Importance of Focus

Lenses
Getting focus right...

It’s been a while since I last written something on studying; recently I observed how some students take a long time to study. Obviously, many of these people spend substantial amount of time plainly staring at pieces of information, occasionally reading through them with a tiny bit of appreciation and often not quite understanding what they are studying anyways. Computer gaming, and loads of interactive stuff online coupled with consistent television watching has reduced our attention span significantly and impaired our abilities to focus.

So to improve how you study as well as your concentration, you might like to try a few of the following:

Plan Revision & Stick to it
The first step to keeping focusing is having a good, realistic plan. Without a plan, when we decide that we’re going to study, we’ll often just lay out the books and stare at words, possibly read a little and then zone out. When we don’t have a plan that dictates specifically what we are going to study and for how long, we’ll often just drift about the different materials we have, not doing anything eventually. So come up with a proper plan, noting down what topics for what subject you’ll be studying and for how long. Give yourself breaks between topics and when you’re executing your plan, make sure you follow through and only skip the breaks if you believe you can continue. If you find yourself needing more or less time than planned, adjust your plans accordingly. Don’t tire yourself out if you are fast with your studying; reward yourself with a longer play time or break when you finish early.

Find a Good Site
Some people just can’t study at home. I’m not exactly such a person but many people around me are like that. The problem is when there’s people familiar around you, you’d be tempted to eavesdrop their conversation, observe what they are doing – in other words, doing everything else except the task at hand. This happens less (at least at a lower intensity) when it comes to having strangers around you, unless you’re really busybody. Studying outside might be a better option; Starbucks is pretty friendly with studying people, especially the more remote branches, The Coffee Bean is not.

Media White-out
For those who can’t even withstand a bit of distraction will need to try a boycott of media and other attention-seeking stuff. Turn off your TV, radio, computer for a pre-designated time that follows from your study plan. Do not allow yourself to use the computer or those devices even when you’re taking a break. Limit distractions to nuts, snacks, and drinks without digital or analog devices that produces visuals or audio. These people might realise they’ll be better off staying at home and paying their family to get out of the house. Of course, once you’re done with whatever you need to accomplish, you can get back to the stuff you like to do so that they act as a reward for your efforts.

A measure of self-awareness is necessary to help you with this; knowing how your mind gets distracted and what it is easily distracted by will help you attain focus through the elimination of these distractions. It sounds like a pretty simple concept but people usually don’t take steps to help themselves concentrate. Instead, they wait around for their moods to come or the distractions to go away; if you want to make any progress at all, you’ll have to start taking charge of how you waste your time.

Chemistry Notes!

I’m not sure if this is long awaited, but ERPZ finally started a Chemistry Notes Section! I guess everyone would be more grateful if this was up a couple of months back when people are preparing for A Levels. Well, I haven’t found Zhuoyi’s website then and I was unsure about my handwritten notes then. So now, there’s only 2 sets of notes available, one kindly shared by Zhuoyi, which I’ve consolidated and reformatted into a single document. I might soon put up individual links to each set of Zhuoyi’s notes if readers are interested.

The other set is by me; it’s mostly handwritten with typed pages here and there. For those who might be interested, I’ve added a set of handwritten instructions on how you can make use of your Graphic Calculator’s statistics functions to perform calculations for reaction kinetics at the last few page of the document.

Enjoy Learning!

More Economics Notes!

Free Lunch!
Free Lunch!

Just a couple of days back, I was searching for Economics essay questions just for fun and I stumbled upon Fiveless, an initiative by Zhuoyi from RJC 2 years ago when he was doing A Levels. It was a site with a wonderful array of materials for various subjects. Since Zhuoyi actually took A Levels the same time as me, I was kind of disturbed by the fact that I hadn’t stumble upon this site earlier when I was preparing for my exams. But there’s a chance that if that had happened, I wouldn’t have started ERPZ, thinking that someone else has already took up the job.

In any case, I wrote to Zhuoyi to inform him that I would like to consolidate the materials he has so nicely done up and make them available on ERPZ; he kindly agreed and I’m glad to push out the first set of materials that resulted from this ‘collaboration’. It’s a set of 40-page economics notes, summaries and cheat sheets. I’ve updated some of the statistics Zhuoyi has compiled in the notes, altered the formatting slightly to give a more consistent look, added content pages (that are frankly pretty much for the sake of cosmetics) and added very minimal of economics content. I hope I can find time to fill in the gaps because I’m aware that the notes lack content on some topics required in A Levels, but for now, it’s already pretty impressive. The link is also available under Economics Section.

All credit goes to Zhuoyi who’ve made such a great set of notes and generously shared them online under the Creative Commons Remix License. Anyone interested in building upon the work I’ve continued can leave a comment to request for a editable document version of the file from me.

Holding Ideas

All at the same time...
All at the same time...

Some students struggle with social sciences and humanities like Economics, Geography and History because they think they can’t hold two contradictory ideas at the same time and not take a side. Economist are somewhat famous for being able to do that and often criticized for being that way. As a matter of fact, humans are remarkably capable of doing that; we overrate our consistency of thought and the need for ideas that don’t contradict. When we demand scientific proofs for certain claims yet openly express faith in certain religious claims, we’re adopting contradictory frameworks of proof.

The reason why these subjects require that we hold contradictory ideas or for us to withhold judgment of these ideas is the lack of a proper quantitative approach to evaluating them. We might be able to come up with pros and cons but we are unable to assign a positive figure to denote the value and significance of the pro and a corresponding negative figure for a con and then evaluate them in an accounting matrix that will tell you which is better and how much better. Any attempts at that will be subjective and arbitrary anyways. As a result, it is important that students of these subjects hold on to them without judging but maintain the ability to dissect and analyse these ideas, zoom into certain features and investigate different aspects of it when necessary. More importantly, we’ll have to master our language and internalize the nuances of the typical jargons used in the field to discuss these observations we make.

As humans, we will definitely have preferences for some explanation over others as well as some outcomes over others and this is a reason behind all the disputes that social scientist usually have with each other, including high profile ones by economists. And worst, unlike sciences where there are experiments everyone can agree on to check their ideas and theories to discover ‘the truth’, the search for truths in social sciences have often ended in vain because of the dynamic nature of the field. Scientists might not agree before a discovery is confirmed (Linus Pauling, a super-Nobel laureate with 3 Nobel prizes famously believed that DNA’s structure should be a Triple Helix) but once it is confirmed, we find little delusional souls continuing with their false beliefs unless they are ignorant of the confirmation. Economics had its share of control experiments that happened in the world, often by chance. Unfortunately, they can never be repeated perfectly and their results are never agreed upon by experts in the field.

This is not to say that the subjects offer little value to the world; in fact the dynamic nature of these fields mean that there is always questions to answer and things to explore readily. And that is why we need more people to be able to hold different ideas at the same time and have different opinions on the same issue under different sort of circumstances and be able to see the world this way.

To Read, or Not

It sometimes appear to me amazing how highly people think of textbooks and course books. It makes me feel like writing one; perhaps one that teaches people when they should be using their textbooks. A textbook is basically course material that is used to teach you on a subject and when you have learnt about the stuff, there’s little need to do a wholesale revisit, unless you’re confident you’ve forgotten everything.

Why should you torture yourself by relearning everything you learnt and frustrating yourself with some minor definition deviations your memory have insisted upon and trying to ‘re-memorize’ the ‘right definition’? And more importantly, if you can learn the subject or whatever you’re trying to learn without a textbook, why bother to get one?

A textbook has a couple of main uses, some of which concerns the students and others are mainly preoccupations of teachers and textbook writers. The functions students are usually concerned about are explanation and representations while those teachers are interested is includes those, and in addition, the standardization function. It’s not difficult to see why this is so, students are hoping to learn something from the textbook; the explanations helps them understand and possibly provide them a means of explaining the concepts to themselves and others while the representation gives students a means of expressing the ideas and concept on paper (ie allowing them to take exams).

The teachers would love textbooks for those two facts since they relieve them somewhat of their teaching responsibilities but more importantly, it helps them standardize what their students learn and cope with queries that they might have. This is especially important for more contentious issues in the subject that has yet to be resolved by experts and the syllabus prescribes some default stand on the matter for time being.

As a student, one should see the textbook more as a guide than an authority and use it accordingly. Going through it once and understanding the concepts one seeks to master is basically all that the textbook should offer. A slow learner might revisit it a couple of times to grasp a concept or to master the explanations fully; and occasionally one could browse through it as a reference for the way they represent certain information (in the form of diagrams, charts and such) but it is difficult to gain anything more than that on repeated revisits to the textbook.

The ideal usage of a textbook is to synthesize the stuff from different sources together with it on your notes and chucking them aside when you’re doing your revision – rely just on your personal notes (those that aggregate information from your readings of textbooks, your prescribed readings and lecture notes). Of course, this advice is more for students who revise consistently and are wholly familiar with the content which they’re sitting an exam for.

Practical Intelligence

Not Acting Smart
Not Acting Smart

I got to know about this book through a friend who was exploring topics that ranged from manipulating personality test results to acting smart in front of employers. It’s a great boon that this is not the kind of book that teaches you to act smart. Karl Albrecht writes realistically about how we can go about making ourselves more intelligent in practical situations. There are many ideas in the book I’ve thought about previously but failed to put into concrete concepts as he did. I must say Karl did a wonderful job.

Like most of the other books on thinking, Karl discusses the make-up of the brains, the way different lobes on the brain controls different stuff and how they work together in concert and then he draws some meaningful speculation on the way we think. There are many speculations which are largely unproven in neuro-sciences but are well known in the field of psychology. Never mind the actual theories, Karl shows us how they might be useful for aiding us discover our mind’s potential. He firms up the concept of ‘Affirmative Thinking’, which I think is a very important idea in our lives. We’ve cease to be gatekeepers of our mind in this media age, often pushed around, influenced by the people who are in turn controlled by others around as well as prevailing culture and fads. To accept that we are often being bombarded by thoughts and ideas of others and we often take them as if they’re our own is the first step to controlling our thinking and helping us steer ourselves towards healthy thinking and mental habits.

Karl recommends simple methods to help us regain control of our minds and direct our attention so that we can tap on our mental habits, thinking preferences and styles to aid us with daily thinking, problem-solving and just plain existing in our complex world. I’m interested in the implication of Karl’s ideas on education and learning. He has another book I’m looking forward to read, Social Intelligence, which he actually wrote before this book.