College Learning : WAYS & WHYS

Frank A. Logan


The purpose of this chapter is to explain the most important college learning skill. . .paying attention.

You should learn:

  1. The Principle of Active Participation and the role of overt-covert attention.
  2. The difference between automatic attention and selective attention to critical cues.
  3. The Principle of Minimizing Work and the fact that selective attention takes effort.
  4. The proposition that selective attention is a learnable response.
  5. The notion that world knowledge is not verbal but that knowledge is learned from words.
  6. The way that knowledge increases from novice to expert.
When Mark Twain went out to the pasture to teach a mule the difference between "gee" and "haw" (that is, left and right), he began by giving the mule a friendly but solid whack on the rump with a two-by-four.  When asked why he did this, he said, "The first thing you have to do to teach a mule anything is to get his attention."  It is the same with people.  If you are going to learn from this or any textbook, you will have to pay attention.  So important is this rule that it can be stated as one of the basic...
Principles of Verbal Learning:

Principle of Active Participation
Overt/covert attention/rehearsal is
necessary for effective verbal learning.

Overt behavior is publicly observable; it is what a person does openly or says out loud.  In contrast, covert behavior is private; only the behaving person is consciously aware of what s/he is thinking. For example, a person may show manifest signs of paying  attention to a lecture, such as sitting up and looking at the speaker, but as you know, attending is really a covert act.  We have all learned how to fake doing one thing while thinking about something else.  You have probably had the experience of starting to turn a page only to realize that you don't remember anything that you just read.  The Principle of Active Participation says that you will only learn from verbal material if you notice it, think about it, actively attend to it.

The Principle of  Active  Participation is more complicated than it appears at first reading.  One complication is that there are two different processes controlling one's attention. (There are also two kinds of rehearsal, which are discussed in a later chapter.) One process is called automatic attention.  As the name implies, automatic attention is not voluntary or deliberate.  Any strong, unusual, or unexpected event tends automatically to command attention.  This is the attention process that Mark Twain used, but people don't (usually) need to be hit with a two-by-four.  You tend automatically to attend to the loudest sound in music, to the most vivid color in a picture, or to an insect that is biting you.  Events in the external world act to control attention automatically.

The other process is called selective attention.  It might better be called "intentional attention" because the process is voluntary and deliberate.  For example, if I now ask you whether you  are breathing by expanding your chest or your abdomen, you can quickly shift your attention from my words to your body and find out how you are breathing.  The important point is that cues from your body are there all along but they are normally in the background rather than at the center of your attention.  But you can voluntarily turn your attention to them on command.

In sum, you can only focus your attention on one thing at a time.  Salient events in the environment tend automatically to attract attention, but you can selectively attend to less salient stimuli.

Attention:  A Response.

The most obvious cause of difficulty in selectively attending to one's studies is distraction by automatic attention.   If other people  in a classroom are making a commotion, it is hard to listen carefully to a lecture, or if a neighbor is playing loud music, it is hard to concentrate on a textbook.  As matters have it, such problems are not the major ones.  The disturbing events are usually only temporary and if they persist, there is an adaptation process that makes them seem less powerful.  Just as your body gets used to the water after you have been in a swimming pool for a while, so too does your mind get used to background noises.  By-and-large, people can maintain selective attention in spite of competition from automatic attention processes.

However, there is a limit and there is a price.  The limit is simply that you cannot completely adapt to very potent stimuli. Returning to the swimming pool analogy, if the water is very cold, you will not get used to it.  Similarly, you cannot completely ignore a neighbor's music that is very loud.  The price is that it takes more mental effort to attend to one's studies in a distracting environment.  Even your own music playing softly will make you feel tired studying sooner.  Selective attention is an effortful response.

The major challenge for the serious student is to keep selective attention focused on study materials rather than on day-dreams, personal problems, or social activities.  Although attention is a covert activity, our best hypothesis is that it obeys the same principles that have been discovered by research on overt behavior.  One of these principles is that of minimizing work (least effort):

Principle of Minimizing Work
Other things equal, people tend to choose the
activity that requires the least amount of work.

Attending to a difficult lesson is hard work while attending to enticing daydreams is easy. Even worrying about personal problems is relatively easy because you have probably practiced worrying about them a great deal in the past.  In effect, these various types of thoughts are competing for your selective attention and the Principle of Minimizing Work implies that your attention will naturally have a tendency to be diverted into the easier response.  This tendency for your "mind to wander," even without any external distractions, is inevitable and you need to know how to recognize when this is happening and how to get your mind "back on track."

I believe that the ability to focus and sustain attention on relevant material is the most important trait of a good student.  To be sure, an adequate level of intelligence is necessary, as is a full measure of motivation, but selective control of attention is what most separates the good from the poor student.  This belief is not original with me.  Sir Isaac Newton, whom many consider to be the father of modern science, said, "If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to saying attention than to any other talent."

Attention:  A Learnable Response

If attention is really such a crucial talent, the inevitable question is whether the degree to which one possesses this talent is genetic or whether it can be modified through practice.  The answer is that automatic attention is an inborn reflex (genetically determined), but selective attention is a learnable response.  This means that you have acquired whatever talent you have for attending to weak stimuli and you can improve that talent with practice.

As you probably know, young children have a very short "attention span."  In the normal course of growing up, we all learned to sustain attention to activities we found interesting. As with every other trait, we undoubtedly differ to some extent in our endowed capacity for developing attention skills, but we probably differ more because of our learning experiences.  Parents and teachers who patiently retrieved our attention when it started to wander helped us learn to keep our attention focused on the topic at hand.  Although there is no proof of this assertion, it is a tenable hypothesis for our purposes.  It implies that a major aspect of learning to "pay attention" is learning to recognize when attention has wandered.

Two contrasting practical examples may be helpful.  One is a Deacon standing in the rear of a church with a long mallet that s/he uses to tap the head of anyone who starts to doze off during the sermon.  The other is the child equipped with a buzzer that sounds an alarm when s/he starts to wet the bed.  Both examples show the use of öfeedbackò to alert the person about inappropriate behavior.  What happens is that, with practice, the person learns to anticipate when inappropriate behavior is about to occur and takes corrective action.

You have neither a person nor a device to monitor your behavior and alert you when your attention wanders.  Hence, the best you can do is start a diary in which to keep a record of your slips. At first you won't be aware of your attention starting to drift from a textbook, but you do become aware at some later time that you have not been concentrating on the text material. Whenever that happens, make a  note in your diary of when and where it happened, what you were supposed to be studying, and about how long it seems that you were thinking about something else (or your mind was blank).  Your diary can be just a separate sheet of paper, but it becomes your record of lapses of attention.

With practice, you will recognize when your attention is starting to wane, so you can, like the tired driver catching himself starting to doze, snap yourself back to your studies. The tired-driver analogy is a good one to remember.  Good drivers know that, if they have difficulty staying alert, they should pull off the road and rest a while.  So too, a good student knows that, if s/he is having more-than-usual difficulty maintaining concentration on studies, s/he should take a break and let the mind rest.   Having a diary enables you to recognize not only when your attention is straying off course, but also when you are below par.  In general, a shorter amount of time in efficient study is more productive in the long run than a longer time of tortured study.

The Nature of Knowledge

At this point, it will be helpful to digress briefly to say a few things about the nature of knowledge.   Now actually, we don't really know what knowledge is, but this much is clear: Most knowledge is not verbal.  Knowledge of words and about words is verbal, but such knowledge is logically circular.   That is to say, if a word is defined only in terms of words that are, in turn, defined only in terms of words, it goes around in verbal circles without any real tangible meaning.   That is why dictionaries have pictures;  I can not really tell you what a cat is, but I can show you pictures of various cats and you can form the concept.

Once you stop to think about it, it is obvious that world knowledge is largely non-verbal.  Non-verbal animals certainly "know" things; dogs know who feeds them, where they live, and what cats are.  For that matter, you know many things without having words for them.  A very familiar experience is pausing in the middle of a sentence while searching for a word that correctly expresses an idea.  Obviously, the idea itself is not verbal.  Indeed, you can usually formulate a number of sentences to express the same idea. In general, words should not be confused with the non-verbal concepts they represent.

Although knowledge is not verbal, it is usually transmitted in verbal form through books and lectures. The essential nature of the communication process is depicted in Figure 3.1.

                              Speaker >>> Listening
                              Writer >>>>> Reading
        Verbal              .                       .
                           .                         .
            *   *   *   * . *   *   *   *   *   *   * . *  *  *
                         .                             .
      Non-verbal     Knowledge                     Knowledge
                  (Idea, thought)               (Understanding)
         Figure 3.1.  One person expresses a non-verbal idea
         in words that another person then translates into his/
         her own non-verbal knowledge system.

For example, when you are in love with someone, you may search around for words to describe your feelings.  Your loved one, in turn, tries to construe the meaning of your words.  In sum, one person codes an idea into words, and the other person decodes the words into an idea. . .hopefully very much the same idea.

Figure 3.1 should explain why the Principle of Active Participation is true.  The only person with access to your knowledge system, to your memory, is you.  Nobody, not even the greatest teacher in the world, can teach you anything in the sense of putting knowledge into your memory.  YOU have to learn it.  Good teachers can express ideas in words that their students can understand.  I give frequent examples from everyday life because students have told me that such examples help them "get" the ideas.  But in the last analysis, you have to be an active participant and figure out what the words signify.


In an article written many years ago, I wrote, "a teacher teaches in the same sense that a cook cooks."   My point was that a cook does not really cook; it is the meal that cooks.  What a cook does is to fix the food so that it will cook.  Similarly, a teacher does not really teach; a teacher fixes conditions that enable a student to learn.  However, there is an important difference between a cook and a teacher:  A meal has no alternative but to cook the way it was prepared by the cook,  but a teacher cannot force a student to learn. The  best teacher  in the world  cannot  put knowledge into a student's mind.  The only person with access to your mind is you.

Active participation by the learner is therefore necessary for verbal learning.  This is because practical, useful world knowledge is not verbal.  We use words to depict objects and events, to describe experiences, and to express ideas.  The fact that we can usually express the same idea in different words is conclusive evidence that the idea is distinct from the words.  Some word may express the idea better than other words, and searching for just the right word further indicates that the idea comes before the word.  Accordingly, verbal learning is not really learning words. . .it is learning from words.

Because you are the only one who can translate knowledge into our memory system, you have to pay attention in order to learn from words.  Occasionally, a teacher's voice will be so powerful that you listen whether you want to or not (that is why TV ads are louder than the program), but as a rule you have to sustain attention voluntarily on the words in a lecture or a textbook. The most critical difference between the good and the poor student is not intelligence, it is the ability to maintain attention on the material to be learned.

The good news is that paying attention is a learnable skill. One aspect of the skill is learning to discern when your attention is starting to wander. Keeping a diary of lapses can help.  Another aspect of the attention skill is knowing what it feels like really to be paying attention.  Practice listening to soft sounds or reading with distractions.  Recall also that competing needs make your mind more distractable. Finally, give your mind a break from time to time.

On Your Memory Bank

There is a similarity between the growth of  knowledge and the accumulation of wealth.   There are many maxims such as  "the rich get richer," "they who have get," "it takes money to make  money." One way to make this point is to compare the  amount  of  interest earned on small or large  savings accounts.   If the interest rate is 10% and you have only $10 in your account, your interest is $1; but if you have $10,000, your interest is $1,000.   Another way to make the point  is  to watch your wealth grow if you simply double it every year 1-- 2-- 4-- 8-- 16-- 32-- 64-- 128-- 256-- 512-- 1,024-- 2,048-- 4,096-- 8,192-- 16,384-- 32,768-- 65,536-- 131,072-- 262,144-- 524,288-- 1,048,576. Notice that, at first, the growth is very slow and it takes ten years to reach a thousand,  but by twenty years,  you're over a million.

You can think of your memory as a bank into which you deposit information, and the rate at which your wealth of knowledge  grows is illustrated in the graph

                   :                                             .
                   :      Connect                               .
        Cumulated  :        the dots                 Expert -->.
                   :                                         .
        Knowledge  :                                       .
                   :                                    .
          of a     :                                .
                   :                          .
         Subject   :                   .
                                  Hours/Years of Study

What this graph shows is that,  when you first start to study some subject, progress is very slow.  Indeed,  many people quit because they do not seem to be making any real progress.  But if you stick with it, learning will get progressively easier.   The reason  why this is true is öpositive transferò. Knowledge that was learned with difficulty earlier is available to facilitate later learning.  And if you become an expert, you can  pick  up  in  just a few minutes what it may take the beginner many hours to learn.

At least to this time,  there simply is no short-cut, no easy way to get past the slow, arduous stage.  Some years ago, a person claimed that a worm could "learn"  by eating a worm that had  been trained for many hours, but this claim proved to be a hoax.  Every now and then, a new "smart" pill appears on the market, purporting to speed up the learning process.   The fact is that almost every_one gets off to a slow start, but, with perseverance,  almost any_one can become an expert.

This chapter concerned some
S T E P S  to
    S U C C E S S  in
        C O L L E G E
           3. . . Selective
     2. . .   Personal    :
            Pragmatism    Wandering mind,
                    vs       competing mental habits
1. . .               :
Right Attitude:      Pre_occupation with personal problems,
  Commitment +          ignorance, and impulsive action
  Optimism +
               vs                               P I T F A L L S
                Doing aimless/hopeless time