Going Back to School with a Productive Mindset

Higher education students are mentally taxed like never before. They have an enormous amount of information to process in an intense, short period of time.

Students face many conundrums. They have no choice but to use information technology to process information. Technology, however, also presents challenges. For example, students are bombarded with emails, social media updates, text messages, phone calls and other communications. Yet studying and writing requires undivided attention. Students must process scholarly information with all kinds of applications, such as web browsers, PDF readers, ebook readers and multimedia players. These applications, however, are designed mainly for the masses who are content to “surf”. Higher education students, in contrast, need to delve deeply into complex knowledge.

Still, the biggest issue faced by students has not changed over the years: the human mind is a formidable but nonetheless limited machine. Learning from paper books and classroom lectures, which students also need to do, is inherently difficult. Like their predecessors, today’s students haven’t been provided with a user manual that explains how their own mind works—that is the domain of cognitive science. Nor have they been told how to use technology to efficiently and effectively master difficult knowledge. It occurred to me several years ago that such a manual had not even been written. So, I decided to write one for higher-education students and graduates. That book is Cognitive Productivity: The Art and Science of Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective.

In order to solve a problem, you first have to realize that you’ve got one. The first part of my book, therefore, is dedicated to helping people understand the challenges and opportunities I alluded to above.

If you want to become better at processing and mastering knowledge, it helps to know something about the mental machinery that does the learning. Just like your body and your brain have components, which are the scientific domain of biology, your mind itself has interrelated parts, which are the domain of cognitive science. A computer has software, a brain has mindware. Effective learning is a matter of “mindware development”. That’s the kind of deep learning that enables you to use knowledge to write great papers, ace exams, and actually apply your knowledge under the appropriate circumstances. Cognitive Productivity explains these basic concepts.

Cognitive Productivity also describes powerful strategies that you can use to become an effective higher-education learner.

The most effective people are better than others at deciding what to do and what not to do. Steve Jobs, for example, was known for his ability to say “no” to opportunities and to focus like a laser beam. This makes sense, because mental capacity and resources are always limited, no matter how smart one is. Deciding whether to process or reject an information resource is essential to cognitive productivity. Cognitive Productivity provides a simple schema for picking “knowledge gems” to focus on. It involves quickly assessing the caliber, usefulness, potency and appeal of information. To remember this schema, think in terms of selecting a “cup’a knowledge”.

Information technology makes it all too easy to passively process information. To be sure, it is often necessary to surf and skim. However, for deep learning, we must effortfully challenge ourselves. Cognitive Productivity explains how to delve information with web browsers, PDF readers, ebook readers and other apps. It describes how to extract knowledge gems from documents and then master them.

Ask A students and B students to read the same document. Their average recall of the document might not be very different. A students, however, will know more than the others about what they didn’t understand about the document. For example, while reading this article, a good student might recognize that

  • (a) the CUP’A schema is new to them;
  • (b) their way of evaluating and selecting information can be improved;
  • (c) they don’t know the difference between caliber and potency.

This is to be expected because this article hasn’t explained the difference between the components of CUP’A.

A good student then uses her “meta-knowledge” (her knowledge about her knowledge gaps) to decide what to research further. The poor student, in contrast, doesn’t even realize that he has a gap! Cognitive Productivity describes ways to identify and act upon knowledge gaps. This can boost comprehension and grades.

Cognitive scientists such as Jeffrey Karpicke at Purdue University have shown that the key to retaining and applying information is to practice with it. When good students read a scholarly text, they make a note of the questions that they need to be able to answer about it. Then they’ll practice answering these questions. This can guarantee a high grade.

Students have so much information to master that they need to practice productively with software. Cognitive Productivity describes ways to do this. For example, it describes ways to master technical vocabulary by creating and using “instillers”. It also describes ways to study such that students can apply their knowledge not only in exams, but in their professional lives as well.

Knowing simple but powerful ways to use technology to learn provides students with genuine academic self-confidence. That’s good news, because one of the biggest predictors of academic success is believing in one’s academic efficacy.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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