Note: This is a guest post from Scott Young of Learning on Steroids
We’ve been taught how to study, but not how to learn.
That’s the only conclusion I can draw when I watch otherwise intelligent people spend hours cramming for exams, while failing to understand the material being taught.
Studying tends to focus on repetition. If you study a formula enough times, it will magically glue itself in your head. The more you repeat, the better you remember.
Learning isn’t just about repetition, it’s about making connections. Simply staring at the same formula a dozen times isn’t learning, even though we’ve been told it qualifies as studying. Learning a formula means understand what its components are, reviewing the proof or relating it to similar formulas.
Instead of trying to memorize by rote, you should be learning by connections.
Learning Hacks to Allow You to “Get” Any Subject
I’ve aced tests without studying for them. Over four years of university, my GPA has always sat between an A and an A+. I even placed first in a regional academic competition, without having taken the course being tested.
But in the grand scheme of things, my accomplishments are relatively modest. I know polyglots who can speak 8 languages, students who graduated from competitive programs with triple the normal courseload and learners who went from C to A+ averages while studying less than before.
The underlying trend in all of these learners is their ability to learn by making connections. Instead of relying on memorizing material repeatedly, they weave any new information into their existing knowledge.
During the years since I’ve been writing about this idea, I’ve managed to identify some of the main tactics these learners use to connect ideas together. Here are seven:
#1 – Analogies and Metaphors
Whenever you learn a fact, ask yourself what the idea is similar to. You can learn abstract processes by creating metaphors for more common events. Variables in computer programming become jars. Derivatives become the speedometer and odometer on your car.
#2 – Mental Pictures
Have you ever tried to visualize a mathematical formula?
It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. If you break apart a complex formula into components, you can try to imagine what it would like as a graph or how each component influences each other.
I used this to remember how to calculate the determinant of a matrix. Instead of just memorizing rules, I created a mental picture of my hands scooping through the diagonals, adding and removing the numbers.
#3 – Dig a Foundation
Do you ever get surprised how easy early subjects appear, once you advance in them. Arithmetic looks easy once you start with algebra, which seems trivial once you go onto calculus. Going a bit further in the progression means you still struggle with the furthest ideas, but the earlier ones become easier.
What if you applied this in reverse: did a bit of extra research on your most difficult topics. You might not understand the further research perfectly, but it would make understanding your testable material much easier.
#4 – Become the Teacher
Try switching roles: how would you explain what you’re learning to someone else? The act of explanation creates connections. Teaching also forces you to simplify and break down complex ideas, another good step to foster learning.
#5 – Stop Taking Rigid Notes
Are you trying to learn, or create a courtroom transcript of the lecture? My suggestion is to free yourself from rigid notes, and instead write down ideas in branches and connections. Add your own thoughts, diagrams and arrows linking ideas so you have a web of information.
#6 – Diagram
Remember when your teacher told you to stop doodling in class? Well recent research suggests that drawing can actually increase your concentration.
I’d guess that if you were actually drawing out information related to the class, that might improve your concentration even more. I don’t know if a picture is actually worth a thousand words, but it can often be worth many connections towards a greater understanding.
#7 – Pegging
Mental magicians actually use this tactic to memorize any number. The tactic is a bit complicated for a brief article, but the basic idea is to attach each digit to a specific consonant. So 1 = s, 2 = k and 6 = r.
The next step is to put these consonants together. So 16578 becomes s, r, d, l, p. You can then insert any vowels within these letters to create nouns. So srdlp becomes sword and loop. You then string the nouns together in a story: “The sword cut through the loop before Jonathan…”
Then, even to remember hundreds of numbers, you only need to remember the story and letters key.
Scott Young is the author of Learn More, Study Less. He runs a program designed to teach rapid learning tactics. The program is currently sold out, but you can go here to get on the announcement list for when it reopens.
Photo by Hermés
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I have finished the university already, and I don’t ace exams anymore, fortunately. :p
But of course I have to learn new things every day, and some of them as complex as physics or math. So your post makes a lot of sense for me.
What it has worked the best for me is becoming a teacher. When I teach what I am trying to learn or remember, I understand everything faster and better. You must understand the whole topic if you want to show it to somebody. This works wonders for me!
Becoming a teacher also works very well for me. I teach at a local college and my understanding of a subject improves a lot after I teach it. Writing works the same way for me and that’s one reason why I love blogging.
My secret is to stay calm in every situation. I don’t over-think or fuss over any subject matter. When I do this the answer seems to naturally come to me. Great info, thank you!
Great post- these are all fantastic tips for learning – which, in my opinion is vital for so much more than just “acing exams”. Number 1 reminds me of something else that works for me. I think of “learning around” whatever I am currently studying- what I mean by this is that I try to find related material that is not necessarily “on the test”- opinion pieces, magazine articles, blog entries, etc. By experiencing what other people think about or have learned about whatever topic it is that I am interested in, it helps to give me a “big picture”, conceptual understanding of the subject.
Keep up the nice work! Thanks.
Loved the distinction between learning and studying. And I totally agree with the comment above about teaching. That’s what i do too and that’s also the reason why I blog.
[…] But that’s not going to tell you what you need to know – go check out the full post over here. […]
Yes, I am definitely a picture person.
The only way I could learn math in school was by SEEING the numbers and the problems. Never could do it just with logic.
I like that they’ve discovered that doodling actually helps us to learn too. I really agree with this. Yep, you guessed it, I’m a doodler. And guess what, when I go back and look at my old school binders and look at the doodles, I remember what class I was in, who was in the class with me and a lot about what we were learning in that moment!
Nice post. Quite timely too, I’ve recently started my revision. 🙂
I’ve mastered the peg system as well as the loci system and I find it massively useful when revising – that’s how I’m currently doing it, so nice point on adding the peg system.
Hey Scott, after reading your article, I’ve really used the ‘explain it to yourself’ technique to the extreme and the results are great. What I find even better is when I explain to my classmate, and he points out my flaws. That speeds up the learning process even faster!
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