You read over your notes. Then you read them over again. Then you read them over a third time. Then you take the test and are surprised at just how much you missed. Despite reading everything three times!
A lot of study time is wasted because of one problem: you fail to learn things the first time around.
Repeatedly going over the same information like putting a band-aid over a sieve. It may reduce the water that slips through, but it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem: that you have too many holes.
The key to reducing the amount of time you study is simple: learn things the first time you see them, instead of after dozens of repetitions.
This is all easier said than done. I’m sure if your mind was without holes you could easily capture any information that slipped into it. The real question is how can you do this? I don’t believe it is just a matter of being a genius or chance, but based on how you study.
Step One: Find the Holes
If you want to repair a leaky brain, you need to figure out where the holes are. Identify what type of information you have trouble remembering. Recognize when you’ve just gone over information you don’t quite understand.
Here’s a few questions to ask yourself after every chunk of ideas to find your holes:
- What from this section am I most likely to forget?
- What concepts are completely new to me? (Rather than ones that feel familiar)
- Which ideas am I having the most difficulty grasping?
When you identify weak points, you can invest more time in fixing those instead of wasting time with a blanket studying technique of all information.
Step Two: Repair Weak Points
Once you’ve identified potential weak-points, you should immediately seek to fix them. Drop everything your doing and seek out a fix for the problem. Programmers understand that a bug left in the system can create several hundred times the cost to fix it later. As a learner, you need to understand that the same principle of fixing problems quickly also applies.
There are hundreds of books written on various strategies to fix weak points, which is a bit outside the scope of this quick article. But here are a few starting points:
- Memorizing? If you need to store arbitrary information, try using the link method. This is where you visualize an exaggerated image that combines the two things you want to associate. You can memorize formula’s this way by linking vivid pictures to the different symbols. A formula such as F = C/A, could become a scale with hundreds of (F)eathers on side and a giant (C)aterpillar sitting over millions of (A)nts.
- Conceptualizing? If you need to understand information try drawing a picture or diagram to combine the ideas.
- Retaining? If you need to retain a complicated mass of information try using metaphors and vivid examples to connect the abstract information into something you can easily relate to.
Repairing weak points in your understanding isn’t that difficult – if you first know where they are. Simply focusing on a piece of information can help you understand it. But if you don’t know which parts you’re missing, it is easy to skim over everything and not realize what you’ve missed.
Step Three: Check Your Understanding
Do you “get” it. Does the information make sense to you at a deeper level, or does it seem arbitrary, meaningless or difficult to derive? Most school tests and virtually all real-life tests are designed to answer a single question: do you understand what you’re studying?
If you aren’t sure, that’s when you need to start working deeper. Keep asking yourself “why” until you reach a point where the subject makes sense. Here are some tips for improving your understanding:
- Look for sensory descriptions.Your brain isn’t a computer. It’s designed to retain emotional, vivid and sensory information better than abstract or dry details. Link a sensation, picture or story to the abstract details. When learning how to do determinants (a form of math using matrices) I imagined my hands moving through the diagonals, one adding and one taking away.
- Get the background. A lot of information that seems meaningless makes more sense when given a context. If your stuck on trying to wrap your head around a particular point, do some research into it’s origins. This may take more time up-front, but can save hours as future concepts are built upon it.
Step Four: Test Yourself
Whenever you’re experimenting with new learning methods, you need to measure the results. Check to see whether your new system is actually helping you remember more. Once you get familiar with a system, you can more accurately judge the extent of your knowledge. But until then, test regularly so you can tweak the system to fix errors.
The best tests are objective ones. If you’re in school, look for past exams, tests or textbook questions to check your understanding. If you’re teaching yourself, come up with short exercises that can prove to you conclusively you know what you’re doing.
The most important piece of advice I can give is this: treat study time as being sacred. Go in with the expectation that you will either learn everything through the first go, or you will identify areas that need further clarification. Focus and become aware of any potential holes so you can learn things once.