Best Study Methods: `You been to school in August month!?'

Part I of III
By Festus L. Brotherson, Jr.
Guyana Chronicle
August 13, 2001

STUDENTS in young Winston Churchill's form in England were asked to write an in-class essay on a fictional cricket match. Reportedly, with his mind and pages still blank, and time almost up, Churchill is said to have scribbled as follows: "Rain. No play!"

In Guyana and the Caribbean, any child who displays occasional lapses in intelligent behaviour is usually asked rebukingly: "Is wah wrong wid you? You been to school in August month!?" Traditionally, the sweltering tropical month of August is reserved for teaching remedial classes for students who are not up to speed with school work and are in danger of being "passed over," i.e., made to repeat a class.

What do these two vignettes have in common? They demonstrate, on a wider societal level, an all too prevalent inability on the part of students to concentrate fully. Old timers and students alike tend to verify the existence of the problem. So, especially, do sighing teachers.

This begs the question: what is the best method of study?

Relatedly, over the past year or so, students have written me seeking guidance and answers to this question. By no means am I an expert nor will I pretend to be. However, I shall attempt to provide some help derived from personal experience and observations over time. High school seniors and undergraduates might find the ideas helpful, as would persons who are simply concerned parents and civic-minded citizens.

The Churchill and August month examples represent polar extremes of student aptitude. The first depicts the brilliant student who is unchallenged and thus bored. The second captures the one who has real difficulty in learning and thus has also become bored. He or she is also quite upset by teasing from people and frustrated that results do not match efforts.

For both the Churchill and August month students, concentration suffers and they fall behind in schoolwork. But the overwhelming majority of students who suffer from deficient attention spans, and thus an inability to learn normally, fall between the two extremes.

Sadly, in Third World school systems, having school counsellors as a remedy is an unaffordable expense because of poverty. But in the developed world, having in-house counsellors and school psychologists appears to produce, at best, limited, disappointingly marginal levels of success. If anything, the problem tends to get bigger.

One academic cynic, Stanislav Andreski, unfairly blasted the entire discipline of psychology as a fraud because of this fact and related unmet challenges. No discipline is worth its salt, he thundered, if the more that its professionals are trained, graduated and deployed, the worse does a specific pathology they address become.

Does he have a point?

Just imagine how awful life would be if the same were true of medical doctors. But the solution to this paradox might have a lot to do with quackery offered as solutions by a misguided few with scarcely a legitimate link to psychology - particularly in the public schools - and not with the value of the discipline of psychology itself.

A few years ago, my son was attending junior high summer school in Ohio. He became ill during the semester and missed a week of classes. My wife and I decided to accompany him to the first class when he was fit enough to resume the programme. The class was already in session but the teacher came outside the room to speak with us. Out of the corner of my eye, I espied a rather strange sight. The classroom was silent and students appeared to be reading. However, they were holding their textbooks upside down!! The teacher explained that this was her innovation. Under our skeptical glares, she weakly offered that reading in such a manner forced the students to concentrate. This is one of many experiences gained about the stupidity of so-called remedies and their initiators. Usually, these concoctions are brewed primarily to write and sell books.

A good many students who simply cannot concentrate do tend to have a legitimate illness called attention deficit disorder. Symptoms include: inability to memorise; inability to analyse; repetitive spelling blunders; significant reading and comprehension challenges; listlessness; boredom; overly defensive or aggressive attitude and other indicators.

Here, in the USA, thanks to psychology, treatment tends to be effective. There are all sorts of remedial support systems including specialised tutoring. In Third World states, due again to poverty, such institutionalised help is a rarity. Instead, students who suffer from the ailment tend to be ostracised and considered dunce. Not so long ago, they were made to wear dunce caps in the classroom.

Centuries ago, none other than British philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, offered a scalding comment on so-called dunces and would mete out the same punishment of ostracism. While outlining his rigorously difficult philosophy of motion in the human, he lamented duncery as an inhibitor to precise learning and exact knowledge: "A natural fool that could never learn by heart the order of numeral words, as one, two, and three, may observe every stroke of the clock, and nod to it, or say one, one, one, but can never know what hour it strikes."

The irony here is that Hobbes would later assert that all humans were equal in both body and mind. Equality of mind was especially possible by constancy of educational endeavour. It was only human vanity, he thought, that prevented such recognition. We know today that this is not at all true and the error was part of the reason for the breakdown of the philosophy of motion when the idea of the human being in a state of perpetual motion is scrutinised. Even with the best of remedial actions for attention deficit disorder, sufferers of the disease do not rise to the level of excellence of those who are unafflicted or gifted. What does occur is enhanced ability to concentrate.

One of the best and most important methods of study that definitely improves concentration of students by leaps and bounds is what I call the symmetry of reading thinking and writing. Another I refer to as reading with a searching mindset. Yet another is derived from the confluence of reading-thinking-writing. I call this one thinking and talking in paragraphs. Of course, to do the latter, one must first know how to write a paragraph.

Let's take reading, thinking and writing. How it works is very simple, but the process requires patience and a determination to improve one's skills. Briefly outlined, this is how it plays out: after you read something, pause for a while and think about it. After that, write about what you have learnt and what you think about that. Combining these three elements of learning into one continuous process deepens learning, strengthens memory and builds enormous confidence. It also helps to nurture analytic skills which are fast vanishing at the undergraduate university level. I shall amplify on reading-thinking-writing next week.

But here are some pointers before you even begin to read. Suppose, as a student, you are given an assignment to read an article or the first chapter of a book. The first thing to do is fairly obvious. Find out beforehand what the article or book is about. Put another way, ask and try to answer key questions. For example, what is the subject matter being addressed? Why? In an article, the answer is usually in the first one or two paragraphs. In a book, it is usually in the preface and introduction. Such information gives you power. It allows you to begin the reading assignment already briefed in orientation and armed with expectation of content. Additionally, having this kind of prologue, makes it easier to read with a searching mindset which strategy will be addressed separately.