As a student in high school or college, you’ve likely spent a large number of hours learning and revisiting material as it relates to the subject matter in engineering, science, mathematics, technical studies, and other disciplines. However, educational institutions largely neglect discussing different ways of learning in their curriculums, and most teachers and professors take it for granted that students can comfortably acquire knowledge themselves in an effective way. This article will very briefly highlight common mistakes made in learning and quick strategies that, despite being advanced, you can implement and immediately reap the rewards off in the shape of strengthened learning outcomes.
The vast majority of students believes in learning by the grind method—going to lectures, barreling through notes, reading textbooks, and watching educational videos on the Web. Although this can be effective when done repeatedly over long periods of time, passive learning requires low intensity and focus, and is the equivalent of head-nodding: you agree with whatever it is you are reading and it makes sense until you are removed from that setting and are forced to recall information from your mind. Unfortunately, a superficial understanding is perversely incentivized by popular testing methods like multiple-choice exams, brief responses, and questions about definitions. Additionally, throwing more hours at studying results in an illusion of competence and false confidence, often leading to disappointing results in actual exam situations.
Any kind of exam measures your ability to recall information from your mind and to apply that information to different problems. Therefore, it would make sense to practice and perfect that ability ahead of time. The method that consists of posing questions to yourself and answering them, either in your mind or out loud to an imaginary audience, is called active recall. Flash cards and constructing questions for yourself to answer are examples of this highly effective and engaging technique. Most importantly, even a single instance of forcing yourself to recall a piece of information will allow you to do so in the future with but little effort. Note that this way of studying requires expending a great deal of focus and mental effort, which can make it uncomfortable initially.
Richard Feynman, the great physicist, once said, “What I cannot create, I do not know.” In other words, if you cannot reconstruct an idea or a concept from first principles available to you, your understanding of it is probably very shallow. Learning, then, refers to mastering ideas deeply and intuitively, not the rote memorization of facts. Perhaps controversially, being highly adept at using something or applying a principle to certain problems almost never requires comprehending the phenomenon behind it. Consider a zipper: you likely use one on a daily basis, but could you design one from scratch or explain its function to a five-year old?
The Feynman technique, named after the famed scientist, involves explaining concepts or complex ideas in your mind or out loud to an imaginary person or audience. Whereas active recall is best used for the memorization of facts, definitions, and figures, the Feynman technique applies most relevantly to the deconstruction of more complex pieces of information. It forces you to work out any possible inconsistencies in your understanding and without fail exposes deficiencies in your knowledge. Although there is some overlap between active recall and the Feynman technique, they refer to two distinctly different processes that can nevertheless be used in conjunction.
There are other approaches to memorizing sets of items like chaining and pegging that take some time to master. Although you are recommended to try those, the greatest gains in your learning will come from relatively straightforward action items and habits like maintaining focus and working on your skills over a number of years. When it comes to your cognitive performance, mastering the basics will yield you the best results—exercise in moderation, eat a healthful diet, and rest sufficiently. On top of those fundamentals, keep learning, challenge yourself, and allow time to do its work for you.
Anthony Simola is CEO of Simola Technologies Inc., and author of “The Roving Mind: A Modern Approach to Cognitive Enhancement.” He was previously educated at Columbia University and Vanderbilt University.