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Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Pictures on the Run: How to produce effective note-taking mind maps

One of the major problems that many students do have at university is keeping up with taking notes in class or seminars, even though many departments have notes available from the lesson online that people can read. Of course this does not compensate for what you heard in the lecture, as in many cases the words, overheads or jokes of the lecturer may in fact stimulate a new idea or tangent that may save or redirect you in the way that you want. One of the other things is that if you have dyslexia or have problems with immediate memory, or are a slow writer etc, you are side-lined the moment you walk into the classroom. Of course you can always use a tape recorder or a lap top which  of course many students do, but some lecturers can get quite snotty about those who don’t have learning differences using the items.

As we are attempting for you to reduce the amount of writing, then using mind and concept mapping, can be invaluable within a note taking environment, and rather than trying to write everything down, which you will forget or miss out important things, then adopting a more visual approach is a great way of putting down what you thought was important, especially if you cross reference this later on with the notes online or any other hand-outs.

What has worked exceptionally well, with my own students is devising a way in which these notes can be used as a tactical weapon to aid both essays and exams.  I found that students had none, or little notes, and that they did not have that extra data to assist them, which made them have to re-read their books and readings when it fact if they had gone through their notes regularly they would have just have had to have done specific reading to add that extra gleam to their knowledge on the subject.  So, it was suggested that at the end of each week or even following the class, the student would draw a mind map in a A3 pad, (or online as I have done and save it to a subject file) one sheet for each lesson, with the pad representing that course. By developing their background to the subject in this way, and looking at, even re-writing the map on a scrap piece of paper they are reinforcing as Buzan stresses, several times until it is imprinted upon your mind. The student, builds up and up, going over these maps, every week, until they have a firm grasp of the subject, but more importantly can see the path that the course takes and its interlinking junctions of theorists or issues, and new paths where these lead.

Of course, common sense tells you that if you have done this kind of note taking, and let’s be honest revision every week, then you have in fact done most of the work in preparation before the exam without trying to cram everything in. Even for once a day for 30 minutes or so as part of your days routine, then you can enjoy the Easter holidays, and one less thing to worry about. What I have constructed above is a typical mind map for notes. In this case the class was on the Spanish Civil War. The map indentifies the flow of the class, and how each of its components fit together, with an overview at the front, and then an order of the conflict, its political players etc. Along the way I have put in key aspects that were mentioned in the class, and as such these can be looked up, and if I really wanted to, a similar map could be made of these sub points. All in all, I have established a familiar pattern for myself, that makes sense, but more important it is colourful and basic enough for me to recall very quickly. It would be wise to add theorists and other writers to build this up, so that it is comprehensive. Of course the other thing to remember doing is to read this aloud back to yourself or to a colleague so that you are able to make sense of the subject, and also to help jog your own memory.

Of course as I have noted in my article on research, by watching documentaries etc again as background information on your subject you are relying less on the reading aspect of your revision and putting more emphasis upon the strong memory element, namely listening watching and drawing.  It is creating that ‘exhibition’ type learning environment answer as we can see from Dale’s cone that is the aim here. We want 60 % plus recall for this data. The drawing of mindmaps for notes comes into this holistic approach to research and recall, and your trigger on the mindmap will have more depth if you have watched lots of videos on the subject. I see my note-taking mindmap as a picture in a gallery, only you have drawn it, and the more you stare at it, the more ideas begin to sparkle in your imagination.

One of the more advantageous aspects of producing your lecture notes in this manner is that it can make it far more portable, taking the pad on the bus or into a cafe, and redrawing or adding more to the initial map. It is the mobility of this method and seeing how you are progressing by re-drawing it that of course helps to boost your confidence. Some students find that they are also increasing their study or revision time by undertaking these short moments of study, but of course it is a much more relaxed and fun way of doing it. As Peter concludes:

‘It’s all about saving time and being able to see what  you are learning, and that isn’t done very often. I am studying medicine and in fact it is a very visual subject, and goes very well with mind mapping lectures. Of course what you have when this is done is a resource to jump to, producing further mind maps and greatly enhancing key areas of those original lecture notes. You are not creating just one picture but all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle’.
 Frankenstein and Laudanum: How to Remember the contents of a book!!!

A question arose recently where a student asked me, ‘Davey, I’m dreading tomorrows English literature exam, I can’t remember anything of the books I’ve read’. I looked at my student and asked the question, ‘have you drawn the book me dear?’  To this she looked confused and shook her head.  I knew that the student was doing her course on ‘the Gothic’, and a few books such as Mary Shelly’s, Frankenstein, and Edgar Alan Poe’s ‘the Raven, so I drew a picture of Frankie boy, and then told the student to put around it all the main chapters and its contents (abridged) with anything else such as the characters etc, things that they would be expected to put in it. Off she went and with half an hour the page was full, and she was smiling. Yes, this had worked, and she then went off and started on the Raven. I also suggested that the student before tomorrow’s exam sit down and watch both the film adaptations of the books just to help her a bit more.

I always find that sometimes the more detailed the drawing, the more I have to add to these details, which drags out more data, and so forth. Of course if you number these points, you are then able to reproduce in the order, similar to the ascribing images we have used above. It is ideal for subjects like literature where you have to tackle a number of different books and these can be summarised easily through this picture system.  You can then begin to put these on your wall, and go over them in your own time. One of my students photocopied them and took them on the bus and so on, making every spare five minutes or so a chance to go over. Obviously they did very well in the exam and also found themselves also far more conversant over the book than a lot of other people. Articulating it in this well helps to be a well rounded learner, either over a cuppa with your friends, staring at mirror or doing a bit of reflective standup...’You know, if that monster, or Adam to his friends could have realised how much of an influence he would have had on technology in science-fiction writing, he would have got that bloody writer Mary Shelly to sign a royalties clause when he met her on weekend retreat for laudanum addicts at Castle Frankenstein in Darmstadt.”

Of course you don’t have wait for the exam, you can actually do this for each book that you read, watch or scan during the year and be prepared for any test that may come up or set the ground work for an essay you are preparing for. Also this can be done at any part of your education be it 12 to post-doc. By creating a journal or even a ‘scrapbook’ of such things gives you the chance to be at ease with the piece, and with only a few titles around the key theme/picture you are able to access your bits and bobs of data that much easier. You are again creating little boxes, and prompters. You are also getting into the story telling routine that all humans enjoy, and the more you use and add to this piece the more flowing the details will become. By going over these book plans you are of course taking away the strain and vacuum you have created before an exam when you have to go back and basically start again to recall information. With the cut and paste routine available with the internet, you can add pictures, lines etc, or as I have done below used Aspirations software to create my own pretty outline.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

ORDER…I SAY ORDER SIR!: Planning your week as a super learner


One of the greatest Generals was of course Napoleon, and though little in stature he made up for it in the way that he could motivate people with his ideas and vision. He was of course a darn good planner, and being able to see ahead is one of the greatest traits a strategist can have. In regards dyslexics, then though we can seem very disorganised at times, there is method to our chaos, it’s a matter of us ordering that chaos to benefit rather than drain our energy as it sometimes does. We should also remember that for many of us dyslexics, seeing the bigger picture, as for good ole ‘Napoleon’ is a natural ability and a talent that can be put to use (just look at General Patton, Einstein, Richard Branson and Winston Churchill) and does have its merits for the techniques I use below. A sense of order, as well as foresight is needed, and as a tutor once said, that the way to get a good degree is to be ordered in everyday activities, no matter how small, knowledge comes second to organisation..  These words have rung true and are especially accurate for students who come from an non-traditional background – although it does of course generally apply to all of us; let’s face it, university for some is a like a sweet shop, with lots of things going on, with study just one of them. So being able to prioritise when, where and what you are doing is essential, and putting them into an order where the day into definable segments, even your meals is vital.  The first step is to break down the week. 

Most students get a week study plan in the first days of entering HE, on which they put their lessons and whilst this may order the lessons, what about the rest of the hours? It can seem like an empty limbo. What has proved very successful is filling in these other time slots, so you can get an overview of what the day holds, and prioritising key tasks etc.  First, determine what you are capable of achieving and allocate certain amounts of study and leisure time to your week.  As we can see below, we have a typical student’s weekly chart, and one that has just the class study hours in. As we can see the student has begun their day at 8am, and finished at 11pm, although naturally this can be adjusted to suit you.  A student of mine would get up at 6am and be in bed for 10pm, with no study occurring after 6pm. So do think about what kind of person you are, a morning or night person when designing this chart. You have follow your natural body clock otherwise you are swimming against the current and will always feel unable to cope.

When putting in your classes, then use a colour for each course. This technique will be used for all the various allocations for the week, and does help to order your mind to that particular hour or period of activity. It is also very good when coming to breaks or rest periods. As the moment you see the colour green at 1pm for rest, it seems natural to take a break without you feeling guilty or anxious. The reverse is true for work.  For some students, then they may have a practical or class every two weeks ,again put this in, and give it a colour so you know, and make clear to yourself that in other weeks, this slot can be used for something else. 

Possibly the first thing to do is to decide what day of the weekend you want to use as a rest day. Students always consider this a strange suggestion, as they believe that they have to work seven days a week or that they only need a five day calendar. So, we must first accept that we are timetabling a normal week, and that we should have at least one day off - where we can enjoy our own time and space and relax the mind from the pressures of study. It will also be important, particularly for those living on campus, to escape from the grounds, to do your shopping, visit your friends or go for a day trip. Also for the workaholics, then having time off and resting is part of the learning process, so that the little grey cells can recharge. Whatever day you choose, put the words DAY OFF bold through the session for that particular day.

Next, put in any other activities that you are engaged in, which might include any part time work, sports activities or other societies. Write in what they are and decide upon a colour code for each of these. Following this, decide to look at what you already have, what times you intend to eat. Now, this is very important, as eating can take in resting also, and particularly for the evening meal, having two hours is almost essential. So you may have a timetable where 1pm seems quite regular throughout the week, so designate this as your lunch. You may find that you usually eat between 5-7pm, so again make these two hours a rest period. It is all  down to imagination, flexibility and knowing what kind of person you are.        


Intensive study, which includes reading and writing, should of course be done – but not for more than two hours at a time. Why? Well common sense tells us that we get tired, but also, by being tired, we lose concentration and our memory starts winding down, and becomes less effective. Also our writing ability can waiver, and possibly we are not as sharp or on the ball as we want to be.  So putting in a number of two hour slot during the day and then resting is ideal.  We now also go back to our initial comment on deciding what kind of learner you are, a morning, afternoon or night person.  If you don’t get out of bed till 12 noon, then your day will start in the afternoon and go on to midnight. Fine, now work around that. If you are an early morning person, then your day may start at 7am and finish at 7pm. What you have to do now is look at your plan and see where you can put in the 2 hour slots. If you can get in 4 to 6 hours a day study, then you are on to a winner. 

As you can see from the plan, this person works better in the late afternoon-evening, though they will put one hour of video work  between 12 to 1.  This person may also want a nice long lunch or Siesta, giving themselves two hours in the afternoon, and similar in the evening. Again this is a perfect day for this type of student. On other days, the student may just get in 4 hours, but, provided these are cemented in your mind, you can get into a regular routine. What you will also see is that every night after 9pm is students own time and one can go out if need be or watch TV. Now if this was reversed, say for myself, then I would have two hours between 10-12, and a hour video work, then lunch between 1-3 or 4. I don’t function till the afternoon, but work in the evening from 7-9. Again, remember, on both counts, if you have 4 hours per day, you are actually doing 24 solid hours of production time a week - and that is ample.  

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

TRAINING YOUR SNAKE: How to plan your essays and exams effectively and not get crushed by time running out!!

TRAINING YOUR SNAKE: How to plan your essays and exams effectively and not get crushed by time running out!!

For those of us who have organisational problems or may have even an official title to your chaos…organisational dyslexia, then being able to order your work, namely planning ahead so you are not left at the last moment to write your essay or report might be the saviour you need to get through the course. To see the bigger picture and see how all these little assignments and exams etc. fit together, is vital in both getting higher marks and of course feeling confident and less anxious. Now this includes all work, be it essays (and their drafts) exam times, presentations, group projects, the number one aim here is to find out as soon as you can - during the first few weeks of the first term preferably - when these due dates are, even if you are not fully aware of titles or exact details of the pieces due.  So if you are a first year (and for other years also), find out when most essays are due in – usually around week 10 (or last week) of the first term and/or week 1 (first week back) or so of the 2nd term. The same probably applies for the second/third term. Then do the same for your exams - usually during the third term. Again this depends on your discipline; you may have a course that has exams at the beginning of the second term. All these should be in your handbook or on the course website. If you’re confused then ask your department. What does seem to occur in some departments is the lack of understanding of how organising your work is vital, and for those with dyslexia or similar this organisation is crucial. Do remember that you are an authority on how you operate and learn best, even if you are bringing in and developing new study routines. Do be polite, but forceful in asking for these deadlines, as the quicker you have them at the beginning of each term then the quicker you can concentrate upon formulating and writing your essay, and of course not being delayed by the other activities that may dissuade you from researching.

Syd the Snake – Time Line

As we can see with the Syd I’ve used, each term is broken into three ten week session. With roughly 4 weeks over the holiday section (or whatever it is for your own university). This is an unusual concept and over the years has taken the imagination of our students, and one we might as proved fruitful in completion rates. 

The first thing to do is put in when pieces of work are due, and also the exams, if you know these. Rather than writing it, use post-it note as indictors, using different colours for different subjects or types of work - if you can’t find post-it notes the colour you need then just use standard ones and colour one corner according to your designation for that course.  For example, if you have 3 pieces of work due in week ten, then put post-it on that week. Once you have done deadline weeks, the next phase is to start working out when you do drafts for these pieces - so possibly you may do the initial research from weeks 2-4, 1st draft from 4-6, 2nd draft 6-8, and then smarten up the piece for final submission for week 10. 

The same applies to exams. If you know the dates, and you have say 3 exams, and you get all your essay work done by week 9 let’s say of the 2nd term, you may start revising during the Easter (which is roughly 4 weeks) and let’s say 2 or 3 weeks before sitting them in the 3rd term. You can then put this information on Syd the Snake, which accumulates as having 2 weeks of revising for each exam. Of course if you orchestrate it just right, the last exam you revising will begin the follow week, hence it is fresh in your mind. You will also have all the various mind maps and things on the wall, so you can then go back to them and refresh your memory. 

A student Syd the Snake and Mind Maps for Exams

Syd the Snake is a very useful and flexible tool for all elements of academic study and you’ll be amazed at how versatile it can be. It could be used to plan your dissertation (which we will look at below) and also map out your Master’s degree or even your PhD - if you decide to do one. For the latter, one can see that Syd the Snake could be broken down into 1 year segments, with months rather than weeks being allocated.   In fact the longer the degree in some ways the easier it is, and you can then have a number of snakes which go from the large big picture of your degree down to the more localised week to week deadlines you have set yourself.  Within the large map you want to include a number of key sections that illustrate the lifespan of your post-graduate degree. 

Monday, 17 June 2013

Read or Watch: That is the question, so what is the answer if studying?
For many dyslexics, then reading can be an anathema  to one’s life, either having problems in putting the sentence together, trouble with words, forgetting what the sentence said, and yes falling asleep half way through. As a person with ME, as well as dyslexia, I usually nod off before I get past page two!!! So what is the solution if you are a dyslexic, English as your second language or anyone else for that matter (and there are many) who don’t like reading, and who are in education?

Well some years ago, I read a wonderful and inspiring book by the author Thomas West, entitled In The Mind’s Eye, which at its core, puts forward the argument, that with the emergence of the internet and computer technology, interpreting and down-loading data for those who traditionally would have succumbed to the exclusive nature of reading and writing such as those with learning differences (namely dyslexic) were now in a position of advantage, because of the way these minds worked – lateral and visual, possibly favouring the right side of the brain than to the  left. I think of my ADHD, and how this corresponds, because I do not have the attention span to spend long periods of time reading or for that matter doing long pieces of writing by hand. But if you give me a computer, and a chance to put graphics in and play with the presentation fonts, I can keep going much longer, and my multi-tasking abilities are being utilised. Also more importantly, if we are to relate back to Dales Cone of Learning, we are more likely to recall more if we use our other senses that just read, which only accounts for 10% of what remember, in comparison to say watching the telly which we may recall 50% of.

So how do we put all this into practice at university or school? Well, I actually discourage my students to physically read books unless they really have too, certainly for background knowledge that is. Instead, I encourage them to use their computers to watch documentaries and lectures on their subject, so they can pause anytime they want, and they have the possibility to recall 50% plus. What is the point of reading a book on let’s say the cold war (which you may know nothing about) when you can watch 24 1 hour episodes on youtube which gives you most of what you need to know before you go into the lecture or classroom. Then you can begin selecting targeted reading to give you that edge, and sharpen up on the key facts. With some of the top American universities providing lectures on a range of subjects through their own youtube sites such as Harvard, Yale and Berkeley, then you might be able to even watch a lecture by an author that will be covered in your own lecture. Why read the book when you can hear from the horse’s mouth itself? This is very useful on saving writing so many notes, as again it targets your efforts like your reading. If you have watched a documentary or lecture before going into a lecture on your own on the subject to be focused upon, you are already tooled up on that topic, so can put down any pointers that are extra. Also, if like me, you fall asleep in the lecture (or even giving a lecture) then its good practice.  This also applies to revision for exams, with updating your flagging memory with documentaries and lectures. Of course if you want to get up to the 90% mark on memory, then try saying and doing what you have seen, by talking to you classmate and work as a team to discuss over what you have watched or read, or if a billy-no-mates, speak to the mirror. Coming back to an empty room with no one else doesn’t mean you have to be at a disadvantage, even speaking to the computer screen while the documentary is on works.



Sunday, 16 June 2013

Dancing Octopuses: recalling words and their spellings – Super-Memory
One of the greatest problems I find with many dyslexics and others for that matter coming from non-traditional student backgrounds is not having a wide vocabulary in dealing with the everyday tribulations of academic tasks. For some then their normal day to day vocabulary might be limited or confused, but it is the inability to excel in their course that disturbs them most of all, and this is reflected usually in their first essay coming back or feeling uncomfortable in speaking in class.
Some years ago, I considered on this, aware of my own narrow vocabulary and limited memory, and the anxiety and embarrassment it would cause me on many occasions, saying it wrong, the classic day to day words might be saying Quishy for Quiche – which would invariably leave me red faced as I was promptly corrected with hails of ridicule. Also in my mind at this time was a discussion I had with a parent who was concerned about their 12 year old dyslexic son who was having serious trouble spelling and confusion over their words and their confidence was as high about themselves as a monkey driving a bus against traffic.  I decided to experiment with Tony Buzan’s method of remembering data, the old using key words in story, i.e.: Cat, mat, budgie, Maurice, banana, policeman. So, I recall those words by laying out the story: the cat lay on the mat with a budgie called Maurice throwing banana skins at a policeman.  Words into lists become stories that can familiarise yourself with the meaning and context of the word in every day usage.  That’s great if you are learning to read and building your memory generally with everyday word. What if you are going into FE or HE and the word range goes up tenfold, and you don’t know how to even pronounce the word, or how to spell it, and don’t go there on what it might even mean. This is when we run away from the task, and do the ostrich in the sand routine, as we don’t know how to approach this hurdle.
What good for children is good for adults, and using the same theory of connection applies, but just a little more creative. So firstly I began to get students to bring their subject dictionary to the session, so be it a history, geography, medical or whatever, get the student to know their onion, and once you know your onions as the greengrocer says, you will know where your celery and other vegetables are. You are building up confidence in your subject, with an emphasis as we said above on building memory, vocabulary and greater understanding of topic.  But as most of us dyslexics hate text (horrible nasty smelly things!!) then we need to find a way to carry them visually, like a suitcase carrying your sandwiches, you know where they are, and you just have to open it to get at them. So with this idea in my mind, I drew an octopus (Ollie) and numbered the legs from one to eight (see upload of article above). I would then take a bag of scrabble letter tiles, and put them on the table, as I would wish the student to spell them out, so they are able to break down the word into syllables if necessary and again to visualise the word.
With the student, I would take their dictionary from them, and would start at the letter A, reading it out aloud, slowly, and two or three times if necessary (having plenty of fun saying it in different accents or speeds) The student would have to then form the word on the table, and of course at times with coaxing they would eventually get it right.  Once they had spelt it, and written it down I would then ask what it meant, and the meaning they would also have to recall as well as the word, and put together a story, working from a sociology dictionary, we see it as thus: An altruistic, androgynous anarchist…etc… of course it could make complete nonsense, but it can still be rooted in its meaning. By building up each week from 5 to 10, to 15 and so on, the student became more confident in spelling, greatly more knowledgeable in their subject, and of course more able to pronounce at times tongue twisters that you would never attempt in a month of Sundays. 
The octopus would grow each week adding balloons above the octopus, or adding another one beside it. For most students, they couldn’t spell the words the first week, but the following week they were much better, if not perfect, and after a few weeks, they just preferred to use lists. Also, after a few months, student would take random words from the dictionary, so spreading the alphabet more and making naturally a little less easy.  Most students were able to recall 30 to 40 words plus, with one student up to 70 a week and this particular student I must say had the most trouble spelling first time off. In fact this student migrated from a 2.2 to a 1st over two years by using this method (amongst others) to enhance memory and of course comprehension in her subject.  As we have constantly said, it is not just vocabulary, but these techniques sharpen the mind for all forms of academic purposes. Bless Ollie’s little cotton tentacles!!!

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Wonder of Giraffes

       The Wonder of Giraffes – How we can use play to increase our exam results.
The other evening saw a lively and interesting session at the study surgery that I run, with great beams of laughter and accurate recall emerging from a 1st year management student. Some days before I had persuaded this anxious student who was convinced that he would not do well in his exam to let the inner child come out in him and draw out of the study armoury a weapon that would trigger his memory and send any awkward exam running for cover. Yes you guessed it…… it was a 8 inch soft toy giraffe. This is what was missing from his repertoire of revision tools. Of course he seemed rather bemused at my stories of unforgetful elephants, confidence building teddy bears, and versatile Pok√©mon’s, not to mention the dreaded versatility of the premier-league football team strips. Yes, I pronounced, if your memory is struggling, we need movement, colour and of course fun.
The students face was flabbergasted, but I explained how previous students had excelled in these dark arts, and that once fluent in transferring data to movement of the toy or object in question, he would with a wiggle here, or a twist there, be able to access the data. With only a few days before his fearful exam, he nodded his head and went out no doubt believing me to be totally bonkers, and obviously touched by hot summer sun.

He persevered and I met him the other evening, and he had his list of authors and studies, to recall. Of course we had gone over structure of the answers for these types of essay questions, but it was this mark making data that was the source of his high anxiety.  As we sat at the table, he brought out his bright yellow Giraffe and placed it on the table, and a bonny friendly thing it was too. And so we began that hour of extracting data from his mind, the first few minutes were difficult, as he struggled he needed more triggering. ‘Don’t just touch the bloody leg, wiggle and move it about man, I cried. And so he wiggled it more, and in doing so, out poured the first bits of his author and theory list.  As we learn very young through nursery rhymes, singing, movement and visual stimuli helps us to remember the lines, I can still sing Humpty Dumpty, with all the actions after all these years. And so the student, with me beside him waving my arms like a conductor, bringing song to his boring and rigid data, began to sparkle and got into a confident performance, reciting his allocation of each questions data to his Giraffe, so the toy having three or four questions attached. The more he waved the giraffes tail, so more data emerged.
After this session, I told him to go home, rest and then close his eyes, and imagine where the data was on his giraffe. Like a martial arts master directing his blind-folded student in the craft of sword wielding in darkness, so this method of visualisation and attachment could be transferred to his giraffe. And between each question he was to have five minutes to close his eyes for atunement, and see in his head where all this data of distributed.   And so we come to the conclusion of this story. I have come from a long day teaching to hear from this student that he did wonderfully, that the giraffe sat on his desk proved its worth and served it master well. The information flowed like water, and the names, dates and theories ran to the paper like loyal lap dogs. One can only imagine the scene in that exam room, where in the strict silence of exam conditions, the student was moving a colourful giraffe in his hands, with his eyes closed, whispering in song his mantra….. “on the left leg is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs…. “