Note-taking – the most effective method?

Recently, I’ve been called in to work full-time; something I wasn’t expecting, couldn’t refuse and which has totally derailed my study plans. All the same, I love teaching in this particular school with such a strong Humanities team and highly-motivated 7th graders.

Currently, in a unit about Religions, my students take notes as they watch 6 short (20-minute) documentaries. The resource I was presented with for this was a Google Doc that I was to make a copy of for each student and direct them to type in their answers as they view. At the outset, I knew I wasn’t going to have them use their laptops for note-taking, not least because of:

  • the time it takes them to get the laptops open and navigate to the correct site;
  • the fact many run out of power when asked to use them even for a few minutes;
  • the potential distraction of ‘googling’ new phrases and terminology rather than focusing on the main message of the videos.

I also had in mind that taking notes by hand can be more effective, though if you saw some of my students’ handwriting and organisation you’d be hard-pressed to believe this could be true!

First Round

box GOWe began with a graphic organiser I’d produced on Google Slides, printed and distributed to each student. This was a simple format with a box for each section of the video.

Even as I was making it, I wondered if each box was the optimal size for the quantity of notes they’d be taking. This turned out to be a valid concern, as I noted how students had used some boxes minimally whereas others had continued on the back side of the sheet as the box hadn’t been big enough for the details they wanted to record. With such minimal guidance on which information was most important, many had tried to take down as much information as possible, rather than listening critically to decide what was most important.

Round 2

At this point, I had 2 choices – I could give them stems or a cloze (partial graphic organisers) to help them focus on the most important points, or we could discuss how to select the most essential information. Initially, I went for the (onerous) first option swayed by our high EAL population, but when I realised that: this unit may well be dropped next year; my efforts were for a specific DVD series that other teachers would likely not have access to; and I am a recovering workaholic who needs to be mindful of balance – I changed to the second. As a result, in class we talked about noting key words (to be defined later if the pace of speech was too fast), and sharing our notes (in shared first language teams where needed) after each viewing, which we did in class time.

Student feedback on the sharing activity was very positive, and they requested this be a feature of all our viewings from then on. Reviewing their efforts, I could see they certainly had a better quantity of notes and – for the most part – they were now getting the essential information, albeit with a bit of interspersed additional trivia (no harm there).

Round 3

Religions Video Notes GOs (1)In keeping with my philosophy of student choice – and the fact that the exit tickets had indicated some were not comfortable with the boxy organiser –  I decided to introduce a different format. For our next DVD, I created a very minimal mindmap.

Many students excelled with this producing well-organised mindmaps with clear sections and different colours, whereas some produced mindmaps like my own – something like an flailing octopus and completely useless as an aide-memoire.

Round 4

Cornell GOThe next format introduced was Cornell Notes. I’ve always thought these are a bit like free form notes anyway, but they have become my favourite over time so I was interested to see how the students would manage them. I explained that the left-hand column could be used for topic headings, prompts or questions (for reviewing later on). The bottom section was intended for summaries, but as they were studying different religions, they might also use it for connections between religions or burning questions to come back to after the viewing.

Again, the feedback on this format was positive although some had already decided one of the other formats was best for them – great! They were starting to make intentional decisions about how they learned – what more could a metacognition-loving teacher ask for!

Moving Forward

As we continue through the DVD series, students will now choose their own format for note-taking. Of course, note-taking is only the first step in this learning process, so at the end of each lesson, students have been creating quiz questions on the material which we use as beginning activities in the next lesson. Furthermore, students already use Quizlet for science so they can transfer the information they’ve collected onto that platform for retrieval practice and eventually higher-order assessment tasks to check on deeper learning.


As with all research, there is the need to be critical about the generalisability of findings. While teachers would love to be working in a definitive framework, this post from the Learning Scientists reminds us to be aware that we are often working with ‘best case’ conclusions rather than guarantees of success.


Agarwal, P. K. (2018). Retrieval Practice & Bloom’s Taxonomy: Do Students Need Fact Knowledge Before Higher Order Learning?. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication.

Coane, J. & Minear, M. (2018) Who Really Benefits from Retrieval Practice? The Learning Scientists.

Kuepper-Tetzel, C. (2018) Partial Graphic Organizers to Support Student Note-Taking and Learning. The Learning Scientists.

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science25(6), 1159–1168.

“Retrieval Practice: A Powerful Strategy to Improve Learning.” (n.d.) Retrieval Practice: A Powerful Strategy to Improve Learning.

Not so clear cut

Two weeks into the Msc Applied Psychology and it’s been interesting that so many of the famous (or notorious) studies I’ve come across have significant factors I wasn’t aware of. Knowing them gives me a new perspective on the studies and reminds me it’s a good idea to

  • read around the studies
  • always go back to the actual studies, rather than relying on textbook (or other) summaries of the processes and findings
  • question everything

Some examples:

Milgram’s study on obedience (using electric shocks) had predicted less than 3% of the 51YKUQOjf3L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_participants would administer the highest voltage to their ‘student’, in contrast to the 65% that actually did. Further variations of the study (by Milgram himself) showed that obedience in this scenario was influenced significantly by context i.e. outside the realms of the prestigious Yale laboratories overseen by a highly-respected academic.

Despite the fact it was likely his then-girlfriend’s horror that was the most influential factor in ending the Stanford Prison Experiment early, Zimbardo himself said the study was so ethically dubious that it should not be replicated. Nonetheless, it was replicated in a serialised documentary for the BBC (Prison Study, 2002), and the findings were very different from the original study.

The Piliavan ‘Good Samaritan‘ study on ‘the bystander effect’ showed that neither race nor intoxication generally prevented onlookers from helping someone in need (on a subway train).

Another aspect that has come up again and again is what is known as the ‘replication crisis’ in psychology. Basically, experiments done to verify the findings of previous ones tend to fail to support previous findings. As science is built on the notion of replicable results, it throws into question the scientific nature of the practice of psychological research.

The problem is compounded by the fact it is very difficult to get published if your hypothesis is either a replication or shown to be disproven (publication bias), so researchers are pressured to do studies that prove their hypothesis or – when they don’t prove – bury them in a cupboard somewhere…or falsify the results. This has serious implications for scientific knowledge because disproving ideas is just as important as proving them – if enough evidence has been gathered to falsify a conclusion, it is in the interest of everyone that this knowledge be shared. But how? If journals won’t publish, how can researchers let others know about their findings? It’s an ongoing issue that some are trying to rectify such as with pre-registration of studies, but it’s clearly something that needs to be taken into account when accepting the findings of any study as generalisable.

But then we have these guys at Harvard who tell us the whole thing’s a misunderstanding and that “the data are consistent with the opposite conclusion, namely, that the reproducibility of psychological science is quite high.” (Gilbert et al, 2015.)

What’s a poor student to do?!




SSM105 Using thematic analysis in psychology

Using thematic analysis in psychology

This is a summary of the first part of the journal article. In this section, Braun and Clarke define thematic analysis. In the next part, they outline a guide for carrying out thematic analysis.

Braun and Clarke present thematic analysis (TA) as a method all researchers should learn to develop core skills; while some consider it a tool, they see it as a method in its own right.

Its theoretical freedom means it can be used regardless of epistemological or ontological positions, or analytic methods.

The paper aims to define but not constrict TA as one of its best features is its adaptability.


  • Data corpus – all data collected
  • Data set – data used for particular analysis, drawn from across corpus
  • Data item – each individual piece of data
  • Data extract – individually-coded chunk of data

What is Thematic Analysis?

It’s a method for identifying, analysing and reporting patterns – themes – which minimally organises but richly describes data, and often goes further into interpretation.

As it hasn’t been ‘branded’ like other methods, it is often not even acknowledged as method used, as it’s either named as something else or not named at all e.g. ““…data were subjected to qualitative analysis for commonly recurring themes.” (Braun and Wilkins 2003:30)” (Braun and Clarke 2006:80)

If attitudes, analysis, assumptions aren’t stated, it’s difficult to evaluate research.

Talk of themes as ‘emerging’ ignores role of researcher as interpreter / ‘noticer’, as if the texts themselves contained themes just waiting to break out at the notice of an objective watcher.

All reporting of research involves selection and rejection of data, so what is essential is theoretical frameworks / methods match researcher’s aim and that these are acknowledged as decisions.

Unlike (e.g.) Discourse Analysis (DA) and Grounded Theory (GT), TA is not tied to any theory; nor does it require to full analysis of GT.

Thematic DA covers a range of approaches including:

  1. Patterns identified as socially-produced but not discursively-analysed – SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONIST EPISTEMOLOGY
  2. Interpretative form of DA
  3. Themes identified where language is made up of meaning and meanings are assigned socially – THEMATIC DECONSTRUCTION ANALYSIS

Thematic DA therefore overlaps with TA as they both look for themes across rather than within data sets, unlike narrative analysis or individual interviews, and it’s more accessible to new researchers as doesn’t require extensive theoretical knowledge of approaches (such as DA / GT).

TA can be essentialist or realist, constructionist or contextualist but theoretical position of analysis should be completely transparent.


Certain questions are never answered in TA papers, but should be. (See below.)

What counts as a theme?

This can’t be quantified definitively in terms of number of occurences or length, so we have to remain flexible and use researcher judgement.

A theme’s importance is not judged on prevalence but “in relation to overall research question” (Braun and Clarke 2006:82) so what matters is actually consistency in how you identify themes (or even prevalence).

Perhaps there’s a need for more debate around conventions of prevalence including why it might be important.

Rich description v detailed account?

Researcher must decide the type of analysis and what s/he wants to show e.g. a rich thematic description will show predominant themes across whole data set, but will lose depth – perhaps useful approach for discovery in areas where not much research has been done.

Alternatively, researchers can go deeper – within or across data sets – into one or more themes related to a particular aspect or question.

Inductive v theoretical TA

Researchers can use inductive (bottom up) approach whereby themes coming out will be unpredictable and data will be coded without pre-existing coding framework – very data driven and similar to GT – although of course cannot be entirely epistemologically ‘pure’ because of the role of the researcher.

Another way is to drive the research by a theory or analytic interest in the area, and code for a specific research question (which will produce less rich description overall).

Deciding how and why you are coding the data is needed to choose between inductive or theoretical approach.

So, for example, a researcher could look at the data and see any patterns related to a broader topic (see what comes out of the data – broad agenda), or could look specifically for themes related to a particular aspect (go in with a narrower agenda).



Semantic v latent themes

TA typically uses one or the other.

With semantic approach the focus is on surface / explicit meaning which is described and then interpreted in terms of the significance of the patterns, usually related to previous research (e.g. Firth and Gleeson 2004).

A latent approach looks beyond surface meaning to underlying ideas, concepts, assumptions and ideologies, so developing the themes themselves requires interpretation, meaning resulting analysis is “already theorised” (Braun and Clarke 2006:84).

The latent approach is commonly constructionist and so overlaps with thematic DA which increasingly also employs psychoanalytic interpretations (so that’s something TA could do too).

TA Epistemology: essentialist / realist v constructionist

“Epistemology guides what you can say about the data.” (ibid:85)

Essentialist / realist approach – theorise motivations, experience and meaning because language reflects and enables us to articulate meaning and experience (in a direct relationship).

Constructionist approach – perspective, meaning and experience are socially-produced (not within the individual) so the researcher will theorise sociocultural contexts and structural conditions that enable accounts. Latent analysis tends to be more constructionist and overlap with thematic DA.

Questions within qualitative research

  1. Overall research question (can be broad or narrow)
  2. Interview questions to participants
  3. Questions to guide coding

No necessary relationship between these types of questions; often better if unrelated. Some worst examples of TA analysis equate questions for participants as ‘themes’.

In summary, TA looks across data sets to find repeated patterns of meaning; form and product of TA varies but it’s important that final paper explains what was done and why.


  • The concepts latent, specific aspects, and constructionist tend to cluster together.
  • The concepts semantic, across whole data set and realist tend to cluster together.


Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006, 01). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77-101. doi:10.1191/1478088706qp063oa

Frith, Hannah & Gleeson, Kate. (2004). Clothing and Embodiment: Men Managing Body Image and Appearance. Psychology of Men & Masculinity. 5. 10.1037/1524-9220.5.1.40.

Ramirez, R. J. (2017, February 09). A Summary on “Using Thematic Analysis in Psychology”. Retrieved from

Further Resources

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2017, December 09). Thematic analysis – an introduction Retrieved from 

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2017, December 09). What is thematic analysis? Retrieved from

And So It Begins…

As our tutors for the MSc Applied Psychology get ready for the start of the semester (next week), my Moodle area is being populated with course information and – more importantly – our weekly readings. I admit to being somewhat anxious about this level of study again, especially when I see my cohort has a hefty percentage of PhDs, lecturers and other psychology ‘experts’ in comparison to my informal dabbling! As a result, I’m keen to get on with the reading as I’m curious (and excited) to apply what I’ve learned about learning over the last couple of years away from formal study.

The last few days I’ve been gathering my supplies, certainly in terms of stationery but also in terms of figuring out how I’m going to do this distance learning thing full-time. Although I’ve studied at a distance before, it’s always been alongside work so having this as my all-day ‘job’ is a bit daunting for several reasons.

Firstly, I’m concerned about the social isolation. I’ve been able to mitigate this somewhat by arranging lunch dates with friends but ultimately there’s nobody else to quiz me, urge me on and so I have to be completely self-reliant for motivation and kicks up the rear end. My solution to this is to have a regular schedule, so – while it’s far from fixed or perfected – it starts with a morning walk, followed by breakfast and (only) then do I check my emails and forums. This means that about an hour after getting up I should be heading to that day’s location to get on with my studying. At the moment, I’m trying out different places from coffee shops (even though I don’t drink coffee, and I spend way too much on food while there) to libraries (unfortunately opening rather late in the morning) to the function room in my apartment block (kinda drab) – really, I will try anywhere! So far, it’s been fine and I’ve been able to concentrate well in each of these places, but I’ll have to formalise my locations by the day, unless I find that sticking to one place is best.

In my reading, I’ve decided I’d like as much content as possible to ‘stick’ in my memory so this is what I’ve been doing:

  1. Keeping well-hydrated with a litre of water beside me at the start of each day to contribute to optimal brain function.brain-962650_640
  2. Developing a caffeine habit; as one who hates even the smell of coffee, I’ve started drinking green tea, and the occasional sugar-free Pepsi to give me a mental boost – only before 4pm and a maximum of 2 drinks a day. It may go against some findings or be supported by others, but it does help me avoid what have become daily naps (convincing effect) and seems to keep me focused for longer.
  3. Using the Pomodoro in 25 minute slots to promote focus, and also ensure I have some movement breaks in between.
  4. Keeping my phone on airplane mode until the end of each Pomodoro, as well as no-phone-2533390_640keeping it out of sight through each 25-minute study session.
  5. Note-taking which for me involves reading the text by paragraph and then summarising the paragraph into 1 sentence  of my own (simpler) words (semi-colons and dashes allowed!) This is so when it comes to reviewing what I read (for assignments), it will take less time.
  6. Using index cards to record key terms and definitions. I find that when I create them on Quizlet, I never go back to review them.
  7. Sometimes, transferring these index cards onto Cerego (although this is time consuming and I’m not sure if it’s worth the effort). My reason for transferring these to Cerego rather than just sticking with the cards was the learning algorithm CeregoLogobuilt-in that reminds me (on my phone) when it’s time to review using their app. We’ll see how it goes because I believe that once the course kicks off, I simply won’t have time to enter all the terms (and at least one tutor is providing end-of-chapter quizzes which might just do the job). On the flip side, it’s been excellent training as a teacher for how to create effective multiple-choice questions – not as easy as it seems!
  8. Noting in a fluorescent blue pen (colour is arbitrary) questions I have as I read, but not going online until I’ve finished the chapter (by which stage I often find my understanding has improved anyway).
  9. Keeping in mind the end-of-module assignments, which have been posted for 2 of the 4 courses I’m taking this semester and taking special note of anything directly-related to those assessments.

As an aside, it’s been really interesting to notice the marked difference in the style of materials I’ve been using to learn psychology. Up to now, most of the courses and texts I’ve accessed have been from the US because – unsurprisingly – there are a lot more MOOCs (like Coursera) and other freebies (like Noba Psychology) from there. I’ve had no complaints with the materials at all, and indeed have been very grateful for the generous sharing I’ve benefited from. The courses I’ve done, the books I’ve read and the videos I’ve watched have all been clear and definitely developed my understanding in an unfamiliar area.US UK Canada All the same, it has been refreshing to access British academic texts recently, because those I’ve been allocated so far have that edge of cynicism and wry sense of humour the Brits are well-known for…and I like it. It makes reading them not just informative, but also very enjoyable especially as they sprinkle the dense explanations with references to popular culture, including even the likes of Dot Cotton. (I should also give a shout out to Canadian Professor Joordens, whose course is at least as entertaining as the Brits!)

Furthermore, I’m guessing it’s because the US materials are undergraduate level, but I’ve also now been exposed to more criticism of well-known studies such as Milgram (1963) and Zimbardo (1971), and am aware of more controversies such as Loftus and her lack of faith in eyewitness testimonies (apparently making her something a hate figure in the US!)

So, my next blog posts are likely to be a mix of reading summaries, attempts to apply APA referencing for the first time, reports on fascinating (at least to me) tidbits I’m learning, and reflections on how it’s all coming together.

Wish me luck!


Banyard, P., & Flanagan, C. (2005). Ethical issues and guidelines in psychology. London: Routledge.

Caffeine and mental alertness – part 1. (2017, September 13). Retrieved from

Costandi, M. (2013, August 16). Elizabeth Loftus: Falsifying memories | Mo Costandi. Retrieved from

Library Guides: New: APA referencing guide: Home. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Nehlig, A. (2010). Is Caffeine a Cognitive Enhancer? Journal of Alzheimers Disease,20(S1). doi:10.3233/jad-2010-091315

Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research,2(2), 140-154. doi:10.1086/691462

Being Single Doesn’t Have to Suck

It’s quite a jolt these days to realise my friends and I are at the age when the divorce rate is rising, and many people find themselves entering their 5th decade as singletons. A few people who find themselves in this position celebrate their new-found freedom, listing many of the benefits of not having to consider another in their daily dealings. However, the vast majority – at least from those who talk to me – lament they don’t have that special someone and often feel glum about how difficult it seems to be to turn that around, despite the plethora of apps and sites to the contrary.

This isn’t difficult to understand. Humans are social beings; we want to be accepted, to belong and to be loved, and often we have the idea that being in a romantic F8otYYarelationship fulfills all those needs. This could be because the last time we remember feeling like that was in a relationship. Or perhaps it’s because Fakebook Facebook tells us that all couples are blissfully happy – I mean, just look at their pics and posts – which in turn helps us forget or ‘downgrade’ the difficulties we faced in previous relationships. Whatever the reason, it can lead to a lot of soul-searching, heartache and self-doubt. This is nothing to be flippant about of course – the suffering of people longing to be in a relationship is very real and can cause bouts of sadness or depression so how to escape?

I don’t know.

But I have some (mostly unscientific) theories.

Disclaimer: I may well be talking out my back end and be totally out of touch, but hey – it’s my blog based on my experiences and reflections. Moving on…

These theories are based on conversations with friends (male and female) who have been open and honest about how they feel about being single – the good and the bad.

Have a full life

i-am-single-becauseThat doesn’t mean fill up every hour with activities to make sure you are never alone, but rather than your daily life is satisfying, meaningful and allows you to appreciate yourself for who you are and what you offer the world. Having a full schedule from dawn til dusk (and possibly beyond) is not going to lead to any of these positive outcomes if, all the while, you are scanning crowds for the next potential partner. The same goes for dating apps. If you find your focus is on who’s messaged or matched more than twice a day, delete, detox and start again. I suggest a month. (Apparently, it’s more like 2 months to change a habit, but if that sounds daunting you’ve gotta start somewhere…)

Invest time and energy into building and nurturing the love you already have in your largelife. Spend time with friends that make you feel good about yourself, and if you can be with them physically video call as often as possible. Send out loving affirmations to those you’ve drifted away from but still value – it’s never a waste of energy to remind someone you are thinking of them positively.

Move yourself out of your comfort zone and try new experiences. Who knows who you’ll meet or what it could lead to for adding another positive dimension to your life.

Accept yourself as a singleton

Doing this means you don’t think of yourself as ‘in between’ relationships, which means you can focus on where you are right now instead of what may or may not be. If it helps, chant, “I am single and I am doing great!” until you don’t just believe it, but live it. (Doing great = lovable, intelligent, attractive to some and not to others (just like everyone else), happy, accepting of oneself.) You are not ‘surviving’ being alone – you can thrive regardless of whether you are in a relationship or not. A statistician is quoted as saying, “[I]f you don’t want to die alone, you should try to die early, I guess.” Sound advice but unlikely it will be followed with gusto. It does make a point though – get on with living and stop worrying about what you ultimately can’t control. If you’re living in the now, you are less likely to fret about whether the person you just started messaging is your soul mate, and why they haven’t replied given you texted them 47 minutes ago (and you know they’ve read the message cos you’ve seen the magic ticks). Accepting singletonhood also means you start to embrace the positives of what that really means for you personally. It’s not about trying to develop a sense of superiority over coupledom, but it is about appreciating how every situation almost always brings new opportunities. Can’t see them? Talk it over with a friend and move forward intentionally, putting your energy where it makes sense (which is unlikely to be juggling Tinder dates that really aren’t worth the time).

Don’t be embarrassed about your status. If someone asks about your relationship status, Yes I M Single Design Mockup 02-847x1100simply respond with, “I’m single.” It doesn’t require any justification, explanation or tags such as ‘at the moment / for now / since last year.’ And if the questioner expresses sympathy or condescension, you might reply with something that deflects the comment and reminds you it’s just a status, not a sentence, such as, “I’m happy with my lot, thanks.”

And once you’ve sorted out that it really is OK to be single, and you’d like to get back on the dating scene for fun, socialising and possibilities (rather than desperation)…

Figure out what you want and then stick to it

Nobody wants to think of themselves as desperate, but wanting a partner can cause you to act in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise. When you make your decisions, they become slightly influenced by that desire.

This is usually a problem when using dating sites or apps. While there is nothing wrong with these networks specifically, using them while filling that void can cause your standard bar to drop significantly.

From what I’ve experienced, observed and been told, the following seems like some pretty sound advice:

  • Don’t tolerate repeated / regular delayed or zero responses; you wouldn’t accept it from a friend (unless they had a really good reason and acknowledged how unacceptable it is), so why accept it from someone you’re potentially becoming Vector greeting card with vintage floral elements.emotionally involved with? If someone is so inconsiderate at the outset, it doesn’t bode well for basic courtesy and respect. If you feel like you can’t be that cut-throat in saying what you won’t put up with, make it clear from the start what you are looking for…in the nicest possible way of course. (And don’t use the excuse that they are not good with tech / are not married to their phone / have a busy life to give them yet another chance. Whatever the excuse, if they are opening up the door to relationships on messaging apps, then they should have the sense to attend to them regularly, or what on earth is the point? If they’re not responding, it’s usually a choice. As a great mind once said, “Haven’t been to the toilet in the last week? I’d rather you text me when having a sh*t than not text at all.” Not responding? Say bye, suck it up and move on.
  • As soon as you find the behaviour / comments of the object of your interest is leading you to question if you are too pushy / short / tall / fat / thin / intense / forward / coy / enthusiastic / cool / intelligent, make the break. Wish them well and be on your way. They could well be a very nice individual, but they are not what you need and continuing down the path of self-questioning is more than likely to lead you toward self-doubt and a feeling of inadequacy in one or more departments. Who needs that? Again, “See ya. This isn’t working for me. Take care. Ciao!” (And then get working on self-appreciation and authentic confidence – look to your beloved friends and family for help on this one.)
  • Notice that you’re the one doing all the work? By ‘work’ I mean you have to make the journeys, initiate each conversation (in person or digitally), suggest the next meet up. It doesn’t matter how good it feels when you’re with the person; if potential partners aren’t pulling their weight in making an effort, you are giving more than you’re getting which isn’t a good start to any relationship, romantic or otherwise. In this case – given the good times you seem to have when you meet up – Table-1you might just want to state explicitly that you’d like them to make the next move. And set a time limit so you don’t spend the next month waiting and wondering! Being extremely generous, one might say they are so distracted they honestly haven’t noticed the one-sidedness, but by stating clearly what you need (without accusation) you give them the chance to redeem themselves and show they are willing to pitch in to this relationship-building. And if they don’t…well, you know the drill.

Look forward to the menopause?

Unfortunately, this one’s only for the females. Apparently, once you pass through the menopause the desperation of needing a partner wanes. I haven’t got any scientific downloadevidence to back this up, but this is what my quinquagenarian friends tell me. It makes sense, I guess, given the desperation might just be your body’s last ditch attempt to get impregnated and pass on your genes. It could also be the ‘older and wiser’ thing. Either way, if menopause was something you were dreading, it seems there’s a silver lining after all and at least you can comfort yourself now with the knowledge these feelings will pass.

(BTW – those ladies who shared their ‘evolution’ lead very fulfilling and happy lives!)

Anyway, that’s all I got.

Ultimately, life is short. Live it well. Focus on the good. Be happy.



Learning Strategies (or how to avoid wasting time on useless approaches to learning)

Time is precious. I think most people, whatever their situation, would agree and none more so than students who are also employees, partners, parents etc. For this reason, it is essential to understand how we learn best so when time is available for studying, we can maximise its efficacy and efficiency.

Although I’ve picked up nuggets here and there in my own studies, the playlist below does a good job of covering the main concepts. (I found the tips on how to use textbooks to enhance learning the most useful reminder.)

Personally, I think the caveat that automaticity of any strategies takes time is worth remembering. Forming the habits that lead to the payoffs is not an overnight (or even ‘overweek’) occurrence, so sticking with it is the key, even when other more tempting strategies (such as goal-less highlighting or re-reading) seem much easier and effective: the evidence is clear that they simply are not and – against social proof – just because your classmates are doing it doesn’t make it useful.

Discontent – The 1st Necessity For Change

If you know me at all, you know I’m a total learning junkie. This means that over the years, I’ve been to more conferences and training days than your average educator. One of the most memorable was a session with the great Kim Cofino, where she was encouraging us educators to share, share, share under the mantra ‘Obvious to you; amazing to others.’ And she made a pretty good case. Her point was that we all have practices, routines, habits and beliefs that are so second-nature as to be invisible to ourselves. At the same time, outsiders – when they discover these facets – can be amazed, inspired and enriched. It’s noticing for myself (and pointing out to others) what those ‘invisibles’ are that has enabled me to be a change-maker (a label I resisted for a long-time from misplaced modesty, but now fully embrace with excitement and humility).

Last night, I met up with some school friends I hadn’t seen for a while. It was usual in the sense that it felt like time had not passed since we last saw each other, but unusual in one fairly startling way (to me at least). As we discussed an absent friend’s erratic behaviour, I was asked what I thought was at the root of it. I suggested she was, in many ways, discontent in her marriage and life in general to which one of my pals responded, “But that’s no excuse – we all are!” Before even thinking, I blurted out, “Bollocks. I’m not!” and the conversation carried on energetically, in that ‘everyone talking across each other’ kind of way that happens among old friends trying to maximise their time together.

When the night had wrapped up, and I was driving home along, I was able to mull over how lucky I am to have such beautiful and long-lasting friendships, and also to that comment about discontentment. Firstly, I felt a little ashamed at the fact that I had reacted so thoughtlessly instead of probing why my friend would say such a surprising thing – after all, this is the woman whose stories of grit and determination I use to inspire my students every year I’ve been teaching. She is not the kind of person I would ever expect to ‘make do’ or end up in a situation she felt powerless to change. But thinking back, she did – at another time – tell me that a disaster that had befallen me in search of a better life was a result of naivety because, “There is no life better than this one – we just have to make do.” Putting those 2 utterances together paints a very different attitude to the one I thought she held, and as a beloved friend, it bothers me. Deeply.

Is this one of those beliefs that most people carry? Do the majority believe that life is what it is, and trying to change it will likely end up making things worse? Is the unknown more scary for people than maintaining the status quo? I certainly hope not, but then I think about the number of times people have called me brave for making a change they would never do. For me those changes are a matter of survival – both metaphorically and physically. I cannot imagine staying in a situation where I find life stressful, unfulfilling and hopeless. These seem the ingredients for a mental breakdown…or worse….

I would much rather uproot myself (and my family) to a new location halfway across the world (if need be) than remain in a place where I suffer from SAD in the winter and unbearable hayfever in the summer; a place where my job is to battle with teens and their parents in a system I do not believe in, rather than work with willing minds open to learning in a context where I am supported and valued as a professional. In exploring my own motivations I know some things for certain:

  • I need to feel useful – not just ‘help with the washing up’ useful but to know that I’m contributing to something greater than myself in a way that only I can.
  • My life must have meaning and purpose beyond paying the rent and being static. I’m willing to give up predictability (and any given location) to achieve this – it seems a small price to pay.
  • My relationships need to be worth it. I pour a ton of energy into my closest circle of friends and family. If all I receive in response (from anyone other than my children) is abuse, neglect or inconsideration, I’m getting better at ‘trimming’ my relationship garden so the flowers can grow strong and healthy and the weeds fade into the background.

Sometimes I wonder about the balance between moving on toward something better and simply giving up, but I know in my heart of hearts that I am (at least usually) not doing the latter. My decisions have to be tempered with the impact they have on my family and they are always negotiated with my spouse who is the ying of prudence and temperance to my yang of spontaneity and reactivity.

My ‘invisible’ seems to be that change is a necessary part of finding fulfillment and happiness; what I thought was obvious appears to not be so. What can I do about it? Maybe most would say ‘ nothing’ and add that it’s not my place or concern. But how can I see people stuck in discontentment and do nothing when those people are ones I love? I realise certain types of support aren’t appreciated when they are not asked for, but I also know there must be a way to open the conversation in that direction. Something for me to think about…

When Life Gives You Lemons…

Yesterday I had a nasty shock…a REALLY nasty shock. I found out that my doctoral studies could not be funded because they start in 2 weeks’ time (end of June 2018), whereas the funding program is only eligible for courses beginning in September 2018. After speaking with student finance, I called the university for clarification. They told me I could either go ahead and self-fund, or I could attend their next kick-off in January. At first I was speechless, then I shed a few tears of disbelief and then…I got over it. With 2 perfectly viable options on the table – and neither holding any appeal whatsoever – I had to question my commitment to the program.

determination-to-succeedI am one of those people that is absolutely bloody-minded if I have a goal I am passionate about. Nothing will stop me, and I am energised and dogged in the pursuit of whatever I am chasing. I took Angela Duckworth’s grit assessment and scored pretty highly so this – combined with reflection of past goals – indicates I’m not a quitter. I was expecting the doctoral program to be challenging and downright unenjoyable at times, but I was prepared to put in the graft to meet the golden goal of achievement. The reasons for me wanting to achieve the doctorate are complex, but they include the following:

  • I want to deepen my knowledge of a particular area to the level of expert.
  • I want to prove to myself I have the stamina and competence to achieve this level of academic achievement.
  • I want the credentials to enable me to increase my capacity as a change-maker.
  • I love studying and want to funnel my various interests and readings into one sharpened focus.

In reflecting on those reasons, none of them says I have to do this particular program and as I was waiting for clarification of the news I could hardly believe, I did start considering alternative pathways…and I came up with several. I had chosen my institution for its reputation and the great communication they’ve demonstrated from my first enquiry until now. They were far from the only option, but if I wanted to move forward I had to stick a pin in something and get going. While I could wait another 6 months to begin with them, I don’t want to put my life on hold for that long and so I’ve decided to take another route.

I feel a little uneasy admitting to myself that I even feel a tremor of excitement at the thought of an alternative pathway that’s on the table. I vacillated so much and for so long about which option to take initially, and I guess that – weirdly – has meant I’ve always had a safety net, though I never thought of it that way (because I never thought I’d deviate from the plan I had).

It was just 2 days ago that I was expressing how I was a bit unsure about the speed with which I bounce back from challenges I face in life – it made me wonder if I was processing incidents enough, or somehow burying them to avoid dealing with the difficulties. However a long chat with a counsellor friend helped me see that I was indeed processing these bumps, because I took the lesson from them, referred back to them often in my thinking and rationally explained why it was really OK. I guess this is just one of those things.

Remembering my signature strengths of zest, love of learning and creativity (as identified by the VIA survey), I can see how these have served me well in this.


As always, my zest leads me to believe there are more amazing and truly awesome experiences available than we can possibly experience in this lifetime, and so there is always something to look forward to, even if it’s not what I had in mind. My love of learning meant I didn’t question for a moment that I wouldn’t study something, even if it wasn’t to be the original plan. And finally, my creativity ensured I was able to come up with several alternatives in a very short space of time so the overwhelming feelings of frustration and defeat did not prevail.

All in all, my studies in positive psychology have definitely contributed to being more aware of how I can use my strengths to compensate for what I don’t. It’s something I am deeply committed to sharing with as many as possible, and I know whatever happens next, it’s all good.

This Too Shall Pass

Yesterday I was grateful to finish up on my third course in the University of Pennsylvania’s MOOC on Positive Psychology and Research Methods. This unit used a study of ‘grit’ as a way to explore research methods; apart from deepening my exploration of grit itself, I was delighted to find that it clarified my understanding from the University of Amsterdam’s courses in research methods and my preparatory reading of Cohen et al’s book on the same topic. To be honest, it’s the one area I was most concerned about, realising that my MEd really didn’t prepare me for the depth I’d need  to understand and apply such methodologies at doctoral level. It was in listening to one of the course lectures that I had a huge ‘Aha!’ moment and all the dots felt like they’d finally connected.

Anyway, the completion of that stage of my studies allowed me to progress on to the next unit in the MOOC which is on Resiliency Skills. (If – like me – you are wondering what the difference between grit and resilience is, this article might help.) In the first week, we’ve listened to the resilience stories of others and now we’ve been asked to write our own resilience stories and consider what variables contributed to our resilience, so here goes.

resilience variables

Image Credit: University of Pennsylvania

Ever since I met my now-spouse, we’d talked about living in an intentional community. We understood the notion of ‘staying put’ and building community around us, but given we couldn’t settle where we were – for very practical reasons – we realised we’d have to find one elsewhere. After years of searching, visiting and communicating with various organisations, we finally found what we thought was the perfect fit. To cut an incredibly long story short, we spent over 2 years getting to know the 3 individuals pioneering the project, including studying their exhaustive preparatory course online. We gave away and sold pretty much all our possessions, walked away from high-paying jobs, pulled our kids from international school and moved to the other side of the planet to begin this new phase in our lives. Of course you can see the next part of the story coming, and yes – it all went downhill very quickly. In retrospect, it was going downhill before we even arrived, but we were committed and determined to see it through, expecting that – after the ‘storming’ – the ‘norming’ and ‘performing’ would see us settle into a satisfying, productive and sustainable life. Unfortunately, the more time we spent there the clearer it became that this was in no way a sustainable situation, much to do with the leader’s mental instability (which we now recognise as pathological narcissim and borderline personality disorder). Of course we always have choices, but for our own mental health, security and children’s future (in being raised by healthy, grounded parents) we really had only one option – to leave. We did so with no idea of what we would do next or where we would go, but confident we had the training and skills to see us through.

Reflecting on the whole experience from setting off to our new lives to recovering from the trauma of the disappointment and abuse (as labelled by mental health professionals and psychologists), I now see we employed several variables to harness our resilience to come out of this stronger, but I’m going to focus on what I consider to be the main 3.

  1. Our optimism that we could recover from this and find new ways to be happy again carried us through some really dark days. Remembering we were competent before the experience allowed us to prospectively think of how we could utilise our (sometimes) hard-won skills to rebuild our lives elsewhere. It also gave us reassurance that we could minimise the negative effects of the experience on our kids.
  2. Self-awareness was extremely important. Being able to stop and consider where we were emotionally was critical in not being crushed by the magnitude of what we’d lost in terms of finances, jobs, subjective well-being and hope for our dream life. By recognising our negative emotions and the impact they could have on our behaviours, we were able to mitigate some of the worst manifestations of anger, frustration and disappointment.
  3. Undoubtedly though, the one thing that shored us up beyond all else was connection. For sure, there were some whose attitude was, “Told you so!” given our unconventional plan, but the vast majority of people responded with empathy and kindness. Friends and family offered us their homes as refuge, whether they were there or not – no small gesture when you are talking about a family of 5! Whether near or far, we had messages of support reminding us that we were strong and capable people who were loved from all corners of the globe. When those feelings of failure and defeat started to dominate, they were crushed by the (physical and virtual) hugs, messages and anecdotes from our loved ones.

Ultimately, we have bounced back and have very high levels of subjective well-being. While we are looking forward to a relocation back to a place where we were very happy, we are also content with where we are right now. We’ve learned that happiness really is something you foster within you, rather than find in a particular setting and this journey (as documented in this blog) has brought me to studying psychology; this in itself has had hugely positive impacts on us as individuals and as a family. I am grateful I was able to find meaning in what could have been a very damaging experience. Like the other courses in this specialisation, I suspect that in a couple of weeks’ time, I’ll have an even better understanding of a useful tool – resilience – for my family to continue to flourish and thrive.


Meaningful Life Goals

Through my life, I have always looked forward to the next ‘adventure’ whether it is geographical, academic, relationship-oriented or ‘other’ in nature. I feel I’ve always had ‘meaningful’ goals, and perhaps it is my curiosity that ensures there is something always interesting on the horizon. If there isn’t, I guess I explore more new ideas through reading, conversations or whatever opportunities arise, and that keeps life fresh and interesting for me – so much so that I feel life is too short to ever really achieve everything I want to. So I focus on the most meaningful at whatever time of life I’m in. That used to be my profession of teaching at which I threw myself 100%. It was unsustainable of course as so many educators find out, but I was lucky enough to pull back just in time to preserve my passion in this area, and not destroy my family life.

At this time of life, it is my immediate family that are most important and a lot of my reading and personal development centres around strengthening my partnership with my spouse and being a better parent. These goals are so much harder than any career and academic ones I’ve had in the past, because the stakes are just so high and there is no one right way or anyone that can share your very unique perspective.

Nonetheless, here are tools that I’ve found very useful:

Hold On To Your Kids

Although I’d been studying psychology for a few months, I’d never heard of attachment theory until a module in the Saylor Academy course brought it up. Somewhere along the way, there was a recommendation (or perhaps a reference to?) this book and so I used my much-neglected Audible account to download it to my phone. I usually reserve getting audio for books I don’t intend to spend too much time and energy on, but this one was different from the first listen. It not only revealed to me the concept of attachment theory, but made clear how essential it was to foster this between parents and children, and how my parenting style was not ideal for this connection. Myself and my partner listened in parallel and immediately implemented changes to bring our behaviours and attitudes into line to create secure attachments with our kids. Of course it’s an ongoing and inconsistent process, but we already feel the differences we’ve made have had an impact and – maybe for the first time in 12 years – I feel truly informed and empowered as a parent to feel confident in framing my interactions and other efforts with my children.

Think and Listens

I came across these while completing a certificate in Permaculture. While they come from a dubious source, the process itself is rather liberating. You and your partner (whoever they may be to you) agree a time limit. It’s usual to start with 3 minutes to begin with. The first person then takes 3 minutes to talk about anything and everything they’d like to. The speaker does not have to think about whether they are making sense, or feel any sense of ‘must’ – just use the time as they wish to air their thoughts on a particular or no particular subject(s). The listener gives complete and undivided attention. There are no mobile phones around, no TV, nobody else – absolutely zero distractions and – other than short utterances to indicate listening such as, ‘Yes / I see / OK’ etc, the only requirement is to keep eyes and ears on the listener. When the time limit expires, you swap roles and repeat.

My partner and I did this daily for a while and found that it really helped our communication. I tend to talk a lot, whereas he is more reserved and that meant there was a definite imbalance in our time together in terms of who was talking and who was listening. This redressed the balance (somewhat), and as we had a fixed time, he soon learned to prepare himself mentally in terms of collecting things he’d like to talk about between sessions.

I did try to introduce this process with a close friend, but she really felt uncomfortable so it’s not a tool for everyone. All I can say is that for us it had a very positive impact and I’d recommend that anyone keep an open mind and give it a go.

The Strength-Switch

This book focuses on how to switch from being a critical parent (me to a tee), focusing on the shortcomings in your child (and yourself and others), to one who recognises and nurtures strengths. This is definitely a challenge for me (as I’m sure it is for many others) as I intuitively felt that ignoring issues with my kids’ behaviours was a path to immorality, slovenliness, selfishness and goodness knows what other horrifying traits to see in your offspring. But in focusing on what they did wrong, I lost so many opportunities to focus on what they do right.

This read is full of anecdotes (some of which admittedly are a wee bit of a stretch to believe) and lots of practical advice that you can put into action straight away. Here’s one of my own anecdotes to share…

After reading a section of the book on defaulting to noticing the good over the bad, I went up to my youngest son’s room to see what he was up to. In entering the room, I noticed his stuff all over the floor but taking a breath, I looked beyond that and noticed that he’d made his bed – something he doesn’t always remember to do. So, rather than starting with the usual, “How many times do I have to bla bla bla nag nag nag…”, I congratulated him on remembering to make his bed – to which I really did see him glow! As he basked in his glory, I then said, “Would you mind clearing this up to so your room is as tidy as your bed?” and he practically leapt up to move the items on the floor. This is an absolute first. Usually it’s a battle of wills where he tells me he’s busy / will do it later / that it’s organised but I just can’t see how etc. It gave me a boost to realise how easily this could have been a negative interaction and since then I’ve really been trying to make positive observations my default.

Gratitude Journal

I’d heard of this before but probably dismissed it with some cynicism. It was reintroduced in my Positive Psychology studies so I thought I could give it a go – it’s not like it carries any risk.

It’s very simple habit where I write down at least 3 things I am grateful for before I go to sleep. I also add the ‘why’ detail so I am sure I’m savoring the positive aspect thoroughly. Google calendar reminds me every evening at the same time. Rather than wasting time finding a beautiful repository for my thoughts, I simply grabbed an old notebook and got down to it. Sometimes – if I don’t have the notebook to hand – I simply reply to the reminder on email and move the message to a dedicated ‘3 things’ folder. Simple and effective.

I’ve encouraged my eldest to keep one, though I think he’s less consistent than me. With the 2 youngest, I just ask them what they are grateful for as they settle down for the evening, and sometimes one of them will start the discussion at the dinner table (as this is a previous ritual we let slide).

So there are a few things I use to try and keep myself on the path toward my personal development goals. What I love about learning is that I can always find more to add to my toolkit and it is empowering to work intentionally toward such important and life-changing habits.