achievement

Learning how to learn

Let’s talk about learning.

As part of an Online Tutoring course I’m doing at work, I’ve been reading an article by a postgraduate student about their experiences of writing a critical review. The article discusses the author’s struggles to figure out what was expected, and how to meet those expectations.

Sometimes, when studying (and elsewhere), it seems that figuring things out by your self is viewed as the most worthy way to do things. I don’t mean literature – I’m not sure that anyone would argue against getting up to date with existing research on a subject before conducting your own experiments. I mean the process of learning.

Learning is a continual process. I don’t think for a moment that learning is something that is done once, and repeated a couple of times to hammer a point home. Learning is constant.

Why on earth don’t we spend more time teaching people how to learn? Not in a strict, dictatorial way. More in a “teach people how to teach themselves” sort of way. I feel that this is something that should be built into any situation where the main objective is to learn (in this case, a PhD). Before we can get on with learning about our subject, we need to learn how to learn.

Certain things just seemed to be assumed knowledge. There isn’t a list of what these are. It’s just knowledge that you are supposed to have gathered at some point. Let’s just think about the processes of reading and writing, and what we’re expected to know, or to develop.

Reading: How to…

  • Search for what you need to find out
  • Get hold of the article or book
  • Take notes
  • Read for maximum efficiency
  • Know whether an article will be relevant
  • Interpret an article critically
  • Understand what reported stastics mean
  • Use what you’ve learned in your own research
  • Use software to keep track of everything you’ve read, and everything you intend to read

Writing: How to…

  • Know where to start
  • Write drafts
  • Develop your own academic style/voice
  • Proof-read
  • Structure your thoughts
  • Structure your thesis!
  • Know which word processing software to use
  • Format your document in accordance with university guidelines
  • Manage your references

That’s nowhere near a comprehensive list, and it only starts to cover reading and writing. There are also less tangible things such as time management, which I’ve talked about in some other posts. Yes, expectations will differ between country, university, and even department, but these are general things that many PhD students will need to know. To put this post in context, I’m a social science student at a UK university. And we do have courses on some of these things.

But I want to think bigger. Perhaps each university could write one, giant, comprehensive list of what students are expected to know. Even the tiny things, like how to logon to the university computers. And how they can learn to do each of these things. These could be tailored by each school, or department. And then each individual student could look at the list, and figure out what they still need to learn.

Then we could all make our own learning plan at the beginning of our PhDs. We could split it down into chunks. There would be a lot of chunks. But it’d be easier to know where you stood. There’d be a template for your learning.

What do you think? Is the process of figuring out “how to learn” integral to the PhD journey? Is the sense of achievement from learning greater if it’s done from scratch (a bit like cooking)?. Does getting support in these areas feel like “cheating”? I’d argue “no”, but I’d love to hear any views on the matter. Let me know in the comments section.

Advertisements

Ladder 1 Rung 3: Reviewing tasks

In this “ladder” (or series) of blog posts, I’m talking about how I’m trying to make my PhD more like a video game. I have always responded well to structured, achievable tasks, and the lack of these has been really difficult for me during my PhD so far.

This ladder is looking at the short bursts of achievement that video games can give you. As such, the focus is identifying, scheduling, and reviewing tasks. There are 3 “rungs” (or steps) to the ladder, with one blog post for each rung.

In the first rung, I talked about how to identify tasks using to do lists and free writing.

The second rung covered how to schedule those tasks, whether using a pad of paper, a diary or calendar, or a task management app like Producteev.

In this, the third rung, I’ll be discussing how to review your progress with the tasks you set.

Please note…

After the first and second rungs (where you’ll have identified and scheduled your tasks), you need to actually attempt the tasks you’ve set. I would usually set tasks for one week, and set a time at the end of the week to review the past week and identify and schedule tasks for the next week.

So to make full use of this post, it’s a good idea if you’ve already identified, scheduled, and attempted your first set of tasks (say, a week’s worth).

Ready?

  1. Do you have your list of tasks, and the times you scheduled them for? I tend to have these in a file in Scrivener from when I was identifying and scheduling the tasks.
  2. Has it been a week (or however long you scheduled your tasks for) since you scheduled those tasks?
  3. Do you have a way of writing things down? I use Scrivener for this too, because it means that it’s easy for me to have my “identify” and “review” files open next to each other using “split view”, and refer to both

Let’s go!

Use whatever method you’ve chosen (pad of paper, Word, Open Office, Scrivener…) to write words to make three headings

  1. Tasks you completed
  2. Tasks you started but didn’t finish
  3. Tasks you didn’t start

For each of the tasks you’d identified and scheduled for the week, choose which heading fits best. Then, write the task under that heading with a gap between each task (you’ll be writing more in those gaps).

Have you done that for all of your tasks?

Next, under each task write:

  1. A sentence or two about the task (when you did it, whether you encountered any problems, what you found or achieved)
  2. Why you think you managed to/didn’t manage to complete it.

For me, point 2 is the most important part of this rung, and one of the most important parts of the whole ladder.

Look at your reasons for completion or lack thereof. Are there any themes within the headings? Write them down!

To give you an idea, I’m going to share some of the patterns from my first review session.

1) Tasks you completed

Things tended to get done if they were:

  • Manageable
  • Specific
  • Scheduled
  • Urgent

In my first week (and in following weeks), most of my completed tasks were done during a writing session with a friend. That’s one session in the week. If this working pattern sounds familiar to you, I highly recommend this blog post from the Thesis Whisperer.

It’s easy to view the rest of the week as a failure, or write-off, but instead I’m trying to try and focus on the achievement of that one very productive session, and to figure out how to replicate it

2) Tasks you started, but didn’t finish

This mainly happened with tasks where the criteria for completion were unclear.  I started using the “measure for success” heading when identifying tasks as a way of combatting this problem.

3) Tasks you didn’t start

With me, these were mostly because I was ill or tired, or other things came up. “Tasks I didn’t start” seemed to be due to unforeseen circumstances. It’s also possible to have a high amount of tasks in this list if you overestimated the amount of time you’d have, or underestimated the time it would take you to do the tasks.

Once you’ve done that, think about ways you might replicate the conditions that helped you to complete these tasks. If you’re interested in the idea of improving a situation by embracing the positive rather than banishing the negative, appreciative inquiry is a research approach that draws on this. As my research focuses on improving healthcare, I’m also including this abstract for a paper which uses appreciative inquiry in a healthcare context.

In my first review session, mine were

  1. Set immovable work sessions (this was because my writing-with-friend session was so successful)
  2. Acknowledge when it’s a busy week, and set fewer tasks accordingly
  3. Set specific tasks, and incorporate a “measure for success”
  4. Have contingency plans in place (this and the previous bulletpoint were addressed by adding the “measure for success” and “backup plan” headings in the identification phase)

If you review your tasks each week, and schedule the next batch of tasks at the same time, you’ll start to get a good idea of:

  1. What time of day is best for you
  2. What working environment is best for you
  3. How much time you can devote to these tasks
  4. How long it takes you to get things done
  5. What stops you from getting things done

And that’s the end of this ladder. Well done, you reached the top!

I’d really like to write more posts on improving productivity by taking hints from video games. If you have any requests or ideas, please let me know in the comments section. You can also use the comments section to say nice things, let me know if you’ve found these posts helpful, or if you have any suggestions.

PhD or RPG: The game of self-directed study

An RPG is a type of video game. I like video games. I also like my PhD. But I like them in different ways.

My PhD gives me a sort of holistic, long-term, feeing of achievement. Deep down, in a gentle way.

Video games give me short term burst of achievement. I won the race. I completed the level. Even shorter? I nailed that corner. I beat that enemy. I’ve loved video games for a long time, but I hadn’t put my finger on why until recently. Party it’s because it’s cognitively engaging. It’s one of the only activities I can do where my brain is really distracted from PhD  thoughts. Partly, it’s because it’s emotionally engaging. The story, the music, and the gameplay suck you in, and you feel like you’re in another world.

But partly it’s because of these short bursts of achievements. I’ve always responded well to short, challenging but achievable tasks.

I loved the learning part of school (as you can imagine, I wasn’t that popular…) because of the short, achievable goals.

I found my undergraduate degree more difficult. There were still objectives, which was good, but I could make more decisions for myself. There were more things that could go wrong. I burned out, and took a couple of years away from study. I went to a temping agency and asked for an admin job where I didn’t need previous experience and I could be given tasks to complete. I didn’t realise that I had identified (possibly for the first time) my preferred working style.

I did that job for a few months, and found that these tasks and bursts worked for me. It was a bit problematic in that job – I worked like a fiend. I finished everything. There was nothing left to do (for the day…). There was nothing to do. I wasn’t allowed to read. I was reported to my boss for playing solitaire. I didn’t have internet access apart from for specific, work-related sites.

So I learned how to tune out. And then the work would build up. And then I’d blitz it. And then I’d have nothing to to do. So I’d tune out.

Rather than identifying this as another signpost to my preferred working style, I struggled with it. Tussled with it.

My Masters degree was similar. It was taught, so had a similar amount of structure to my Bachelors degree, but a bit more choice. I could choose how to spend my time. It was hard to find work to do at the beginning of the course, so I tuned out, and spent my time replaying Zelda: The Ocarina of Time on my N64 and working doing first line IT support, both of which involved short tasks and quick achievement (apart from the Water Temple, which is a notoriously lengthy part of that video game).

And now, I’m doing my PhD, a very self-directed project. I’ve found it really fun, but really difficult. In my first year I was tired all the time. I had a normal routine (in my opinion), and was getting eight hours of sleep every night. But I was exhausted. I went to the sleep clinic in Edinburgh, where they strapped wires to me and watched me sleep. But there was nothing wrong (despite my awesome theory about alpha brain waves interrupting my sleep). And it was then that I started to realise that the problem was engagement. And achievement. I wasn’t ill. I was bored. Stressed, and bored. I took an interruption of studies for three months, and came back.

That was a year ago. My year has been more structured – organising studies rather than undirected reading and writing. But I’ve still been stressed. Less bored, but still stressed, and sometimes a bit lost.

Why?

I’ve only just recognised it, this small, sharp-toothed monster that’s been dragging along at the bottom of my jeans. I’ve been feeling guilty that my working patterns don’t match other people’s. How has this happened? I like being different. I usually embrace this. But to me, having a different working style equates with sucking (colloquially, not literally).

People have prescribed a certain amount of hours that you should devote to your PhD each week. 40 hours a week is what I’ve been told. 40 hours a week means that you don’t have to feel guilty in the other hours of the week, and that you will get you work done.

The amount of hours a week that I work on my PhD vary. I have a job 2 days a week (doing technology training, which is more self-directed than my previous job). But I’m trying to set myself tasks and do them. And then feel the achievement.

And I can get so much work done that way.

And so I’m just going to say what seems to be taboo:

It is not about how many hours you work. It is about how you spend your time when you are working.

I feel inferior to friends who work in the office from 9-5. This is my own doing, none of them have ever made me feel bad about it. So I am identifying my working style, my strengths and weaknesses.

It is a strength that I can do things quickly. It is sometimes difficult that I work best in short bursts. But a PhD is the time to harness this, because I am in control of my own time, as described by Ben from Literature HQ in a recent Thesis Whisperer blog post.

So I’ve been turning my PhD into a game.

For the past six weeks I’ve been setting myself weekly tasks, and when I aim to complete those tasks. It has helped enormously. The tasks have evolved, and become increasingly specific.

So, continuing the Zelda comparison, rather than “complete the water temple”, it’s narrowed down to  “find the next silver key“, to “hookshot over to the door”, “beat the enemies in that room”.

Or in writing terms, it started with “design my study”, and narrowed down to “scan literature about physiological measures”. Now it’s “email C regarding her physiologist friend”, “do a Google search for ‘measurement windows pulse rate'”, “read the abstract of five of the results that come up”, “if any are relevant, read protocol, if not repeat search”, and so I’ve broken my PhD into small morsels of achievement. And I feel good. It makes me want to keep going.

My aim is to make my PhD the thing that I just want to keep doing until the next save point, because the achievement is so tantalising. It’s easy to keep working because you feel guilty that you’re not doing enough. But to keep working because it’s fun? To get enough done in those sessions that I can block out time for the rest of my life?

That’s my goal. What do you think? Do you find yourself playing video games instead of your research? Does the 9-5 work pattern sit badly with you? Do you have any tips for how to manage expectations of a certain working style? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below….