A Vote for Cognitive Calisthenics

While gym memberships cost around $30 a month, upper division undergraduate college education in America may cost anywhere from $300 to $3000+ a month… After 5 years of living through that, I (sadly only recently) realized: lectures, sections, homework, exams, are merely ‘opportunities’ for increased critical thinking, citizenship, integrity, humanity, justice, compassion, curiosity, and autonomy AKA learning how to learn, to become more cognitively fit. Similar to how weights in a gym are merely opportunities for increased physical fitness and identity.

While professors do good work in presenting us information while designing assignments and exams to assess our learning, the truth is, majority of those ‘opportunities’ cognitive fitness, without proper technique, coaching, guidance, and mindsets, lead many students consequently backpedaling towards our collective mission at a university. 1 difference between the gym vs. lecture, aside from the cost, is we can’t visually see how our peers are developing their cognitive fitness, whereas, we can more transparently see how people are becoming more physically fit. When someone is jogging or doing a pushup, pullup, or a squat, I can leverage mirror neurons and mimic their movements. But when my peer gets an A+ I rarely will get to see what / why / how someone is learning to measure up to what our professors are expecting.

An open ended petition to rethink lecture in 2020 and moving forward.

“It makes no sense to expect all students to take the same amount of time to achieve the same objectives” – Benjamin Bloom
fooo reaalll

While many classes may seem disengaging, irrelevant, or abstract… remember that we are fully capable in developing the practices as well as mindsets of learning how to learn to equip ourselves with the vocabulary, tools, principles and armor to make the most out of our classes. 

There are musicians who can understand each note in the image below just like how there are computer engineers who understand computer code and math. But they didn’t have these concept images the moment they were born – they developed cognitive fitness around these languages, just like you have, if you are able to read or understand the words I published here.

Some surface level facts about the brain. Our nervous system has cells called neurons where information from one neuron flows to another across a synapse. Our brain has over a billion synapses. Any time you learn, which we may define as a process of changes involved in: beliefs behaviors attitude or knowledge, your brain is creating synapses. Sleeping refreshes updates and develops these synapses creating stronger more myelinated brain cells. 

Learning is demanding and uncomfortable; we learned from Newton’s 1st law of inertia that an object at rest stays at rest. Learning hard skills cause anxiety and stress, not to mention you have a million more entertaining things you could potentially be doing – reading this blog post isn’t 1, but I appreciate you and want to help you learn. This discomfort activates areas in the brain which will direct you to do something more pleasant. However if we remind ourselves we can learn anything we want to learn, and just start, that cognitive discomfort begins to go away.

The more abstract or irrelevant something is, the more important it is to develop neural connections to bring abstract ideas to reality. There really is not much of a short cut to onboarding yourself to musical notes, math, language, computer science, so just remember hard & abstract concepts require more time. You are not alone here, no one gets an exemption from this. The only reason computers are not as abstract for Bill Gates was because he was hella interested in computers, had access to them when he was a teenager, and had mentors or significant people of influence that encouraged him to learn about computers.

Concept images, neuroscientifically speaking, bond together through exploration, understanding and application. They may grow and become more complex and can become part of your working memory and daily function. Walking reading speaking listening are examples of concept images at work. The elephant not in my room is, classes are boring and hard, so: how do we build concept images most effectively, then efficiently? 

  1. Reduce Distractions
  2. Solve the problem yourself 
  3. Focus on 1 thing at a time
  4. Ask yourself what did you learn, understand the illusion of competence
  5. Space out the practice 
  6. Active Recall with Reflection
  7. Ask yourself what did you learn, again, and write those thoughts down
  8. Unlearn old ideas and challenge your intuition 
  9. Interleaving practice 
  10. Deliberate Practice 

With finals coming up here are some questions, I hope will guide you to learn more in your courses

  1. How may you create mini-study guides / synopsis for each class meeting you have?
  2. What questions would you ask if you were the professor?
  3. While so much of what we’re required to learn is more boring and demanding than watching food videos on YTube, what are some different ways to perceive this material?
  4. What are the key objectives of the class today?
  5. Are you investing some time for self care?

On exam day here are some strategies introduced to me by Jeff that have helped over the years

  1. Invest time to look at the exam in the beginning 5 minutes 
  2. Track and Solve the questions that are easiest first, to build momentum and confidence 
  3. Shift your thinking from “I’m gonna do poorly on the test” to “I’m going to do my best because I focused on the learning”
  4. Schedule time to breathe deeply into your stomach and channel calm thoughts if you are stuck

Remember when you arrive at your upper division courses, it is common that tutors, resources, study groups will become more scarce just like they have for me this semester. Therefore, the sooner you begin focusing on your learning and investing time to be metacognitive of learning how to learn, the more cognitively fit you will be! 


3 thoughts on “A Vote for Cognitive Calisthenics

  1. The Spotify incorporation is dope! It really brings more life and more Henry into the piece. You have to teach me that part!

    I’m surprised the gym training and mental training analogy is not more often talked about because it fits quite well. If anything, mental training really reminds me of powerlifting, where people set a schedule to prepare for competition lifts(kind of like exams). Powerlifters often include strategic schedules full of heavy-lifting days, high-volume days, rest days, and deload weeks(lighter week to avoid burnout on the way to competition). As students, scheduling is such a big aspect of learning and ramping up for an exam day. After all, school is more like a marathon rather than a sprint! Henry I’d love to see you build upon these analogies to make learning science content more available to the average joe like me.

    This whole post covered a variety of topics such as: the main analogy, myelination, learning being uncomfortable and demanding, abstract concepts requiring more connections to reality, concept images, a list of how to effectively build concept images, a list of questions to help students learn more in courses, and a list of exam day strategies. I think your writing could benefit if you narrowed down the number of topics and gave each idea the time and love they deserve. Although I know that there is so much we want to write about and so much of it connects to each other. Keep writing Henry!


  2. I love the line you wrote:

    “1 difference between the gym vs. lecture, aside from the cost, is we can’t visually see how our peers are developing their cognitive fitness, whereas, we can more transparently see how people are becoming more physically fit.”

    This is such a deep insight and really highlights some of the great ideas you’ve brought to the TLC. Over and over again, you’ve spoken about working with the garage open. You’ve also really pushed me to imagine creating a community in which we inspire and encourage learners to create their own content. That sentence highlights the exact need for this type of work: to help make learning more transparent. I see gold in your vision to make learning transparent and to help student

    One fascinating idea that comes to mind as I read your words is that learning in college is so much more complex than athletics. I think we’ve spoken about the great book “The Power of Full Engagement ” by Loehr and Schwartz, right? That book focuses on the psychology of top performance.

    Jim Loehr (https://www.jim-loehr.com/about) is a performance psychologist who has spent decades studying top performance. In that book, he discusses his work analyzing some of the best athletes in the world. For example, he was part of the performance team that helped multiple tennis players reach the number 1 ranking in the world. At some point in his career, he decided to branch out and try to teach lessons from athletic performance to people working in non-athletic careers.

    Some of my favorite lines in that book read as follows:

    “For thirty years, our organization has worked with world-class athletes, defining precisely what it takes to perform consistently at the highest levels under intense competitive pressures… As word spread about our success in sports, we received numerous requests to export our model into other high-performance venues… Along the way, we discovered something completely unexpected: The performance demands that most people face in their everyday work environments dwarf those of any professional athletes we have ever trained.”

    In other words, this professional psychologist says: it’s harder to perform in the real word than it is in the world of sports. To me, that makes complete sense. Sports is a finite game (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finite_and_Infinite_Games) with a list set of rules, a pre-determined objective, and well-defined boundaries. Life and learning are much more complex phenomena.

    However, just because learning is complex, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And what I hear you saying, both in this post and in your work in the TLC, is that we can create meaningful ways to help make learning easier. A huge part of that process is to display (in a digestible and meaningful format) the techniques and habits of successful learning! I love that intuition and respect the work your doing. I already see future generations of your students benefiting from the hard work you’re doing right now!


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