasy football, this is my year. I can feel it.

What I want to talk about are the micro-moments that are in each day. These occur at Starbucks, waiting to pick up your girlfriend/husband/kids from work/soccer/whatever, going grocery shopping, walking to class or work from your car, waiting in line for anything, time spent in your car, and so forth. These little moments add up to a decent amount of time in each day. Probably more than an hour per day if you count time in the car. And what do we do with this time? I see people all day long, on the street and in restaurants, at airports and in big buildings, and they are all looking at their phone non-stop. What the heck are they looking at? You want to know? I’m sure you already do. Emailing, texting, social media, fantasy sports, online shopping, gaming and online dating. If you don’t do any of that then why do you even own a phone? To talk into it? Appalling!

Now, let me take you through the reality for almost anyone preparing for a standardized exam. They are not as ready as they could have been. That’s most of us. Why are they not ready? Because they either have a full time job or are full time students, plus they would like to have a social life or a family life and there tends to not be an hour a day to prepare for these things. Or to do so requires a significant sacrifice. But wouldn’t it be nice if there was a service designed to take advantage of these micro-moments in each of our days? There is, and it’s called WhipSmartt. Whoever thought up this idea must be a freakin genius. Oh wait, it was me and Matt, and we are not geniuses. Anyways, take advantage of the micro-moments so you can move on with your life and do the things you want to do.

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The Problem of Procrastination (and your test score)

TIME-WASTED

 

Many people struggle with procrastination in their lives. We should work out more, or eat better, or we need to study for that exam that is weeks away. Many of us struggle with what we know we should be doing, but why?

The problem is our brains are programmed to procrastinate. In general, we tend to struggle with the promise of future benefits in return for actions we take at this exact moment. That’s because it’s easier for our brains to process concrete rather than abstract things. Our brains much more easily understand the annoyance of whatever task lies ahead of us as opposed to the uncertain future benefits. So the short-term effort easily dominates the long-term upside in our minds.

As we turn our attention to exam prep, it is no wonder that procrastination is a big problem. The exam is weeks if not months away. There are many things today that you either need or want to do more than study for the exam. That exam prep book is huge, and nobody really notices if you study or not.

Education technology has a chance to change this. An app that helps you study is valuable in that you always have it with you, and therefore it is easier to study during an average day. However, one of the clear benefits that an app can provide is to provide rewards that seem more tangible in the here and now. How exactly an app does this is open to discussion, and hopefully different companies will come up with a variety of interpretations in regard to how to engage their audiences. The big point here is that the more engaging products will cut down on procrastination and enable more learning to take place.

 

 

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The Best Habits

One of the books that I was influenced by in building WhipSmartt was The Power of Habit.  Talking about in in detail would take way more time than a blog reasonably allows.  I will just spend a few sentences on the habit loop of cue-routine-reward. This basically says that the most powerful habits that we have starts off with a cue, then we have a routine we must learn in order to get the reward.  The keys here are that we have an obvious cue and that the reward is significant enough as to motivate us to do or learn the routine.

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Lets look at an example.  Say I want to lose ten pounds.  To do this I have come up with the plan of go the gym five times per week.  Okay great.  Now I could do what most do, which is just try to be disciplined about going.  That rarely works in building a new habit, which in this case is working out five times per week.  According to The Power of Habit, the first question should be what is my cue?  And within that cue needs to be a reminder of the reward I will receive.  What we see here is the high level of importance for social benefits being connected to working out.  It will take me months (most likely) to lose the ten pounds, but if there are people who I like to see while I go to workout, that is a reward that might keep me going.  Maybe there’s a great sushi place next to the gym and I like to eat there but only allow myself to go after a workout.  The cue is much more difficult, but perhaps in the future wearables can come up with an answer.

Technology makes cues much more simple.  Lets take a quick look at how social media works and how they have followed the cue-reward-routine loop.  I’m on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram whatever, and I use it some.  What happens is eventually someone comments on some post/pic/video that I posted.  What happens next?  A message gets sent to my phone saying that someone said something about something that I posted.  My phone won’t tell me what it says, but just that they commented.  This is the cue.  Well, of course I wish to know what they said, so I check it out.  This is the routine.  While there I probably scroll at least a little bit, and this is the reward, getting to see other things that people think or are up to.  An interesting part of this reward is the unpredictability of what I might see or read next.  Given that, I might just comment or post again, and the loop continues.  Very powerful, much more powerful than the exercise example in the paragraph above.  In both our personal lives and our businesses we should strongly consider how to develop strong cues and rewards to impact action taken and the resulting habits.