As a student, who’s “job” it is to learn, I’m quite fond of getting better at it. At the university, they tell you what to learn. And how much to learn. But almost never how to learn. And thus we students tend to be not very good at it. To correct that, I’m going to give you a few tools and ideas how to improve your learning process.
First of all, what is learning? Is it learning when you sit down and study for an exam? Is it learning, when you do your homework? Does learning happen when you listen to a lecture? In my experience, most students tend to see learning as what I’d describe more like studying – for exams, mostly.
This activity is quite vaguely defined. Perhaps we can see this process of preparing for a test more like training – just like sports. And that perspective might make us realize that training is a deliberate process. And a process that can and should be improved deliberately. In fact, every training – for sports, music , science or engineering – can be improved by taking the following three simple steps.
- Set goals for the process. Setting yourself goals like “Read the chapter xy” might not get you far. It is unconcrete. Success is not really measurable, because having read says nothing about how much you learned in the process. Setting goals for the process itself is far more helpful. Consider something like “I will try to find as many associations to other subjects as possible today.” That goal is deliberately set to train yourself. Independent of the amout you studied, your memory and understanding of it will improve.
- Observe yourself. The goals won’t help if you don’t stick to them. So you have to observe yourself in the process. Continuously remind yourself how to do it. Just like a tennis player trying to improve one single aspect of her play.
- Review & improve. After a while, pause and take a step back. Did it work? Were you able to stick to it? How could the process be improved? Tune it up and go for another run.
This may sound like hard work. Because it is. Getting better at anything needs contiuous, deliberate effort. Regardless of what some self-help books might want to sell you: whenever you look closely at anybody who is good a what she does – musicians just like scientists – the one factor all of them have in common is: countless hours of deliberate training. So high performance in any field can be reached by deliberate training. This is probably the reason key trait of successful people is the ability to delay gratification. Sometimes you just have to press on and not aim for the immediate gratification.
On the other hand, evolution has equipped us with a rewarding system in our brain. And it rewards us for learning (you have experienced light bulb moments, have you?). Why might that be? What is so advantageous about understanding something? Evolution’s answer is: because it helped survive and reproduce. It is oviously beneficial. Today, we can use that system for our purpose: when learning and really understanding something makes us feel good, we probably should just do it for its own sake. With the side-effect of actually learning and memorizing!
Who Is In Control?
Just ask yourself: who controls which subject you like and dislike? Is it your teachers/lecturers/professors? Is it your parents? Or are you in control?
Oftentimes we let our lecturer take control if we like a subject or not. If she makes it boring, we find it boring. If she makes it interesting, we find it interesting. Why do we let her decide? I immediately had to think of sports. In any given situation in competitive sports: who is going to succeed? Mostly, the one who states the rules. So if you take control over which subjects you like and which are fun, you can also gain control over your learning situation. To get this kind of control, you have to acknowledge that the same subject is different for everybody. We all have different kinds and levels of experience, different knowledge, a different world view. Relate the subject to yourself. How can you profit from the subject? Which part do you consider most helpful?
I just touched the subject of sports. John Medina argues in “Brain Rules” that sport is in many ways beneficial to our brains (and in consequence to learning). First, you learn self-control and self-dicipline. You learn to focus. And you build new neurons. Learning connects neurons, exercise builds neurons.
Another important brain rule is sleeping. We don’t know much about sleep, but we know it is important for learning. Studies show that after sleeping, remembering is easier. Probably learning happens a lot in our unconscious, for example when sleeping. But other kinds of breaks in your learning activity seem to be beneficial as well. It is as if after learning consciously, our unconscious needs some time to sort it out.
Of Cities And Streets
Now let us take a closer look at how our brain is wired. To be able to understand how to get information in and out of our brain, we must have and understanding of how it works.
You can imagine your brain like a city. It has a lot of buildings and connections between these buildings, streets. To work effectively, the city needs a good infrastructure. Many connections between the buildings. Many possible ways to get to a building. And that is how you better remember: when you memorize it, make as many connections as possible, so that you are able to find it again. Many people think of our brain like a hard disk. I like to think of it more like a detective, trying to find clues where it stored that piece of information. Committing information to your brain is no problem. Read it and it is there. But finding it again, finding a way to it again, that is not so easy, as you may have experienced. So what should you do? Build more streets. Lay out clues. Try to connect the dots, get the big picture and understand even how different subjects are related.
Of course this is different for everybody. Every one of us has a different starting point, different knowledge, a different wiring in the brain. What matters is how you relate new information to the already existing patterns in your brain. Find out how it matters to you, what you can benefit from it. Some say, the different wiring also results in different approaches to learning that work best for each of us. That is certainly true. You may have heard of the three learning styles, visual, auditory and kinestetic. Use as many as you can to build new connections.
Now you’ve commited everything to your brain. You know it. Great! Bad thing: a lot of it is wrong. We humans tend to relate things that really aren’t. Think we understand something, but don’t. And remember facts that are none. We make mistakes. Most of us are not aware of these. So how do we find them? In information technology, we say debugging. So how do we do it? Systematically. Working our way through the basics again, checking if our understanding correlates with reality. Every sports person knows that you have to work on your basics to get better.
While errors in your understanding really should be corrected, making mistakes is not in itself bad for learning. Quite the contrary: learning from your mistakes is one of the best ways to learn. Or how Merlin Mann put it: “It’s not a bug, it’s kung fu!”
In our daily lives at the university and elsewhere, mistakes are not so popular. They result in low grades. The environment therefore is not really good for mistakes. One way to react to that: make the mistake as early as possible, then you won’t make it again in the test.
The Importance Of Discourse
Learning for yourself however can only carry you a certain distance. From then on, you need other people to get better yourself. Plato knew this already, and you probably do too. Talking about any topic deepens and questions your understanding of it. Independent of who you are talking to, if you are explaining it to someone else or being enlightened yourself. The university is full of curious people, trying to find out more about their subject. And most scientists love to talk about their stuff. I consider it our (as in the students) task to ask, question and challenge them on our way to learn more.
Have fun playing!
References & Material
- Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Roy F. Baumeister, John Tierney)
- The Art of Learning (Josh Waitzkin) – jwfoundation.com
- Talent is Overrated (Geoff Calvin) – Article in Fortune Magazine
- Brain Rules (John Medina) – brainrules.net