Effective Study Methods and Biomonitoring-Assisted Study Techniques
The subject of this paper is twofold.
Firstly, it covers some of the problems that can be encountered in teaching and learning, and how to overcome them. The methodology described is known as study technology.
The subject of study technology is too large to cover every part of it in its entirety here, and it should not be assumed that the methods described here for overcoming the main barriers to learning constitute the entire subject.
Although popularised by others, the basics of study technology were originally researched over a 40 year period by two English professors, Charles and Ava Berner. Their work collated the successful methods of many of the foremost educators down through time and distilled these into a simple but workable methodology.
The brief description of the key elements to study tech is given to provide some essential background context to the second part of this paper. In this latter section, I describe how the GSR meter can be used to locate where a student is having problems in study, and to assist the supervisor or teacher in helping him getting it cleared up. For an in-depth discussion of the theory of the GSR meter and how it works, see my earlier paper entitled "Biofeedback Monitoring using a Galvanic Skin Response Meter".
This paper is written up from my experience as a course supervisor and study debug specialist.
BARRIERS TO COMPREHENSION DURING STUDY
Unless the student truly believes that there is something there to learn, and desires to know about it, he or she will not be receptive to the subject matter. Unwillingness to learn is the first and biggest stumbling block to be overcome.
One of the most obvious ways that unwillingness to learn manifests itself is when the student starts out with the assumption that he already knows about the subject. It can be very difficult to teach someone who believes his knowledge in a similar earlier field qualifies him as an expert in the new subject, and such students can often be seen trying to persuade the teacher how, by incorporating their ideas, the new subject can be "improved".
Some students believe that their powers of critical analysis are so great that they can critique each new datum before they have actually acquired sufficient subject context to formulate informed judgments. On being given any new piece of information regarding the subject, characteristically this type of student will immediately attempt to challenge the teacher or lecturer or engage him in a debate about it, instead of taking the viewpoint that they are there to learn, and should treat the course as a resource to add to their arsenal of knowledge. Until the student can disabuse himself of such a peremptory attitude, little progress can be made.
It can be very difficult to study without having a concrete reality on the concepts described in the course content. It is not difficult to visualize a familiar subject, for example, if a tennis coach were reading an article about tennis. He would already be sufficiently au fait with the subject to translate the author's words easily into mental pictures. Students run into difficulty when the concepts are new to them and they have little or no real life familiarity with the subject area. The more the abstract the text and the farther removed the student is from the actual physical reality of what it is describing, the greater student's prior understanding of the subject must be in order to comprehend it.
When this physical world reality - real objects, scenarios, people, places etc. - is not available to a person while studying, this can give rise to actual bodily feelings. Study tech calls this phenomenon absence of mass. Students start to hunch over their books, feel "heavy" in the body or head, or feel wooden or lifeless. They will start to feel pressures in the head or face, have headaches, stomach aches, discomfort in the eyes, spinning or dizzy feelings, or become bored or exasperated with the subject. When a child gets sick during study this is a symptom of not having sufficient mass or reality on the subject present.
The most optimum solution would be for the student to go and find the actual object itself to observe during study. If a person is reading the manual for their car, then the obvious thing to do would be to go out to the car and look at the actual parts of the car described in the manual.
When the real-life object is not available, then some substitute representing the item can often serve adequately. Movies, videos, photos, maps, drawings and diagrams all work well for this purpose. In this day of television, video, DVD and Internet, I see absolutely no reason for not using these resources to the max as study aids. I disagree with those who label the use of video resources as "dumbing down", and I certainly cannot agree with certain educational purists who seem to wish to impose a blanket ban on television for schoolchildren! The Open University in the United Kingdom realised the value of television programmes as a study aid decades ago - it seems their curriculum designers recognised its value in terms of providing mass and reality on the University's course topics.
Another resource is the demo kit. Students are taught to use various small objects to represent items and show concepts. The purpose of this is to demonstrate understanding. Paper clips, bottle caps, rubber bands and other small items are moved around on the table to show a rough and speedy outline of the datum being taught. An extension of this demonstration principle is the construction of clay demos - crude plasticine models showing the datum or situation the student is trying to learn about. These methods of demonstration are useful not only in providing an approximate physical universe representation of the datum to the student, but are an excellent way for the teacher to check the student's understanding.
It is a personal observation that visual learners need mass, and lots of it, in order to understand a concept. Mass may be more important for a strongly visual-spatial learner than repeatedly drilling basic datums. Linda Silverman describes such students in her book "Upside Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner". I believe that one major weakness of study tech is that it does not mention that the sizeable minority of students who are very strongly visual-spatial need mass and reality, rather than drill and the gradient approach.
When a person jumps several steps ahead and consequently finds the material or action too difficult, this is known as a skipped gradient. For example, a person is trying to play complex rock guitar licks, but has never even sat down and worked out which string and fret produces which note.
People often skip ahead and take on too much because they are impatient. A would-be athlete might make a resolution to run five miles a day. On his first day, he is surprised to sustain an injury. This occurs, however, because he had never done any running before, except perhaps to run for the bus.
Although this barrier is most visible when it comes to practical actions, it does apply to theoretical understanding too. A person would not get very far as a book-keeper if they had never mastered basic arithmetic.
There are also non-optimum study reactions connected with a skipped gradient: the student experiences confusion, or a sort of reeling sensation.
The way to handle a skipped gradient is to go back and find the last action the student could do well, and spend some more time strengthening that skill. Note that the trick is to go back to BEFORE the point where the student started to struggle, as there will be an earlier missed skill or datum that is causing the difficulty. The best description I ever heard that sums up this principle was from a seminar leader who said, "When it becomes difficult, find the simplicity you missed." It may be that the student has to practise Exercise 1 a few times or a hundred times more before he is ready for Exercise 2. But it will be worth the work put in and the time spent, because the student is building up a solid foundation of skill.
It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to work at the basics when tackling a new subject or activity.
The next barrier to comprehension is bypassing definitions which were not understood, or inadequately understood.
People are often not as literate as they think they are. It seems counter-intuitive, but from my experience as a course supervisor, usually the more educated the person, the more likely he is to over-estimate his level of literacy. I have had native English-speaking doctors, accountants and teachers in my courses who could not give precise definitions of basic vocabulary words. Virtually none of them had ever been gotten into the habit of using a dictionary during their formal education.
Words which the student cannot define exactly cause a vast array of physical and mental symptoms. Count Alfred Korzybski, in his works on General Semantics, noted that reading past inadequately defined or undefined words (hereinafter called "misunderstood words" or "misunderstoods" for the purpose of brevity) caused physiological and psychological responses, and argued that it is crucial to fully understand every word in a text.
The first phenomenon of the misunderstood word is as follows. When reading on past a such a word without getting it adequately defined, the text immediately following that word becomes a blank in the student's memory, because the student's attention is still unconsciously stuck on the earlier word. This explains why most people have had the experience of reading to the end of a page or chapter and not being able to recall anything they just read.
This would also go a long way towards explaining why "speed reading" does not work. Speed reading courses spend a large percentage of the instruction time coaching students on the physical actions of moving their fingers and eyes over the page in order to increase reading speed, but there is nothing in these courses which explains how to simultaneously increase the student's understanding. Speed reading gurus are fond of selling the idea of speed reading by pointing out the correlation between reading speed and comprehension. Their interpretation of this correlation however is backwards. Reading speed and comprehension are indeed linked, but this is because people who understand what they are reading automatically tend to read faster than those who are struggling with the material. The way to achieve greater comprehension is to read carefully and clear up any vocabulary, symbols etc. that need to be cleared up as the student goes along. Unless the text is very easy, or relatively unimportant, attempting to "speed read" is a sure way to stack up many misunderstood words, which will be more difficult to go back and find later, as the student will have read very much further on in the text at high speed.
When a person's misunderstood words are not found and cleared up, there is a second phenomenon which occurs. The mind's solution to something which is not understood is to attempt to separate from it. Once this happens, the student may feel justified in committing large or small misdeeds against the more general area. (Did you ever wonder why there is so much vandalism and bullying in schools?) Eventually, the student may drop out of the course or choose to give up on the subject altogether. In our modern society, where leaving school before a certain age may be against the law, or where social pressures are brought to bear on the student not to give up on his or her studies, physically leaving may not be an option. The mind has its own way of responding to this enforced continuation of the subject. The student rotely memorises material which can be dutifully repeated on an exam paper, or stand up under questioning, such as on a class pop quiz. However, the student remains mentally detached from the material, which although it seems to be understood by the student by all appearances, it in fact has been superficially memorised and is not known well enough for the person to actually apply the data in a live situation. Hence you get students who get A+ on their exams but cannot transfer their theoretical "understanding" to the real world. People who study many subjects but never do anything with the information have misunderstoods that were blocking their comprehension to the point that they could not, or were not willing to attempt to, get a practical result.
Some authors tell you to disregard the words you don't know or are unsure of, and try to work them out from the context before continuing! Tony Buzan in his books on brainpower and study makes this mistake, and even Marilyn Vos Savant gives this same piece of erroneous advice in her Brainpower book. This is probably because these authors, being themselves very literate people, seem unable to put themselves in the position of the average student, who is more likely to run into difficulty with words and vocabulary than a professional author. Buzan also runs professional study skills seminars, but he clearly hasn't observed or grasped what happens in the student's mind when he/she bypasses a misunderstood word.
The physiological and mental phenomena caused by misunderstood words are manifold. They include blankness (as mentioned above), feeling of being mentally absent or daydreaming, anxiety or nervousness, or doing inappropriate actions owing to having developed a wrong idea of what is to be done.
When a student feels tired, sleepy or dopey while studying, this is an indication that he or she has sufficient undefined words that his/her attempt to grasp the subject has been blocked. A student usually wants to learn and get a result. A person whose goal or objective has been thwarted can feel tired because of this. Hence the student, whose learning goal has been prevented because of insufficient vocabulary to grasp the material enters this phenomenon. Many times I have taken a sleepy student, carefully picked over the words in the references they were reading, helped them clear them up with a suitable dictionary, and had them bright and alert before the course period was over.
A person who has a limited vocabulary and has many misunderstood definitions will be very, very stupid. In fact, a person's vocabulary is key to their performance on many types of tests of ability.
A common problem is for students to assume that words only need to be cleared when he or she has a completely wrong definition, or no definition at all. A student can have a partial definition for a word, an invented definition, a definition that is related in some way but isn't accurate, a different definition that doesn't fit the context, confuse it with a word that sounds the same, attempt to define a word in terms of its synonyms, or simply reject the proper definition for the word outright because of some unpleasant emotional association. It is easy for a student to think that such terms are understood, and yet still have difficulty.
Sometimes, despite applying the data on the barriers to comprehension as above, a student can still have difficulty understanding and applying the data, and this can be tracked down to having acquired earlier false data regarding the subject the student is trying to study. What happens here is that either the student tries to assemble a synthesis in his mind of the two conflicting facts - which turns out to be crazy and inapplicable - or his ability to think in that area simply freezes up and does not function.
Where a person doesn't seem to understand the on-the-job training or can't be educated on a subject, is not grasping or understanding the material he has studied or is incapable of applying them correctly even after word clearing on the materials, is rejecting the data he is learning or the definitions of words being cleared, you know or suspect that the person has studied earlier materials on the subject at hand, that could contain incorrect data, he quotes such sources repeatedly and has a hard time with data at hand, is afraid of actually applying the data, even after word clearing, is being superficial with the data, is bogged, or just can't think with the data, there is a very strong possibility that you are looking at a student with false data.
There is a procedure which enables the student to inspect his own beliefs about the subject and track false data down to its source. This is known as false data stripping.
A student can have trouble with a subject when its purpose is not being made clear to the student. I believe a prime example of a subject that is taught this way habitually is mathematics. Young students are taught basic arithmetical operations without having it explained why they need to know, or that arithmetic belongs to the greater science known as mathematics which has many real-life applications. Later, those same students are presented with such topics as geometry and algebra, which the school curriculum assumes they are now "ready" to learn, having covered basic arithmetic, but again without being told what those calculations are actually for or what mathematics really is or does.
Again, in my experience it is the very strongly visual-spatial learner who suffers from this approach to teaching. Those students with a primarily auditory-sequential learning style are more likely to be able to cope with merely following instructions. The former, however, tend to be the students who really NEED to grasp the purpose of the subject as a central concept on which to peg the details.
The matter of "too long a runway" gives us a simple rule - that the longer the runway, the more chances the student has to fail. Where education becomes a conveyor-belt system, where having a sheepskin is more important than what the student has actually learned, and bureaucracy insists on having the boxes checked for all the "prerequisite" levels and extra bells and whistles, it is possible that many students end up having to invest time and money in courses that have nothing to do with their core areas of interest and merely serve to add time and expense to the training. It is very possible that many students who have had to drop out of higher education on financial grounds may have gotten through their training had they been catered to by means of a course more tailor-made to what they actually needed to know.
And then there are the courses which are so user-unfriendly it begs the question whether they were actually designed to put the student off. There are teachers and materials which constantly warn the student, "Don't do this", "Don't do that", to the point where it is a wonder anyone who takes the course actually ends up doing anything at all. There are courses and books which include material which has no possible use or relevance to the skills supposedly being taught, yet the student is flunked if he can't repeat such pedantry on an exam paper. There are books and materials which include terms or symbols which aren't defined anywhere, but the student is still expected to understand it. The only thing that can be done when encountering such material or such a teaching approach is to realise that the subject is being taught suppressively, and find a course or materials that present the material in a more student-friendly fashion.
TEACHING STUDENTS OF VARYING ABILITIES
Because of its strict methodology, this study technology is ideal for teaching to students of all abilities and educational attainments to improve their ability to study.
The particularly uneducated (or mis-educated) will particularly benefit from its gradient approach, its relation of abstract concepts to the real world, and its insistence on clearing up vocabulary, in which they will usually be found to be particularly weak.
However, this method of study and teaching is just as much a boon to the gifted, as many of them may have fallen through the educational gaps due to lack of challenge in their early schooling. Gifted students may have failed to acquire good work habits, failed to learn to persist or learn from their mistakes. Part and parcel of this methodology is the use of a checksheet: a document listing out all the items to be studied and practical exercises to undertake in the exact order they are to be done. This has the advantage that the more able students can study faster than the rest of the class if they so wish. Because students are expected to have mastered each piece of theory material and practical exercise before moving onto the next study item on the course, it teaches the student a high level of personal study discipline which the student can easily transfer to other types of courses. Learning to apply the barriers to comprehension means that bright students are able to take responsibility for their own learning situation, recognise when they have grasped something and when it requires more work, and to apply the right gradient for their own abilities.
USE AND APPLICATIONS OF THE GSR METER AS A STUDY TOOL
As a study aid, the GSR meter is used chiefly to locate misunderstood words and inspect/reject false data.
The process of clearing up misunderstood words and symbols in a dictionary, grammar book or other reference book is called "word clearing". Students are taught to find and clear their misunderstood words as they go along without being reliant on the meter, however, students who have become stuck or bogged down, or are just simply not doing well in their studies, find word clearing performed on the meter by an expert word clearer to be extremely effective at handling the specific difficulty and getting them moving again.
Just as emotionally charged areas in counselling or psychotherapy register on the meter, so do misunderstood words.
Most people have been encouraged from an early age to suppress the normal reactions to reading words which do not make sense to them. The student is encouraged by the teacher to attempt to sound out the pronunciation of the word, and if he/she can pronounce it correctly, the teacher rarely checks for comprehension of that word, but instead prompts the student to continue reading. Dictionaries are rarely introduced as a classroom tool until several years later, by which juncture the young student will inevitably have already stacked up many misunderstood words during the course of their schooling. (My own primary school promoted dictionaries purely as a resource for looking up spellings.)
When a person reads a sentence containing a misunderstood word, that portion of the text cannot be encoded into concepts and pictures by the mind. This causes the area of text immediately following to literally become a blank area - the person cannot recall it, because it was never adequately encoded into a concept. This blank area generates sufficient protest in the mind of the individual to register on the meter. Usually this will show up as a fall, which can be taken up by the word clearer.
There are methods of using the meter to clear up specific areas of material with which the student is currently having trouble. An easy method is to direct the student's attention to specific portions of text and questioning them about possible difficulties while watching for reactions on the meter.
Obviously, the student would need to have studied through the materials first. The word clearer would check to make sure the student's study resources are complete, to ensure that any confusion would not have occurred from missing materials. The word clearer would ask the student to look over a manageable sized portion of text (paragraph, page, chapter or whatever), and ask questions such as did the student not understand something, have a confusion, couldn't apply the data etc. The word clearer would vary the questions. The point of this is to find the exact area(s) where the student was having the trouble.
Once such an area is located, the word clearer would ask if there was a misunderstood word just before that. Meter needle reactions can be used to help steer the student onto the word. If a fall appears on the question, this can obviously be taken up, but it may be necessary to look for little patterns or ticks that can be used to "steer" the student's attention onto the word. When found, the word can then be cleared up in a good dictionary. Just as when the meter is used for counselling purposes, the word clearer would be looking to take each word cleared to a floating (free) needle to signal a good point.
As with any word clearing done on the meter, it is possible that after clearing a word, no free needle is seen. When this occurs, the student may have another misunderstood, or possibly a whole chain of misunderstoods, that are similar in some way to the current word in question. The word clearer would ask the student if there is an earlier similar misunderstood word. Again, a fall on the question, or the use of meter steering, can be used to help direct the student's attention as he searches his own recall for such a word. This is cleared in the dictionary in the usual way, and once a free needle is achieved, the words touched upon while going down the chain can be checked to ensure that they too produce a free needle. It is not unusual while following a word chain to find that the student also has earlier misunderstandings of grammar terms and even gaps in his basic subject knowledge which will have to be cleared up using grammar books, encyclopedias or other appropriate resources.
Another method is to have the student read aloud from the text while watching for reads, which can then be followed up and cleared in the dictionary. However, experience has shown that unless the student has had their prior education very thoroughly worked over with word clearing, the meter may read on everything and anything due to the sheer amount of earlier misunderstoods, and so it may not be helpful to use the read aloud method until the person's earlier education has been cleared up to a thorough result.
The recovery of prior education word clearing is in fact done under the discipline of a metered counselling procedure, even though the purpose of it is to clear words, rather than dig into the person's case. This procedure constitutes a thorough overhaul of both subjects encountered in the person's formal education, plus any other subjects he/she may have been involved in personally or professionally. Once started, it must be completed to a thorough result. It can take several full days or a couple of weeks of work, depending on the quantity of subjects and words found, and is not a quick fix solution. Students can pair up and run this procedure on each other, on a turn-about basis.
The method is as follows. A standard list of common subjects, plus any additional subjects which the word clearer writes down in advance which he/she knows the student has studied, is read out to the student while watching for and noting down reads. After this prepared list is completed, the student is also invited to name any further subjects which he/she has studied which have not been included on the list so far. The word clearer would also look for reads on these subjects as the student named them.
Starting with the subject that gave the largest read, the word clearer would proceed to ask the student for misunderstood words to do with that subject. These would be fully cleared up using dictionaries, encyclopedias and any other necessary reference materials. Earlier and earlier words in the subject would be located and cleared up within the subject until the student made a statement to the effect that he felt good about the subject, accompanied by a free needle. This would signalize the completion of that subject, and the next largest reading subject on the list would be taken up.
It sometimes occurs that the student will run out of answers without reaching the point of feeling good about the subject. In this instance, the word clearer would ask for an earlier subject and then proceed to find and clear the misunderstoods to do with the earlier subject. Subjects can be taken earlier until the desired result is achieved.
Once each reading subject on the original list had been cleared up, the list is reassessed, with any reading subjects being taken up and handled per the above. This is done until a free needle is observed, with no further reads being produced, on the entire list. This is the end point of this procedure.
My own opinion and observation is that once all the misunderstood words have been removed from a person's earlier education, it may be important to allow the student to restudy that subject to a full result. I have observed a type of "informational hunger" setting in, which can invalidate the gains from the word clearing, when the student is not permitted to revisit the subject afresh and go over part or all of it from the viewpoint of their new-found understanding.
Sometimes under training, a person chronically alters some data or instructions. The GSR meter can be used to find the misunderstood word which is causing the person to have strange ideas about what is to be done. The person can be gently asked about the area of the alteration, and meter reads used to trace down the word that occurred before that.
Occasionally, a person will have such a key misunderstood word that it actually causes them to come to a crashing halt regarding more than one aspect of life. They are named "crashing" misunderstoods. It is possible to use the GSR meter to locate these words, even though quite a bit of hunting and digging around may be necessary to find it.
Another use is in the removal of false data. A person can have trouble studying when they have encountered too many pieces of incorrect information in the past. An example might be a person who has been taught the rules of grammar too rigidly by an authoritarian teacher. Later, while taking a creative writing class, the student cannot grasp examples of where those rules may be broken for dramatic or literary effect, such as the split infinitive in "to boldly go..." One of two things will be likely to happen. Either he will create an unworkable synthesis to try and deal with the cognitive dissonance caused by the conflicting facts, or his ability to think on the subject will simply lock up. Either way, the student requires a procedure known as false data stripping to get to the bottom of what is causing the confusion.
A series of questions are asked of the student, to enquire whether there is anything on the subject at hand that he couldn't think with, had no use for, etc. These questions can be used to track down areas of possible false data. When the person offers up such an area of confusion, the word clearer would ask if he had been given any false data regarding that.
A simple recall technique is used to ensure that the student has fully examined and mentally released ("blown") the false datum, i.e. where it came from, where the involved parties were, what they were doing etc. It is interesting to note that when a false datum first surfaces, it actually might not read on the meter, because the student believes it to be true. Other meter phenomena, such as a high skin resistance or a tight, unresponsive needle may be present. A datum that didn't flush up during one round of false data stripping may surface on a subsequent attempt, because false data tends to come off in layers, like an onion.
After the person has blown all the available false data to do with the subject, it is important to get them to study the true data to do with the subject, to ensure that they fully grasp what is the correct data. A simple textbook, encyclopedia entry, machine manual, or educational video usually suffices.
FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
Testimonies to IQ increases after doing word clearing could be located online at the time of writing, but no actual test data were provided.
I propose that it would be worthwhile making an extensive study of the above mentioned techniques, with before and after testing, on quantities of students.
© Gwyneth Wesley Rolph 2010
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