Study Skills 4

The first three lessons in this series were devoted to Recognising things, by paying attention. Before moving on, I reiterate that your ability to pay attention is the most powerful tool you bring to your study and learning career.

Yet there is more that can be built upon that foundation and so I come now to the second key study skill, which is the good old faithful, “Repetition”.

Say it Again, Sam

There are various statistics touted around at times about how little we take in from seeing, hearing, reading and so on. While the figures vary the fact is the same. We are not good at absorbing things. So repetition is important right from the start.

Haven’t you noticed that something suddenly became significant to you the third of fourth time you read it? Or you suddenly noticed something in a text you had read and re-read many times.

That’s why going over your notes, re-reading a text, reviewing the subject, having a discussion with a tutorial group, and so on, prove to be so important in our learning and study program.

Big Blob

My emphasis on Repetition, however, goes beyond the need to make sure we have Recognition. While hearing it all one more time will help people catch on to something, I am interested in the repetition process as a means of creating a Big Blob.

Look at it this way. Your brain is being bombarded with gazillions of bits of information all the time. If you are studying then you are pumping information and facts into your brain as fast as you can. So, all the bits of information are competing with each other for significance in your memory banks.

If a piece of information is important, then you need to give it higher significance in your huge bucket of data. You want that tiny blip of information to become a Big Blip!

When you repeat something, over and over again, you build upon that tiny blip and expand it into a large enough piece of information to be readily accessed. See it like a tiny drop of blue paint on the ground. If you keep dripping extra tiny drips on top of the first one, you eventually get a big blue blob. What was initially un-noticeable has become very obvious.

That’s what you want to happen inside your brain.

Learned by Rote

When I was a child (OK it was aeons ago!) we learned our multiplication tables and other facts by rote. We chanted them, song-like, over and over again. “Two threes are six! Two fours are eight! Two fives are ten!” And so on it went.

The teacher wrote down the side of the blackboard a list of key facts, such as the speed of light, speed of sound, number of ounces in a pound and number of yards in a mile. Multiple times each day she asked us to stop what we were doing and to read the facts in unison.

This is what is called “Rote Learning”. It fell into disrepute some years later, even though it had been a proven method for a long time. Discovery learning became the buzz for a few decades, and other experimental methods. Academic standards dropped away, reading levels fell, spelling skills crumbled and people needed calculators to do simple maths. But that’s another story.

What I want you to realise is that Repetition Works! When you drill yourself with information, repeating it multiple times, in various settings, at various times of the day, you build up the mental signal of that information, making it a more permanent and significant element in your memory and understanding.

Same Girl, New Dress

While raw rote is a proven and powerful way to get the information in, there is also much to be said for dressing up the information in a new way.

Rather than hammering in the information in its one shape and size, you can repeat it into the memory in a new packaging. It’s the same information, but by modifying it in some way it finds a larger place in the memory banks.

As the simplest of examples, “two three’s is the same as three two’s”. At a more meaningful level, we can help our memory of the name of Julius Caesar’s killer, Brutus, by linking it to Caesar’s question, “Et tu Brute?” (Even you Brutus?)

Adding detail to a fact builds the size of the information in your memory banks. For example: Captain Cook discovered Australia. We can expand that fact with his first name and other information. He is Captain James Cook, who sailed in a ship named the Endeavour. He was killed in Hawaii.

And you can even add some nonsense to help if you like, such as the silly school-yard song some Aussie children would sing. “Captain Cook chased a chook all around Australia. He jumped a fence and tore his pants and landed in Tasmania.” I think I hear you say, “That’s not much help to me”, and you may be right.


While the repetition I just suggested involved repeating the information by expanding it, another way to repeat something is by distilling it. In this process you summarise and reduce the information to a very potent capsule, rather than a barrow load of verbiage.

The Walk Through the Bible program links a key word with each book of the Bible and then links the key words together in a set of physical movements. Thus the list of Bible books and their content is summarised in short routine. This is an example of distilling a great deal of information into a much smaller capsule.

Mnemonics and acronyms also achieve the same result. I learned “Harry ClAgNaK” to remember elements with a valency of 1. ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit’ gave me the names of notes on the treble clef lines. The acronym HOMES is a mnemonic aid to remember the names of the North American Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. And the planets in order from the Sun are remembered by: “My Very Elderly Mother Just Sat Under the North Pole”.

I distil the essential elements of faith, from Hebrews 11:6, down to two words, “Can” and “Will”. If you believe God Can do it, and that He Will do it for you, you have released your faith into action.


Connecting one piece of information with others also repeats the information, in a new context. This is similar to what happens when we expand the initial piece of information, but actually involves tying one piece of information to another significant piece.

The key points made by Jesus in the famous Sermon on the Mount, could be linked to the relevant laws which Moses received in Mount Sinai. The Mosaic Law was given new light by the Law of Christ, and both were presented on a mountain. Linking those two separate and significant events allows each one to support the other in our memory and understanding.

Some of the memory tricks that are promoted include linking important facts or things to remember to some pre-determined set of references. For example, the old “One, Two, Buckle my Shoe” poem leads to a list of items which points can be linked to in numeric order: Bun, Shoe, Tree, Door, Hive, Sticks, Heaven, Gate, Pine, Hen.

Again and Again and Again

I don’t mean to prompt you to be too clever. The Study Skill key is Repetition, plain and simple. Good old “Rote” is as good as you need to get, to drill yourself and pump that info in, over and over again, until it sticks and won’t fall out.

Start with Recognition, then get working on Repetition. Once you have those two working well, you are a strong student and a good learner.

To see the other posts in this series click the links below….

Study Skills 3

I am still pushing the importance of paying attention, as I move into lesson three. That’s because the most significant thing you can do to undergird your learning and study is to “Pay Attention”.

The code-word I use for this first of the three keys I am presenting in this series is “Recognition”. Recognition summarises all that you take note of as you give attention to the matter at hand. Whether you are in a lecture, reading a book, researching something or in a group investigation session you can only understand and give attention to things that your recognise.

Can You Hear It?

I recall an incident when I was learning clarinet as a young teen that is relevant here. My teacher noted how poor my tone was. In order to help me see the importance of practice and improvement he asked me to play a particular note. I did so. Then he played the same note.

He then asked me, “Can you hear the difference?”

He could tell by my blank expression that I could not, so he had me repeat the process. I played the note and then he played it. Again he asked me, “Can you hear the difference?”

He looked hopefully into my eyes and I so wanted to make him happy. But I could not tell any difference between his playing and mine. I told him so and he slumped in his chair and went back to teaching me something else.

I could not recognise whatever he wanted me to see. So how could I learn or memorise what I could not see. And that same principle applies to you. You cannot learn or memorise something if you don’t even see it in the first place.

Recognise It

When you recognise something you have a chance to get a handle on it, study it, learn it and memorise it. So opening your eyes, paying attention and comprehending what you see is a vitally important issue in your learning journey.

Be attentive to the chance to perceive at a deeper level. If those around you claim to see something you don’t see, jump in and ask them to explain what they see. Be sure to get your eyes open to the meaning, distinctions, discrete elements and relevant issues of the thing at hand.

Bird Tracks

When Austin Henry Layard and other archaeologists first discovered the ruins of ancient Nineveh the sites were pillaged for the valuable and beautiful artefacts. Museums scrambled to get the best items on display.

The sites also contained thousands of clay tablets, but no-one could read them and they were piled in abundance. Those who worked at the sites could not understand the “bird tracks” scratched on the tablets, and neither could most of the experts. So they were treated with disregard before many were shipped back to London and stored in the museum basement.

The man who deciphered the bird tracks was George Smith a self-taught Assyriologist, with a background in engraving. His eye was trained to see minute distinctions and read tiny text. Under his discerning eye the clay tablets yielded their abundant wealth of information.

He could ‘recognise’ what others could not discern. And thus was opened a wealth of knowledge.

Reticular Activating Device

A great tool you have on your side is your brain’s Reticular Activating Device (RAD). This mental facility causes your brain to either notice or discard information.

If you are in the habit of discounting the things you see you have probably programmed your brain to not pay attention. If, however, you have a reason to take note of something, your RAD gives priority to that thing and pays attention to it.

The popular example is that when you buy a car you suddenly notice all the other vehicles of the same make and colour as yours. Or when a name is made noteworthy to you, maybe because you have a new friend by that name, you become much more aware of others that have the name. Your brain is switched on to that particular reality now and pays attention to it in a new way.

As soon as you have given mental note to a name, date, design, colour, fact, or whatever, your brain will signal you when it crops up again in your field of attention. The brain begins to pay particular attention to whatever you have so programmed, even though you are not consciously looking for it.

Program RAD

Since the RAD is so powerful you are wise to use it to your advantage. You can do that by programming it to look out for key things. This is a great study tool.

When you introduce a new concept or element into your thinking your brain puts that thing onto its scanner and alerts you to its occurrence. If you are a poor student, who does not pay attention and does not make mental note of things, then the RAD is operating in a fog.

If you are a disciplined thinker and make mental note of the new bits of information being given to you, taking care to “recognise” them and their significance, then your RAD is well primed to be attentive to that thing.

If I spent time with you pointing out how often different news services give reports of the same event each day that are contradictory to each other I could probably activate your RAD, so that you notice them yourself. If I do not program you to recognise that happening then your mind will blur it over and not see it happening, even before your very eyes.

So, look for ways to get your RAD working for you. Program it effectively and get your sensory perception on side for your study and learning experiences. Activate your ability to be attentive to things you previously missed.

Mental Focus

Attention is the heart of learning and study. It is your mental focus. Don’t blame the teacher or the text book if you do not have the ability to pay attention and focus your mind.

It is up to you to be aware of what is going on around you and in you.

In the 1970’s someone popularised the saying, “Be Alert! The world needs more “Lerts”! That stupid saying attempts to address the very issue I’m pressing on you here. You must give mental focus to your whole life. If you are not good at that, then today is the time to make the change.

Attach Understanding

My Kiwi friend Sam gave me a great example of how attaching understanding transforms our ability to recognise and remember information. Sam’s Swiss surname was hard for most English people to cope with. The name is Abplanalp. Just seeing the written word was enough to have people pausing.

Sam developed an effective way to get people comfortable with his name. He told the story of the origin of the name.

Sam explained that in the Swiss Alps there are places where large elevated planes have formed high in the mountains. Homes and villages grew there, and that is where his family lived for centuries.

People who came from these alpine planes were given the name that means ‘from the plane on the alp’. In Swiss that is, “Ab” (from) “plan” (plane) “alp”, Abplanalp.

From that moment on I found Sam’s name a piece of cake (so to speak).

Build Your Vocab

A final suggestion on this first key of Recognition is that you build your vocabulary.

Vocabulary expands our awareness and increases our powers of discernment. If we do not have words for things then we very likely don’t even know those things exist, so we don’t ‘recognise’ them. By building your vocabulary you introduce new ideas, distinctions and shades of meaning.

Missionaries going to remote tribes in Papua New Guinea found some whose counting went, “1, 2, 3, 4, Many”. Once they got to five they could not distinguish the many. They described 12, 187 and 22,000 with the same word, “Many”. A limited vocabulary means that an abundance of distinctions are lost to you.

Do you talk or mumble? Are you grumbling, mumbling, whining, whimpering, whispering, wailing, rasping, raving, rambling, reminiscing, responding, reacting, reiterating, berating, bellowing, bragging, boasting, belittling, explaining, expounding, expositing, exploding, confusing, corroborating, crowing, or clowning around? All those various shades of meaning and significance rely on the meanings of those different words. The word “talk” does not do justice to the many possibilities.

Pay Attention

In case you missed the point of these first three lessons on Study Skills, you need to PAY ATTENTION. Develop the ability of Recognition, with your mental antenna twitching and taking note of things known and unknown.

Find the meaning, focus on things, expand your vocabulary to expand the degrees of distinction you can make, and Be Alert. Remember, the world needs more of them.

To see the other posts in this series click the links below….

Study Skills 2

I have begun to unpack for you three vitally important keys to strong study and learning skills. These key areas, which will be unfolded in this series, can be broken down and elaborated on, as I began to do in lesson one and continue here. But my main aim is to put these three keys clearly into your mind and to get you started in using them.

Pay Attention

The first key involves your ability to pay attention. If you can be attentive to what is going on around you, what people are saying, and even to what is distracting you, you will gain control of yourself and your mental faculties. With that attentive approach you will be able to focus, absorb, investigate and explore the things you are studying or need to learn.

However, most people operate with their brain out of gear. Being inattentive becomes a habit and a lifestyle. So, this may not be as easy a lesson to learn as you think.

Test Your Attention

I asked my son to close his eyes and tell me what he had seen in our yard when he looked out the window that morning. I had seen him gazing into the yard, particularly watching our cat. My son described the yard, but from memory of the yard, not from having paid attention. Even though he was looking into the yard he was not seeing it.

He described some things which were not visible through the window he had been looking from, but he knew they were in the yard. However, he failed to mention a piece of furniture which is moved around our yard and which happened to be clearly in view where he had been looking. When I told him to check what he had missed he was surprised that he could not recall it when it had been very clearly visible.

That showed that he was not paying attention, but just mindlessly scanning the yard. A spy or policeman would be trained to be very attentive to certain things, even if just scanning a yard.

This also shows what I said earlier, that we don’t really use our brains, we have then in neutral much of the time.

So, test yourself. Think of some room in your house or office where you have recently been. Then see how well you can describe its current state. Then go and see how well you did. You may be surprised.


I call this Key “Recognition”. It is the process of recognising what is there, as part of your normal routine, as you turn your brain back on, remove the clutter and get on with attending to the matters of life and learning which are around you.

Pay attention. If you don’t understand something then you don’t ‘recognise’ it, so ask questions. If you are looking mindlessly, or half-listening, then you won’t fully ‘recognise’ what is being said. If you have distracting thoughts and emotions then they will abduct your attention, so you cannot ‘recognise’ the face of what you are supposed to attend to.

Be There

Other expressions I have heard from people who promote this kind of attentiveness includes the saying, “Where ever you are, Be There!”

Another person called this process, “Practicing Presence”. It is the process of being attentive to your self, your surroundings, the things people are saying, the intent behind their words, the thoughts, feelings and reactions within you, the facts and information you need to note, and so on.

Explore the Turf

Since the key is Recognition, and foreign places, names, language and experiences are harder to pin down, you are wise to explore the turf, learn the lingo, become familiar with the surroundings, get used to the funny sounds, tastes and sensations, until you can ‘recognise’ what is going on and better lock in your attention to the key issues at hand.

Multi-Sensory Engagement

Educators know that we have multiple sensory doorways. Employing more of them enhances the learning process. So make a habit of Recognising things in multiple ways.

For example, when you come across a new name, of a person or place, say the name out loud, write it in upper case, then in lower case, listen to someone else say it, repeat it with a fake foreign accent, and so on. These diverse experiences with the piece of knowledge open a variety of sensory gateways into your consciousness, subconscious and memory.

Cranial Engagement

Along with the multi-sensory engagement, I like to use Cranial Engagement for key information. This involves you applying your mental capacities to the piece of information.

One way to do this is to create a slogan about the topic. Alternatively you could create a mnemonic code or acronym. I like to create my own definitions, instead of using the ones given me by others. I also like to listen to someone and then summarise what they have told me in one or two succinct sentences which package what they have told me better than they could have packaged it themself.

The process of applying mental energy to the topic deepens the brain’s ‘recognition’ of the information at hand.

Apply the Brain

Let me play with some facts with you to show how cranial engagement might work. I have summarised here some excerpts from my many Church History posts. The story of Robert Moffat is most stirring.

One of the famous missionaries to Africa was Dr David Livingstone, who, as a young English medical student, was prompted to give up his potential wealth and fame in London, by hearing missionary pioneer Robert Moffat make a famous statement, “I have seen in the morning sun the smoke of 1000 villages where no missionary has ever been”. Livingstone went to South Africa, married Moffat’s daughter, Mary, and became so devoted to reaching Africa that he became lost to the outside world. American reporter Henry Morton Stanley found Livingstone and followed in his footsteps. It is to Stanley that we owe the well-known line, “Dr Livingstone, I presume”.

We could summarise that by saying: “Moffat moved Morton with a Living Stone”. Or: RM drew DL to SA to marry M and meet HMS. Or: Moffat’s smoke drew England’s doctor who drew America’s reporter.

Recognition is the Foundation

This kind of mental activity accentuates ‘Recognition’ of the material at hand. It doesn’t guarantee we will remember or learn the content. That is for the next two keys. But it provides the solid foundation upon which sound learning can be established.

If you cannot pay attention then you are lost from the start. If you are skilled at being attentive your ability to study and learn is already on track for success.

To see the first post in this series click the link below….

Baby in the Womb

A lovely young couple are currently expecting their first child. I recently felt to encourage the young dad to speak to his unborn baby. I asked if he spoke to the baby in the womb. He replied that his wife spoke to the baby at times, but he didn’t do it.

That prompted me to reflect on how we respond to the baby in the womb, especially the first one coming along.

New Relationship

Each new baby opens up for us a new relationship. With the first child we open up a whole new level of relationship. And like all new things we often face them with no real preparation. Often we don’t know that we have left things undone until many years later.

I have seven children and I have a unique relationship with each one of them. I can’t say that I have built the most exemplary relationships with them. In fact, at first, I assumed that relationship would just happen automatically. As a consequence the relationships are not as sweet or deep as they could have been.

Learning to Relate

I stumbled into relationship with my children. Because I didn’t have a concept of building relationship I ended up having to maintain relationship as a reaction to what went wrong, rather than as one building correctly from day one. My relationships grew out of the upsets, the good times and the bad times along the way. I thought that was the normal way to build relationships.

Many people do not have strong relationship skills. We usually have weaknesses in our ability, based on our own past failed relationships.

It is important to learn to relate to the child, as a conscious skill development. The new relationship is very important and needs to be pursued with intention. For those who are about to enter into relationship with a child about to be born it is important to promote the relationship rather than to just let it happen.

How to Build Relationship

Here are some suggestions for getting started on a good relationship, even whieh the baby is in the womb.

Value the relationship. Good relationships with children are incredibly valuable. Just ask anyone who lives with a broken or poor relationship with their child. Don’t take it for granted. Don’t be too casual about it. Be determined to build relationship and to so connect with your child that you are closely bonded for the rest of your lives.

Speak to your baby. There are lovely testimonies of people who have been strongly influenced by what they heard before they were born. One testimony speaks of a newborn baby in distress who settled immediately on hearing their father’s voice in the hospital ward. The baby had heard the father read the Bible to it each day as it formed in the womb. That baby knew its father’s voice from the womb and felt security from it once it was born.

Speak comfortably to your child. Over the years and from an early start, tell your child how valuable and special they are in your life. Speak of your love for them and your commitment to them. You are your child’s champion and hero, so speak into that role and encourage your child to walk in confidence because of your commitment and support.

Cast Godly vision for your child. Speak often to your child about your vision of their on-going place in your life and your on-going place in their life. Talk to them about how you are going to introduce them to God and often take them into God’s presence with you. Talk about how you are going to help them find God’s wisdom in the many challenges they will face through their childhood and youth. Speak about the times you will hug them and comfort them in the future and wipe away their tears.

If you have a daughter you can cast the vision of walking her down the aisle on her wedding day, to marry a young man who you have tested out to be suited for her. If you have a son you can cast the vision of them walking into their own areas of responsibility with the skills which you have taught them over the years and with your active support.

Love Your Child

The new relationship you will enjoy with the baby about to be born will be a relationship of love. You will have a new person to love for the rest of your life.

If you are casual about the relationship then it may never become a healthy and happy relationship. A love relationship requires that you love the child and encourage them to love you in return.

Don’t see this child as just a ‘baby’ or ‘another mouth to feed’. This child is potentially the most special person in your life. While the marriage union is always to be held above relationship with the child, yet the bond and delight that can come from the child can be incredibly enriching to your life.

Alternatively you can raise a child who despises you, cannot relate to you and who brings great pain and trouble into your life.

Get Started Now

Don’t wait until your child is old enough to help you in the kitchen or workshop. Don’t wait until they are adult. Don’t wait until they have gotten past their childish ways.

Get started now. Start building close and intimate bonds with your child from the moment they are conceived. Build it for life, not for a temporary moment.

If you are a new parent please take it from me as an older dad, that you need to take the relationship seriously, not for granted.

You have no guarantee of the child’s affection for you. If you send them to pre-school and school they will be sorely tempted to bond with their peers and not with you. When you let them down, or they feel like you have – even if you haven’t – they will pull back from you.

Make a priority of building special relationship, right from the start. Get connected with that baby in the womb.

I Believe in Home Schooling

As I write this my wife is sitting at the dining table with my daughter working over some math questions. Not only are mother and daughter working together on the project, but mother is learning from her daughter – Hmmmmm.

It has been our delight to have each of our seven children taught at home, for at least part of their school experience. We have used a variety of programs and found that they all work in different ways. We have changed our focus over the years, worked through a variety of attitudes and ideas and found many benefits of learning and teaching in the home environment.

Home educating has been popularised, neglected, revamped and revitalised in various circles in the past two decades or so. Christian schooling has also been through various phases and iterations. From our perspective we have a great affection for teaching and learning within the home. We love the process, love the amazing academic results and love the lifestyle benefits which both children and parents get to enjoy.

Our two youngest children, both being home schooled for their entire academic life, at least until tertiary studies, are significantly ahead in measurable academic terms. They have achieved this with much less time investment than their peers are putting in within the formal schooling context. They have also had time and opportunity to meet amazing people, work on amazing projects, explore their talents and learn many domestic processes that make them increasingly valuable to our home life.

Both children love to cook and especially to experiment with recipes and ideas. They both love reading as well and have devoured fiction and non-fiction works alike. They enjoy making home-movies, writing plays, playing sport, learning new things, playing with lego, designing board games and so on. It is an absolute joy to have them as a vital part of our lives and to be a vital part of theirs.

If you are looking for a home-school advocate, you can count me in. We have met many families who employ one of the many home-schooling methods and we have been continually impressed with what we see. I encourage parents to give prayerful thought to the possibility of enriching their own lives and those of their children by bringing the education back into the home.