Category Archives: Study Skills

Growth mindset versus fixed mindset

There’s two types of mindset that are relevant to studying – the fixed mindset, and the growth mindset. People with the growth mindset learn better and get better grades than people with a fixed mindset.

What are they?

A fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence (or any ability) is a fixed trait, that you’re born with and can’t do much to change. A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence can be developed. Why is this important? Because if you have a fixed mindset, then the results of an essay or other test are a reflection on your intelligence. People with fixed mindsets don’t want to risk finding out that their intelligence is low, so they give up easier.

People with growth mindsets care little about the results of test, because they don’t see it as a reflection on themselves. They know they can learn and develop, so they take on more challenges rather than avoid them, and persist more, especially in the face of setbacks.

What’s your belief about your intelligence? Do you think the grades you get on this course are a reflection of you? If you got a bad grade, would you think “I’ll be bad at this no matter what I do,” or, “If I try harder I’ll do better”? The research suggests that being in the latter group – having a growth mindset – will help you get better grades, and it’s also more rational, because you can develop your skills, especially your study skills.

Watch this for more:

And now the big question – how do you change from a fixed to a growth mindset? More on that soon (I’m not building suspense I just didn’t realise how late it was…).


There’s one paper here linked from the database

And Carol Dweck’s (the main researcher of mindset) page here with lots of stuff

Three quick but effective note taking tips

Whether you write your notes in full paragraphs, i.e., blocks of writing, on each page, or you’re a bit more sophisticated and use bullet points, there’s probably something you can do to save time and prevent yourself from simply ‘scribing’ what the lecturer is saying (generally a bad idea). Here are a few quick ideas:

1) I use Tim Ferris’s method of using a notebook, and writing an index in the front page. This is so much easier than using A4 sheets and punching them into folders afterwards, you never lose notes, and it’s massively easier to find the notes you need. Wish I’d heard of this years ago.

2) I have used Cal Newport’s recommendation for subjects like psychology. He says to write the broad question that the lecturer is driving at on one side or in the margin, then the answer and evidence below it. This is really useful in some cases, but cumbersome in others. Sometimes the speaker jumps between ‘questions’, and it’s too slow to write out a question for each one. Although some lectures are practically designed for this method. This method makes notes infinitely more useful both afterwards and during lectures; you never think “Why the hell did I write that down?”, and by working out and writing down the underlying question behind what the lecturer is saying, it forces you to engage your brain right there. Which is something you should do anyway; if you just passively listen to the lecture and wait to leave, you’re simply burdening yourself further down the line with things you could have already done. Save time and do it in the lecture.

3) Use keywords, not full sentences. When taking notes in the standard, linear way, don’t write out full sentences. It will only slow you down and make your notes less appealing to read later. Use bullet point lists wherever possible, and indent and space them nicely.

Some people use a laptop too, which might also be useful; I can type much faster than I can write. But I’m also a big believer in not carrying things whenever I can help it, and notebooks weigh less than laptops (for now…).

Four ways to boost your creativity when writing

Whether you’re writing a novel, a blog, or an essay, the biggest problem has to be writer’s block. It’s so annoying when you’ve actually gotten past the initial procrastination hurdle (not an easy task in itself), you’re sat at your desk and you WANT to write – but it’s just not coming out. Or, what is coming out isn’t to your liking.

Trust me, I know how that feels; I started this blog post in 2005.

Here are a few tips you can try to give your creativity a little boost.

1) Get the right emotions for the job

Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik

Our emotions serve evolutionarily adapted purposes. We have different emotions because they each solve different evolutionary problems. Anger helps to stop people transgressing against us, love helps us keep a mate, fear keeps us out of danger, and so on. Because they are specialised, emotions have different effects on our perceptual system, and the ways we think. ‘Negative’ emotions tend to narrow our though-action repertoire, while ‘positive’ emotions tend to broaden them (Fredrickson, 2001 – PDF).

In other words, when you’re in a lower mood, you’re more likely to look at the little details, when your mood is high, you’re see the bigger picture and be more creative.

So whenever you’re brainstorming or coming up with new ideas, boost your mood with something uplifting, heart warming, or side-splitting. I like this.

Whenever you’re editing or proof-reading, put some downbeat music on, and get to work.

(We might also suppose that continuing a long argument with your spouse is a bad idea – you’re both focusing too much on the things that put you into that negative state. Sleep on it and discuss in the morning.)

2) Take breaks

Whenever you’re doing work that requires focused, mental effort, you’re draining your mental willpower reserves. Once these are depleted, performance suffers and you suddenly can’t be bothered to work. Take regular breaks and do something that requires no effort to attend to – spending time in nature has proven to be a useful exercise to this end (See the extensive work of the Kaplans). Also, make sure you don’t go hungry while working – the fuel that willpower runs on is glucose (Gailliot and Baumeister, 2007) – empty stomach equals poorer mental performance.

3) Use novelty to your advantage

Short answer: If you want a novel idea, expose your brain to novelty.

Long answer: The area of the brain associated with novelty is thought to be the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA). The VTA is part of the dopamine system, in other words, the reward system. When we perceive novelty, our brain signals us to explore, because it is always looking for rewards. The brain likes novelty.

What’s more, these brain areas are connected to the hippocampus, which is involved in learning. You can see where I’m going with this; enhanced learning might occur in the context of novelty. On top of that, a novel environment exposes you to a different set of priming, which themselves trigger different areas in your brain.

There’s the science, here’s the simple advice – go somewhere new to write. Try a park, a library, a coffee shop you’ve never been to. Try a car park, a zoo, a big wheel, try wearing different clothes, talking to different people. Use novelty to your advantage and see if your brain doesn’t come up with some new ideas.

4) Try the SCAMPER method

Luciano Passuello of LiteMind discusses the SCAMPER method of creative problem solving. This is going to be more effective when you have a specific writing problem you are ‘stuck’ on. It is essentially a list of questions which help you to look at the problem from 7 different angles, each represented by the SCAMPER acronym. Not all of these angles will be appropriate to your specific writing problem, but I’ve found it really useful at various times. I’m interested to hear how you get on with this method, so let me know if you use it – leave a comment with your experiences!

Get to it

I’m certain that by using one or more or these techniques (all four if necessary) you’ll be able to make at least SOME headway on your writing. Let me know how you get on!

Useful, free speed reading tool

I came across a very useful and free speed reading tool a couple of weeks ago:

The words appear in the middle of the screen at the rate you set, and you can paste in your own text to read. This is a great tool for ‘overclocking’ your reading speed: basically, you set the speed to just a little faster than you can comprehend, and then immediately move onto the book or paper that you want to study. You’ll find you read a little faster than normal after doing this. It’s a little like running with ankle weights or a heavy backpack, and then taking the weight off – you run a little faster.

Set the font size to 10 or 12 so it’s comparable to things you will actually read. Also, set the chunk size to around 5, as you should try to get into the habit of looking at words in chunks and ‘jumping’ to the next chunk (these ‘jumps’ are technically known as saccades – it’s how we all read anyway you just need to find a way to jump along in the most efficient way).

When you look at each chunk of text, don’t look directly at the first word. Look at the second. If you’ve been trained as a left-to-right reader, you’ll have a little peripheral vision to the left of the fixation point, and significantly more to the right of it. So even when reading a book, your fixation points should never be at the beginning and ends of each line, but a little in from the left and right margins.

Overall I think Spreeder is a great way to train different speed reading skills in isolation – reading speed, concentration, comprehension, confidence, peripheral vision. Try setting the chunk size to 5 and speed to 400 words per minute. The average speed is 200-250 words, so if you can manage this you’ve probably almost doubled your reading speed.

There are pros and cons to Spreeder though:


  • You can set your own reading speed
  • You can use your own text
  • Eliminates back-skipping completely (back-skipping is where you re-read something you’ve just read. It’s a bad reading habit as you’ll usually find you don’t gain much by going back, and you just need to be more confident that what you think you read is what you did read).
  • Very useful for skimming a text
  • You can alter chunk size to develop your peripheral vision


  • You are not reading a line of text as you would in a book, so the you’re not developing the right eye-tracking habits
  • Not great for active reading – only really useful for training and skimming
  • I prefer to spend as little time as I can staring at a screen

Recommended Reading:

Between work and leisure – Escaping The Grey Zone

A friend sent me an interesting text message the other day. He asked: “What’s your biggest time-waster?” I replied with only three mysterious words: “The Grey Zone”. In case you’re wondering, he said his biggest time-waster is figuring out what my cryptic texts mean.

What is The Grey Zone?

The Grey Zone is limbo. You’re somewhere in between relaxing fully, and actually being productive. You are sat in your work place, sort of doing little jobs that aren’t really important in between checking emails, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever. Or you’re watching a TV program but you bring a book to read as you watch it. This is The Grey Zone. You’re not making efficient or useful progress, and you’re not switching off completely and getting the benefits of leisure time either. After a while in the grey zone, you will feel guilty for not getting anything done but also tired as you have not been fully relaxing.

It’s very easy to fall into the grey zone with tasks that have no clearly defined start and finish points. Studying is one big example, so is working on a blog or website. Yes, you know when your exam or essay deadline is, but you don’t have a schedule to do x at y time on z day. Without a start and finish point, it’s easy to spend hours or even days in the grey zone. You’ll eventually feel too overloaded with work to justify taking any time off (at least not without feeling guilty), so you feel compelled to sit at your desk “working”, but at the same time you don’t have the motivation to tackle any mentally demanding tasks. So you settle on some task that is necessary, and is helpful in some small degree, but isn’t what you would choose to do if your motivation was higher.

The problem with the grey zone is that it’s easy to rationalise that you have spent this time working. You probably believe quite strongly that the more time you put into a task, the more you get done: the ‘results by volume’ approach. If I’ve spent 6 hours ‘working’, I must have done lots of work. The flaw in the logic is that not every hour’s work is made equal. Here’s an illustration, using an arbitrary points system. Say an hour of focused work is 10 points of productivity, an hour in the grey zone is 3 points of productivity, and an hour of leisure is 0 points of productivity.

4 hours productive work = 40 points
2 hours leisure time = 0 points
TOTAL = 40 points

2 hours productive work = 20 points
4 hours in the grey zone = 12 points
TOTAL = 32 points

So more gets done in the first example. But there’s another factor to take into consideration. Even though 4 hours in the grey zone is less productive, it’s still pretty tiring. Without the extra time to relax, you might not be fully rested for tomorrow. Here’s what might happen the next day:

4 hours productive work = 40 points
2 hours leisure time = 0 points
TOTAL = 40 points

2 hours productive work = 18 points
4 hours in the grey zone = 10 points
TOTAL = 28 points

Of course these figures don’t prove anything; I’m just using them to illustrate my points, which are:

  • The grey zone is easy to fall into without clear start and end points to your work periods (and knowing specifically what to do within these ‘time boxes’)
  • Overall productivity is lower in the grey zone
  • The grey zone drains your motivation to tackle work with focus

Escaping The Grey Zone

It’s easy to get into and hard to get out of – unless you know how.

1) Fixed Scheduling

This is an idea popularised by Cal Newport. The principle is simple – you set a fixed schedule to study, and once that time is up, you stop working and start your leisure time, however you might choose to spend it. This is a bit scary at first, you might think you need the time too much, but give this a try for a few weeks. You’ll find that you get as much or more done, for two main reasons. Firstly, you’re forced to be more productive in the time that you have, so your overall efficiency will improve. Secondly, you’ll be better rested the next day, and won’t feel the need to float around in the grey zone. But you must stop when your schedule tells you to! Then go relax and recharge for the next day. If you ignore your schedule, you’ll just keep your old pattern; and if your time runs out before you get the work you wanted done, it will remind you that you’ll need to be more focused the next day.

2) Time Boxing

I came across this one through Steve Pavlina, many moons ago. Within your fixed schedule, set specific blocks of time out to work on specific tasks. Buy a cheap academic diary for this purpose. For example, say you have a lecture between 2 and 5. Your schedule for that day might be to work in the library from 10-1.45, then go to your class until 5. Your time boxes might be a two hour session between 10-12, and another from 12-1.45. Time boxing is very useful when you can’t break a task down further and it’s now just a matter of putting the time into getting it done. You know you only have to do a certain amount of work, so you don’t feel overwhelmed.

3) Planning

Some people prefer to ‘go with the flow’ in terms of when and what they study, but I’m willing to bet that most people couldn’t do better on the fly than they could with a schedule. Therefore, you need to adopt some kind of system. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but you should know exactly what you need to do when you sit down to work. This doesn’t mean “Work on essay.” ‘Work on essay’ is not something to do, it’s a very vague notion. Instead, something like “Download Diener (1995), read and take notes.” Don’t put “Revise for working memory exam,” put “Draw mind maps based on notes on working memory.” It’s best to be as specific as you can so you don’t waste time in the grey zone deciding what to do. Although I accept there are times you cannot be any more specific than “Write essay” – sometimes it’s just time to start writing.

Remember the key points. The results by volume approach to study makes intuitive sense but it’s not entirely accurate. The quality of the time you put in is also important, and if you’re spending a long time putting minimal effort in, it will produce worse results and more stress than if you spend shorter periods putting lots of effort in. It will be difficult at first – focused studying is a tiring thing to do. After a couple of hours you’ll get hungry as your brain eats up glucose to fuel your efforts. But it is something you get better at over time.