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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Learning Stuff While Missing the Point

As a college professor for many decades, I am always amazed at how so many students pass exams while having so little understanding. If I taught math, it would probably be different, because the task in math is to solve problems, which you can't do if you don't understand how to construct and solve appropriate equations. But for most other subjects, it is amazing how much students can learn with so little understanding.
This problem also exists in the real world outside of academia. I have recently become engaged as a volunteer tutor in our community's citizenship preparation class for immigrants. This past week the topic was George Washington, and the two instructors spent a lot of time teaching trivial things, such as when he was born, where he was born, what he was (general, president), the name of his home. Nothing was presented about his philosophy about freedom and government. I had to remind the teachers and the class that after he had done such a good job in his two terms as President, many citizens pressed him to become king. He, of course, refused. I don't know what he said to the petitioners, but I can guess he thought to himself, "We just spent years fighting where many of our fellows died to create a new country based on freedom. You turkeys missed the whole point. You didn't learn a damn thing."
During that same class period, the instructors taught about our holidays, that is, what and when they were, but not why they were. For example, we talked about the President's day holiday. During the tutoring session, I asked the immigrants at my table why we celebrate all the Presidents, even though most of them had conspicuous human weaknesses, and many of whom had views and policies that the immigrants would not have supported or voted for. Blank stares encircled our table. I had to remind everybody that we honor Presidents we don't like because more than half the country did like them. If you understand anything about freedom, you have to respect every President, because otherwise you disrespect over half the country and worse yet, the principle of democratic government. Otherwise, you are leading the country down the jungle path of becoming a banana republic (which of course is what these Hispanic immigrants are used to).
There are real-world lessons today in the world of Trump. When you popularize the idea of his assassination and shout in rage "He is not my President," you are shouting at your fellow citizens who insist that he is their President and should be yours too. Dishonoring the man dishonors the office and the fundamental philosophy of our governing principles. This is vastly more important than knowing what was being taught about the holiday.
The right lessons about our government are apparently not being taught to citizens in our k-12 schools. Numerous polls uniformly have revealed that the typical high school graduate knows very little about U.S. history. School history textbooks are roundly criticized for inaccuracy, bias, and omissions. What little is learned is about the flaws in our past, such as treatment of Indians, slavery, and the Vietnam War. I have verified this in conversations with my grandchildren. The young people I talk to know nothing about the Federalist Papers. They have little appreciation for how creative the ideas in the Constitution were at the time and how they have had at least some impact everywhere in the world. They know very little about what our "greatest generation" did in World War II to save the world from despotism.
The larger point, of the need to understand the factoids you are learning, applies in all aspects in life: school, workplace training, and relationships with people of different backgrounds. In everything we learn we should get in the habit of asking ourselves certain questions:
·         Do I understand what this means?
·         How much can I learn from it, not just of it?
·         What are the limitations of this information? Where is it wrong or incomplete?
·         What are the implications of this information?
·         To what good purpose can I put this information?
Understanding is much more demanding and valuable than just knowing. I might add as the "Memory Medic" that this perspective on learning makes it easier to remember what you learn. The best way to remember factoids is the thinking required to understand them.

"Memory Medic" has four books 

on improving learning and memory:

For parents and teachers: The Learning Skills Cycle.
For students: Better Grades, Less Effort
For everyone's routine living: Memory Power 101
For seniors: Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain. Memory Is the Canary in Your Brain's Coal Mine

For details and reviews, see Memory Medic's web site:

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Background Noise While Studying

Most people have trouble focusing when there are distractions, and that will surely impair learning. Learning can be impaired by distracting background sounds. That is why teachers generally encourage students to study in quiet environments. Children, however, like extra stimulation when studying, perhaps because they view study as boring. So, a common practice is to play music or even have the radio or TV on. I have written about music effects on learning before (, but now there is other information I would like to share.

Personality of the learner may be an important variable. Adrian Furnham and Lisa Strbac of University College, London, found that both background music or office noises impaired performance of introverts in tasks involving reading comprehension, mental arithmetic, and prose recall. Performance in silence was the same for both personality types, suggesting that introverts have a special need for silence in their study environments.

The notion has surfaced that it might be beneficial to mask distracting sounds by playing white noise while studying. White noise is a random mixture of sound frequencies that when heard in low volume can improve detection of a simultaneous isolated signal with equal power of any frequency. Perhaps this is because the presence of a homogenous signal (white noise) improves the contrast with a novel superimposed signal. A contributing factor might be the brain’s usual response of habituating to a constant stimulus, effectively creating an empty-stimulus state in which other stimuli would be augmented. A couple of years ago a study was reported indicating that a white-noise background can improve memory in youngsters with Attention Deficit Disorder.

What happens in a brain exposed to white noise has been revealed in fMRI brain-scan studies of young adults. The study’s behavioral test indicated slightly improved recognition memory of scene images and scans. An associated increased activity occurred in brain positive reinforcement pathways and in auditory cortex.

However, some caution is needed in interpreting these results. One caveat is that the study of adults used recognition memory (as in “Do you remember seeing this scene?”), which is much less robust than being able to generate a recall without cuing. Another caveat is the lack of systematic evaluation of the decibel level of white noise. At some point, the sound is certain to be distracting or even irritating. In fact, people on average report that such noise is slightly aversive and strongly aversive by some subjects. The adult study used a white noise of 20-5000 Hz at 70 dB via headphones. If one does not deliver white noise via headphones, other sounds in the room could negate whatever beneficial effect white noise might have.

Steven Smith at my university found that recall of memorized words was better 48 hours after learning if the sounds used during word presentation, either music or white noise, were repeated during the recall session. This reflects a common observation that recall is enhanced if you are tested in the same environment as when you learned the test material. Using sound in this way is not practical in school situations, but it could improve the efficacy of self-testing in one's home environment.

We should not accept uncritically the studies that advocate using white noise during study. One study revealed that exposure to background noise improved performance for inattentive children but worsened performance for attentive children. Thus, white noise may be a distraction for attentive children and only helps with inattentive children because their innate distractibility is activated less when the noise background is monotonous and uninteresting.

In the most recent study of this issue, white-noise (20-20,000 Hz, 70 dB, via headphones) during initial learning impaired recall. The authors concluded that white noise has no general beneficial effect on thinking and memory.

What this tells me is that white noise might have some value if there is general room noise that needs to be masked. This might be especially true for people with attention deficits who are especially distracted by noise. Another possibility, which as far as I know has not been tested, is to have a soft background noise of rain in a tropical rain forest or waves lapping on the beach. Those sounds would surely be relaxing and provide a uniform sound background.

But why have any sound at all? What is wrong with utter silence when you are trying to concentrate? When it comes to learning, it is hard to beat the silence of the library.


Furnham, Adran, and Strbac, Lisa. (2010). Music is as distracting as noise: the differential distraction of background music and noise on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts. Ergonomics, 45(3).

Herweg, N. A., and Bunzeck, N. (2015). Differential effects of white noise in cognitive and perceptual tasks. Frontiers in Psychol. (3 Nov.).

Rausch, V. H., Bauch, E. M., and Bunzek, N. (2013). White noise improves learning by modulating activity in dopaminergic midbrain regions and right superior temporal sulcus, J. Cognitive Neuroscience, (Dec. 17) 26(7), doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00537.

Söderlund, Göran BW  et al. (2010). The effects of background white noise on memory performance in inattentive school children. Behavioral and Brain Functions20106:55
DOI: 10.1186/1744-9081-6-55

Smith, Steven M. (1985). Background music and context-dependent memory. Amer. J. Psychol. 98(4), 591-603.

"Memory Medic" has four books on improving learning and memory:

For parents and teachers: The Learning Skills Cycle.
For students: Better Grades, Less Effort
For everyone's routine living: Memory Power 101
For seniors: Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain. Memory Is the Canary in Your Brain's Coal Mine

For details and reviews, see Memory Medic's web site:

Monday, June 05, 2017

Learning to Be Hostile

In U.S. culture, hostility seems to be growing to epidemic proportions. We are teaching each other that hostility is acceptable and even necessary. Recently in my local newspaper, a letter to the editor by  Sana Rahman lamented that “people do not seem to have the same regard and respect for others that we used to have.” I have lived long enough to know she is right.

Taking advantage of others is rampant. Everybody from corporations to individual free loaders want to feed at the federal trough. We legitimize free and undeserved stuff from government as entitlement.  Ripping off taxpayers occurs at all levels, especially in health care programs, government contracts, tax returns, and in all manner of subsidies.

Violence is all around us in video games and movies and in murders in cities like Chicago and New Orleans. We read of horror stories where onlookers of rapes and beatings regard it as entertainment, refusing to intervene or call the police. In some cities, police are targeted for abuse and even killing.

We feel little obligation for thoughtful consideration of the beliefs and views of others. On college campuses, students and professors riot to block free speech of speakers who have different views. The mayor of Berkeley, California is quoted in the June 12 Time article on the university riots was quoted as saying "This level of political violence is something we have not seen before." Fascist intimidation of unwanted speech is being conducted by groups that strangely call themselves antifascist (and these are our best and brightest?).

The hatred of President Trump has reached sociopathic levels. Comedians who used to think their job was to be funny now think their job is to demean conservatives.  Movie stars seem to have similar objectives. To be elected, politicians increasingly rely on character assassination of opponents. Republican and Democrat legislators regard each other as enemies and even enemies of the country. Citizens are politically polarized in socially destructive ways.

Hatred is becoming epidemic, and the spread is promoted by the teaching that the ends justify the means. Hatred is okay when it is directed at people we carelessly define as evil. We teach each other to be desensitized to violence. Like a response to virulent virus, our immune response to violence has become exhausted.

Religious institutions that remind us of our obligation to love our neighbors and even our enemies are losing massive numbers of members. Sana Rahman asked us to pray for a return of the regard and respect for others that we used to have. We must help answer those prayers by a change in our own hearts.

Dr. Klemm's latest book, for parents and teachers, is "The Learning Skills Cycle. A Way to Re-think Education Reform." It is available from most all book vendors.