We all seem to forget this step, going straight from lectures to studying, without learning anything.
Check out our learning method below, which has been used by many students to achieve their educational goals.
On this page:
The main idea behind learning
The brain works best when big ideas and bits of information are broken into pieces, and organised by showing the connections between them. The main strategy that this guide will focus on is how to use the idea of creating these pieces of information to best learn new things. All the study methods you will come across are basically forms of this one idea.
The steps to learning something new
There’s three steps to this concept. Focusing on the information, understanding the idea, and practice using recall techniques. The three steps are explained below:
You need to focus on the information that you specifically want to study or learn. It’s no use having Facebook open and your phone notifications turned on so you can Snapchat your friend if they send you something. You get a dose of dopamine, a feel-good chemical in the brain, because using social media is a calming break from study. Mixing social media and study will create the illusion that you’re actually learning, when in reality, you’re not.
Set out clearly what it is you want to learn. Find the formulae for physics, or the quotations for Literature, or whatever it is, and focus your undivided attention on that.
2. Understand the main idea
You can’t go out for a run before you’ve learnt to walk, so why start with practice problems if you don’t understand what you’re doing? This will lead to the illusion that you’re learning something.
Being able to get the gist of a concept or idea means that you’ll be better able to apply it to various problems when it comes time to use that information. You’re creating the neural patterns in your brain that mean you can have access to this new information easily.
You’re not done just yet! Just because you can understand something, it doesn’t mean that you’re able to recall it and apply it in an examination scenario. The best way to test whether you’ve understood something is to explain it to someone else. This could be your cat, your friends, your parents, or even to yourself. When you can do that with clarity, using only a blank piece of paper and a pencil, you’ve understood the concept and you can move on to the next step of learning.
How do you go about understanding something? This is where the various study strategies come in, and the most common thing that students do is to read the textbook or resource that is given to them. It’s common to think that once you’ve read it, you understand what you’re doing and you can move on. Sadly, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Reading your notes or the textbook has a very minimal effect on your learning. It does nothing to help you, and is pretty much a waste of time as a study strategy.
Here’s an example: you’ve been reading the textbook and you feel like you understand what to do; everything makes sense, and you feel like you’re ready for the exam. You’ve just tricked your brain into thinking it’s learnt something, when all you were doing was reading what was already written by someone else. You haven’t engaged with the material in any way, and there’s no way that the brain can remember everything that it needs to for the exam. The information is in your working memory when you’re reading, and slips out into your brain’s bin when you’re finished. Deleted and forgotten.
The section on specific study methods will go over how you can understand new things, and strategies that you can use to improve your understanding of concepts. Here’s the basic idea of what to do:
- Grasp a basic overview of what you will be doing. Understand the overarching idea.
- Understand the key parts of the information, and the most important things that you need to remember.
- Fill in the gaps with the other pieces of information so that you can pull it all together into one complete piece of information for your brain.
For example, if you want to learn the law of supply in economics, here’s how you could go about it:
- Firstly learn the overarching concept – the law of supply tells us how producers will react to changes in the price of a good.
- Secondly, learn the key point – The law of supply is: As the price increases, the quantity supplied will increase, and vice versa, assuming the price stays constant. This is because at higher prices, suppliers are more willing and able to produce the good as it is relatively more profitable.
- Thirdly – what gaps do you need to fill in? You need to learn how to show it on a graph, and perhaps be more able to explain the theory – they receive more for the good so can increase the production, invest more in capital, etc.
3. Practice using recall
If there’s one word that needs to be emphasised here, it’s recall. The point to this third step is to solidify the pathway in your brain to retrieving the knowledge, so you know where to find it when you need it!
You want to create context. In the last step, you learned how something works – how birds migrate, how differentiation works, or maybe how the use of low angle shots helps show power and strength of a character. This time you want to learn about where and when to use the knowledge. When should you differentiate, and when should you integrate? When you recognise the context of the knowledge that you’ve learnt, you can apply it to the right questions in the exam. Also, you’ll be able to make connections between these pieces of knowledge. That’s why musicians say learning music helps with maths!
The main way to test your recall is to use practice questions and try to answer them without using your notes, textbook, or answers to help you. This will enable you to see just how much you actually know.
An example of how to study for Chemistry:
I used to write down all my notes in a book during lectures, and then revisit these notes when it came time to study. I’d condense them into the key information, making sure I had various triggers, or parts of a sentence that I knew would lead me on to the next part. I wrote these on pieces of paper and stuck them on my wall. I knew I’d mastered a concept and could move on in the spaced repetition method when I could face the other way and explain exactly how the structure of transition metals relates to their colours, for example. I actually talked to myself, and explained it to myself, like rehearsing a speech. It meant that I was confident that I could recall the information at will, and then I moved on to doing practice problems to create the necessary context for my learning.
Points to note
These are the things to beware of! We’ve all had the feeling that we just know something, and then come to the exam and just can’t quite remember how to calculate the volume of a sphere, or what the proper word for the good guy in an English text is. This is because you’ve tricked your brain into thinking it’s learnt something!
The main cause of learning illusions is not making sure you can recall the information. The following things are study methods that you should avoid doing!
- Just reading the textbook or the notes that you made
- Highlighting key information in a text
- Relying on the answers in the back of the book, then once you understand them, moving on to the next thing
- Using visual cues from the room that you are studying in, which you forget when you’re in the exam room
- Copying out your notes repeatedly – unless you’re using the spaced repetition method!
Can you see that with all of these things, you aren’t actually engaging with the content that you want to learn? There’s no reason for your brain to remember it, because you aren’t doing any processing of the information. Your brain doesn’t have to work very hard when you’re reading the textbook: it feels easy, and like you’re studying something, so the dopamine kicks in and rewards you because studying is easy! But in reality, you’re tricking yourself into thinking you’re learning when really, you’re wasting your time.
The best way combat learning illusions is to actively engage in the content that you are learning. This means doing something to the information: transforming it, applying it, synthesising it, making connections, and condensing it. It’s crucial that you aren’t just mindlessly doing the study, as the information never moves past your working memory.
Using the computer
There are numerous studies that show you learn best when you are writing things down, instead of typing them using a computer. If your school lets you choose, it’s most likely better to write your notes in a book instead of using the computer. You’ll be less distracted, and better able to remember the knowledge later on.
Why exactly is it that we don't learn better using the computer? Studies are showing that we use the part of the brain responsible for spatial recognition and memory when we want to locate something we’ve read about or written before. This doesn’t exist on a computer or tablet, so we can’t recall information in this way. With writing notes, the act of processing the information and writing the most important things as you hear them forces you to quickly sift through and find the important stuff that your lecturer is saying. When you’re typing, you often tend to type exactly what the teacher says to you: you end up with a transcript of the lecture, but not something that you can use later on.
If you prefer using the computer, that’s okay. Just remember that when it comes to study time, trying to spend some time writing things using paper and a pen will definitely help you to remember them.