Nine Tips from Bill Murray & Cellist Jan Vogler on How to Study Intensely and Optimize Your Learning

Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons

Would you take study tips from Bill Murray? After high school, he did spend some time as a pre-medical student at Regis University in Denver — before dropping out to return to his hometown of Chicago and get his start in comedy with the famed improv group Second City. Still, Regis did eventually award him an honorary Doctor of Humanities a decade ago, and you have to admit that the fame-and-fortune path worked out for him. In fact, it worked out and then some: seeing the massive success of Ghostbusters (and the temptations thereof) looming in 1984, Murray decided to make his return to school, this time to study philosophy, history, and French — and at the Sorbonne, no less.

The Spotify playlist below offers brief selections of spoken-word wisdom related to studying and learning in general, part of the fruit of a project by Murray and German cellist Jan Vogler. (If you don't have Spotify's free software, you can download it here.)




They recently made an album together called New Worlds, where the sounds of Vogler's classical trio accompany Murray's voice, singing and reading classic works of American music and literature from Mark Twain to Van Morrison. They also recorded this selection of memories, galvanizing messages, and "intense study tips" briefly summarized as follows: "Don't cram," "Concentrate," "One problem," "Sleep on it," "Take a bath," "Focus on others," "More is more," "Take a break," and "Build a routine."

Listen to the playlist and you can hear Murray expand on these suggestions, some of which will resonate with material we've previously featured here on Open Culture: the psychological phenomenon that has us do our best thinking in the shower (or indeed the bath), for instance, or the intellectual foundations of Murray's comedic persona. If you find his advice useful, you might also look to the example he sets with how he runs his career, famously taking risks on untested ideas or collaborators (including a certain Wes Anderson) and going to great lengths (up to and including replacing his agent with a voicemail box) to avoid getting caught in the gears of his industry. Whether studying a subject or becoming the most beloved comic actor of your generation, in other words, you've got to find a path that works for you and you alone. As one track of Murray and Vogler's helpful playlist puts it, "Good luck."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How a Liberal Arts Education Helped Derek Black, the Godson of David Duke, Break with the White Nationalist Movement

Image of Ron Paul, Don Black, Derek Black (right), via Wikimedia Commons

A native of West Palm Beach, Florida, Derek Black grew up in one of the most prominent white nationalist families in the United States. He's the son of Don Black, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. And he's the godson of David Duke, "the most recognizable figure of the American radical right, a neo-Nazi, longtime Klan leader and now international spokesman for Holocaust denial" (per the Southern Poverty Law Center). In short, Derek Black had every reason to grow up a racist, and remain a racist from cradle to grave. But things didn't turn out that way.

Below, you can hear Black explain how, as a young adult, he broke with white nationalism, leaving behind his family, friends and community. What laid the groundwork for that break? Going to a small liberal arts college, encountering new ideas, and meeting different people. In this recorded interview, he tells Michael Barbaro of The New York Times:

In 2010, I moved across the state and started college at this little liberal arts college in Florida, which was about three and a half hours from home and it was the first time that I had lived away from home. Nobody knew who I was and I did not volunteer who I was or anything about my background, I made friends, hung out with people and played my guitar on my balcony in my dorm. It was nice to come back from class and be able to talk about history or philosophy or whatever other subject and be around other people....

I had a friend on campus who I had gotten to know during my first semester when nobody knew who I was, he was an observant Jew who had Shabbat dinners pretty regularly whenever he was in town on Friday night and he would invite people of atheists and all sorts of different religions. It was just a nice dinner. And so he actually invited me to one of the Shabbats, and I knew him, and so I brought wine...

He had read my posts on Stormfront [a white nationalist website created by Don Black] going back years — even the stuff when I was a teenager — and he doubted that he was going to convince me of anything, he just wanted to let me see a Jewish community thing so that if I was going to keep saying these anti-Semitic things that at least I had seen real Jews.

It was ultimately in private conversations with a person I met at the Shabbat dinners … we would talk about things. Not only white nationalism, but eventually white nationalism. And I would say, “This is what I believe about I.Q. differences, I have 12 different studies that have been published over the years, here’s the journal that’s put this stuff together, I believe that this is true, that race predicts I.Q. and that there were I.Q. differences in races.” And they would come back with 150 more recent, more well researched studies and explain to me how statistics works and we would go back and forth until I would come to the end of that argument and I’d say, Yes that makes sense, that does not hold together and I’ll remove that from my ideological toolbox but everything else is still there. And we did that over a year or two on one thing after another until I got to a point where I didn’t believe it anymore.

As you stream the interview below, spend some time thinking about the transformative power of a liberal arts education. Yes, more than an expedient business degree, it can change hearts and save lives.

Also pay attention to Black's final thoughts on what Trump's response to the Charlottesville drama did for the White nationalist movement: "I think Tuesday was the most important moment in the history of the modern white nationalist movement." Trump "said there were good people in the white nationalist rally and he salvaged their message."

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What’s a Scientifically-Proven Way to Improve Your Ability to Learn? Get Out and Exercise

Wikimedia Commons Image by the U.S. Navy

The benefit, nay necessity, of physical exercise is undeniable. The medical community has identified sedentary lifestyles as an epidemic, sometimes called “sitting disease” (or as people like to say, “sitting is the new smoking”). Prolonged sitting has been established as a cause of all sorts of chronic illnesses including heart disease, diabetes, and even certain cancers. Combine this problem with the steady stream of processed foods in more and more diets and we have a full-blown public health crisis on our hands that requires some serious intervention on the part of doctors, dieticians, physical therapists, and scientists.

And as more and more researchers are finding out, a poor diet and lack of exercise can also have seriously harmful effects on the brain. Conversely, as a recent University of California study shows, exercise boosts brain function; it “enhances learning and memory, improves executive function” and “counteracts… mental decline.” To put the theory of enhanced learning to the test, researchers have conducted several experiments and found that physical activity can improve the ability to learn new things at nearly any age.

Studies have “found correlations between children’s aerobic fitness and their brain structure,” reports The New York Times, and kids who exercise before math and reading tests show consistently higher scores than their sedentary peers. Likewise, a study conducted with college students in Ireland found that participants performed significantly better on memory tests after 30 minutes of cycling. One likely explanation is that exercise increases the production of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor), a protein that promotes nerve health. And in a new paper published by researchers from Italy, China, and Thailand, we find that that exercise can specifically improve the ability to learn new languages.

The study tested 40 college-age Chinese students who are learning English. One group remained sedentary, while another rode exercise bikes at a moderate pace both before and during study sessions. The students who biked performed better on 8 separate vocabulary tests and were better able to recognize correct English sentences. These results are similar to those of a recent German study which found that a group of young women riding exercise bikes, at slow and moderate paces, performed much better on vocabulary tests than another group who didn’t exercise.




Though The New York Times points to a different study with contrasting results, the evidence seems largely on the side of exercise-enhances-learning proponents. “In recent years,” the Times notes, “a wealth of studies in both animals and people have shown that we learn differently if we also exercise.” You’ll find many of those studies summarized at the BBC, The Guardian, and elsewhere, along with several possible explanations for the phenomenon. Psychologist Justin Rhodes notes that “aerobic exercise can actually reverse hippocampal shrinkage,” increasing gray matter in an area of the brain associated with memory and emotion. His contention is backed by recent research on mice and humans.

In any case, although it appears that more vigorous exercises like cycling and running create the most improvement, taking a brisk walk before a class or study session can also help with retention and alertness. Whatever kind of exercise one does, a simple “take-home message,” says one researcher, “may be that instruction should be flanked by physical activity. Sitting for hours and hours without moving is not the best way to learn.” Having trouble getting motivated to run or bike before you study for that math test or start a new language course? Take some advice from Harvard Medical School on how to start slowly, find something you like doing, and turn everyday activities into exercise.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Illustrated Guide to a PhD: 12 Simple Pictures That Will Put the Daunting Degree into Perspective

Matthew Might, a computer science professor at the University of Utah, writes: "Every fall, I explain to a fresh batch of Ph.D. students what a Ph.D. is. It's hard to describe it in words. So, I use pictures." In his Illustrated Guide to the PhD, Professor Might creates a visual narrative that puts the daunting degree into perspective. Anyone who has already pursued a Ph.D. will see the wisdom in it. (Or at least I did.) And young, aspiring academics would be wise to pay it heed.

You can see a condensed version of the the illustrated guide above. Or follow it in a larger format below.

Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge:

By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little:

By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more:

With a bachelor's degree, you gain a specialty:

A master's degree deepens that specialty:

Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge:

Once you're at the boundary, you focus:

You push at the boundary for a few years:

Until one day, the boundary gives way:

And, that dent you've made is called a Ph.D.:

Of course, the world looks different to you now:

So, don't forget the bigger picture:

Keep pushing.

You can find Matt's Illustrated Guide hosted on his web site. This guide/reality check is published under a Creative Commons License. You can also buy a print version for $6.50. The money goes to charity.

This guide first appeared on our site in 2012. But, with all of the wisdom it packs into a small space, it seemed worth bringing back.

How Finland Created One of the Best Educational Systems in the World (by Doing the Opposite of U.S.)

Every conversation about education in the U.S. takes place in a minefield. Unless you’re a billionaire who bought the job of Secretary of Education, you’d better be prepared to answer questions about racial and economic equity, disability issues, protections for LGBTQ students, teacher pay and unions, religious charter schools, and many other pressing concerns. These issues are not mutually exclusive, nor are they distinct from questions of curriculum, testing, or achievement. The terrain is littered with possible explosive conflicts between educators, parents, administrators, legislators, activists, and profiteers.

The needs of the most deeply invested stakeholders, as they say, the students themselves, seem to get far too little consideration. What if we in the U.S., all of us, actually wanted to improve the educational experiences and academic outcomes for our children---all of them? Where might we look for a model? Many people have looked to Finland, at least since 2010, when the documentary Waiting for Superman contrasted struggling U.S. public schools with highly successful Finnish equivalents.




The film, a positive spin on the charter school movement, received significant backlash for its cherry-picked examples and blaming of teachers’ unions for America’s failing schools. By contrast, Finland’s schools have been described by William Doyle, an American Fulbright Scholar who studies them, as “the ‘ultimate charter school network'" (a phrase, we'll see, that means little in the Finnish context.) There, Doyle writes at The Hechinger Report, “teachers are not strait-jacketed by bureaucrats, scripts or excessive regulations, but have the freedom to innovate and experiment as teams of trusted professionals.”

Last year, Michael Moore featured many of Finland’s innovative educational experiments in his humorous, hopeful travelogue Where to Invade Next. In the clip above, you can hear from the country’s Minister of Education, Krista Kiuru, who explains to him why Finnish children do not have homework; hear also from a group of high school students, high school principal Pasi Majassari, first grade teacher Anna Hart and many others. Shorter school hours—the “shortest school days and shortest school years in the entire Western world”---leave plenty of time for leisure and recreation. Kids bake, hike, build things, make art, conduct experiments, sing, and generally enjoy themselves.

“There are no mandated standardized tests,” writes LynNell Hancock at Smithsonian, “apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school... there are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions.” Yet Finnish students have, in the past several years, consistently ranked in the top ten among millions of students worldwide in science, reading, and math. “If there was one thing I kept hearing over and over again from the Finns,” says Moore above, “it’s that America should get rid of standardized tests,” should stop teaching to those tests, stop designing entire curricula around multiple-choice tests. Hancock describes the results of the Finnish system, and its costs:

Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.

Moore's camera registers the shock on Finnish educators’ faces when they hear that many U.S. schools eliminated music, art, poetry and other pursuits in order to focus almost exclusively on testing. Though lighthearted in tone, the segment really drives home the depressing degree to which so many U.S. students receive an impoverished education—one barely worthy of the name—unless they luck into a voucher for a high-end charter school or have the independent means for an expensive private one. In Finland, says the Minister of Education, “all the schools are equal. You never ask where the best school is.”

It’s also illegal in Finland to profit from schooling. Wealthy parents have to ensure that neighborhood schools can give their kids the best education possible, because they are the only option. Many people in the U.S. object to comparisons like Moore’s by noting that societies like Finland are “homogenous” next to what may seem to them like maddening cultural diversity in the U.S. However, Finland has incorporated (not without difficulty) large immigrant and refugee populations---even as its schools continue to improve. The government has responded in part to rising immigration with educational solutions such as this one, a "national initiative to reinforce Finnish higher education institutions (HEIs) as significant stakeholders in migrants' integration."

The subtantive differences between the two countries’ educational systems may have less to do with demography and more to do with economics and the training and social status of teachers.

In Finland, writes Doyle, no teacher “is allowed to lead a primary school class without a master’s degree in education, with specialization in research and classroom practice.” Teaching “is the most admired job in Finland next to medical doctors.” And as Dana Goldstein points out at The Nation—a fact Waiting for Superman failed to mention---Finnish teachers are “gasp!—unionized and granted tenure.” Perhaps an even more significant difference the documentary glossed over: in Finland, “families benefit from a cradle-to-grave social welfare system that includes universal daycare, preschool and healthcare, all of which are proven to help children achieve better results at school.”

Hundreds of studies in recent years substantiate this claim. It would seem intuitive that stresses associated with hunger and poverty would have a pernicious effect on learning, especially when poorer schools are so egregiously under-resourced. And the data says as much, to varying degrees. And yet, we are now in the U.S. slashing breakfast and lunch programs that feed hungry children and deciding whether to uninsure millions of families as millions more still lack basic health coverage. Most every American parent knows that quality daycares and preschools can cost as much per year as a decent university education in this country.

It seems to many of us that the atrocious state of the U.S. educational system can only be attributed to an act of will on the part our political elite, who see schools as competition for fundamentalist belief systems, opportunities to punish their opponents out of spite, or as rich fields for private profit. But it needn’t be so. It took 40 years for the Finns to create their current system. In the 1960s, their schools ranked on the very low end---along with those in the U.S. By most accounts, they've since shown there can be systems that, while surely imperfect in their own way, work for all kids, embedded within larger systems that prize their teachers and families.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stanford Researchers Discover a Smarter Way to Prepare for Exams: Introducing MetaCognition, the Art of Thinking About Your Thinking

Early in the second season of Noah Hawley’s excellent Fargo series, one of the gruff, laconic Gerhardt brothers shakes his head during a tense crime family moment and mutters sagely, "know thyself." Challenged to produce the quotation’s source, he says, with irritated self-assurance, “It’s in the Bible.” The quote does have an ancient origin---maybe the temple of Apollo at Delphi, maybe the temple court at Luxor---and it's an idea that reappears in every philosophical system from age to age. Even if the self doesn’t really exist, some thinkers have reasoned, we should still study it.

These days, psychologists call a certain kind of self-knowledge “metacognition,” a new word for what they recognize, Jennifer Livingston notes, as a concept that has been around “for as long as humans have been able to reflect on their cognitive experiences.” Developmental psychologist John Flavell used the term in 1979 to refer specifically to “how human beings learn and process information, as well as individual knowledge of one’s own learning processes.” Often defined as “thinking about thinking,” megacognition involves knowing what conditions best enable concentration and memory retention, for example, and practicing it can immensely improve study skills and academic achievement.




A new study published in Psychological Science by Stanford psychology researchers has validated the idea with experimental data. In two different experiments, students in a control group studied for exams in their ordinary way. Those in another group received an exercise called "Strategic Resource Use." “They were asked,” Stanford News reports, to think about what might be on the exam, "and then strategize what kinds of resources they would use to study most effectively.” Then they reflected on “why each resource they chose would be useful” and how they planned on using them. It may seem like seriously front-loading a study session, but the intervention paid off. Students who got it scored on average a third of a letter grade higher than those who didn’t.

Postdoctoral fellow Patricia Chen, the study’s main author, undertook the experiment when she noticed that many of her own students genuinely worked hard but felt frustrated by the results. “Describe to me how you studied for the exam,” she began asking them. After conducting the metacognition studies, Chen concluded that “actively self-reflecting on the approaches that you are taking fosters a strategic stance that is really important in life. Strategic thinking distinguishes between people of comparable ability and effort. This can make the difference between people who achieve and people who have the potential to achieve, but don’t.”

Thinking about your thinking can’t make all the difference, of course, but the effect is dramatic among groups in relatively similar circumstances. An Australian study of 2000 Ph.D. students discovered a close correlation between “how they thought about the learning process,” notes Big Think, and “their successes and failures in achieving their degrees.” A broader study in Britain that accounted for class differences evaluated Year 6 and 7 students in 23 primary schools. In eleven of these schools, students were instructed in something called “Self-Regulated Strategy Development”—a means of consciously monitoring the writing techniques they used in assignments: “Overall," the authors write, "the project appeared to have a large positive impact on writing outcomes,” especially among “pupils eligible for free school meals.”

Each of these studies necessitated methods of teaching self-regulation and metacognition, and each one formulated its own pedagogy. The British study specially trained a group of Year 6 teachers. "Part of the appeal of Chen’s approach," writes Jenny Anderson at Quartz, “is its simplicity: any student, teacher or even parent could use it.” And one might reasonably assume that anyone could teach it to themselves. For parents and teachers of struggling students, Chen offers some straightforward advice. Rather than suggesting more study time and resources, first “Look at the way they are doing things. Do you think they could have gone about it in a better way?” As nearly every ancient philosopher would affirm, we better ourselves not by acquiring more, but by understanding and using wisely what we already have to work with.

via Stanford News

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Map of Chemistry: New Animation Summarizes the Entire Field of Chemistry in 12 Minutes

Philosophers, technologists, and futurists spend a good deal of time obsessing about the nature of reality. Recently, no small number of such people have come together to endorse the so-called “simulation argument,” the mind-boggling, sci-fi idea that everything we experience exists as a virtual performance inside a computer system more sophisticated than we could ever imagine. It’s a scenario right out of Philip K. Dick, and one Dick believed possible. It’s also, perhaps, terminally theoretical and impossible to verify.

So... where might the perplexed turn should they want to understand the world around them? Are we doomed to experience reality—as postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard thought—as nothing more than endless simulation? It's a little old-fashioned, but maybe we could ask a scientist? One like physicist, science writer, educator Dominic Walliman, whose series of short videos offer to the layperson “maps” of physics, math, and, just above, chemistry.




Walliman’s ingenious teaching tools excel in conveying a tremendous amount of complex information in a comprehensive and intelligible way. We not only get an overview of each field’s intellectual history, but we see how the various subdisciplines interact.

One of the oddities of chemistry is that it was once just as much, if not more, concerned with what isn’t. Many of the tools and techniques of modern chemistry were developed by alchemists—magicians, essentially, whom we would see as charlatans even though they included in their number such towering intellects as Isaac Newton. Walliman does not get into this strange story, interesting as it is. Instead, he begins with a prehistory of sorts, pointing out that since humans started using fire, cooking, and working with metal we have been engaging in chemistry.

Then we’re launched right into the basic building blocks—the parts of the atom and the periodic table. If, like me, you passed high school chemistry by writing a song about the elements as a final project, you may be unlikely to remember the various types of chemical bonds and may never have heard of “Van der Waals bonding.” There's an opportunity to look something up. And there's nothing wrong with being a primarily auditory or visual learner. Walliman's instruction does a real service for those who are.

Walliman moves through the basics briskly and into the differences between and uses of organic and inorganic chemistry. As the animation pulls back to reveal the full map, we see it is comprised of two halves: “rules of chemistry” and “areas of chemistry.” We do not get explanations for the extreme end of the latter category. Fields like “computational chemistry” are left unexplored, perhaps because they are too far outside Walliman's expertise. One refreshing feature of the videos on his “Domain of Science” channel is their intellectual humility.

If you’ve enjoyed the physics and mathematics videos, for example, you should check back in with their Youtube pages, where Walliman has posted lists of corrections. He has a list as well on the chemistry video page. “I endeavour to be as accurate as possible in my videos," he writes here, "but I am human and definitely don’t know everything, so there are sometimes mistakes. Also, due to the nature of my videos, there are bound to be oversimplifications." It’s an admission that, from my perspective, should inspire more, not less, confidence in his instruction. Ideally, scientists should be driven by curiosity, not vanity, though that is also an all-too-human trait. (See many more maps, experiments, instructional videos, and talks on Walliman's website.)

In the “Map of Physics,” you’ll note that we eventually reach a gaping “chasm of ignorance”—a place where no one has any idea what’s going on. Maybe this is where we reach the edges of the simulation. But most scientists, whether physicists, chemists, or mathematicians, would rather reserve judgment and keep building on what they know with some degree of certainty. You can see a full image of the “Map of Chemistry” further up, and purchase a poster version here.

Find Free Chemistry Courses in our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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