Monday, 31 March 2008

Hitting the top of the net

For some people the top of net can be the difference between a First and a 2.1. With a little luck you make it over in to hallowed First territory. Or maybe you don't and you only wish luck had been more affectionate with you. After all, luck is what separates the highest 2.1s and lowest Firsts, isn't it? I am not so sure.

Like much of psychological research, this is a matter of averages. All other things being equal, if you increase the number of participants in a study the more reliable the data become; the chance of chance messing up your numbers is reduced with each new person through the door.

Your final degree classification does not suffer from too few participants. In fact, by the time you reach the end of your degree, your classification won't hang on the whim of the occasional marker or odd piece of alcohol-infused work you hand in. It will hang on the aggregated quality of your plentiful work.

Match Point is Woody Allen's most satisfying and chilly film in a long time and I think the fable about luck is appropriate in many situations - it is scary to think how big a role luck plays. However, with your degree classification luck is not the biggest player: consistently good work is.

Those of you who discover you are on the wrong side of 70% in June may feel unlucky but really you have not worked hard enough. You know the division is there. If you sense you are close, now is the time to make sure you start hitting the ball a little bit harder.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Pick up a book

Reading academic papers can be a bore. Trying to extract general themes from many of them can be time consuming and frankly you'd rather be down at the pub. Sadly, you are going to have to read them and make the links between them.

Happily, the whole process of reading papers can be made much easier by reading popular science books before hand. Unlike papers they have a commercial impetus to be interesting.

I also like books because they set out a map with territories into which you can see academic papers settling once you have read them. They often provide that crucial reverse zoom, where you can glean what the 'big picture' looks like, how it has been painted and where it could do with some touching up.

The first one to mention is by masterful 'populariser' and cognitive cowboy Stephen Pinker (who also has great hair). For all the criticisms you could level at How the Mind Works (the cheekily named The Mind Doesn't Work That Way by Jerry Fodor is a book-sized whinge about Pinker's ideas) it is the first eminently readable account of evolutionary cognitive neuroscience.

Pinker is superbly fun to read and should leave you with a new found panache for experimental psychology. I found it helped me think about the course on the most general level possible, setting up a framework in which I could think about everything else. (It also touches on pretty much every area of the course).

I would also suggest pages thirty-one through to fifty-eight of his other book The Blank Slate. Here Pinker discusses how four science samurais - cognitive science, neuroscience, genetics and evolutionary psychology - have joined forces in cognitive neuroscience.

I like to think of these as four of the table legs upon which any decent account of human behaviour should rest; they are to the mind and brain what Niko Tinbergen's 'big four' are to ethology (in fact, they probably overlap). If you can think at all of these levels about problems you will be a better psychologist. If you want to see Pinker talk about modern psychology, here's a vid.

Moving on from general books about the course to those general ones about individual areas, I start off by recommending Phantoms in the Brain by Ramachandran and Blakeslee for all those that have a neuro flavour, so second year Neuropsychology and third year Neuropyschiatry and Consciousness spring to mind. Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales is also great in giving the breakdowns in neural systems a human face. I also found Damasio's books (esp. Descartes' Error) to be useful.

I think the third year course on Vision has been put on pause this year (which is a shame because it is exciting and challenging), but second years should still be encountering the Benton/Scott-Samuel/Trosianko crack team. Something that might help you to get your head around this is by vision celebrity, Richard Gregory and his book Eye and Brain. For (much) hungrier people, Tom Troscianko et al's Basic Vision: An Introduction to Visual Perception will fill you up nicely.

Moving up to higher cognitive functions, there are several good books on Language. Pinker crops up again with The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, which despite being a bit dated now (e.g. the dissociation between Williams Syndrome and Specific Language Impairment is not a clean cut as he makes out) is well worth dipping into if not just to enjoy Pinker's verve. His Words and Rules will also set you up nicely for a big part of the Developmental Disorders of Communication course. Pinker's friend Jackendoff has also penned his own (better?) guide to language called Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution.

For Developmental stuff, How Babies Think: The Science of Childhood by researchers Gopnik, Meltzoff and Kuhl was fun and helpful. Had a scoot around for some others on Amazon but could only find things for parents on how to hothouse their children. Ask Bruce/Norman/Chris for some suggestions if you want more.

For Memory, see ex-Bristol working memory maestro Alan Baddeley's Human Memory: Theory and Practice, Revised Edition or his other one, Your Memory: A User's Guide.

For Evolutionary Psychology, Dawkins' Selfish Gene is a must, equipping you with the foundation to think and write about this deceptively tricky area (evolutionary stuff is the easiest to think about and the hardest the write about). If you haven't read this yet, feel silly for a bit and then click here.

Second years should be happy enough with the sections in How the Mind Works for Evo. But third years will need better preparation for dealing with Darwin's 'other' theory of evolution: survival of the sexiest. I strongly suggest Matt Ridley's The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, which takes you on an explanatory journey from why we need to have sex in the first place through to the consequences this fact of biological parking has on human behaviour. For a more nuanced (and saucy) account than the simplistic male-polygamy/female-monogamy portrayal, dip into The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature by Geoffrey Miller or The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating by David Buss.

For second years, Social Cognition, particularly, automatic thinking, can be spiced up and clarified if you read the very short (but slightly glib), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. The review papers by Macrae and Bodenhausen and Bargh nail down the big concepts in a nice way. For mental control, this recent Google book covers the ground well.

And now for my favorite module in the degree - Consciousness. There are many, many books to read here. I want you to read all of them, but I know time and motivation will restrict you unless you have long summer holiday ahead of you and you want to do this course (i.e. second years).

So, the first I would point you to is a brief but thorough paraglide across the big areas called Consciousness: Creeping up on the Hard Problem by the late, great Jeffrey Gray. Google have procured a free copy here. The title is a reference to a paper by Chalmers that you should absolutely read if you do this course. In Gray's book, philosophy, cognitive science and neuroscience dance their wonderful tango together and you should glean all you need to about the major issues.

For people who get really excited by Consciousness here are some fantastic books that will not only impress other travellers on trains with their cool titles but which will enrich you intellectually for the course and beyond. They include philosophical fizzler The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul (Dennett and Hofstadter), I Am a Strange Loop (Hofstadter's most recent), the rather arrogantly entitled Consciousness Explained (Dennett), The Mystery of Consciousness (Searle), The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Chalmers), I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self (Llinas), Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (Edelman and Tononi) and the denser Rhythms of the Brain (Buzsaki).

Right, that's enough to be getting on with. I have omitted courses where papers will have to suffice and I have probably forgotten some courses too. Hopefully, this list will give second years a good summer holiday reading list and third years a list of books in which to dip should a general understanding be lacking or hazy.

All the links in this post take you to the Brain Milk Book Store, where you can buy them. I have also put a permanent widget up on the side which will take you to the store.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Hunt as a pack

There is a scene in the BBC's great Planet Earth that captures a rare wild dog hunt. Have a look at it here. The narrator tells us that the secret to the dogs' efficiency is "their...teamwork and tactics". There is truth in this for revision as well.

In previous posts, I have tried to dissuade you from scrimping time in order to cover the material and said that cherry picking is a useful strategy if done cleverly. This post is about the most useful revision strategy of them all: copy the dogs and work together.

There is the most enormous resistance to this idea of collaboration with undergrads. It's because students dont trust each other well enough to coordinate an outcome that's better for everyone. It's a classic Prisoner's Dilemma. There is nothing irrational about wanting to go at it alone; the logic is fine. It's just there is a better logic for working together: you get better outcomes and less hassle along the way. Isn't this what any student would want?

What to do?

Form groups of up to around four or five people. Three is perfect in my opinion. Any more and the trust on which the whole operation rests is destroyed.

Then split the workload up between you. That means each of you taking a topic. I strongly advise that you share out a module evenly instead of one person doing the whole of one module and someone else doing the whole of another. That way you get a flavour for each one.

Once you have your crack team assembled, everyone needs to get on and produce very detailed notes on an area extracting the key arguments and references and trying to fit it into a bigger picture.

It is absolutely essential to make these easy enough for others to understand. You shouldn't just copy and paste bits from papers because the stream of logic will be split up. If you take care to build your notes with solid logical links and proper explanation you will remember them better, your revisions buddies will too and this clarity of thought will be evident in your exam essays. So, everyone wins.

For example, in Neuropsychiatry one of your group may take on "Psychosis– Delusions". Here they will need to zoom in and articulate what this is, what the sub-conditions are (Jealousy and Persecutory Delusions, Autoscopic Phenomena and Delusional Misidentification Syndrome), their organic basis (spatial and chemical) and then zoom out and see how this could be slotted into a general essay like "Do patients complaining of psychotic delusions have a real disease?". This example is primarily for 3rd years but it is useful for 2nd years to think in this holistic way as well.

With this strategy - working as a team and tactically splitting the workload - whole swathes of the course will be covered and you can quite quickly arrive at something very exciting indeed: a book (or revision bible as I shall call it from now on). This companion can then form the basis of your revision, thinking and learning (you can even put it on your iPod)

As a guide, the 'revision bible' I produced with my two accomplices in third year (they both got Firsts) is some 300 pages long and 175,000 words. Each module averaged out at roughly 22,000 words.

In second year, I did something similar (by myself, which was horrible, hence why I recruited others in third year). It was 98,000 words long, averaging out at roughly 10,000 words per module.

It's geeky, I know, but that's kind of the point of the degree. It's time to wake up your inner geek now, not languish in a culture against excellence.

We had it all done and printed (here) by week one of the summer term, having started before the beginning of the Easter holidays. We worked six days a week for six weeks and a very manageable nine hours a day (3 in the morning, 3 after lunch, 3 in the evening). Plenty of other time for enjoying life.

So in total: 9 hours x 36 days = 324 hours per person; 324 hours x 3 people = 972 hours. Note how the individual number of hours is way less than the estimate I quoted a few posts back and how the total number of hours is similar to this estimate (it's a bit more actually, but that means its better because there is more detail packed in).

Once you have got to this stage you'll feel great. You have researched a third (or whatever fraction depending on the size of your group) of the whole course and you know the remaining portions are tidily inside your 'revision bible' ready for turning into essay plans, spider diagrams and all sorts of other fun to get it off the page and into your head. Getting to this stage is the end of the beginning.

One final point. This is not cheating. There is nothing to say that you shouldn't be collective in researching and recording information. However, when you have finished the revision bible, the thought that goes into your essay plans and arguments should be your own.

So, the message here: start acting like wild dogs. Hunt as a pack and life will be so, so much easier.

Cherry Picking

(from Matt McGee @ Flickr)

Selectively picking areas to study can cut the workload significantly and I consider it sensible for getting to the level of detail you need to with certain areas. But I'll say it now to be clear: this can be a risky game and you must treat this only as advice, not as instruction. It's up to you to make the decision on what you do.

The most reliable way of knowing which topics you can avoid is by the coursework essay questions. They have the least (but not zero) chance of coming up; you can leave the cherry on the tree. However, this is not to say that the themes that coursework question cover (e.g. nature/nurture, module/connectionist, domain-specific/domain-general, functionalism/non-functionalism etc) wont reappear.

Sometimes you will notice a defined lack of a topic in the past questions and then you can hone in on it. Something on autism hasn't been asked in the last three years, stuff on qualia seems a bit sparse and so on (these are examples not actual cases). In order to know this, you need to have a good overview of all the topics.

The other cherries to leave on the tree are the ones that have a bad taste. Anything, you don't particularly fancy or enjoy - and that you can afford to leave out - omit. If you can choose the things you are most interested in your learning will be more effortless.

Second years, you are in a better position to do this. Third years you need to cast your net wider because of the general questions. Nevertheless, you can still on pick a little bit of certain cherries for this. That is, you can revise some topics in great depth and only revise enough on another to be aware of it and perhaps write a paragraph on it.

My advice is to research 70-90% of a course. This means leaving out one, two or three sections (depending on how risky you are - guys will tend to be a riskier than girls in my experience here). Later on when you get down to thinking and learning you may find yourself abandoning material such that you only focus on 50% of the course. This is representative of what I did.

You may ask, why not just learn 50% in depth instead of waste time researching something only to later abandon it. This may be just about ok for second years but for third years you need that breadth. The understanding you get from researching more is not wasted when you ditch those areas because it is important for holistic understanding.

Next, we'll look at a less obvious but perfectly legitimate way of making life easier: working as a group in the research stages.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Effort scrimping

(from pesterussa @ Flickr)

In the previous post, I roughly calculated the amount of work you might like to put in to your revision. It was a lot. Too much. I made three strategies for ways in which you could cut this.

The first of these was simply to invest less time than the 10 hours I suggested in each topic. If you only give yourself, for example, five hours for each topic, you have cut your workload by 50%. Those three slaving months divide in half - something altogether more manageable.

I would say that this is a very poor strategy. For good marks you need understanding, you need detail and you need to have learnt the material. To obtain these things, you need time. Thus, time is the one thing you should not scrimp on.

That said, I don't want this ten hour thing to be set in stone. You do the work you need to do to understand the area. With me, it was probably around ten hours per topic to get to the level of understanding and detail I was happy with. For others, it may be more or it may be less. My point is simply don't sacrifice on time.

As the next posts will argue, it is better to sacrifice on topics or spread the workload.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Number crunching

(from lonebluelady @ Flickr)

In preparing for your exams you will be faced with what will seem like an insurmountable amount of material to get through. Making decisions about how to approach it can be difficult. So, let's think about some numbers because they help clear strategies rise up out of the unknown.

Consider the amount of research you had to do for one essay. Let's say this is 10 hours. For a whole module multiply this by the number of topics in a module. This is roughly 10:

10 hours x 10 topics = 100 hours

Now multiply that by the number of modules on a course. Let's use third year as an example:

8 courses x 100 hours = 800 hours.

If we work out how much this equates to in other terms:

800 hours ÷ 10 hours/day = 80 days = 2.6 months.
Plus weekends free ≈ 3 months

These rough numbers reveal a daunting task ahead. One that will consume your life for three months. They imply working ferociously hard every day, all day, starting now...

...I didn't like the look of this either so I thought about alternative strategies. The numbers reveal three:
  1. Effort scrimping. This means simply investing less time in each topic.
  2. Cherry picking. This means simply looking at fewer topics.
  3. Hunting as a pack. This means spreading the workload out.
In the next posts, I will look at each of these individually, arguing that you should be looking at a smart combination of (2) and (3) and definitely not opting for (1).

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

The road ahead

Just like the start of any good essay, I'll tell you a little bit about the plan up my sleeve for this blog. It's good to know where we're going.

Broadly speaking, your revision will comprise three steps, which will overlap considerably. They are i) researching, ii) thinking and iii) learning. In the first step, you will need to assemble notes on the entire course. In the second step, you will need to craft these into reasoned critical and original arguments or rough essay plans. In the final step, you will need to ensure all this information is on-board. Much of it will have sunk in from the first two steps but some effortful learning will be needed.

I will take you through each of these steps.

More specifically, I am going to start of with a couple of posts on what my approach to revision was. I think being clever about work and not just clever in your work is important. So I will be giving advice on how to draw up a timetable, work out what you'll need to research, and how to minimize the amount of work you do by doing less work of much greater quality. I will also discuss how you can be more effective if you work in groups both on the small level (3-5) and at the year-wide level in the research stage. In other words, I will talk about how to work smartly and not just work slavishly hard.

I'll also be doing a few things to get you excited about your degree, including some cool books to read and videos to watch. I'll put into perspective just what a good degree it is and how rich and exciting it can be if you give it a chance. If you have a bad relationship with it already, hopefully, I will be able to mend that a bit. It is imperative you start (if you don’t already) enjoying and even loving experimental psychology because it makes the whole revision process less painful. I'll also speak about the 2.1/First divide and how not to get caught on the wrong side of it.

I'll do some stuff on how to take effective notes, how to make researching your notes more enjoyable and memorable, the best conditions and places to work in, question spotting, cherry picking, dealing with a mixed literature and so on.

In the first few weeks of the summer term all this research and noting should come to an end. You'll see in the following posts I suggest creating something called the 'revision bible', a printed, polished and bound version of all your notes. As such, I will be doing a few posts around this time on formatting the bible, organising your material using some advanced features in Word to make it easier to search through and getting it printed.

After this stage, you will enter step (ii), thinking. This will involve you boiling down all your information into thoughtful answers to past and invented questions. I estimate that 90% of all the answers I gave in exams in both years I had already written in some form during my revision. All I did was tweak it to the question being asked. Therefore, I will do a few posts on how to craft your arguments from your notes.

Then as you start writing a few practice essays I will unleash a torrent of posts on how to write because writing well it such a massive part of scoring highly. This will include stuff on your writing style, composing perfect introductions and conclusions, using the right words, describing and evaluating evidence and so on.

At this point I'll probably do a few posts for stragglers on emergency revision techniques. Then for people aiming higher, I give actionable advice about how to operate within First territory by being critical and original.

Then as exams loom I'll take you through the exam day, suggesting ways to get the best out of it, conquer nerves, deal with nightmare scenarios, read the questions, plan your essay, write it and what to do after.

Finally, I am going to suffuse the whole blog with posts on lifestyle during revision, including stuff on sleep, stress, exercise and food. I'll also harness the full power of the Internet to bring you some things like music to listen to and shows to watch because revision should be about relaxing too.

I am going to avoid nostrums and where I can will back up what I say with hard scientific evidence (mostly from our own subject).

So it's a tall order; however, yours is taller. In the next post, I'll talk about that big to-do list of yours and how to approach it.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Getting started

Hello! Welcome and all that. This is a blog. Some of you wont have seen one before. For those who have, skip to the next paragraph. If you haven't let me take off the digital blindfold and explain. Things appear here when I write them. Things over there on the right keep everything organised and let you generally hop about between posts and other things out there in the digital world.

Now, if I were you I would be asking three questions: who is this guy, why is he doing this blog malarkey and why should I listen to anything he has to say. So, first, I'm Will. I did Experimental Psychology at Bristol and graduated last year. So I am hot off the press.

Second, the whole revision and exam process is a punch in the face that sends you reeling for a good couple of months and when you have got your balance back someone important is handing you a certificate, and then it's all over.

This blog is about either nimbly side-stepping that punch in the first place or at least only letting it deliver a glancing blow. Like it says on the tin, it's a place where I wring out little drips of soothing revision goodness from my experience and give them to you.

It's my good deed to society and something I wish had existed when I was an undergraduate. I also happen to get great pleasure from writing and think doing this will sate my inner pedagogue. I suppose it's a commerical venture too because I make a wee bit from the ads on the side, which is good because my proper job (at Dare) doesn't start until October. Mostly though, I want to do this out of the belief that the revision wheel doesn't have to be reinvented the whole time.

And the third question: why listen to me? Well, driving in complete darkness is not a good idea. I want to spread a little light and each of you can spread a little light. That way everything becomes a bit clearer and all those unasked anxiety-inducing questions can be voiced and hopefully there will be less accidents or at least less bad driving. Another reason is this and the Facebook group will take the edge off what can be a very lonely process.

The lone student. I like pictures. I'll be using lots of them.

But that only half answers the question because I haven't told you why listen to me, why trust whatever I have to say? Well, put simply, what I did worked. It worked well. In fact, (prepare for some trumpet blowing) it worked the best out of the 2007 psychology graduates. What I say should therefore carry some weight.

It's important to say up-front you are not going to find any answers here, just ways of arriving better answers by yourself. I am not in the business of corrupting the academic process. I really hope you get something out of this blog. I want it to calm you down, get you ready, improve your marks and get you excited to think and write about the sexiest science there is.

Let's begin...