How to learn better

Good learning is a “bit-by-bit” activity which requires time- it is incredibly important to start learning as early as possible.

In essence- cramming is to be avoided at all costs!

Quite often we hold off until we “understand it all”; it is better to throw yourself into the cauldron and get started with one small problem/technique or chunk of learning- you’ll be surprised how quickly you will then pick up the harder topics that follow!

Building these chunks of learning takes time- which is why the sooner we start the better!

It is beneficial to interleave your learning– using different approaches and techniques- don’t get stuck in a rut with only one method of learning or solving a problem. By expanding to different techniques you will build a toolkit that will help you tackle harder problems in the future.

As any great musician or sportsman will tell you- don’t only practice the easy stuff. Identify the methods, techniques or information that you find difficult and spend a concentrated time tackling these. It might not happen in one sitting- you might have to address these difficulties over an extended time over several attempts before you start to feel you’ve mastered them- this is known as deliberate practice and is an important tool in the skill of learning and acquiring technique.

Break down these intense periods of study and learning into manageable timed chunks- the Pomodoro technique is an invaluable technique to help us focus on the task in hand. In simple terms, you spend 25 mins working focussed on a single topic followed by a 5 min reward time where you can have a treat or spend time on the internet/watch a youtube clip etc.

What can you do to maximise the return on this study time?

  1. Get started! Just get started with just the smallest of tasks.
  2. Make hand-written notes- it has been shown that students who make handwritten notes tend to better understand the topic of study
  3. Limit distractions
  4. Flip back and forth between different techniques (Interleaving)
  5. Mistakes are good- challenge yourself; make mistakes- we all learn from our mistakes
  6. Deliberate practice- don’t just practice the easy stuff!
  7. Use metaphors/analogies to link new material to past learning and experiences- these metaphors might be crude and very vague, to begin with, but as you gradually better understand the material you can improve the metaphor- and you’ll find that you better understand the concept.
  8. Test yourself at the end of each study chunk. Testing yourself has been proven to be one of the most effective methods for memorising and learning.
  9. Hold off your rewards until the task is COMPLETED!

Remember- sometimes learning doesn’t follow a steady path. Sometimes it might feel like we come up against a brick wall… this is the brain building new foundations and it can take time to assimilate knowledge.

Be aware of the illusion of competence: It is human nature to feel that we completely understand a topic. Always step back and re-check your work.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself- and you are the easiest person to fool!

Richard Feynmann

The illusion of competence can be tricky to spot- how might we avoid this? We can work and revise in groups with fellow students, where we can catch each other’s “blind-spots”. Also, helping other students understand a topic might also raise some issues that you had not realised needed addressing. Finally, working with tutors and educators who regularly work with students can help address and flag up common misconceptions and difficulties that can arise from the subject matter.


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