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….

Study Skills 1

We all need to learn things at times. Students, employees, actors, business people and Bible readers all need to learn and memorise things at times. While there are various memory tricks which can be used, I will help you here with some really sound wisdom to help you study and learn whatever you need to. The study skills I share with you are quite universally applicable and don’t need you to apply gimmicks to advance your studies.

Three Simple Keys

As I reflect on my own study career and my ability to learn and retain important information, in school, work, as a professional presenter and preacher, and so on, I come back to three simple keys which I teach to my own children.

I recently reviewed these three simple keys with my youngest son, as he addressed himself to some new study challenges. That has prompted me to put them in text for other students, parents and families to benefit from. I trust you find this series of articles helpful.

Pay Attention

When I started secondary schooling my older brother, Lawrence, one year ahead of me, told me something really important that helped me cruise through my high school years. He told me that if I paid close attention in class, and did not let my mind wander, but hung off everything the teacher told me, I would not need to do much review or study at home.

A teacher had told Lawrence that the homework and home-study which teachers required their students to do, at least in the early years of High School, were simply to make up for the fact that the students weren’t paying attention to or properly understanding what the teacher was explaining in class. If students became disciplined at paying attention they could save themselves much home study time.

Ask Questions

Further to paying attention Lawrence’s teacher told him to ask questions. The key is to be attentive to and understand the information being taught. If, while paying attention, you cannot understand what is being explained, then ask the teacher to go over it again, or clarify the thing that does not click for you.

Many students shy away from asking questions, as it signals their ignorance to other students who might understand perfectly well. No one wants to look stupid if they can help it. So, in order to gain clarification we may have to push past our pride. Or even approach the teacher during class break time, to get an explanation when others are not aware what you are doing.

However it is done, be sure you understand and take cognition of what has to be absorbed.

Engage the Brain

A poster I recall for years ago advised, “Please engage brain before engaging jaw!” That advice is not as funny as it might first sound. Many people operate at a level of semi-mindlessness. They don’t switch off altogether, but they try to operate their brain on ‘idle’ instead of ‘full speed’.

Our attention can be fuzzy and our thoughts distracted while we are doing other things. We adjust to this minimal level of concentration and can cruise through our day with little mental discipline and focus. So I am serious when I challenge you to engage the Brain.

Make a point of paying attention. Discipline yourself to be able to do so.

Take Out the Garbage

Some years ago I attended a conference where home-schooling fathers met to discuss their various challenges. Two teachers addressed the conference, reflecting on a course which they had run just before the conference for a group of male high-school age students.

The men, from an engineering background, taught a large group of young men about electrical and mechanical motor systems and who they operate and can be repaired. These men normally taught their subject to tertiary level students in a technical college.

The instructors had glowing reports of their experience teaching the high-school age home-schoolers. The course which they normally took a year to teach at Tech, was able to be taught in just 2 weeks. And what really impressed the teachers was that the young men asked intelligent questions which no other students had ever asked before. The young students were paying such attention and gaining such understanding that they not only covered the material in record time, they also understood it at a deeper level.

Obviously the advantage of being home-schooled was a factor in this, but the teachers pointed to another important issue. The young men were completely uncluttered from garbage. They did not have music playing in their ears, messaging going on to their friends, smutty thoughts going through their minds, competitive ego issues at play in the class, and so on. They had taken out the garbage from their lives, which normal class environments are full of.

The fathers of these young students had protected them from becoming garbage bins, and had trained their sons to keep their hearts and minds clean and clear. While each child would have been at a different level on this issue, the overwhelming reality was that the students were able to process work at an exceptional rate.

That points to the fact that most of us could be much better students and speed ahead of those around us, if only we could learn to pay attention with a life that is free from distractions.

Monster Distractions

In my late teens I became friends with a young man named Tony. Tony had performed poorly at school, yet I realised he was quite intelligent. In the areas which took his interest, including history and nature, he could tell me all sorts of things about events, people, migratory patterns of various birds and so on.

I later discovered why Tony had done poorly at school. As a lad he had been taken into a hospital room to see his mum before she died. The woman was desperately ill and looked close to death. Tony ran out of the room screaming, “My mummy’s going to die!” The trauma and torment of that experience totally swamped just about everything else in his life, including his studies.

Tony’s mother had a vision of Jesus walking into her hospital room a few days after Tony’s visit. She was totally and miraculously restored to health. The home returned to normal, but Tony never recovered. A monster distraction had so impacted his emotions and mind that it disabled his class-room performance from then on.

Tony’s private reading and personal study was strong and effective, but he failed in the schooling system and struggled with the stigma of being unintelligent.

So, it is possible to be hit by monster distractions which totally derail your ability to pay attention. If you have experienced that then I encourage you to get sound Christian help and pastoral care to become free, through the power of Jesus.

Pay Attention to Paying Attention

There’s more I need to say about this foundational key to study and learning. Meanwhile, I want you to pay attention to paying attention. Take note of how easily you switch off, get distracted, or operate without your brain in gear.

In the next instalment I’ll give you more insight into the whole process of being attentive, so you can get your learning and study off to a strong start.