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Photo courtesy of JMEllwood
I love to learn. I feel in many ways as if we’re in the golden age of learning. We have at our fingertips a wealth of resources to provide a truly dynamic and rich learning process. From e-books to blogs and social networks to open libraries, it has never been more easy to access information. When it comes to learning and information retention, however, this wealth of information can have its downsides. At least that’s what a few researchers discovered when they attempted to copy the effects on the brain of learning without time for reflection.
Researchers at Yale and the University of Texas recently attempted to mimic the brain by creating a digital neural network or “computer brain” and discovered something they’re calling “hyper-learning.” They were recently interviewed on APM’s Marketplace Tech Report about the model they created to simulate the way the brain learns and takes information in:
“What the model suggests is if this process is accelerated unduly, that bad things happen and that stuff going into memory gets intermingled, corrupted, kind of like a bad sector in a hard drive,” says Dr. Ralph Hoffman, a psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine. The brain takes in too much information, too quickly, “can’t organize it and sift it. And somehow something to do with that process may be running amok.”
The purpose of the study, which is published in the latest edition of the journal of Biological Psychiatry, was to explore the role of data input and processing on the brain. They found that too much data input or hyper-learning without time for reflection can even lead to disorders like schizophrenia.
Here at Tulane, students recently concluded their finals for spring semester. I can remember distinctly the sense of relief I had when I completed each academic term. I was happy to be doing anything but learning. However, if you asked me to recall much of what I learned in those classes today, I probably couldn’t do it with any clarity, which is disappointing. This troubling fact has drawn the attention of two sociology professors who have criticized institutions of higher learning for not meeting important learning outcomes in their recent book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.
In a recent and popular Op-Ed from the New York Times, the authors, Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Viriginia, describe that while measures such as student satisfaction are at record highs, the quality and depth of student learning remains shallow and superficial. I can verify this in my own work with undergraduate students as I am often surprised at their subpar writing and communication skills.
These problematic outcomes don’t exist in a vacuum though. The students I work with report high levels of academic related stress, which is substantiated in the recent edition of the annual survey on American freshmen (National Norms Survey), which found that stress is at an all time high for male and female college students. When the time comes to reflect on what they learned during the semester, most students are like I was and want to get as far away as possible from the material they just consumed for the last 16+ weeks. However, this resistance is in many ways leading to the poor results that Arum and Roksa rail against in their book and op-ed.
For many people, installing simple rituals to reflect and review can provide dramatic effects on their long-term retention. Incorporating important rituals and habits can also provide significant benefits when it comes to stress management as well. To that end, here a few rituals you can implement to help maximize your learning retention and overcome the stress associated with the learning experience:
- Review books and course notes when finished. This is often the last thing on a somone’s mind as it was in my case. Steve Leveen (@SteveLeveen) first turned me on to this ritual in his book, The Little Guide to Your Well Read Life. Steve encourages readers to leave “footprints” in their books and to process those notes after reading the book instead of putting it down right away. It’s a great way to re-engage with the material and synthesize your learning. When you scale this up to a class or even a series of classes, it can have even more profound effect.
- Encourage regular renewal breaks. In his book, Be Excellent at Anything, author and Energy Project CEO Tony Schwartz (@tonyschwartz) brilliantly describes the need for intermittent rest and renewal to remain maximally productive and effective. I often encourage this practice with my own students, especially when finals and exam periods come around. I advise a lot of high-ability students who feel pressured to be learning all the time. I encourage them to use breaks, whether they are 15 minute study breaks or spring breaks to step away from learning and read a work of fiction, take long walks, exercise, socialize with friends, and anything else to depart from the energy they traditionally put into their studies. They often report an increased sense of peace and calm as a result of this practice.
- Install a weekly operational review. If anyone has learned anything from me, it’s that the brain is a terrible place to store reminders of projects and next actions. I
forceencourage my students to externalize their thinking and write things they are committed to doing down on paper then dispatch those results into a trusted system (paper planner, digital file, list management software). After we’ve completed a core dump and collected everything that has their attention, we’ll then begin work on the other five phases of workflow (process, organize, review, do) as described by author and productivity guru David Allen (@GTDGuy) in his masterful book, Getting Things Done. The capture phase alone is invigorating and freeing for many of my students and clients, but it’s not enough to go the distance and create the “mind like water” experience that Allen extols in his writings and work with his company, The David Allen Company. Lists of projects and commitments go stale rather quickly in this fast paced world, so I encourage students to spend an hour a week to review their lists and renegotiate their commitments with themselves and others. This simple habit can have a profound and long lasting effect on learning organization and information retention.
These are just a few of the rituals that I find useful in my own practice as well as with students. Now I turn the floor over to you and ask: what are some ways you synthesize your learning and make sense of all the input and information in your world? What are some rituals and habits you’ve installed to maximize your learning and engagement? I welcome your comments and feedback in the comments section below!
I’ve already heard from a number of NACADA association members who read my blog post 6 Things Disney Can Teach Us About Academic Advising, which is a review of what I learned from the recent 2010 conference in Orlando and ways we can emulate Disney’s renowned customer service approach in our advising centers around the nation.
The post was originally published in January and was subsequently picked up by Disney Dispatch and featured for fans of Disney across the world (“What Academic Advisors Can Learn from Disney”). This week it was featured in NACADA’s Monthly Association Highlights for May, 2011.
If this is your first visit here, I invite you to browse through the site and learn more about my passion for learning and higher education. Currently, I work as an administrator with Tulane University’s Academic Advising Center and passionately serve students by giving them permission to learn just as much about themselves as they do about the classes they take.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me via this blog or send me an email at bje at elizardi dot com. You can also join the discussion on Twitter (@belizardi) and connect with me on LinkedIn. I hope you find my writing intriguing and useful for your work with students and learners alike.
You listen to people explain it, but it’s difficult to fully appreciate the transformational affect fatherhood has until you hold your little one in your arms for the first time. The thought of cuddling, holding, changing, dressing, burping, and swaddling my child was daunting to me before her birth, especially since I never rarely got to practice these things growing up. When she arrived, all my fears and anxieties melted away as I held her against my chest for the first time.
While the mechanics of caring for an infant are somewhat easy to master, a positive attitude and approach to caring for your child in ways that align with your values and goals is not.
To fill this gap, I often found myself reverting back to the frameworks and principles I’ve practiced over the years as an academic advisor and higher education administrator. Even though my daughter is only eight weeks old, I often think of these four principles when interacting with her and find them very applicable in my new role as a new father.
1. Reach Students Where They’re At and Not Where You Want Them To Be
There was a point in my career as an administrator where I began to move beyond advising as sharing my own experience to advising as using principles and paradigms to help students grow and learn. This maturity came with time and is an experience that many advisors I speak with have gone through in some form or fashion. When I was able to take myself, in particular my successful career as a student out of the picture I started being able to reach each student where they were in their own development and not where I thought they should be based on my own expectations. This can be made especially difficult by students who seem to repeat the same mistakes again and again, but be mindful to disembed yourself from the equation, be patient, and learn where they truly are in their process to provide the best support possible.
2. Challenge +1
Sanford famously gave us the Challenge and Support model that allows advisors to challenge students in their thinking and behaving and then support them in making decisions to overcome maladaptive behaviors to replace them with positive ones that empower them to achieve their goals and desired outcomes. Some have extended this to theory into the more contemporary version of Challenge +1, which involves taking smaller steps to get there. Each advising session can be used to offer a simple challenge to encourage the student to be better in one particular way than they were before. Each session can also build off of the previous one assuming you take good notes and leave bread crumb trails to help you remember where you last left off.
3. See In Students What They Don’t Already See in Themselves
One of the leadership precepts I subscribe to that applies to my work with students as well as any colleague I come into contact with is to see capacities in others they don’t fully yet recognize in themselves. Through truly listening to people and getting to know them, their strengths, their wants and desires in life, I can use my advising and coaching skills to bring out the best in them and empower them to grow into the person they may not know they’re capable of being.
4. Engage with Students to Problem Solve
This last one is actually an idea I got years ago from one of my favorite parenting blogs (Parent Hacks) on problem solving with a child that I have found very applicable in my work with students. A reader wrote in and offered this brilliant advice on how to use teaching to be a better parent:
When I have a problem that concerns one of my kids (meaning: When I want them to do something that they refuse to do), I see that I have a choice. I could visualize my child standing on the other side of a line, next to “The Problem”, with me yelling across the line, “Hey, you better solve “The Problem.” Instead, I get myself to stand next to my child, with “The Problem” alone on the other side of the line, with me putting an arm around my child, saying “Hey, you and me, we’re gonna defeat “The Problem” together.” I find that this attitude seems to make my kids feel better about themselves. It minimizes/eliminates shame.
As an advisor, I seek to partner with the students I advise to help them problem solve and learn from experiences in their lives. I have purposely configured my office workspace and removed my desk as a barrier in between me and my students to allow for a collaborative approach to best meet their needs. This approach has been elegantly captured in the contemporary Appreciative Advising model and extends this idea of partnering to problem solve.
What are some ways you’re using your role as an advisor to inform your role as a parent and vice versa? I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below as I seek to continuously improve my skills and approach in both of these important areas.
UPDATE: This article struck a chord with the folks over at the Disney Dispatch network and they subsequently picked it up for their subscribers. Here is a link to the post on their blog: What Academic Advisors Can Learn from Disney.
UPDATE 2: This article was also was featured in NACADA’s Monthly Association Highlights for May, 2011.
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We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. -Walt Disney
Recently I attended the annual conference for academic advising professionals (NACADA) in Orlando, FL. During our stay, our advising team made particular notice to observe the renowned Disney service experience to gather ideas to replicate with our advising center at Tulane University. To that end, here are some reflections from our visit that are worth considering for your advising center.
1. Walk Them There
Whenever I asked a Disney cast member about a particular location, they would first use the trademark two finger Disney point and would then offer to walk me there if it wasn’t too far. College campuses are becoming increasingly larger and more decentralized. The days of the one stop student center have long since passed. As an academic advisor, I often refer students to various other departments including the Registrar, Financial Aid, Counseling Center, Health Center, and more. When time permits, why not walk them there? This can be especially useful if the student you’re working with is a freshman and is new on campus. I utilized this recently when I began my new job at Tulane because it gave me the opportunity to get to know the campus and meet different staff members in different departments. It also gives the student a strong sense of confidence and leaves them feeling positive about the service experience in your department, which cultivates loyalty.
2. Don’t Create False Realities
I’ve been to a number of Disney Institute trainings and have stayed at various resorts as a guest. I love their model of customer satisfaction and generally find it applicable, except when it comes to the whole happy ending thing. I witnessed a number of individuals get too caught up in their role or the role of Disney to come back to reality and address me where I was. The same goes for students. It’s important that we encourage them to dream and focus on the positive, but also address the reality of their situation, especially when times get tough. We’re not cheerleaders but coaches who can have a profound impact on their success in and out of the classroom. That often requires tough and challenging conversations. Using structured theories like Sanford’s challenge (+1) and support will cultivate a trusting relationship and will allow you to support the student when it matters most.
3. Take Advantage of “In Between” Opportunities
When it comes to the customer experience, Disney has clearly thought this one out extensively. My favorite example of this was the bus rides to and from various locations around Disney. For example, when you take the Magical Express from the airport to your resort or your hotel, Disney has created a video detailing all of the wonderful and exciting things you can do during your stay. This would normally be a time when everyone would be staring out the window or lost on their smartphones (many still were), but it’s a great passive promotional opportunity to get some extra content in and begin framing the type of experience you want your customers or students to have.
One example of this would be to take advantage of the reception area where many students wait for appointments. Try to think of ways you can provide passive and active content to further educate your students on your center’s services and help students learn about all the things they can do with an advisor in your department.
4. Think About the Whole Student Experience
Whole student development is deeply understood in many higher education and advising circles, but what about the whole student experience? For the last few places I’ve worked I’ve led a customer experience mapping exercise in an effort to capture and design positive interactions at every touch point. Here is an example of a student experience map I created while working for University College at the University of Denver to help us better understand our students (PDF Download: University College Student Experience, 16.5 kb) Disney has long been a leader in this field of experience design; many others such as Starbucks and Apple have picked up on Disney’s lead here and you can too.
Take a day to step outside your daily routine and act as if you were a student. What is the appointment scheduling experience like? How easy is it to gain access to an advisor? What does the waiting space look and feel like? What are simple transactions like? Taking a step back to think holistically about the entire student experience can pay huge dividends as it has for Disney. If you’ve ever experienced a Disney vacation, you’ll know and more importantly feel this value and attention to every detail, from the dining experience to the way your bed is turned down.
5. Be Inclusive When Brainstorming Solutions to Problems
One of my favorite Disney stories about customer service has to do with the team that designed the resort at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. The lodge features a beautiful indoor waterfall that generates quite a bit of noise. Because the hallways leading to the guest rooms all opened up to the lobby, they installed an extra thick plush carpet to soften the noise as it traveled to the guest rooms. This however presented a challenge for the custodial staff who are responsible for pushing carts to replenish supplies for guest rooms.
To resolve this, the designers brought in members of the custodial staff and included them in brainstorming solutions to the problem. It would have certainly been easier for the engineers of the building to create a solution that worked for them and then disseminate the results downwards to this traditionally oppressed staff group. However, they took the more energy intensive approach to include the staff and as a result ended up with a better solution. This also had the byproduct of empowering this staff group and including them in the decision making process. This no doubt has a profound impact on this group since many of them directly interact with guests on a regular basis. As Disney learned, it’s much easier to get buy in and participation when you’ve included the group that stands to be affected by your decision.
The solution revolutionized the entire company as well. Together they created a motorized cart that easily maneuvers along the thick carpet to make it easier for the custodial staff to move from room to room. Incidentally, other departments caught on to this innovation and decided to copy it. Now whenever you visit any Disney theme park you’ll see motorized carts carrying supplies all over the place.
Next time you’re dealing with an issue, consider taking the tough road to be inclusive as it may generate more effective solutions to the problem you’re dealing with that benefit students in ways you hadn’t originally thought of.
6. Engage Everyone in Your Pursuit of Loyalty and Excellence
The previous approach can also pay dividends when it comes to cultivating student loyalty. I don’t know if this is true or not but I’ve heard that Disney pays custodial workers extra because their international guests often feel more comfortable asking them questions.
When it comes to your advising center, think about all the people who interact with your students, especially the ones who are not on the org chart. How can you include them in your decision making process to better empower them to deliver excellent care and attention to your students? When was the last time you invited them to your staff meeting or planning retreat? Think beyond your org chart to determine who you can include in your pursuit for student service excellence.
I know many of you have experienced Disney at one point in your life. The Disney experience is far and wide, so what are some things you’ve seen that could be copied to higher education and academic advising? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories in the comments below.