Learning new material can be tough. The typical approach is to read the material and then attempt to regurgitate on demand later on. This literally does not work. Its foolish to assume briefly scanning a page one time will cause its key points to embed themselves in our brains. Instead by applying these methods logically we can supercharge our learning without investing much if any more time.
Common Methods of Learning
These are the most common methods for learning new material. There are methods that aren’t covered here. But by understanding this list you’ll have a good comprehension of what causes knowledge to be retained. Its mostly about applying the information while studying and reviewing it at spaced intervals. As can be seen on the chart on the right. But I’ll go through each method individually to give you further insight into why that is.
High Utility Methods
Practice Testing – Flash cards, asking yourself questions and then answering them. Practice testing is the most logical and effective method, bar none. By practising retrieving the information, you’re better able to retrieve it on demand. Simple, can be done anywhere and very effective.
Distributed Practice – Ideally you want to let several days go by between study sessions. This maximizes retention according to this study. Since thats not realistic spacing for most students or professionals a close second is one day spacing. They found that any period below 24 hours between study sessions had significantly worse retention.
Moderate Utility Methods
Elaborative Interrogation – By attempting to understand WHY things are the way they are. We better understand the information and thus better embed it in our minds. This aids in retention. For it to be effective it needs to be an ongoing process while reading.
Self Explanation – Essentially showing your work. It involves explaining how or why you came to a conclusion while studying that you did. Its the more active cousin of elaborative interrogation.
Interleaved Practice – This involves drawing upon past knowledge of a similar field to further comprehension. It draws upon the learning tree theory. Which holds that if you already have a tree or branch built in a field its easy to add further branches or twigs to that tree vs growing a whole new one.
Low Utility Methods
Summarization – Pretty self explanatory. Summarizing helps in recall to some extent, but not with comprehension. Since its the ability to apply information thats important its not a very effective study method.
Highlighting – Using a marker to draw lines on key info is not very effective. It seems smart right, if you can identify key info you must understand it. Not quite. Highlighting is different than actually applying the info to solve problems. Especially with complex or abstract subjects all highlighting does is use ink.
The Keyword Mnemonic – Summarizing key info by making a mnemonic phrase out of it. Like ROYGBIV for the colours of the rainbow. Its useful for memorizing simple, list based info but it won’t help whatsoever with applying it or solving real world issues.
Imagery Use For Text Learning – The same as a mnemonic but using an image to memorize a list or concept. If used in the memory palace method I talked about in an earlier article (found here). Its extremely effective for memorizing things, but not for solving problems or actually USING the info.
Rereading – This is the gold standard method for learning and its incredibly ineffective. Go ahead and name all the methods in this article. You’ve just spent 5 minutes reading it, you should at least be able to name the methods, right? Not really. Reading itself is not very effective for memorizing or learning, same for rereading. Its about using the info and building those knowledge banks (not information which is what memorizing gives us) thats important.
So How Should I Learn?
Simply put actually learning takes work. I’m prone to it to. Skimming articles once or twice, thinking okay heres the key points. Then assuming I’ve “learned” everything the article or book or video has to offer. Not really, it takes more effort than that.
The best way to REALLY, TRULY learn. Is to read the material, really focus on it. Or skip that and find the questions you need to answer. Either way identify whats important, slough off the excess. Then answer why and how questions using that info, drawing upon prior experience to reinforce our arguments. Then do this again with new situation over 24 hours later. Go through this cycle a few times with the same subject material and you’ll be an expert on it.
But this takes time, and effort. And for various reasons we usually don’t have those in excess. So whats the answer? Well don’t always follow that method. Sometimes the material isn’t important and a quick mnemonic to ace the test question IS the best option. But if you really want to sink your teeth into a subject, and get it. The way some people really seem to get stuff is to follow this method. Trust me, you won’t regret trying it.
If you found this article helpful please share it with your circle. Or comment what you’re learning right now and what method you’re going to/ have been using to learn it.