Friday, 28 October 2016

Revising for exams - why cramming the night before rarely works





Amy Reichelt
, RMIT University

In our five-part series, Making Sense of Exams, we’ll discuss the purpose of exams, whether they can be done online, overcoming exam anxiety, and effective revision techniques.

The date for an important exam is looming. You know you have to study for it. Suddenly, it’s the evening before the dreaded date, and you feel like you haven’t studied enough, if at all. It’s time to cram all the information you can into your brain.

We know that to do well in exams, you have to remember your material to then demonstrate your knowledge during the test. But is an intense night of study an effective way of learning?
Learning information that can then be recalled in an often stressful environment is taxing on the brain.

In the best situations we can forget things like our colleague’s names when trying to introduce them to someone.

In a high pressure situation our brains can easily perform sub-optimally.

How to remember information in the long term


In cognitive psychology, a discrimination can be drawn between deep and shallow processing of information. This is known as the Levels of Processing theory which was proposed by researchers in the 1970’s. They argued that “deep processing” led to better long-term memory than “shallow processing”.

Shallow processed information can be encoded by the brain based on the simple characteristics of the words, rather than the meaning. So the knowledge is only able to be stored in short-term memory stores, where it is only retained for a short period.

To process information deeply, the meaning and importance of the information is encoded. Relations between concepts are linked together in an elaborate manner, so more understanding of the information is able to be demonstrated.

Due to the more meaningful analysis of the material, stronger and more long lasting memories can be formed.

Taking the time to elaborate and assign meaning to information allows easier recall. However, this process takes time, and when an entire subject needs to be crammed into your memory in a short period of time, deep processing can’t be performed.

So cramming can work for a short-term recall of the information, but this information will rapidly be lost.

Re-reading notes is not enough


Re-reading through notes is often not enough to cement information into your memory.
Spider diagrams (above) or mind maps have been found to be more effective then conventional note taking for the retention of memory. from www.shutterstock.com

A way of encoding information more deeply is to write diagrammatic notes. Spider diagrams, mind maps and concept maps are visual stimuli and are more easily remembered than a list of points or blocks of text.

Condensing information down into single word cues can then efficiently trigger the recall of large amounts of information.

Hand writing revision notes can also help you learn information more deeply and helps you to get into the practice of writing rapidly in an exam setting.

Typing on a computer can also increase distraction, as the temptation to procrastinate can increase.

A lack of sleep can affect your performance


Last minute revision is synonymous with a poor night’s sleep, if any sleep at all.

The dilemma presented is that you can either stay up and study to commit as much information to memory as possible, or forfeit a night’s sleep.

Sleep, however, is essential in forming enduring memories – and a lack of sleep is shown to be self defeating in terms of memory recall.

Scientists still do not fully understand why sleep is so important for brain function, but it is known that sleep is important in the consolidation of memory.

This is the process of forming an enduring memory from short-term stores into long-term memory.
Your brain goes through different stages of sleep. The deepest stage of sleep is known as Slow Wave Sleep and this period is proposed to be vital in the consolidation of memories.

The hippocampus is essential in the consolidation of memories, in particular in forming episodic memories, which requires linking the features of a memory together.

Studies have revealed in mice that the neurons in the hippocampus activated during learning a maze became active again during Slow Wave Sleep. The reactivation of neurons is proposed to strengthen the new connections.

So a good night’s sleep after learning new information is essential to forming memories. It’s beneficial to get sleep rather than staying awake and going into an exam without rest.

Procrastination can pile on the pressure


Despite the deadline of exams to study for, mundane tasks suddenly become more appealing, like rearranging a bookshelf, or cleaning your desk, instead of revising for an exam. The tasks we can occupy ourselves with when procrastinating are typically immediately rewarding but only have a short-term value.

The more important task of studying can lead to a bigger reward - passing the exam, however this reward is not immediate.

Humans tend to be motivated for small, immediate rewards. The value of passing a test certainly outweighs smaller, immediate rewards like playing video games; when the deadline approaches, the importance shifts. This usually leads to a long night of study before the exam.

It has been suggested procrastinators may be a certain personality type, in particular people who are thrill seekers.

Leaving an important task until the last minute increases adrenalin and stress hormones, and you can get a rewarding “rush” once its complete. The reinforces the idea that such people work better under pressure.

Familiar environment can prompt memory


Even if you arrive at the exam the morning after a long night of study, feeling sleep deprived and as if you haven’t learnt enough, all may not be lost.

Being in the exam hall at school, college or university can help you recall information. The familiar environment can increase performance as the stimuli around you can prompt memory.

For example, a science exam being taken in a science classroom can cue memories, these cues aren’t present in a strange environment such as taking an exam in a race course hall.

This is known as the environmental reinstatement effect, which occurs because the location you are in can act as a prompt for past memories.

Environmental cues can trigger memory recall, so something as simple as having your pencil case on your desk while studying and again during the exam could assist in prompting memories.

Tips for remembering information

  1. Hand write out your notes instead of typing
  2. Get a good night’s sleep before an exam
  3. Write a revision plan and start early
The Conversation
Amy Reichelt, Lecturer, ARC DECRA, RMIT University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Why sugar is so much worse for teenagers' brains

Image via iStock


Amy Reichelt, RMIT University
The rate of obesity is increasing worldwide and the increase has been particularly dramatic in young people. Young people are the greatest consumers of high-energy, sugary and fat-laden “junk” foods and sweetened drinks.

The heightened metabolism and rapid growth during puberty can protect against obesity. However, easy access to cheap junk foods and increasingly sedentary lifestyles outweighs the protection from growth spurts.

Diets high in refined sugar and saturated fat not only contribute to weight gain and associated health issues, but also have a profoundly detrimental impact on brain function.

It is known excessive consumption of junk foods damage areas of the brain essential for learning and memory processes. Neurons in brain regions, including the hippocampus, that encodes memories, no longer work efficiently, leading to poorer learning.

This is of great concern as adolescence is a critical formative period for learning about the world. Adolescence is also a time of newly found independence, including food choices.

Recent research in rodents has shown the adolescent brain is at an increased risk of developing diet-induced cognitive dysfunction. Adolescent, but not adult, mice develop memory problems after consuming high-fat diets.

Teenage rats that drank sugary beverages were less able to remember a specific location leading to an escape hatch. This was compared to adult rats drinking sugary beverages, and teenage rats that had low-sugar diets.

The brains of the adolescent sugar-diet rats also showed increased levels of inflammation in the hippocampus, disrupting learning and memory function. Inflammation in the brain can contribute to cognitive decline and dementia.

The negative effects of obesity on the brain have been observed in young people too. Obese adolescents performed worse at maths, spelling and mental flexibility than healthy-weight adolescents. Structural brain scans revealed that obese teenagers had smaller hippocampi. This provides evidence that excessive body fat impacts the brain’s learning centre.




The Conversation, CC BY-ND


Teenage brains are a work in progress


The teenage brain undergoes major developmental changes in terms of structure and function. Adolescence is a period of increased neuroplasticity due to the dramatic changes in connectivity within brain regions.

Brain-imaging studies show that the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully mature until the early 20s. A major role of the prefrontal cortex is performing executive functions. This term encapsulates behavioural control, attention and decision-making.

Poor regulation of the prefrontal cortex during adolescence can explain the increased risk taking behaviours in teenagers, including dangerous driving, drug use and binge drinking.

Educational efforts to provide teens with information about unsafe behaviours tends to fall on deaf ears. The prefrontal cortex helps us to resist performing behaviours triggered by events in the environment. Resisting these behaviours in the face of immediate reward can be difficult, particularly for teenagers.

Teenage brains love rewards


The risky behaviours teenagers engage in are often immediately rewarding. The brain’s reward system releases the neurotransmitter dopamine when stimulated by pleasurable events, increasing the drive to carry out these activities.

Teenagers are particularly drawn to rewards, including eating tasty foods high in fat and sugar. The adolescent reward system is sensitive to stimulation and may be permanently altered by overactivation during this period.

Combined with the reduced ability to resist rewarding behaviours, it is not surprising that teenagers prefer to eat foods that are easy to obtain and immediately gratifying, even in the face of health advice to the contrary.

Changes in the brain caused by overconsumption of sugary foods during adolescence can manifest in later life as difficulties in experiencing reward. Research has shown male rats that drank sugar water during adolescence showed reduced motivation and enjoyment of rewards when they were adults.

These behaviours are core features of mood disorders including depression. Importantly, this shows that how we eat during adolescence can impact brain function as adults, leading to long-lasting changes in food preference and learning about rewards.

Teenage brains are more plastic


Excessive consumption of junk foods during adolescence could derail normal brain maturation processes. This may alter normal development trajectories, leading to enduring behavioural predispositions – in this case, the habit of consuming fatty and sugar foods, leading to obesity.

Fortunately, the increased plasticity of the adolescent brain means that young people may be more responsive to change. Opportunities to identify and intervene in high-risk youths may avert destructive negative behavioural spirals that may originate in adolescence. This can encourage life-long healthy habits.

The Conversation
Amy Reichelt, Lecturer, ARC DECRA, RMIT University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

When compulsion becomes crime


Image via iStock
by Rob Hulls, Director, Centre for Innovative Justice
This week is Responsible Gambling Awareness Week, a chance to reflect on how gambling has embedded itself into our culture, and whether the extent to which some participate in it is causing more harm than we currently realise.
Criminal behaviour is one of those potential harms. For a time, it was even a criteria in clinical tools used to diagnose gambling addiction. Whether a symptom of disorder or a consequence, however, the relationship between problem gambling and offending is not well understood.
Certainly, we see the occasional media story about corporate players who, to fund their high stakes habit, help themselves to funds which did not, strictly speaking, belong to them. We may also hear about more ordinary individuals who - perhaps working as a bookkeeper or in a bank - embezzled from their employer to fund a pokies habit and then were sentenced to jail. When we do hear these stories, most likely we think, ‘serves them right’, assuming it is just a consequence of greed.
What we don’t hear about is what might have driven them to obsessive gambling in the first place, or kept them there when it was no longer much fun - about the way in which mental illness or family violence, for example, can drive people to seek solace in bright, warm environments like gaming venues.
Similarly, we don’t hear about how gambling interacts with other factors which drive people into criminal behaviour, or how it might prevent them from getting out again. For, though it may be the primary cause of crime in only a small number of cases, research indicates that gambling can be a significant cause of re-offending. After all, even if an offender has been rehabilitated through their contact with the justice system - receiving effective treatment for mental illness, substance abuse or gambling addiction itself – gambling debt may await them upon release. Often the quickest way to repay that debt, especially for those accustomed to offending, is to commit another crime.
These are just some of the stories emerging from the Centre for Innovative Justice’s research into the intersection of problem gambling and the criminal justice system. Others concern vulnerable people, particularly women, coerced into offending - much of it drug related - as a way of repaying loan sharks from their particular community, or because their partner has spent their Centrelink benefits to fund a pokies habit and left them with no option but to steal to feed their kids In fact, a disproportionate number of inmates of Victoria’s women’s prison are there for offences that can be traced back to gambling debt, whether theirs or their partner’s – women whose children may then be removed and become vulnerable to crime themselves.
This seems a puzzling situation. Nobody benefits, including the community, if vulnerable people with no prior history of offending end up in prison. After all, we know that there is no better training ground for crime. On a cost-benefit analysis alone, therefore, the income we may be deriving from the gaming industry must be weighed up against the other costs.
The legal system needs to understand this issue better if it is going to respond effectively – including by engaging with growing evidence about changes to the neural pathways that can occur as a result of habitual and compulsive behaviour, and the cycle of anticipation and reward in which people can find themselves trapped. Knowledge about neural pathways should then converge with knowledge about offending pathways – the trajectories which can lead problem gamblers into crime, or in which gambling can entrench, or be entrenched by, other forms of anti-social behaviour.
Every case should be viewed independently, of course, and we should certainly guard against gambling becoming an excuse for crime. Courts rightly look for a nexus between an addiction and offending – but they are not currently supported with adequate information about more recognised forms of addiction. Knowledge is further curtailed by the failure of the system to gather any data about gambling, meaning that other factors which may be at play in offending are not addressed in a holistic way.
Our project is about bringing understanding across disciplines together – not to let anyone off the hook, but to seize the chance that contact with the legal system represents to set people on a different path. This therapeutic intervention can come from lawyers, from services, from the judiciary and ideally from all of the above – but it must be supported with shared knowledge across the board.
Whether it is the primary cause of offending by otherwise well-functioning individuals, or just present in the cocktail of chaos in which so many are caught, contact with the criminal justice system is an opportunity to address problem gamblingWe must not let this opportunity go to waste.
This blog was originally published on the Centre for Innovative Justice blog. Visit their page for related content.  

Friday, 7 October 2016

Review: Death by Design at the Environmental Film Festival


Image via iStock

Simon Lockrey, RMIT University

A ringing phone on the peak hour train ride home may be an annoyance to be ignored, and hopefully turned to silent, but these familiar chimes are signs of a digital revolution all around us. These are the personal electronic products we engage with to help organise, connect, entertain, and inform us in an ever faster cycle.

Now they’re ubiquitous. But where do they come from, who makes them, and where do they end up when discarded? Death by Design, a documentary directed by Sue Williams screening at Environmental Film Festival Australia in Melbourne, confronts these questions.

The human cost of the digital revolution


The film begins with the development of the semiconductor industry in California, exploring the human and ecological impacts in those formative Silicon Valley years. The film shows the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and its successful activism to drive remediation of contamination; and the personal stories of material toxicity, and associated devastation.

Throughout the film toxicity is revisited, and the film paints a fairly bleak picture of labour rights in China. We turn to Ma Jun, the 2015 Skoll Award winner (an award for social entrepreneurship) for creating a national picture of water pollution with data that is now publicly available.

Jun laments the potential human costs across China’s water infrastructure, which begs the question: why haven’t organisations expanding to these new manufacturing regions learnt the lesson from the US industry , or applied Europe’s hazardous waste standards?

What is equally troubling are issues with even stringent auditing processes. Linda Greer, a toxicologist from the Natural Resources Defence Council put it simply: “it’s all about the questions you ask”. A firm’s audit checklist may be thorough in some respects, yet miss key points in others. As such, manufacturing may be considered adequate, yet not address the pertinent problems. Jun’s work has already resulted in supply chain actions in this regard.


Who’s to blame? All of us


The film directs us to the main driver of the large industrial expansions Jun monitors, our daily consumption habits in the west. As Lancaster University professor Elizabeth Shove has portrayed so vividly, the devices of convenience and the rituals they connect to drive consumption, both conspicuous (such as a phone) and inconspicuous (such as the energy it uses).

Consumption implicates us all, and the figures the film lists are breathtaking: from 376,000 Apple iPod sales in 2002 to 51.6 million in 2007, and 10 million Apple iPhone 5s made in a week.

Purchases are only exacerbated by constant upgrading, and consumer inability to repair or refurbish their devices as the US firm recycling firm Ifixit explains. They’ve built a business that enables consumers to circumvent “prescribed obsolescence”, to fix their own electronic products by using their own parts, tools and how-to guides.

Irish firm iameco take this even further, challenging the notion of updatable, upgradable, and reusable computers. Both business models require the breaking down of secrecy shrouding internal access to such products.

Batteries are harder to replace now and screens harder to repair, as repairs become part of manufacturer’s business models.

As Ifixit look to disrupt that disposable model for consumers, the film follows the company to China as they source their own electronic parts, and come full circle.

With such throughput of electronics, e-waste is accepted as a major and growing issue. Darrin Magee, Environment Geographer from Hobart and Williams Smith Colleges estimates that the US generates 3 million tonnes of e-waste alone, with a much smaller amount actually repurposed and recycled. Chinese volumes of e-waste and the human cost of handling are also major problems to address.


Where to from here?


Death by Design suggests that the digital revolution has rewarded us with so many benefits, something that is reasonably clear.

Certainly with all of that success, manufacturers of electronic goods must take responsibility for how products are designed for longevity by extending life cycles, and in managing the toxic issues throughout the entire supply chain.

Part of the solution could include models that build recycling into the design such as the circular economy and cradle-to-cradle models, coupled with an increase in stewardship schemes, some of which are emerging at present.

The final sequence in the film suggests that we, the people, could use our buying power or behaviour to change the system in demands for labour safety, human health and ecological preservation. This is an interesting perspective, and could be linked to new patterns of “enlightened” consumer purchasing.

I wonder though, could it be a sharing economy opportunity? What about maker culture with new democratised technologies to help build what we need to retrofit upgrades?
Others have gone further in calling for moral outrage and collective action on related issues, such as pollution leading to climate change.

In any case, Death by Design is a thought-provoking look at an industry that we interact with every time we swipe, tap or lol. As innocuous as those actions are, substantial sustainability issues remain that we need to face as a society.

Death by Design is screening at the Environmental Film Festival Australia in Melbourne on October 6.

The Conversation
Simon Lockrey, Research Fellow, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.