Skills Hub

Success with less stress

Making the Most of your Brain - in Lockdown and After

Open laptop and notebook with plant in corner of room

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by reading, or lose focus and end up skimming articles? Do you find yourself getting distracted online, or want to find strategies to protect your digital wellbeing? Do you sometimes get ‘blocked' when you are writing, struggle to plan assignments or feel unsure about whether you've read enough to move on to writing? Do you ever get lost in the argument you are trying to make? Do you tend to procrastinate and then write in a stressful splurge before a deadline? Are you looking for strategies to help yourself work around a specific learning difficulty or health condition and/or encountering particular barriers to accessibility in an online environment?

In this series of short podcasts, Dr Lara Montesinos Coleman of the International Relations department at Sussex draws on research in cognitive neuroscience and psychology, as well as her own years of experience as a dyslexic/dyspraxic academic, to help you find strategies to address these common issues, to help you work with your own brain so that you can maximise your success with less stress.

These were originally prepared for Lara's students and subsequently made public at the request of Giulia di Simone, who tragically died during the final year of her degree at Sussex. This page is dedicated to her memory. 

1. How to read for a first class degree

 

Transcript

 

Hello everyone, I'm Lara Coleman in the International Relations department here at Sussex and this is the first of a series of podcasts I'm going to be doing for you on how to make the most of your studies, especially with the extra challenges of online learning.  This one is about reading.

 

In the next twenty minutes, I'm going to be telling you how to read in a way that will help you succeed in your studies.  I'll be telling you why skim-reading can be harmful to your intellectual and emotional development.  I'll talk about how to read with the depth you need to really engage with a text. Why the 3-D world of books and paper articles is preferable to reading on screen and what to do if your only option is to read on screen.

 

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So, first of all, why am I even bothering with this?  Don't you all already know how to read or you wouldn't be here?  Well, of course the answer is probably yes if we're just talking about decoding patterns of letters, or making sense of the meaning words in a particular order.  But actually, there is a lot of research now that shows that people are losing the capacity to read properly.  And this matters for all of us - individually, but also as a society.   We are losing our intellectual abilities because we're losing the patience to engage properly with a text and research has also show that this has a big effect on us as human beings - we don't just start to lose our ability to reason, to draw inferences, to make connections between ideas, to deal with complexity.  We also lose our capacity to emphasise with others, to cross over into another's world, to follow another's train of thought. 

 

When I applied to go to university, I remember people asking me what I was going to read. It used to be normal to talk about ‘reading for a degree'.  These days, however, as education has become commodified, we often slip into an ‘output'-oriented approach. It stops being about the process of learning, which is a process of personal development, broadening intellectual and emotional horizons, and starts being about getting the qualification that students have often made big financial sacrifices to get. 

 

And I think it's very much part of this subtle shift in expectations that has generated an environment in which its common to talk about ‘doing the reading' for lectures and seminars.  I often catch myself talking like this, but I'm also conscious I'm not doing my students any favours by talking in these terms.  The idea of ‘doing the reading' is task-oriented.  It tends to lead to a ‘surface approach' to reading, geared towards tacit acceptance or disagreement with the points made by the author and minimal retention of ideas and arguments.   It is not the sort of reading that is going to help anyone achieve their full potential - academically or as a human being.

 

Reading has become converted from a verb into a noun - its not a ‘reading' it's a book, an article, an essay, a piece of research. It is another human being communicating their ideas, their process of reasoning with you.

 

Now, I want to talk to you first about novels, which might sound like a digression but stay with me and you'll see why its not.  Given that I teach in an international relations department, my students often wonder why I encourage them to read novels and tell them this is as much a part of their intellectual development as the subject-based reading in social sciences and humanities that I give them.  Reading a novel properly requires close attention.  We use so many parts of our brains to read and enter into the multiple layers of meaning, we co-create imagery with an author and we build the capacity to grasp the thoughts and feelings of others.

 

The cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf talks about how reading gives us, ‘the capacity to communicate and to feel with another without moving an inch out of our private worlds'.  We take on other perspectives, and how - this is another quote from Wolf - ‘Perspective taking not only connects our sense of empathy with what we have just read but also expands our internalized knowledge of the world.  These are learned capacities that help us become more human over time...'

 

There has been research done at Stanford University that found that young people's levels of empathy had declined 40% over the past decade. One theory is that being constantly connected to a device diminishes our capacity to keep track of real-time-relationships - this isn't an argument again tech, or again being online - it's the only way many of us have managed to sustain our relationships over the past year.  But its about how we use the tech (and I'll do a separate podcast on this).

 

But deep reading -instead of flitting between information sources - is definitely part of the antidote.  There's brain-imaging research that shows that when we read our brain simulates the consciousness of another, increased our ability to analyse and interpret the thoughts of others.  Its quite amazing really - even when we read about touch or motion, we activate the areas of our brains responsible for touch and motion.

 

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Ok, so what does this have to do with your academic studies - if you're not studying literature?  What I've said might get you thinking that deep reading can make us better people than we were before, but is that going to help you do well in your studies?

 

Sometimes, when people have been through the school system they think that the purpose of education is to know more stuff.  I saw a disturbing quote from the OFSTED, the British Office for Standards in Education, saying that the purpose of education was to deliver a high quality curriculum so that students know more and remember more.  Thankfully, none of the school teachers I know seem to think their purpose is just to get students to know and remember stuff - but that certainly is not the purpose of a university education.

 

Crucially, to do well, you need to learn to think.  You need to be able to analyse, to examine beliefs and convictions - including your own.  You need to be able to use analogy and inference to make an argument.  And yes, of course you need to know and remember stuff too - you need to build a reservoir of background knowledge - including beyond your curriculum - to have the conceptual building blocks to be able to think, you need to be able to bring different authors and arguments into conversation with one another, and to have a conversation with them yourself.

 

And you can't do this well without reading but it has to be deep reading.  Not the surface approach I talked about before, just geared towards getting a sense of what someone says and whether you agree or disagree without reflection, without attention to their reasoning and all the stages of their argument.

 

There is a book by Mark Edmundson called Why Read, which has some really important discussion of the links between reading and critical thinking.  I talk a lot to my students about what it means to be critical - it's not about criticizing, in the sense of saying things are bad. It's what I was saying before about being able to examine beliefs and convictions, which is the only way to really get to a deep understanding. And this is no good if it doesn't include our own beliefs.

 

In his book, Edmundson emphasises that critical thought never ‘just happens'.  To think critically, we need to have the patience to examine and learn from past contributions to thought -Edmundson talks about two major threats to critical thinking. One is not having any developed convictions or beliefs.  And the other is when we latch onto a framework for understanding the world - even one that first emerged as a critical perspective but it becomes sedimented and not open to examination.  

 

Critical analysis involves a whole load of analytical processes of synthesis with background knowledge, analogies, deductions, inductions, and inferences - then uses this synthesis to evaluate the authors underlying assumptions, interpretations and conclusions.  But we can't do this without deep, attentive reading.

 

And the flip side of this is that we develop our brains to be able to think in this way by deep reading - we learn them through reading, creating those capacities in our brain by following an author's train of thought.

 

It's also through reading that we start to make our own conceptual leaps, and to develop insight and original ideas.  I really cannot emphasise enough how vital focused, attentive reading is - and how much skim-reading undermines all of that.  I mean, skim-reading is also a useful skill - when you're doing research and want to decide what to read, or to fact check something quickly, then skim-reading is important.  But when you've already selected or been given something to read, skim-reading is like, really the worst thing you can do. 

 

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So how do you improve your capacity for deep-reading and what if you find this really hard, or you're a slow reader, or you have a condition like dyslexia that can make it harder to read.

 

I'm going to do a separate podcast on dyslexia and other Specific Learning Difficulties.  For now I just want to offer some reassurance for those of your affected that being good at decoding words isn't the same as being a good reader, and being a slow reader does not make you a bad reader - often some of the best deep readers and critical thinkers have dyslexia or dyspraxia for instance.

 

So more on that in a later podcast but for now, some tips on how to become a good deep reader.

 

One book that I recommend with regard to everything I've been talking about so far is Maryanne Wolf's book, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. Maryanne Wolf is the cognitive neuroscientist I mentioned earlier - she also writes beautifully and has a deep appreciation for literature, which is why I think one of the stories she tells about herself in her book is particularly helpful.

 

Wolf raises a lot of concerns about how we're getting so used to immediacy, and to constantly switching attention between tasks that we're losing the ability to focus our attention on a text. She writes about realising this was happening to her - and about an experiment she did with herself that shows we can get the capacity back (or build it by training ourselves).

 

I want to read you a passage from her book with I can certainly relate to:

 

‘Do you, my reader, read with less attention and perhaps even less memory for what you have read? Do you notice when reading on a screen that you are increasingly reading for key words and skimming over the rest? Has this habit or style of screen reading bled over to your reading of hard copy? Do you find yourself reading the same passage over and over in order to understand its meaning?  Do you suspect when you write that your ability to express the crux of your thoughts is subtly slipping or diminished? Have you become so inured to a quick précis of information that you no longer feel the need or possess the time for your own analyses of this information? Do you find yourself gradually avoiding the denser, more complex analyses, even those that are readily available? Very important, are you less able to find the same enveloping pleasure you once derived from your former reading self?  Have you, in fact, begun to suspect that you no longer have the cerebral patience to plow through a long and demanding article or book?  What if, one day, you pause and wonder if you yourself are truly changing and, worst of all, do not have the time to do a thing about it?'

 

As I said, this certainly resonates with me and Wolf noticed the same thing was happening to her.  She tried to read Herman Hesse's book Magister Ludi, which won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1946 and which was one of most influential books for Wolf when she was young. But she but found she couldn't read it - it was just too dense, there too many words in a sentence. And she nearly gave up and thought her brain was irrovably changed but then she thought about how she always told the dyslexic children she works with on literacy that failures can be the best teachers.  So she tried again, in brief concentrated intervals - just 20 minutes a day.  It took two weeks of doing that every day before she started to feel she was getting back to her former reading self.

 

So this is what we can think of us rule no. 1 - practice, in short intervals, train your brain to be able to read deeply.  Find something that really challenges you and keep going with it, no matter how slowly, no matter how often you have to pull your attention back.  You have to develop what Wolf calls ‘cognitive patience'. 

 

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My second important piece of advice is to read on paper wherever possible and  - when that's not possible (I know it isn't always possible), then try to takes notes on paper and download software that blocks your ability to surf the internet.

 

You might think it doesn't make any difference if you read on screen or on paper if you're reading the same thing.  But actually there's a load of research over the last few years that suggests it can make an enormous difference.  We don't naturally live in only two dimensions. Of course it makes sense to read on screen if you're trying to just get information quickly - I'm not saying never read on screen.  But for deep reading, be it of novels, or poetry, or academic writing, we do need the 3D world of print, pages to turn.

 

There's research that has compared students reading the same novel with a book or with a kindle and found that the ones reading the book are much better able to reconstruct the plot in chronological order.  And it seems there are two things going on here.  One is that we're much more likely to skim when reading on screen - which has been confirned by eye-movement studies.  But also there is something about the concrete, spatial dimension of a book that helps us sequences, grasp where we are in time and space, have a sense of how one idea or event follows on from another.

 

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My third piece of advice - especially with academic texts - is to read with mind to specific questions.  What is the argument the author is making?  Why are they making this argument?  What are the steps of the argument?  Sometimes you'll have specific questions you've been given to answers - maybe essay questions or maybe specific questions you've been given about a particular text. 

 

I often give students questions on particular texts, or asking how you might put one text in dialogue with another and what I've found over the years is that I can almost always tell when students start reading with an aim to answering these questions. I've seen students who were struggling suddenly start to do really well.  Although often when I say to them well done, and that I could tell they had really thought about the questions in preparing for a seminar discussion they tell me that trying to do this when they weren't used to it made them really anxious. 

 

So don't be surprised or doubt your abilities if trying to answer questions on a text makes you nervous at first - it can take the time to build the confidence in your own reasoning, it can feel intimidating, like you're questioning and having a dialogue with a published author, an expert, but it will eventually make all the difference. 

 

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So that's all for now on how to read.  As I said, I'm going to do another podcast relating all this to some of the specific challenges faced by people with Specific Learning Difficulties, and anyone else who is a slow reader.  And there are other bits of advice, such as on avoiding digital distraction on which I'll also do a podcast for you.

 

But I hope you've got a sense of why it is so important to read deeply, with focused attention and to keep developing the cognitive patience to be able to do that.  By practicing in short sessions and building up your capacity.  Read on paper whenever you can.  And don't be afraid to think hard about those questions on an authors argument, the steps of their argument, or what one author might say if you put them into conversation with another.

2. Protecting your brain from digital distraction

 

Transcript

 

Hello everyone.  For those of you listening for the first time, I'm Lara Coleman in the International Relations department here at Sussex and this is part of a series of podcasts I'm doing to help you make the most of your studies.  In the next fifteen minutes, I'm going to be talking about the importance of being able to focus.  Why do our brains need us to be in a state of intense focus if we are to learn?  How do we do this?  And how do we deal with the problem of constant digital distraction, especially when we're having to do so much on line?

 

So, first of all, why is being able to focus so important?

 

Well, there is now quite a lot of research in neuroscience, as well as in psychology, that has found that in order to really master any topic, we need to be in a state of intense focus.  And that we have to make this a deliberate practice of keeping our attention focused.

 

A very digestible book that I recommend on this is Cal Newport's Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

 

Newport talks about work in performance psychology that has investigated what separates high performers or people who become experts from everyone else and finding it's a lot to do with deliberate, focused effort that we make a regular practice.

 

And neuroscientists have explained why this is this case - you get better at a new skill, including grasping and analysing complex concepts and ideas by building more myelin which is the fatty layer around neurons in our brains.  Only when we focus intensely do our brains isolate the relevant neural circuit to trigger this process of myelination.  If we're firing too many circuits simultaneously, then our brains can't isolate a particular neutral pathway and develop it.

 

Being able to focus intensely and concentrate our minds is really important for all of us to learn and maximise our intellectual capacities. 

 

Now you may well be listening to this and thinking this sounds pretty impossible in a lockdown.  And anyone who has a disability that affects focus and concentration - dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, as well as many other medical conditions that have cognitive effects - well you might feel quite dispirited, because you're already having to work so much harder than people without a disability in order to focus on your work.  The advice I'm going to be giving on this applies to everyone - but I will include some reflections that are particularly relevant to those of you who are dealing with disabilities alongside your studies.

 

First of all, I want to talk about the problem - of why and how the focus and concentration that all of us need to master in order to learn is becoming increasingly rare.  This was the case well before the pandemic but it is certainly exacerbated by the move for online learning.

 

This is that networking tools, email, whatsapp, twitter -all these notifications, things to keep checking, can put us into a state of frenetic distraction that can't accommodate this kind of focused attention.

 

Most of us are probably familiar with this - either in ourselves, or in partners and friends who are permanently distracted by their email or their smartphone.

 

And this doesn't mean that these networking tools are fundamentally bad for us - they can make our lives better in lots of ways, even without lockdown and social distancing.  But the point is that they are tools - and it is important to see these tools as tools, and ask ourselves in what moments they are the right tools for what we want to do and in what moments we need to avoid them.

 

Because research shows that networking tools can permanently damage our capacity to focus. Like actually cause damage to our brains - if we don't find ways to manage them.

 

Clifford Nass, who was a professor of communications at Stanford, did research in which he found that constant attention switching - like we do when we're checking email regularly, let alone with other social media - can have a lasting negative effect on our brains.  Nass found that once the brain becomes accustomed to distraction on demand, it can be really hard to shake the addiction, even when we want to concentrate. For instance, if you find yourself looking at your phone whenever you're bored or waiting for something, then your brain is likely to be getting rewired and damaged in the process.

 

Having said that, its not clear that this damage is necessarily permanent.  If you've listened to the first podcast on how to read, you might remember I talked about the neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf and her work on the reading brain.  Wolf has also raised concerns about digital distraction - and how we're getting used to immediate information, constantly switching attention between tasks online - that we're losing the capacity of focus our attention on what we're reading, especially denser texts and also losing the capacity for critical thought that is developed through deep attentive reading.   Wolf realised this was happening to her too - but she also managed to retrain her brain with a few weeks' practice, even though it all felt futile for the first couple of weeks.

 

Now, the fact that research shows our brains are being damaged by constant attention-switching and digital distraction is relevant to everyone, but it's even more of a challenge for many people with Specific Learning Difficulties or other disabilities that makes concentration harder.  And an important reason why this is the case is that research has shown that it is what is known as ‘working memory' that is affected by constantly switching attention. Working memory is basically short-term memory, and it affects the speed with which we can process information, and tends to be a weak point already for students with Specific Learning Difficulties and various other conditions affection cognition.  But that's not to say there aren't ways to minimise the impact of distraction, so I hope the tips I'll give now will be useful for you as well.

 

In the physical classroom environment, I always talk to my students about this and ask that we all either keep our phones off - or swap phones with me or someone else if anyone needs to keep their phone on because of caring responsibilities.  So, this is one thing you can try to do, to minimise distraction - keep your phone away from you.  There's even research that has found that having your phone in the same room when trying to focus has a big effect on attention and productivity.  Of course, it not always possible to avoid having your phone with you, especially if you've got caring responsibilities.  I would love to be able to shut my phone in another room every day, but I at least try to keep it the other side of the room and have it on a setting so the only certain numbers can call in an emergency.

 

Another thing you can do, if you're working on a device, is to make sure you don't have anything open that lets messages or notification pop up on your screen.  And you can download free software that can either block particularly tempting sites - like social networking sites, or the news sites you keep being drawn back to in order to obsessively check covid news and vaccination rates (if you're anything like me early in the lockdown).  I use ‘Self Control' for Mac and there's one I think called ‘Cold Turkey' for PC.  Actually, I quite often use Self Control to block all of my access to the web because I have no self-control - or at least I'm still training myself to get past the impulse to go online when I hit a block in what I'm writing or reading.

 

Another thing to emphasise, is that avoiding digital distraction is important when you have a break as well.   Otherwise you're still switching attention and losing focus on your work.  There's an article by Sophie Leroy called ‘Why is it so hard to do my work' that talks about the idea of ‘attention residue'.  Basically, what she found is that when you switch between tasks, there is a residue of your attention that stays on the previous task.  And this is even worse if we were not completely focused on that task.  So even a quick check of your inbox every 20 minutes, or checking your phone whenever you take a break can have a huge effect on focus and so on our ability to learn and to develop or maintain your intellectual capacities.

 

Now, as I said before, this isn't about being anti-tech, or saying networking tools and social media are bad.  It's about treating them as tools.  Sometimes, people recognise these things are addictive and do a digital detox - but that's not much use if you slip back into the same habits as before.  It's like doing dry January and sober October but then drinking far too much the best of the time - it's not going to have much of an effect on you for the rest of the year.

 

One thing Cal Newport recommends in his book Deep Work and that I've certainly found helpful is to schedule the time when you are going to check email or use social media - like when is the best time in your day to be using these tools.  So decide, say, I'm going to check and respond to messages at the end of the day, before lunch - whatever works for you, but not do it until then. If you plan your work for the day, then you can include setting time aside for this.

 

Of course, you might realise that there's something really urgent you need to deal with and that it can't wait.  In which case, don't beat yourself up about it - deal with that thing, and then plan your work again, like actually planning it out on a piece of paper.

 

It can also help if you do this planning the night before, or first thing in the morning, and actually make a commitment to yourself to doing that - which is sometimes called pre-commitment, deciding you're going to do something even if you're preferences change tomorrow.

 

There are various other tactics for avoiding digital distraction and helping you focus that I could talk about, but I'm going to leave it there for now.  But one last thing I want to emphasise is that it's pretty likely you'll find it hard to break old habits, or manage for a while and then start getting distracted again, so the important thing is not to feel like you're failing and give up but to keep going, treating it like a training programme.

3. Studying with a Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD)

 

Transcript

 

Hello everyone. For those of you listening for the first time, I'm Lara Coleman in the International Relations department here at Sussex and this is part of a series of podcasts I'm doing to help you make the most of your studies.  This one is for those of you who have - or think you might have - a specific learning difficulty.  That's to say a condition like dyslexia, dyspraxia or attention deficit disorder.  In the next 15 minutes, I'm going to be talking about what these conditions are and why they can often go alongside being really good academically but at the same time make studying much harder.  And I'm going to be giving you some tips for how to approach your studies, as well as advice about how to seek help from tutors and lecturers.

 

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I just want to start off with a quick note on terminology - they're referred to as Specific Learning Difficulties in English at least and they are normally referred to by the acronym SpLD - all in capitals except for the p, not very helpful for those of us with dyslexic traits.

 

But it's worth thinking about the terminology because it's important to understand what the ‘specific' bit of Specific Learning Difficulty refers to - and why it is that someone can be gifted academically but still have an SpLD, because a lot of people worry that it means they are bad at learning in general.

 

So, if you read the educational psychologist assessments of students who have a diagnosis of an SpLD, you'll find there are scores for how well they have performed on tests designed to measure different aspects of intelligence.  These tests are imperfect, of course, but the bit that normally corresponds with academic success is verbal reasoning - which isn't the part of intelligence that is affected by an SpLD.

 

Now, someone might get a very high score for verbal reasoning.  But they could have a much lower score in other areas - for example those relating to the speed with which they can process information, their ‘working memory', as it's known.  It is this gap that leads to the diagnosis of specific difficulties.

 

It's important to emphasise one of the implications of this - that someone with excellent verbal reasoning can be very severely affected by an SpLD.  There's a lot of variation between the different conditions and also within them and I'm talking in very general terms here.  Some students with SpLDs will struggle academically.  Others may excel - especially with the right support and awareness of how you learn. But either way you're likely to be working much harder to keep up.

 

This is important because often people who aren't aware of the issues might say, oh but you're doing really well or that your work is really good in ways that can minimise this enormous extra effort and the toll it might be taking on you.

 

And going back to what I was saying about terminology, some people now talk about specific learning differences - rather than difficulties - which can actually exacerbate this.  I mean, there can be positive sides to having an SpLD.  Like many people with SpLDs are actually really going at thinking holistically or laterally, and drawing links between different concepts and topics.  And you'll  know if you've listened to my podcast on reading, that these are all higher-order cognitive skills and often make the difference between good and excellent academic work.  People sometimes say that Albert Einstein was dyslexic and George Orwell was dyspraxic and so on, which shouldn't be that big a surprise if we understand SpLDs - but it doesn't  mean these conditions aren't disabling and that they can take a toll on your physical and mental health.

 

And that extra work doesn't go away even when you're diagnosed and have support - although students often develop really good coping strategies. 

 

But I should add that probably a lot of you listening to this haven't been diagnosed.  I've had so many emails from students recently saying that they think they may have an SpLD, but that they've only become aware of it at university, but talking to peers and starting to spot the symptoms.  Because there is a lack of awareness in the education system as a whole  One consequence of this is that academically able students often don't get diagnosed while they are at school.  Just to give you an idea, there was a study that found that 59.5% of students at the University of Oxford with a diagnosis of a SpLD were diagnosed while they were at the university.

 

Dyslexia can be easier to identify at school because of how it manifests in a child's writing but other SpLDs are harder to spot.  If a child isn't struggling academically, things like dyspraxia and attention deficit disorder are often not picked up.  And when they get to university students frequently talk about the impact this has had on their school experience and their confidence.  I expect this sounds familiar to many of you.

 

This is bound up with structural inequalities - the symptoms of an SpLD often get interpreted through unconscious bias around race and class - so a student might be assumed to be not that bright, or at least underestimated, or assumed to be as unfocused, disruptive or disorganised.  Girls face similar problems.  A lot of you will have been living with the bright but lazy, disorganised etc., when they may be extremely gifted students who are actually working their guts out just to cope with school.

 

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So, all this is by way of recognition that none of this is easy, and that if you're struggling with these issues, you are definitely not alone and it can help to explain to tutors and lecturers the common misunderstandings that arise so that they can support you better.

 

But what else can you do?

 

Sometimes people who want to help focus a lot on technical solutions. And there are software programs that do help people organise material, or spell-check for you - and also screen-tinting software can make a huge difference.  If you don't already have access to this already via Student Support, you can download free screen-tinting software.  There's a screen colour filter and dimmer called ColorVeil that you can download for free.

 

If you're using online learning platforms, then another thing that lecturers can to do help you if you have visual-spatial processing difficulties is to make sure that the layout of sites is consistent, which is something we're already doing at Sussex with a template from the Technology Enhanced Learning Team.

 

Another thing people with SpLDs can struggle with a lot at the moment is being bombarded with visual information when trying to listen.  We use different parts of our brain to listen and to read and if we're getting the same information via two channels, this can lead to what's sometimes called cognitive overload. This is an old problem with people talking from overloaded slides - using them as a visual duplicate instead of a visual aid, but now there's the further issue without online learning if there are captions that you can't turn off on lectures. Or where platforms like zoom can allow an environment where you're in a class being bombarded with messages while trying to listen or to speak. It's definitely worth talking to lecturers and asking them to make sure people don't use the chat like this, because most of us are new to online teaching and people might not be aware of the effect this has on your ability to learn and to process your thoughts.

 

But all this brings me to the issues that I talk about in depth in my podcasts on digital distraction and how to read for academic success.  We all need to focus in order for our brains to develop the neutral pathways we need to learn and think critically.  There's research that shows that being bombarded with messages and notifications, and constant digital task switching, is having an effect on everyone's brains.  But that's especially an issue to address if you have an SpLD because one capacity of the brain that's undermined is what's called working memory - which tends to be a specific weakness for people with SpLDs.

 

I also talked about the need to read on paper rather than on screen where possible because research has shown that the 3D world of paper is much better for our working memory than the 2D world of screens.  There's more on that in the ‘how to read' podcast but I do want to emphasise that all the information there should be especially helpful to you if you're trying to work around an SpLD.

 

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One of the most important things though is that, once you have an understanding of where you do have specific deficits - for example in working memory, visual-spatial processing or whatever, and you have a sense of how your brain works, then that can help you start to build on your strengths. I've seen so many times with my own students how this on its own can help them get confidence in their own way of thinking and working and in some cases jump up a grade boundaries or two as a result.

 

And understanding how your brain works can also help you know what to ask for if you have reasonable adjustments.  So one of the things lecturers are often asked to do by the Student Support Unit is to give modified reading lists to allow more focused reading.  But an understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses can give us a better idea of how to do this. 

 

Going back to educational psychology assessments, if you have one of these, you might see that you have specific deficits in reading comprehension.  And then you might think this means you're not very good at reading or that you need easier reading, like textbook summaries.  But this is often a mistake people make, because difficulties in reading comprehension don't automatically mean difficulties in understanding - it's often more to do with difficulties retaining the material - that working memory thing again.

 

The same person's reading comprehension can actually get better, not just by reading on paper, but also as the material gets more complex, as you have more conceptual ‘hooks' to aid retention of information.  So, depending how you're affected by an SpLD, you might actually fare far better reading a complex philosophical argument, for instance, than a supposedly ‘easier' text.

 

But, chances are, you are going to need much much longer to read - easily a day to read an academic paper properly.  So it can help to identify 1 or 2 articles/ chapters for each class but also consider paths through a module in line with your interests and what you want to focus on in assessments so you can focus on specific texts and bring them into dialogue with one another - and depending on the module and how its structured, this can also mean you're getting quite a lot of reading done for your assessment during the term.

 

So it might not be possible to get around the problem of being a slow reader, but it's important to remember that being a slow reader doesn't make you a bad reader.  The speed at which you read and the ability to absorb lots of information quickly are not indicative of academic ability - being able to do this quickly certainly helps, and it can make life a lot easier.  But slow readers can also often be really good deep readers, because of the holistic thinking style that I talked about earlier that can come with an SpLD, you may be really good at drawing links between different concepts and authors.

 

So one thing you can do is to focus on the amount of time spent in deep reading (without distractions) - focusing on the argument, using higher-order cognitive skills (analysis, synthesis and so on).  Sometimes I give students modified reading lists but often what helps is just the reassurance that you don't need to worry if you can't get through all the reading, but to just allocating a certain amount of time to the literature for each week and to focus upon taking a deep approach.  Having some questions to focus on in relation to the text can sometimes be useful - but it's not always necessary.

 

Really, a lot of this is about building confidence - partly it's about confidence to ask for what you need by way of adjustments, but also confidence in your own ideas and way of thinking.  Students with SpLDs often tell me they feel ‘thick' in class, because they can't process their ideas in time to offer their reflections until the discussion has moved on.  When other people seem able to do it you can worry that you're not as bright, or that you sound stupid because you have trouble articulating your ideas.  And again, I'd point you back to the fact that working memory and processing speed are not these indicators of your intellectual ability.  It's ok to say you've not formulated your thoughts yet.  It's ok to go back to a point in the discussion - and depending on the format of the discussion, you might need to tell the lecturer or tutor you might need to do this, but its also not something you need to apologise for.  And statistically the chances are that there's at least one other person in the class with the same issue - it might even include your lecturer, because lots of very successful academics have an SpLD.  I'm often in the pub after the research seminar before I've figured out what it was I wanted to say - well, I used to be, in the days when pubs were open, although I've also stopped worrying so much if things don't come out as coherently as I'd like the first time.

 

And I say this to emphasise that so much of this is about confidence.  And if you've had any of those labels at school, like bright but lazy, disorganised or whatever, or you've had a diagnosis that has sapped your confidence, or people's reactions to it have sapped your confidence, then that can take a while to develop.

 

There is no easy fix for any of this.  What I definitely don't want you to take from this podcast is that there's an easy solution, or that if you follow my advice everything will magically fall into place.  But I hope some of these tips have helped and - as I say - there's a lot more that should help you in the podcasts on reading and avoiding digital distraction.  My next podcast is going to be on unblocking your writing - which will be another one that's for everyone but which should be especially helpful to those of you working around an SpLD.

4. Unblocking your writing 1 - productive procrastination

 

Transcript

 

Hello everyone. If you're listening for the first time, I'm Lara Coleman in the International Relations department here at Sussex and this is the fourth in a series of podcasts I've been doing for you on how to make the most of your studies, especially when we're having to do so much at the moment online.  This one is about how to deal with the problem of blocking when you want to write - I'm actually doing it in two parts, but this one is focused on preliminaries and especially how to procrastinate in a good way that actually helps your writing.

 

I'm guessing if you're listening to this that you might be familiar with the problem of procrastination.  Do you ever get stuck when you want to write - like you might have a hunch about what you want to say but you're blocked and the ideas don't come out?  I wonder if you've ended up in a common pattern, which is then waiting for a better circumstances in which to write, or until the last minute when the impending deadline is forcing you to get something out.  But then you end up writing in a rush without having planned properly.  And for some people it goes ok, even though it's stressful but often people find they don't do as well because of this and lose confidence.  And there can be this vicious circle of getting anxious before the next assignment, worrying about blocking and ending up in the same pattern.

 

For reassurance, all of this is very common - even with experienced writers.  There's a professor of psychology, Robert Boice, who has done a lot of work on this - and even studied problems of writer's block in university faculty members, cause yeah it happens to us too pretty often.  And Boice says that one of the problems is that we tend to assume we know how to write and don't understand the brain mechanisms - the same way that if you've listened to previous podcasts, you'll know we can make the same mistake about thinking we already know how to read.  Boice points out that writing tends to start vague non-verbal images - that feeling of fuzz and not being able to pin down the words can be quite normal and its partly about knowing what to do with it.

 

So in the few minutes, I'm going to talk about the problem of procrastination - why we might procrastinate and how to embrace it in a helpful way.  Then I'll talk a bit about some preliminary activities that can help you start to process your ideas before launching into prose. 

 

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Ok, so first of all let's think about procrastination.  I did a previous podcast on the problem of digital distraction and you don't have to have listened to that to follow this but I do just want to flag that up and make you aware that there's more directed stuff on that in the podcast on helping ourselves be able to focus.

 

But look, even without the temptation of digital distraction, most of us procrastinate and then the risk is that we get into negative thinking, rush it later on and get into a state of what's known as cognitive overload, can't process, get exhausted and then people often beat themselves up about this.

 

So the first thing I want to say is don't berate yourself for procrastinating - the secret is to procrastinate differently.  Or to do what Robert Boice calls ‘pre-crastination', stuff you can actively decide to do before you launch into writing. 

 

Because one of the things that Boice emphasises is that dealing with procrastination is as much about managing our emotions as it is about managing our time.  It's very easy to get into a state of constant business, with all the associated feelings of fatigue and anxiety because we've got too many pressing things and no time to do them - instead of being present in the moment and noticing what we're doing and our own reactions to things.  There's a lot of hype associated with the idea of mindfulness, but at root its about being present in the moment, being awake to blind impulsive actions (like checking our phones for instance when we don't need to be doing that). 

 

Something that can help with this from the start is to focus on the process of writing - and preparing to write - before we start worrying about the product.  Take some time before you begin a new assignment to actively hold back from writing.  This is different from passively putting it off, or mindlessly getting distracted online - cause just to flag something I say in the podcast on digital distraction, the constant addictive checking messages, likes, updates to news headlines or whatever, constant notifications as well, all this can put us in a state of frenetic distraction that has really serious effects on our brains.  When you're actively holding back, you're still thinking about the thing you're going to be writing.  

 

There's an exercise Boice suggests for actively holding back or what he calls pre-crastination instead of procrastination.  And if you spend a couple of weeks spending 10-15 minutes doing this exercise, at least once or twice a day, it can have huge effects.  And the trick is to start doing this well before you have a deadline coming up, maybe even before you have a clear idea of what you're going to write about.

 

So, to start off, just spend a minute or two thinking about what you might write, then make a commitment to yourself to writing something in a few minutes, give yourself a time.  Then try talking aloud some of what you've been thinking about writing and don't worry about it being coherent.  Listen to yourself patiently, without rushing to judgement.  You can maybe think of yourself as the coach helping yourself find what you could say.  Then try making some notes, or drawing diagrams about what you could write if you decide to use the material and go along this track.  Do it without rushing - remember you're focusing on the process not the product. Your notes will normally be based on what you've just said - or you might expand on it and make connections with other ideas.  Not necessarily in prose, sometimes arrows to little bubbles with other ideas can be really helpful.

 

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Once you've practiced this active waiting, the next step can follow quite naturally.  So you can start to approach the ideas and images you've begun to generate as a way into writing, but still don't rush.  One of the key things that Boice emphasises is that you should start before you feel ready - which is really hard until it becomes a habit.  And I should say this doesn't mean rushing to prose but engaging in what Boice calls pre-writing. 

 

So you might start by talking aloud about what you might write.  Or you could do this when you're outside, maybe in your head - depending on how you feel about being seen talking to yourself.  In the podcast on avoiding distraction I mentioned an author called Cal Newport and one of the things he recommends is productive meditation.  So he does this walking to and from work, trying to follow a line of thought or solve a problem or work out an argument in his head - and the trick is to catch yourself when you drift off or stick on one thing.  But even if its doesn't feel like its been a success at the time it can really help you process your ideas.  Our subconscious does a lot of work after we've done these sorts of exercises in continuing to help order our thoughts.

 

Another form of pre-writing might be to read aloud what you've begun to write, or take notes about what else you might write. 

 

And something Boice really emphasises from his research with academics is to pay attention to the forms of resistance that tend to crop up because they often have in common this desire for spontaneity and quick, easy result.  The idea that brilliance knows no rules, or you need to be unfetter, your can write when you're not in the mood, you need to wait for inspiration, or even just the passive procrastination thing of having too much to do and no time for these preliminaries.

 

But research has found that the common factor is that this leads to waiting passively, then binge-writing for deadlines.  Whereas people who engage in these preliminary exercises tend to fare much better in their writing because they start to learn to trust general images and rough forms of wording that can precede formal writing.  You know, there's a tendency to be too cautious, to look for the perfect sentence to begin with.

 

Another really useful preliminary can be to practise starting writing before you've figured out what it is that you want to say.  The key here is to do it in an experimental way, play around.  Remember to keep that process orientation that keeps you in the moment, not focusing impatiently on the outcome or trying to be a perfectionist.  The process in the end is something that will really help the outcome.

 

This is where what's sometimes called ‘free writing' can come in really useful.  Instead of trying to sound all erudite and like you know what you want to say, write it as if it were a memo to yourself, say if you sent yourself an email trying to figure out your ideas, or as if you would speak it. 

 

The key thing here is not to worry prematurely because you don't know what you want to say.  I think students often tend to assume that if they were better academically, then they wouldn't have this problem. But that's just not true.  Remember what I said at the start about how ideas often come to us as non-verbal images.  Then we have to process them into a form of expression that makes sense, but it might surprise you to learn that lots of very successful academics take their time to do this.  You would never know it when you read the published work, but probably lots of the authors you admire will have started off not quite knowing what it's about or not being able to pin down what it is they want to say. 

 

For those of you with conditions like a specific learning difficulty or anything else that affects your speed of processing or working memory, then this may well take longer.  But if that applies to you then listen to my podcast on this if you haven't already, because what I emphasise there is that processing speed isn't an indicator of academic ability, it's not about your analytical skills but difficulties with organising your thoughts - so this stuff should hopefully be especially useful if you're in this situation.

 

I've done quite a bit of co-authoring with a particular colleague, and when there are two of you often this process of figuring out what you want to say can be particularly challenging.  But what I've noticed is that what we do quite naturally is basically the free-writing I just talked about, mostly by sending emails to one another with thoughts about how it might be that we want to make our argument, or what we think a particular author is trying to say.  So you could try doing something similar, before you're ready, as if you were you own co-author.

 

Now this advice to start writing something, just rough free-writing, before you're ready leads us on to what I'm going to talk about in the next podcast, which is how to know when you are ready to move to prose.  When do you stop reading?  What are the techniques for helping yourself structure your argument into an essay or dissertation?  What can you do when you start and then get blocked and lose the thread of your argument.  Again, all of this is normal, even amongst experienced and published writers and in the next podcast I'll be talking about all of this.

5. Unblocking your writing 2 - moving on to prose

 

Transcript

 

Hello everyone.   This is part two of the podcast on unblocking your writing and the last in a series of five podcasts I've been doing on how to make the most of your studies - particularly when you're dealing with the pressures of lockdown and online learning.   In the last podcast, I talked about procrastination and, more specifically, how to procrastinate in a way that is productive and doesn't end up with a frantic writing binge that burns you out and gives you little time to process your thoughts.  So I've already talked about some preliminary activities that can help you start to process your ideas before launching into prose - but now I want to talk about how and when to move into writing prose, like when have you done enough reading, what do you do when you get stuck part way through.   And then finally I'll talk about how to manage time so that you're not getting overloaded and crucially that you're giving your subconscious a chance to do some work on your ideas while you're relaxing.

 

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So one of the questions that I find students ask me is how do I know that I've done enough reading and I'm ready to start writing.   And often when people have done a lot of reading they start to feel overwhelmed by it and can't begin to think how they might engage with all in an essay?

 

Now, there's not really a straightforward answer to how much reading is enough reading or when you can stop.  And it might feel frustrating to hear this but what I often say to students is you're asking the wrong question.  Don't ask when can I stop reading but when can I start outlining?

 

Because it doesn't have to be a linear process - read, plan the essay, write.  You can start outlining your argument on the basis of what you're already read, then identify gaps where you need to read more - do the research, fill those gaps, and then come back to outlining or writing.

 

So, when should you start outlining your essay?  Well a good rule of thumb can be when you start to have a clear point of view, you're starting to have a sense of the problem you want to solve, or you can see a pattern emerging.  If you're reading properly, which is to say in depth, like I talked about in the podcast on how to read, then this might start to happen when you've read just a couple of articles that speak to a topic from different angles.  It might take a lot more, depending on the topic, your ideas, which authors you happen to start with.

 

But if you're reading and you're already getting a sense of where you might go - you can start outlining.  This can also be a good thing to do if you're feeling overwhelmed by lots of reading - you can start by reviewing the various points that come out of your notes on what you've read, and start to think what the point is of these different arguments or presentations of data, or whatever, is there something you want to say in response to it.  And take that as the beginning of a conceptual outline - so not just a list of points but a rough working-out of your argument.  Then you might start to be able to bring authors you've read into dialogue with one another, or identify gaps for more targeted reading that you need to do.  And if you are overwhelmed by information, try not to get too anxious about this - it is a normal part of the process.  Try to pause, breathe, get outside, come back to it.  You could try telling someone else what impresses you most about the things you've read and noted - either an actual someone else, or just say it aloud to yourself, explain it to the cat or whatever.

 

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I should also say more about this process of outlining an argument.  A conceptual outline is something that can help you organise your thoughts and clarify some of those fuzzy mental images, and you can start it really early on, think about what's missing and then do more reading and come back and revise or expand your outline.  This can also save you from spending time doing too much wasteful general searching.

 

So how do you do an outline?  Well the key thing is not to try to do too much too soon.  Focus on some initial points and develop these to begin with.   In his research on postgraduate students and academic faculty members, Robert Boice found that people prone to procrastination and people prone to writer's block have one thing in common - which is that they tend to try to do too much too soon.

 

So this advice to start out by focusing on initial points and develop these first means being patient about the process and not worrying yet that you've not developed this into a comprehensive piece of writing or an argument.  How this really helps your analysis is that you're starting out from a point in depth rather than trying to include everything, which can leave you without the headspace or the space within your wordcount to do any in-depth analysis. 

 

And the trick with this outlining process is to go beyond key words or bullet pointed lists.  You've got to develop the points as you for it to help you really process your ideas.  So draw out the main points by writing as if you would talk them - very informally but probably quite concisely.

 

I mean, not everyone works by being concise - some people end up with a conceptual outline longer than the finished piece of writing.  But however concise you are or not, ask yourself some questions as you go:

 

Does it make sense to begin with this point?  Am I answering the right question?

 

Do the main points flow from one another?

 

Do the same subpoints appear in two or more places?

 

Are essential points missing or underdeveloped?

 

Am I trying to do too much?

 

That last one's important because good writing is about what not to say, as much as it is about what to say.   If you end up with a really long conceptual outline, it's likely you'll need to take some points out.  I have an entire folder on my computer with things that I cut from stuff that I've now published.  And sometimes I develop something I've cut and work it into something - the process can be never ending, but yeah don't try to do too much or you could end up with something quite superficial that doesn't give you space to develop an argument.

 

Something else that some people find when they start outlining is that their notes are too comprehensive to be able to see the wood for the trees.  If that happens to you, then also take some time to draw out the essential points from your notes, perhaps by making further notes in the margins.  I used to take all my notes in an A4 notebook, and I'd write detailed notes on the left hand page and then use the right hand page to summarise key points next to the margin, and then draw arrows with bubbles off them to how this might relate to something else, or what my response was to it.  Or you might be someone who takes comprehensive notes on the computer and then uses a piece of paper to summarise key points - there are various ways you can do this.

 

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One benefit of doing a conceptual outline is that it can give you a clearer sense of when you're reading to move to proper prose for the actual assignment.  Some people find it works for them to do a short outline and then they develop the points more as they right, others like I said end up with an outline as long as the essay itself, although much rougher, without having to worry about imperfection.

 

Even once you start writing the essay or dissertation properly, it's still very common to get lost and to lose track of the structure and logic of your argument part-way through.  I find this happens to me pretty often and I'm definitely not alone amongst faculty members - its pretty common for a colleague to ask you to read a draft of something because they've lost track of the argument.

 

One of the things that can help here- and I should say this is another tip from Robert Boice - is to do something called an "after the fact outline".  So you take your draft and you go through and identify the key point of each paragraph.  Then list these in order, asking yourself if the structure appears logical, if it is clearly relevant to the precise question you want to address, if it could be organised better.   Actually, this can be well worth doing with a complete draft even if you're not lost.  It's a bit like making a storyboard out of your essay and it's amazing how this can help you get some distance and spot things that don't quite work.

 

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The last thing I want to talk about is managing your time so that you're working in moderation and having plenty of breaks, so that you can keep focused while you're working and also give your subconscious a chance to process ideas when you're resting.

 

We need to have breaks in order to be able to switch back and forth between focused reading, or writing and then having time to reflect and process.  If you work for too long, then you end up with diminishing returns.  You might actually find you get more done in a day sometimes if you don't try to pack it with work. 

 

Now of course when you're having to produce assignments to deadlines, this is only really possible when you plan ahead.  So its worth taking your diary or calendar, and mapping out week by week where you plan to be at with future assignments.  When will you start pre-writing and reading and exploring ideas? When is the latest possible date you can start writing prose? What do you need to leave time for before that.   And make sure you're allowing for rest days as well.

 

Then, when you're in the process of writing, it can be a good idea to plan your week with a task each day.  This might need to be flexible, but when you finish one day think about what you're going to do the next and make a commitment to doing it - what time you're going to start and what time you're going to stop.  This is something psychologists call precommitment - making a commitment to doing something in the future even if when you get to that time you don't want to. 

 

I should emphasise too that the stopping bit is really important - don't just commit to starting at a particular time.  Commit to stopping even if you're steaming ahead.  Try actually stopping mid-paragraph or mid-sentence.  You can do the same with scheduled breaks as well - it can actually make it easier to pick the ideas up when you come back.   And when you stop for the day maybe include a ritual of noting down what you've done and pre-committing to what you'll do tomorrow.

 

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In terms of how to plan your writing or pre-writing sessions, different things work for different people and this can depend a lot on if you have another job to do, caring responsibilities, a health condition to manage and other things.

 

One recommendation, which is from Robert Boice again, is that you should write in brief daily sessions - even if its just 10 minutes a day throughout the year when you're doing other things, you should write, including pre-writing every day.  Boice actually did a study where he divided new academic faculty into three groups and recorded their writing productivity.  The first group did not change their writing habits, which was to write occasionally in big blocks of time and in one year they wrote an average of 17 pages.  The second group wrote daily and kept a record of their writing; they averaged 64 pages.  The third group wrote daily, kept a daily record, and held themselves accountable to another person on a weekly basis - their average was a whopping 157 pages. 

 

So there might be something in this.  And Boice says it works because your ideas stay fresh, so there's less warm-up required.  It allows time and energy for interludes of what he calls "near-writing" - which is to say collecting reading, ideas and noticing stuff, which induces more imaginativeness and clearer organisation as well.  You end up having less tiring sessions and there's reduced pressure to write quickly and perfectly in the first draft.   And it's also potentially easier for people to fit into busy schedules. 

 

I find this works for me if it's just about producing words or doing pre-writing, but if I need really focused time without anything else to do if I'm to finish writing a paper or a book.   This can depend a lot on you.  I mentioned before Cal Newport's book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and he gives a variety of approaches.  So the brief daily sessions is one of them and he actually gives two models of how you might do these brief daily sessions - one is doing it at the same time each day and the other is just doing bits here and there whenever you have a moment. But also another model is to do a little writing retreat, or thinking retreat - you don't have to actually go anywhere although if you can then that can help.

 

You can try what works for you but even if you block out time at the end to do a real or virtual writing retreat, the preliminaries that you do before that are important.  

 

Ok so, I hope you find this helpful and good luck with your writing.

Lara has provided advice and guidance to staff across the university on effective pedagogy for students with Specific Learning Difficulties, as well as on inclusive and accessible online pedagogy in response to the covid-19 pandemic. Please note that she is unable provide individual support on any of these issues beyond her own students, but if you need more support on any of the issues raised in the podcasts or have/believe you might have a specific learning difficulty, then support is available via the following:

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