Learning fast

1. Stop forgetting what you read

Recognition and recall are two different levels of learning. When you are trying to learn something, your goal is obviously to be able to recall it when necessary. However, you may be misfiring by passively learning the material, allowing you to recognise it but not recall it.

The solution is questions. Rather than taking notes on a lecture/book/other source which summarise the content, take notes which just ask questions. e.g. for this section of the article, you could write: Q: What are the different levels of learning? A: Recognition and recall. Try this as you read a book, for example. Then skip back to the questions from previous chapters as you go along, trying to answer them. I guarantee you will forever be able to recall more relevant information from that book than any you’ve ever read before.

2. What matters more, method or motivation?

Obviously motivation… right? If you’re highly motivated to read something, you’re going to learn it better…? Wrong. Scientific studies have compared those who were motivated to learn something to those who were not. One group learnt via process A and one group learnt via process B. There was no difference between those who were motivated and weren’t motivated, but there was significant difference between those who studied with a different (better) process. (Hyde & Jenkins, 1969)

So what is the best process? There are many different processes that encourage a deeper level of learning. Copying out material word for word is NOT one of them. However, effective paraphrasing is. An effective note-taking learning process is reading/observing the material and then rewriting it in your own words completely, from memory.

3. Learn backwards

Take the tests first, then learn the material. You will probably get an awful score, but you will have gauged a point to start on. You may discover that you already know some of the material and can remove that from your learning tasks completely. You also now know the exact level of detail that you need to study and what kind of questions are likely to be asked.

This can be applied broadly to more than just exams/classes. For example, learning a new skill. Put yourself in a usage situation before you’ve studied anything yet. If you’re learning a new programming language, attempt to write a basic program in the code before you start learning the basics of the language. Or if you’re learning a new speaking language, put yourself in a conversation with someone who is fluent with Google Translate as a backup.

4. Learn to focus

Focus is like a muscle. You increase your ability to focus by exercising your focus regularly, just like you exercise your muscles at the gym. Some people may inherently have a better focus (or physique), but by going to the (focus)-gym everyone can get to an athletic level. One way of exercising this is through meditation.

Good focus requires effective scheduling. For effective scheduling, you need to schedule both the times you’ll be working and the times you won’t be working. If you don’t schedule the latter, your brain will do it for you in the form of procrastination and distractions. If you schedule to take the whole of Saturday and Sunday off, you will sure be working hard Mon-Fri. For breaks in between work, it’s important to do something that is LESS interesting/fun than the work itself. For example, getting a drink or taking a walk. If you do something MORE interesting/fun, it will be much harder to get back to work. Structured smart breaks like these actually increase your ability to focus when you’re working.

5. Learn subjects above your level

Trying to learn something above your level can make you feel stupid. You may find it really hard to grasp the content whilst others around you find it easy.

The truth is, a subject is only hard if you are missing some of the pieces. So, the way to make any subject easy is to break it down, find all of the pieces and learn each of them one at a time. Technically you could learn rocket science without knowing basic algebra first, if you break it down into every individual piece. This would take considerable time for such a complex topic, but is simply the necessary process.

Once you’ve established this, no subject is too hard to learn. The challenge may be daunting, but if you a) break down the subject into chunks and b) learn each individual chunk fully with active (recall) learning methods, you can master any subject.

6. Why do some skills/memories deteriorate whilst others last a lifetime

In 10 years time, how much of your last class do you think you’ll remember? That’s pretty scary… Your degree seems to have a practical expiry date.

Studies have shown that even the top students have the exact same rate of knowledge decline as bottom students for university courses (Hall & Bahrick, 1991).

So what determines whether your knowledge will deteriorate or remain? Taking a subject further to greater depths has shown that the more basic concepts are retained for longer. I.E. Overlearn. Overlearning may not produce measurable improvement in a subject (if you’re already at 100%), but it will increase the length of time you retain the information. e.g. If you always want to remember algebra, study calculus. If you always want to remember basic programming, study advanced programming.

This article was based on ideas from Scott Young (see here). Subscribe to this marvellous man’s blog. 

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