Three new studies offer advice that can help us in the workplace.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

August 22, 2014

6 Min Read

Do you have trouble remembering things? Do you think you could be more successful at work or in school if you could just concentrate better? Wouldn't we all like to be even a little bit smarter? Three new studies have some advice for you: Learn to draw, sing, play a musical instrument, or start teaching others what you know.

Let's start with the subject you're likely able to do the least about: drawing. A study conducted at the MRC Social, Genetic, and Developmental Psychiatry Center at King's College London examined how kids' drawing skills show intelligence later in life. The researchers scored the drawings of 4-year-olds based on how well they depicted the reality of a human figure. For instance, a child got more points if his or her drawing included the right number of arms, legs, and facial features. At age 4 and again at age 14, the children who drew the pictures were administered nonverbal intelligence tests. Those who scored highest on their drawings at age 4 tended to be the most intelligent at age 14.

Judging by the test, this child might be a genius.

Having trouble figuring out what this drawing depicts? Is it a parent riding a hippo? A clown falling off a dinosaur? I'll wait until the end to tell you, but it isn't the perspective or the quality of the drawing that matters. This drawing (which was not done by anyone in the study) shows a person with hair, facial features, and the correct number of limbs riding an animal with teeth, a tail, and the correct number of facial features (but the incorrect number of legs).

The assumption is that children who observe the world around them better than others are likely to draw more accurately. They're also likely to observe the world better in general, which should lead to higher intelligence, or at least higher achievement.

[Is online education becoming the new normal? Read Remote Learning: Intriguing Options Emerge.]

Here's the thing, though: The correlation is "moderate." Drawing ability doesn't determine intelligence. It may be an indicator of it -- or at least an indicator of a skill that can be helpful in learning. So if you can't draw, you aren't doomed to a life as a crash test dummy. And no one is sure just yet if learning to draw will help you later in life, but the observation skills required sure come in handy.

A second study, conducted at Northwestern University, shows the importance of music in the development of learning mechanisms. The study tracked students in the university's Harmony Program, designed to give underprivileged kids access to musical training. Half the kids in the study were in the program and either took musical instrument lessons or sang in a choir. The other half were on the wait list. At the beginning of the program, all the kids showed similar reading and IQ levels.

After two years of music lessons for half the group, all the kids were asked to take a test. While they took the test, a distracting noise was repeated consistently in the background. The kids who had taken the music lessons were much better able to focus, despite the background noise. That skill was found to carry over into later life.

Why does this skill matter? Well, it's far more likely that kids from low-income families lack a quiet place to study than kids from higher-income families, so one way to help them is to give them the neural tools to learn in spite of distractions.

Later in life, regardless of family incomes growing up, most of us work in noisy, distracting environments. If you want to be more effective at work, consider a couple of years of music lessons. They may even help you deal with this.

If taking music lessons and learning how to draw seem like too much work, here's a study you can put into action right away. A Washington University in St. Louis study shows that people recall things much better if they think they're going to have to teach it to someone else.

The study asked a group of students to go through a series of read-and-recall exercises. Half the students were told they were going to be tested on the material. The other half were told that they would have to teach the material to another student. Both groups were given a test.

The group told they would have to teach had much better recall of the material and were able to organize their information more effectively. The main takeaway, according to the researchers, is that students don't always employ the best learning strategies, even when they expect to be tested. The prospect of having to teach the material forces them to deploy the strategies they learned. In my opinion, the study suggests a psychological desire not to look stupid in front of others.

This approach is used in many learning environments already, including multi-age classrooms. One of the best examples is the med school mantra of SODOTO -- see one, do one, teach one -- whereby students are asked to observe a procedure once, then perform the procedure with supervision, and then take on a supervisory role.

Try applying the SODOTO approach at work: Learn a new skill, technique, or process as if you would have to teach it to someone else on your team (or explain it in a meeting). Not only will you remember it better, so that you don't look like a fool, but you'll also organize it in your brain better, because you'll need to communicate it. You'll probably even learn it in more depth to begin with. Think about the difference between throwing a ball yourself and teaching a child to throw one. You don't think about where your hands and feet go until you need to teach someone else how to throw.

All three of these strategies have one thing in common: better observation skills. Whether it's looking carefully at what you draw, ignoring distractions to concentrate on a task, or learning a task better in order to teach it, all three will help improve your concentration, recall, and performance. Pick the strategy that works best for you, or mix and match them.

Oh, by the way, that picture was of a kid riding a horse. Did you see it? Maybe that's a cognitive skill worth cultivating, too.

What do you think? If you're a musician or an artist, do you think that skill makes you a better learner? Does teaching help you learn? What techniques do you use to get smarter and better at what you do? Tell us with a comment below.

You can hear more about this article on this week’s episode of InformationWeek Radio. We’ll be talking with the author at 2:00 PM EDT on Tuesday, August 26 — we hope you’ll join us! Register here.

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About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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