From the Bookshelf 1 of 5

Instead of one longer post, this week I’m planning to post five times, but much shorter. Let’s see how it works out.

I read all the time. What I read informs my teaching, from thrillers and other fiction to recent popular (and unpopular) science. However, there are some books I return to time and again which really help my lessons.

I have old copies of A-level revision guides for Biology, Chemistry and Physics, picked up for almost nothing in charity shops. Instead of the guides most of my students use today, these are not linked to one specific (and now obsolete) syllabus. Instead, they are arranged as a dictionary, with scientific terms listed in alphabetical order. I find them indispensible to dip into for quick and clear definitions, links to similar ideas, applications and simple line diagrams.

You can buy new copies (the Complete A-Z Physics Handbook, for example, is available at The Book Depository  for about £12) but for a teacher the old versions are probably as good, maybe better. If you find an extra copy, why not keep one at work and one at home?


Oh No! Not Blue Monday!

The bad news is, an incredibly bad bit of ‘science’ has once more reared its ugly head. The good news is, the story in the Daily Telegraph here is a fantastic opportunity to teach our students an awful lot about science…

Hilarious update – Cliff is now claiming we should all ignore it and be happy instead, says a different article in the same newspaper!

First of all, it’s based on previous work by Cliff Arnall, who might reasonably be described as a media-whore for repeatedly wasting our time with this sort of inanity. In fact, this is yet another use of his non-science as reported last year by Ben in his excellent column. Cliff has form. The Telegraph really should know better. I tell my students that although not totally reliable, Wikipedia is a good place to start looking for information. That the newspaper have ignored this wealth of evidence suggests they think their readers are idiots.

Apart from anything else, it doesn’t seem that he is currently employed by the University they link him with. Instead he is a self-employed life coach and pilot. Ahem. He managed to find time a few months back to suggest you could work out the formula for the perfect toy. How does he get it all done.

I actually wonder if the Telegraph got all the ideas – some more sensible than others – from the same press release, or if they just decided to save themselves time by cramming as much lousy science and tenuous correlations as they could think of into the same article. I’m actually going to put their suggestions in a list.

  • chocolate is good for you, say Venezuelan endrocrinologists – or, more to the point, the same scientist who has been pushing this idea for the last fifteen years or so.
  • have flowers in the house or garden. Some specific species are mentioned and I think I know why – they happen to be on offer through, yes, the Daily Telegraph
  • use bright morning light, says Vicki Ravell, a sleep researcher who should possibly make her conflicts of interest – she is a paid speaker for a company who make devices designed to simulate bright morning light – clearer in this sort of story. 
  • Cancel meetings, says a business coach (and, as it happens, member of the newspaper’s ‘panel of experts’ for the Readers’ Clinic). Presumably the Telegraph staff have a Monday meeting they’d like to skip. Who doesn’t?
  • Bite a pencil to make you smile
  • Book a holiday – interestingly, it is Richard Wiseman who is quoted here, despite the fact that Cliff Arnall is usually sponsored himself by holiday companies to promote this story each January. The previous ‘biting a pencil’ idea is also referenced in Wiseman’s (excellent) book, 59 Seconds,as is the following:
  • Imagine your own death (says another author)
  • Eat fresh fruit and herbs, specifically those advised by Cherry Chapell, a PR hack who has also written a few books – she is an expert in that she has a collection of Grandma’s Remedies published. Presumably these are what we would call ‘old wives tales’ or ‘anecdotes’.
  • Eat chilli, which among other effects, destroys mitochondria. Hopefully I don’t need to point out that this effect is presumably not relevant when eating it or we would all be in trouble – and if it was, it would be spectacularly bad advice. There seem to be some suggestions that chilli helps prevent cancer as it kills off cancer cells. How healthy cells are not affected presumably remains a mystery.
  • We should eat with fat friends as this prompts us to eat less, according to a report from last year, also reported in the Telegraph and many other newspapers.
  • Listen to music while we exercise to try and get more out of it. Hmm. Well, I have to admit, running in the morning is slightly less painful with loud rock playing (Lost Prophets anyone?), but I found this quite a tenuous link. Until I found out that the expert in question has a compilation CD out to help people try and get more out of exercise. So that would be the science bit then.
  • Be nice to people at work and see if the effects get passed on. Well, can’t hurt.
  • Get more sleep because it will help you lose weight, said a study a few years back. Although how this – and many of the other things – will help you in the course of a single bad day is beyond me…

I can’t help it – let’s do the maths.

Five suggestions that are effectively adverts, six if we count ‘book a holiday’ and four research items that are, quite possibly, a few years old and irrelevant to daily life. Out of thirteen ideas.

Do I need to write this as an equation for people to take my opinion seriously?

Revising Online

(Updated 1st May to fix broken link)

I’m a big fan of paper and pen, I have to admit. I can’t read a non-fiction book without a pencil in my hand, ready to add notes in margins. Revision should, I feel, start by writing out some ideas, perhaps headings or main nodes of a concept map. But many students disagree and some find it very helpful to use resources online, either ‘live’ or downloadable software. This post will list a few ideas to get you started – please let me know, hypothetical reader, if you can suggest any more – and in time this will become a page all of its own.

Concept/Mind Maps

If you like mind mapping, there are many resources you could check out. One company which likes the idea of visual, rather than written notes and revision is Model Learning These different layouts may be useful in a range of circumstances, to explore, explain and revise links between concepts. I also like the information the Open University have made available at  Visual Techniques for Revision. You might also want to check out

Flash card junkies

You can’t go far wrong with a stack of 5×3 index cards and a pen. If you want to turn this into an electronic equivalent, I currently have three suggestions – but they all require a little work.

Quizlet is a website that allows you to define your own flashcards, linking any two ideas together. They can be definitions, translations, symbol and unit, whatever. Once defined, they can be shared with other users (one of my long-term projects will be to start making sets of these for my students to use) and turned into tests, games and other activities. You may find some useful sets there already and if not, making them yourself is a good first step in revision. 

Memoriser is a freeware utility (translation: free to download and use) which lets you define the facts you want to learn, questions you want to answer or anything else. It can then be set to run in the background while on a computer, asking you random questions at preset intervals.

The third is something you may already have, but it’s an interesting application of Powerpoint. You can save a slideshow as a folder of jpeg (image) files. Many mobile phones can now store and display such files, and you can often run them as a slideshow. This means a revision powerpoint – ideally clear slides with small amounts of text – can be saved to your phone and played back at odd moments, in bus queues or while waiting at the dentists. Most students won’t carry around revision cards, but will need death threats to be parted from their mobile phone.

I’m sure there are many more available – please drop me a line if I’ve missed out your favourites!

Revision – or lack of it

It constantly amazes me that students seem completely clueless when it comes to revision. Even bright, able young people seem not to realize that learning things for a test – whether facts, processes or key vocabulary – takes effort. I am so tired to repeating that “Reading is not revision.” For anyone who’s interested, here’s a few ideas about making revision rather more effective than simply flicking through a text book or folder.

To make revision work properly, it needs to be active. Ignoring all the neuroscience behind this – after all, this isn’t a Brain Gym Pseudoscience seminar – it simply means that the more ways we think about or process something, the more likely we are to remember it. With my students I use the idea of following the MORSE code to make sure revision is active and, hopefully, effective.

Mnemonics are mental shortcuts that help recall a fact, sequence or method. Examples might include “How I Wish I Could Calculate Pi” (How=3, I=1, Wish+4 etc) or “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain.”

Organising the facts we need to know in a specific way, whether chronological, lists, groups of five or whatever can be very effective. Drawing concept maps or dividing facts into advantages and disadvantages are both ways to organise knowledge and create links we find easier to recall later.

Repetition is a method many students use. It is most effective when we vary the method we use to learn repeated facts, perhaps transferring information from one format to another (paragraph to bullet points, concept map to list of questions etc)

Simplifying what is needed can really help, especially to start with. Instead of sentences, choose key words. Summarise the facts so there is less to learn, and so that ‘trigger’ words remind you of greater levels of detail.

Extending what you understand works best by trying to apply what you know to new situations. When a teacher asks students to use an equation to work out a series of problems, this gives practice (repetition) and encourages better understanding of the uses or limitations of a method. There are many ways to extend yourself, such as writing questions for someone else, picking the ten most important words and so on.

Of course many of these ideas overlap with each other. What I constantly find surprising is the sheer number of students who don’t use any of them, so limiting themselves to reading the same words, in the same order, time and again. And as we know – reading isn’t revision.