Recently, I attended two great seminars by the Brain Guy, also known as Terry Small. Terry is a lovely Canadian man who is even more lovely in my eyes since he just got an Irish passport. That’s two of my favourite nationalities in one easy-to-listen-to package.
Terry has been a teacher for many many years and now brings his amazing teaching skills and his deep knowledge of the brain to audiences in seminars in North America, Brazil, and now thankfully Japan. His rapport with the audience is superb. The first seminar that I saw was held at Nagoya International School where 125 tired parents and kids had gathered. To say that Terry has a lot of experience in keeping people awake would be a complete understatement. Through a combination of valuable information, magic tricks, interesting props, and much much more, he managed to keep us all completely alert, inspired, and informed for over two hours.
Below, in the form of nine tips for more effective study, I have summarized some of the highly useful techniques that he introduced to us.
Tip 1. Make goals, write them down, and post them somewhere that you will see them many times every day.
Large companies like Coca Cola and Nike know the effect of advertising on our brains much better than we know ourselves. That is why they are willing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to put their logos on billboards and sports players’ shirts. And we shouldn’t allow other people’s advertisements to monopolize our brain – we can also advertise to ourselves. Simply make your list of clear goals and post it next to your bed, on your fridge, or on your bathroom mirror so that you see it many times each day. Just by seeing it many times, the frontal cortex of your brain will take steps to make those goals come into reality. In addition, repeated exposure to these written goals will fulfill another bit of important advice: Never Give Up!
Tip 2. Get on your feet
When I was in secondary school (high school for the North Americans and Japanese readers), I used to learn vocabulary by pacing back and forwards across a room. Similarly, when I make an important phone call, I often find myself standing up to talk to the person. Terry explained why getting on your feet is useful. Just by standing up, the blood flow to the brain is improved, more oxygen flows, and memory is improved by 10%.
Tip 3. Learn in VAK
NLP introduced the idea of modalities–visual, auditory, and kinesthetic–and this powerful idea has spread through education, business, and many other fields. Terry explained VAK as three highways or neural tracks by which information can enter the brain. We can learn something by seeing it, hearing it, or doing it. Most people tend to have one dominant modality, but it is when we engage multiple neural tracks into the brain that we can really begin to learn more effectively. For example, running a finger across the page while you read can increase memory by 25% because it opens up the kinesthetic neural pathways. Or talking aloud while you study and engaging the auditory pathways can increase retention of the material by as much as 400%! Or taking notes as you listen to a lecture increases retention by 30% even if you never look at your notes again!
Tip 4. Questions and Answers
As Pavlov showed with his experiments with dogs, the brain can be viewed as a stimulus-response device. Give it a stimulus and it will return a certain response or behaviour. Terry is not suggesting that you study like a dog, just that you use questions as a stimulus for your brain as you study. One of his most useful suggestion for me was the use of the Cornell note taking system. In a notebook, the right-hand page is used for taking notes and the left-hand page is initially kept blank. Later, you can add questions on the left-hand page which correspond to the notes on the right. In this way, you set up a powerful stimulus-response engine for learning. The night before the test, you can practice by asking yourself the questions on the left-hand pages. In this way, you are able to “think like a teacher” and you will be well prepared for any test or situation where you need to recall the information.
Tip 5. Add Colour
Our brains like colour. In fact, our brains like all kinds of visual stimulus. If someone asks you to think of a horse, you are highly likely to see a picture of a horse in your mind rather than seeing the letters H-O-R-S-E. This is because our brains tend to think in pictures rather than words. You can make your study notes more memorable by adding colour and it also makes learning more fun. Get one of those pens with four colours. Terry recommends that you write your notes in blue on the right-hand page of your Cornell notes. Then add the questions in black on the left-hand page. You can add important notes in red because this colour has been shown to get the attention of the brain immediately, which explains why so many advertisements use red. Finally, you can use green as your own personal colour to add other things of interest.
Tip 6. Take Brain Breaks
Our concentration span is limited and that limit is age-dependent. For people over the age of 20, it’s good to take a short break every 20 minutes. For younger people, add two to your age and that’s the length of your concentration span. So for example, a ten-year-old should take a break every 12 minutes and a 15-year-old should take a break every 17 minutes, and so on. Your break doesn’t have to be long. Just 30 seconds or one minute of standing up, walking around the room, or doing some stretches can be really beneficial in giving your brain the break that it needs and allowing you to concentrate again. In the longer term, another important facilitator of effective study is to get proper sleep. Sleep is essential in the formation of long-term memories, so staying up late to study may not always be the best way to pass that exam.
Tip 7. Study Actively
When you study, you should really focus your attention on studying. In NLP, we say that “where attention goes, energy flows.” Remove distractions such as television or iPods from the room, or remove yourself to another location if necessary. By really giving the study your full attention, the retention of material increases massively.
Tip 8. Listen to Baroque Music
There is an exception to tip number 7 above. Listening to one particular type of music can be highly beneficial in studying. Many research studies have shown that baroque music with a tempo of 55-70 bpm can assist in concentration and memory retention. The music can affect the heart rate which in turn affects the circadian rhythms of the brain and can change the listener’s brainwaves from Beta (energetic state) into Alpha (relaxed state) which is more suitable for learning. Terry gives us the amusing line: “If it’s not baroque, fix it.”
Tip 9. Use Flashcards
Flashcards, or Memory & Mastery cards as Terry calls them, are an excellent way to study for exactly the same reason as the Cornell note taking system–they engage the natural stimulus-response system of the brain. By writing a cue on one side and detailed information on the other side, you can easily review a large amount of material quickly. For example, in language learning you can write English on one side and Japanese on the other. If you’re reviewing NLP processes, you can write the name of the process on one side and the details on the other side. Flashcards also have the advantages that you can change the order of the cards and carry them around easily in your pocket. I agree with Terry that flashcards or M&M cards are the number one tip for studying effectively.
I hope that you find these tips useful in your study or in helping others to learn more effectively. If you do get the opportunity to see Terry Small, the Brain Guy, take it immediately. He is an inspirational, informative, and entertaining speaker who will bring much into your life.
Copyright © 2010 by Dr. Brian Cullen,
Associate Professor, Nagoya Institute of Technology
NLP Coaching and Training