Study smart, not harder

Studying for the exams

It’ll be the June holidays soon and our children will be busy catching up with their exam revision and enrichment classes. They’ll be busy building up their portfolios of good-to-have creative skills and CV-building CCAs.

But studying hard isn’t the same as studying smart. Research has much to say about how we can study smart. It’s not necessarily the things that you’ve tried before. Here’s what the experts say:

1. Test yourself (again and again)

Recent research published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest revealed that highlighting key concepts in a textbook is not an effective way to learn. Instead, testing oneself is. Repeating a quiz after a month or more also facilitates learning.

2. Understand the information

Cognitive research has long established that our ability to remember things like facts are much more easily recalled if we understand the concept behind the facts. This notion of “deep processing” means that verbatim learning is not as effective as being able to rephrase the material in your own words.

3. Try learning outside the classroom 

A 2013 study found a positive association between newspaper reading and better grades among undergrad students. But the new buzzword is seamless learning. This is the idea behind the use of iPads in local primary schools to facilitate formal and informal learning, which was reported in a 2012 issue of Learning, Media, and Technology.

But there’s no need to sit around and wait for your children’s teachers to employ these techniques in their school classrooms. Parents can use Twitter, WordPress and RSS feeds to encourage their children’s learning. In addition to learning the technology (good for keeping dementia at bay) and helping their children summarize what they have learnt in their own words (see Tip #1 above), writing a blog can be a useful way to develop children’s writing skills.

Helping children find their own information and resources to support their blog not only trains children with initiative, resourcefulness, and independence (skills which will come in useful at the tertiary level), the process allows them to creatively explore an area of their own interest. The process further trains up their reading skills. We may take these abilities for granted, but everyone has room to improve at this, from secondary school all the way to university. School-age children need to read for their General Paper; university students need to read primary source materials for presentations and written assignments. Graduate students need to read journal articles. Adults who stay mentally challenged will be in a better state to overcome cognitive impairments in the ageing process.

The good news. Not only is the internet these days overflowing with useful apps for learning, we can even get all that information delivered to us through RSS feeds (visit feedly.com) and by subscribing to news alerts.

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Raising awareness for mental health

The burden of planning activities to raise awareness about mental health issues, improving employees’ mental health literacy, and reducing stigma for seeking professional, confidential psychological support for personal and/or job-related problems generally falls somewhat squarely on someone’s shoulders in the human resource department.

Apart from the run-of-the-mill talks and workshops which typically aim to train up emotional resilience and emotional intelligence among employees, it’s not always easy to know what other mental wellbeing activities could be organized for the benefit of employees, as well as stakeholders. The Health Promotion Board‘s “Enrich Your Mind Learning Festival” organized for the 27th of October 2013, Sunday, at Max Atria, Singapore Expo, is an example of how mental wellbeing can be enhanced and awareness raising can be achieved at the workplace. In addition, this free-admission whole-day affair, which starts at 10am and ends at 6pm, offers expertise from professionals who will dispense advice freely about creating the power of attorney and goodie bags for the early birds.

If not to benefit personally from the mindfulness and relaxation training for coping with day-to-day stress and for guarding against dementia through engaging in mentally stimulating activities, it’s fertile ground for social engagement and for building one’s social network – another protective factor against dementia. It’s not a replacement of a good ol’ walk in the park – yet another protective factor against dementia (Fratiglioni et al., 2004) – but it’s a good place to start. Happy learning!

Friends make you happy

It’s official. Social interactions in person make you happy. Not facebook.

And it’s not something that’s been made up, just to support the notion that social support plays an important role in building psychological resilience. There’s research to support this idea! A recent Economist article, “facebook’s bad for you” (August 2013) highlights these findings: Participants in a study who reported high facebook usage were more likely to report poorer life satisfaction, in comparison to those who were infrequent facebook users. In the same study, Kross and colleagues also reported that engaging in face to face social interactions with other people was related to improved mood.

It would be interesting if future work were to uncover that frequent facebook users who tailor their news feed for their wall and/or limit their online social network to friends they regularly meet, report more positive outcomes in terms of mood and psychological well-being compared to frequent facebook users who are indiscriminate news feed consumers and whose online social network includes people they’ve not said two sentences to. It’s lovely that your friends are out there enjoying their strawberry shortcake, sunny Greece, their new washing machine, and home-made bento lunch of grilled fish marinaded in miso and crunchy asparagus, but sometimes it’s better to talk to your friends about it over a cup of tea or coffee!

Finding new friends

It has been well-established that social support plays an important role in building psychological resilience. Ozbay and colleagues (2007) observe that high quality social support is associated with not only better physical health and psychological well-being, but increased productivity. As a Gallup report shows, employees with a close friend at the workplace reported themselves to be more engaged at work.

Building a network of friends and family who will provide high quality social support may however not be so easy if you’ve just joined a new organization or moved to a new office in a foreign land. Establishing a network of friends in the homeland after being away for a while can be a daunting task, although facebook makes it easy to reconnect with long lost friends from school, and meetup has made it even easier to bridge new connections. Learning a new language or joining a dance class can be a good way to make friends who’ll share your passion. Alternatively, learning a new skill, participating in a sport, or volunteering with seniors or a dog shelter can help with the task of forging new bonds. Not to mention the benefits of learning something new!

But for the busy people who haven’t time for hobbies, building a social network of friends at the office can be a good place to start. Here’s a list of things to try:

1. Join the lunch crowd. Round up some colleagues for lunch outside the office if there isn’t already a group that gets lunch together!

2. Organize social events. If getting your colleagues to have dinner once a month is interfering with your current low-salt, low-oil, low-carb diet, try organizing a Saturday morning walk at the Southern Ridges!

3. Start an interest group. A weekly game of badminton could be too tame for some: Instead, incentivize your colleagues to sign up for sailing, fencing, paintball, yoga, and rock climbing through Groupon by promising them food and drink afterwards.

4. Get your RDA of culture. The regular rotation of exhibits at the Flower Dome, National Museum, Singapore Art Museum, and Art and Science Museum means that there’s always something new to see.

With the one-for-one entry offer for the current Princely Treasures from the House of Lichtenstein exhibit at the National Museum with a Today newspaper coupon, and da:ns Festival, Oktoberfest, and Hairspray the musical all coming to town in October 2013, there’s really no excuse for not galvanizing your social network into action!

Who needs sleep anyway?

There’s been quite a bit of coverage on work-life imbalance recently, (“Long hours the norm in finance”, Straits Times, 28 August 2013; “Long work hours entrenched in Asia banks”, CNBC, 28 August 2013; “Money never stops for Singapore finance workers who regularly work over-time”, efinancial Careers SG, 28 August 2013).

Given this and extant survey findings on the typical work week — for everyone, not just those in finance — it’s really not surprising that high stress and overwork are well-articulated key phrases often heard among the incoherent mumbling of local employees. Work demands have been identified as key stressors for locals across industry, from nursing, teaching, engineering and law, to banking, finance, insurance and IT.

Systemic interventions which provide evidence-based psychological training at the workplace have been found to be helpful to both employee and supervisor. So are online educational resources. Effective coping strategies (“8 ways to achieve better work-life balance, Forbes, 18 April 2013) are key in securing positive outcomes in terms of employee mental wellbeing.

But one has to ask the question, is it really all worth it, the 50+ hour work week? And how long can one sustain that lifestyle? Who needs sleep anyway? At least someone thinks that we should “say ‘no’ to extreme work culture” (Opinion CNN, 26 August 2013).