Listening Skills

This post introduces a video on the topic of listening skills. The presenter argues that we are losing our listening skills and identifies ways to improve.


Listen to Julian Treasure discuss 5 ways to improve listening skills.

Take notes as you listen.

[WpProQuiz 5]

A call to action

How did you go?

Reflect on the suggestions the presenter made. How can you apply some of these to:

  • your personal life
  • your working life
  • your learning?

Feel free to leave a comment below:

Impulsive behaviours hinder learning

This post explores the reasons why many people in their teens and early 20’s find it difficult to focus on their studies. We will examine some of the forces that are acting on the teenager’s brain and show how this is a normal and necessary process. We will then begin to examine strategies to manage impulsive behaviours.


Educational success depends on many factors. Intelligence is one factor that is seen by many to play a part (see previous post), although exactly how big a part is open to debate.

Also important is the ability to remain focused in a learning situation for extended periods of time. Science now shows us that during the teenage years, there are changes taking place in the brain that will have a large impact on a teenager’s ability to stay focused.

The incentive system

In the developing brain, there is an incentive processing system that drives young people to become more sensation seeking, more emotionally reactive and also more attentive to information coming from their social groups.

This system has been found to exist across cultures and even species, and may have evolved to encourage exploration of the environment in order to help prepare adolescents with the necessary skills for later independence.

While these attention-seeking, emotional actions are quite natural, they can lead a student to making irrational and impulsive decisions and behaving in disruptive ways. Typical behaviours could include skipping classes, being disruptive and not completing assessment tasks. These behaviours of course result in falling grades, conflict with teachers and administrators and possibly dropping out completely.

 The control system

In the adult brain however, there are cognitive systems used to control these types of impulses and to resist irrational behaviour. They are called the executive functions and they act to control harmful, irrational urges. These systems however, do not reach full maturity until the mid to late twenties (Geier & Luna 2009).

There is therefore a time period during which adolescents and students in their early to mid twenties will find it difficult to control their impulses and will be, at the same time, driven by nature to sensational, attention-seeking and emotional behaviour.


In the podcast below, cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore gives an informative introduction to the workings of the teenage mind. This talk was presented as a part of Ted Global in June 2012.

In the talk, Sarah identifies the pre-frontal cortex as the area of the brain largely responsible for:

  • Decision-making
  • Planning
  • Inhibiting inappropriate behaviour
  • Social interaction and
  • Self-awareness

She then demonstrates that this part of the brain is not fully developed in young people.

She then goes on to identify the limbic system as the part of the brain that handles emotion and reward processing, and she points out that it is hypersensitive in the adolescent brain.

These two areas of the brain will appear often in discussions on behaviours that can be strengthened to assist learning and life-development.

In summary

So we can see that there are sound biological reasons behind teenage impulsive behaviours and we can also see that these are a necessary part of the teenager later being in a position to make valuable contributions to their society.

On the negative side however, these behaviours may reduce educational outcomes and indeed are seen to lead to injuries (for example motor vehicle accidents resulting from speeding) higher mortality rates (including suicides) and substance abuse.

A call to action

If you are a parent, a teacher, or a teenager yourself, this understanding of what is happening inside the mind of a young person is the starting point towards moderating impulsive behaviours.

You can for example encourage the practice of identifying strong impulses when they first surface and then asking them to question whether these impulses are appropriate to the situation. Creating this space between the emotion and the reaction can be very effective in reducing inappropriate behaviours.

Coming soon

There are other ways to strengthen the executive functions and bring impulse behaviours under control and these will be covered in future posts.


Does IQ matter?

This post questions the relevance of intelligence (IQ) tests in the light of evidence that raises questions on their reliability and validity. Other types of intelligence are explored.

Key points

  • Average IQ score increase over time
  • The belief in multiple forms of intelligence is increasing
  • High IQ does not necessarily lead to success in everyday tasks
  • IQ test results can be dramatically improved through offering short-term incentives

Questions to first consider

  1. Have you ever taken an IQ test?
  2. If you were give the chance right now, would you take one? Why?
  3. Do you believe that successful people have a higher than average IQ?
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The correct answer is at the end of this post.


There is a widely held belief, especially in educational environments, that a person’s academic success, (and ultimately job performance and income) can be predicted by their score on a standard intelligence (IQ) test.For this reason, they are routinely being conducted in schools to make decisions on student placement.

This post will explore their relevance in the light of new evidence and begin to examine other factors that play a part in determining success, both in education and in other areas of life.

 A brief history

Intelligence testing has been carried out for over 100 years. Psychologist Alfred Binet developed the first tests of this kind in the early 1900’s. His early tests were focused mainly on verbal skills and were designed to measure a child’s mental age based on language ability.

These early test have been refined and modified over the years and more recent tests also include attention, memory and problem-solving skills. These types of general intelligence tests are widely used as an educational tool but their validity is dependent to a large extent on the scores remaining constant over time and being unaffected by external factors.

Recent research has shown that an IQ test score can be improved to a small extent at an early age, but becomes more fixed as we age. By the time a student enters university, their IQ as measured in these standard tests, is unlikely to change. Interestingly however, since the early 1900’s average scores in IQ tests have been rising at the rate of 3 IQ points per decade in most parts of the world.

Tests in doubt

Questions still remain on the validity of these tests and interestingly, Binet himself believed that intelligence was far too broad a concept to be measured by a single test (Kamin 1995).

Some of the current areas of contention are:

  • Is intelligence a single ability, or does it involve an assortment of multiple skills and abilities?
  • Is intelligence inherited, or does the environment play a larger role?
  • Are intelligence tests biased (for example towards people with a higher level of education or social background)?
  • What do intelligence scores actually predict, if anything?


The BBC video below titled ‘What makes us smart’ explores some of the questions above and come up with some surprising answers. First watch the video then take a short quiz.


Now take the quiz. To assist you, here is a description of the seven participants:

  • Susan – chess grand master
  • Garry – jet fighter pilot
  • Nathan – IQ specialist and Wall Street trader
  • Seth – quantum physicist
  • Stella – artist
  • Alex – musician
  • Bonnie – dramatist, author and critic

Click below to take the quiz

[WpProQuiz 4]

Multiple Intelligences and emotional intelligence

During the above video, reference was made to the theories of Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences. This concept is now being widely used in many schools in the design of lessons.


Click on the link below to take a free quiz that identifies your areas of strength according to this theory:

Multiple Intelligence Test

You can also take a free emotional intelligence (EQ) test by clicking on the link below:

Emotional Intelligence Test

A further challenge to IQ test validity

It is clear then that the validity of IQ tests is being challenged by those who believe that they do not measure all types of intelligence. A further challenge to their validity has come from research that identifies a range of other factors that affect achievement and success.

In one such study, first conducted in the late 1960’s, 79 children aged between 5 and 7, were given standard IQ tests. They were then divided into a control and experimental group, and 7 weeks later similar IQ test were conducted. This time however, children in the experimental group were told they would be given one M&M for every correct answer. The result was that the IQ score of the M&M group rose by an average of 12 points.

This clearly shows that IQ tests do not measure something permanent, but rather that results can vary depending on other factors – in this case short-term motivation.

A subsequent test found that the most significant impact of this effect was amongst students in the lower IQ range. It was found that offering M&M’s as an incentive had the effect of moving this lower group, on average, into the middle range.

 Where to from here?

In future posts we will continue examining other factors that can play a part in student academic success?

(The correct answer is d)


Kamin, L. J. (1995). The pioneers of IQ testing. In Ressell Jacoby & Naomi Glauberman (Eds.), The Bell Curve Debate: History, Documents, Opinions. New York: Times Books


The multi-tasking myth

This article examines the ineffectiveness of attempting to perform multiple tasks simultaneously and suggests conscious and deliberate attention switching as an alternative.

What is multi-tasking

The belief that we can perform multiple complex tasks at the same time is a myth. Science shows that we can only pay attention to one task at a time.

(For a review of the research refer to the article Multitasking: Switching costs published by the American Psychological Association, in March 2006).

When we appear to be multi-tasking, we are in fact switching our attention back and forth so rapidly between tasks that it appears we are working on two tasks at the same time. This is called attention switching and when we are attempting to rapidly switch between a number of complex tasks, problems occur:

  • We experience an increase in stress levels (attempting to multi-task can be very frustrating)
  • We reduce our performance and make mistakes because we start to miss things
  • We experience ‘attention blinks’- little gaps in our awareness (this can be hazardous when driving or operating machinery)
  • We lose our ability to prioritise what is important from what is not
  • We become tired more quickly because of the extra energy that is used when rapidly switching between tasks.

Dr. Susan Weinschenk in her article The true cost of multi-tasking identifies that the only situation where we may be able to effectively multi-task is when we are performing a physical task that we are very good at and are doing a simple mental task at the same time. This could be for example walking with a friend while having a casual conversation.

However she points out that even this may not be a valid exception. She cites research showing that people walking while talking on their mobile phones run into people more often and are less aware of their surroundings (Hyman et al. 2009).


Breaking the habit

Breaking the habit of trying to focus our attention on more than one task at a time is not easy. Dr. Weinschenk advises that the first step towards any behavioural change is to first accept that the problem exists. The next step is to begin noticing the behaviour as it occurs and recognizing it as an unproductive habit. Naming the behaviour when we first notice it is a good way to reduce its power over us. Simply saying “Oops, trying to multi-task again” is a good start.

In this way, with time and practice, we can replace rapid attention switching with a more productive and deliberate focusing of attention on tasks that we choose.

The proof

The experiment below demonstrates the unproductive nature of rapid attention switching. Time yourself or have someone time you as you carry out the experiment below:

Experiment 1

Task 1

  1. Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper
  2. On the first line, write: ‘I am a great multi-tasker’
  3. On the second line: write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, like those below:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

  1. Write down the amount of time this took

 Task 2

  1. Again draw two horizontal lines.
  2. Write the first letter of the sentence ‘I am a great multi-tasker’ on the top line, then switch to writing the first number in the sequence from 1 to 20 on the line below, then switch again to writing the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence, changing from line to line.

Your lines will begin by looking like this:

I am …..

1 2 3 …..

  1. Write down the amount of time this took

Results & reflection

Compare the difference in time taken between performing task 1 and task 2 . Typically, the second task, where you are attempting to switch rapidly between two tasks,  takes more than twice as long to complete. You may also have made a few errors and became a little stressed or frustrated as you tried to re-think the next letter or number.

Imagine how your stress levels are amplified when performing more complex and important tasks.

The alternative – efficient attention switching

You have now seen evidence of the unproductive nature of attempting to perform two tasks at the same time. What we need to do then is to move towards a more productive alternative that involve the conscious and deliberate focusing of attention on individual tasks for longer periods of time.


One strategy is to change our working environment. The environment in which we work has a significant impact on our ability to focus, so creating a quite environment where you can spend concentrated time on tasks is important.

Another strategy is deciding on which tasks have the highest priority. We become much more effective overall by selecting and giving our undivided attention to these tasks before others.

Developing conscious attention switching is however the key. While we do not always have complete control over external distractions, we can and develop efficient attention switching skills.

Consider the scenario below:

We are reading a research paper for an assignment and our mobile phone rings. We answer the phone and start a conversation while we continue skimming through the paper. Then a friend enters the room and asks us a question about an assessment task that’s due next week. We give a quick answer and return to the call but can’t remember what we’ve just been talking about. Meanwhile, the document on the screen has been ignored and when we do return to it, we need to start reading from the beginning again.

Efficient attention switching involves implementing strategies that allow us to switch our attention from one task to another and, wherever possible, complete the task (or at least some part of it), before moving on to the next.

In the above scenario, instead of talking on the phone while skimming a text, we mark where you are up to on the document then turn away from the screen and focus on the call. Then, when our friend enters the room, we say to the caller ‘excuse me for a moment’ and give undivided attention to our friend’s question. Then, when we finish the call, we return to the part of the text where you left off and continue reading.

The result is less stress, better relationships and more work completed with fewer errors in a shorter time period.

Improved communication skills and relationships

As was briefly touched on above, poor task switching practices can have an effect on relationships. In the next experiment you will explore the impact of inefficient task switching on communication, depth of experience and enjoyment. You will then compare this to the experience of communicating mindfully. (The source of this article was the course notes from the course Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance from Monash University, run through Futurelearn).

Experiment 2

Ask a friend to take part in this activity with you. You will need to face each other, and at least one of you will need a device connected to the internet.

How to complete the experiment

Task 1

  1. Face each other.
  2. Invite your partner to speak about something that they are authentically passionate about. It could be a hobby, a person, a pet, work, travel, love of food or anything else.
  3. Listen to the person speak about their passion, but at the same time use your mobile device to send a text message or answer emails. This will require you to attempt to multitask, i.e. to continue to have your attention on the device at the same time as you are attempting to listen to your partner.
  4. Let your partner continue to speak for about two to three minutes and then ask them to stop.
  5. Discuss with your partner about your experience, and what it was like being either the person speaking to someone who was multitasking, or multitasking while trying to listen. For example, you could discuss what effect it had on the conversation, comprehension, memory or clarity of communication.


Task 2

  1. This time repeat the exercise with your partner speaking about a passion in their life, but this time you will be listening fully, not attempting multitasking. Please give your partner your full and undivided attention If your mind wanders off during the conversation, notice where the attention has gone and gently bring it back to the person speaking.
  2. Speak for two to three minutes, stop and then reflect on the exercise again.
  3. Compare the experience of mindful listening with the multitasking one. Which was more fulfilling? Which one brought out more passion in the person speaking? Which was preferable? In which did you remember more? Why?


Reflection on results

To explore more fully the connection between attempting to multi-task and effective communication, ask your partner their thoughts on the following:

  • What was the effect of multitasking on the depth of communication, or the emotional experience in speaking or listening?
  • Were they feeling passionate about their chosen topic during the experiment or did they start to lose the passion in what they were talking about?
  • Did they feel that you were sharing their passion with any depth while you were multitasking?
  • What effect did multitasking have on the level of engagement or connectedness during the conversation?

A call to action

This article has shown that learning to use our attention in a more effective and discerning way will help us to cope with the significant amount of tasks that we will encounter in our life. In addition it will improve our communication skills and as a result, our interpersonal relationships.

Start from now to become more aware of the negative effects of attempts at multi-tasking and begin to move towards a more efficient style of  attention switching.

Becoming more aware of our mind’s tendency to become restless and seek out distractions will also help us to to develop effective attention switching skills. This awareness can be developed through mindfulness meditation. If you are interested in finding out more about mindfulness, click on this link: Guided mindfulness meditations

The learning process

 This post presents a model of learning that incorporates active involvement by the learner. It then asks you to reflect on both the workings of the model itself and your current awareness of the process.

 Questions to First Consider

  1. Traditionally, there are 5 human senses. What are they?
  2. It is thought that individuals favour one or two senses above others when it comes to learning (for example, I’m a visual learner – I learn best through watching others). Which senses do you consider your strongest for learning?


A Model of Learning

We know that learning is an active and constructive (as opposed to a receptive) process that comes from experience and interaction with the environment and is built on previous knowledge. We also know that the action and construction necessary for learning to take place comes from the learner – not the teacher. One theory that encompasses these elements comes from David Kolb.

According to Kolb:

  • The cycle of learning starts with the learner interacting or experiencing the environment through the senses.
  • Information from this experience is then compared with existing knowledge stored in our memory
  • New ideas, understandings or plans for action are created or learned from this reflective thought process, building on existing knowledge.
  • The new ideas or new learning is then tested through doing (discussing, conducting an experiment, trying out the new idea or approach, and so on). The results or feedback from these actions are experienced through the senses and the cycle continues.


A simple diagram of this cycle

The learner:


Kolbs Learning Model - 1


In this model, existing knowledge is questioned and corrected. In addition, the stronger the connection between existing and new knowledge, the more easily the new learning can be retrieved and applied.

An example of this model in action:

  • A student attends a lecture and sits at the back of the theatre and listens
  • Information is received through the senses by observing the lecturer’s body language and through active listening and is compared to what is already known. New information is identified
  • Reflection on this new information creates new ideas and understandings
  • These are tested after the lecture through discussions with peers or tutors
  • Feedback is received on the validity and level of understanding of these new ideas from actively listening and being involved in the discussions with peers or tutors
  • This feedback is compared to what is already known and the learning cycle continues.



  1. Reflect on the effect on learning if the student in the above example attends the lecture but is too sleepy to focus, or instead of listening chats to their neighbour?
  2. Reflect on the effect on learning if the student does not test their understanding through a discussion with their peers?
  3. Right at this moment you are reading and (probably) receiving new information. Begin to reflect on this new information now. Compare it to what you already know or feel about this topic.

Are you formulating any new ideas?

If you are, how will you test them?

Who will you communicate with in order to get the necessary feedback to validate these new ideas?

How will you apply this new knowledge?






The biological process of learning

This post will look at how neural networks are created, grow and are strengthened. In essence this is the biological process of learning.

In a previous post on Emotions and Learning, we identified that neural networks are used to carry information from the body into the brain and between different areas of the brain.

The Brain

First a little about our brain: The human brain weighs approximately 3 pounds (1.4kgs) and is about the size of a grapefruit. It is made up of 78% water, 10% fat and 8% protein.  It uses around 20% of our body’s energy and oxygen and receives 8 gallons (30 liters) of blood per hour. It is soft and spongy and can be easily cut with a butter knife. The brain is divided into different regions that perform different functions. As an example, a previous post on Emotions and Learning discussed the function of the limbic system in relation to processing emotions and the functions of the cerebral cortex in general.

 Brain cells

There are two kinds of brain cells, the glia and the neuron. Glia make up 90% of the total and their function, apart from proving a gluing function is not well known. Neurons make up the remainder and there are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain. They are made up of the cell body (soma), dendrites and axons. Dendrites are parts of the neuron that receives information. They form tree-like structures as they are attached to other neurons. Axons are responsible for sending information to other neurons.

Information is carried inside neurons and is passed from one cell to another across the gap between neurons called the synaptic gap using chemicals created within the soma. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters.

The growth of neural networks

From as early as four weeks after conception, the human embryo begins creating neurons at the rate of half a million every minute. The neurons soon begin to reach out to each other, establishing points of contact called synapses. By the end of pregnancy, points of contact between neurons are being made at the rate of 2 million per second.

Before birth, neural networks are partly created in response to what the embryo is experiencing in the mother’s womb, including the physical sensations of touch, sound and taste. Then, from the moment of birth, babies start to absorb everything that comes through their senses.

The strengthening of neural networks

In babies, neural circuits that receive repeated stimulation through the senses develop stronger synaptic connections, while those that do not begin to lose strength. In the same way with adults, our neural networks are made stronger through repeated learning.

The video below demonstrates how this process happens: