I was an ineffective learner for a long time; my study habits were nonexistent when I started college. Since then, I have been steadily training myself to become a better learner. I’m not sure if I’ll ever become a learning expert, but I’m going to try.
A person on Quora asked me the following question, and it deeply resonated with me. It’s what I would have loved to tell myself a decade ago.
I love that you’re being honest with yourself; great job!
You may not know how to learn effectively, and have accidentally associated rote memorization with learning (I know I did, and it changed my life when I discovered the truth).
We could go through a long, detailed explanation about how information needs to be meaningful to be encoded in long-term memory, but let’s do this little experiment instead.
Take one minute to “learn” the following information from Wikipedia, using your existing methods:
Thomas Jefferson mastered many disciplines which ranged from surveying and mathematics to horticulture and inventions. He was a proven architect in the classical tradition. Jefferson’s keen interest in religion and philosophy earned him the presidency of the American Philosophical Society. He shunned organized religion, but was influenced by both Christianity and deism. Besides English, he was well versed in Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish.
Now stop reading; you’re not allowed to look at this paragraph again for now. Your next instructions:
- After you read these numbered instructions, look away for 3 minutes.
- At the end of this waiting period, rate on a scale from 1-10 how confident you’ll feel passing a 1-question pop quiz on this next week (this means full marks if you answer correctly, and a big fat zero if you get it wrong). Again, you’re not allowed to look at the Wikipedia paragraph again.
- Look away now.
Chances are, you were probably not very confident of your chances on the imaginary one-question pop quiz. Just for fun, let’s try it out. Without peeking at the Wikipedia paragraph, here’s your pop quiz: out of Spanish, German, Italian, and Latin, which language did Thomas Jefferson not know?
Take a peek at the paragraph. How did you do?
Let’s now try to be better at this learning business.
If you were anything like me up through my first year of college, you probably learned like this:
“Oh okay, this passage is about Thomas Jefferson. Ah, a list of things I have to learn: surveying, mathematics, horticulture, and inventions. He mastered surveying, mathematics, horticulture, and inventions. Surveying mathematics horticulture, inventions. Yeah sure, I can remember that…”
And on and on I would go. Pile onto that classical architecture, religion (complicated relationship with it), philosophy (president!), and a handful of languages, and my little house of cards built by rote memory would eventually collapse.
Here’s what I want you to do instead: engage with your material, and have fun with your creativity. This is the same way that we instantly recall the storyline of our favorite Pixar movie or tell our friends about the latest scandal about our favorite celebrity. That bit of information generates an emotional response, we’re invested in it, and it means something to us.
Here’s what your mental dialog should be:
- “Thomas Jefferson…oh yeah, I already know something about him! Founding father, president, or something.”
- “Wow, he knew so many things! Hmm, what could he do with all of his mastered stuff…probably invent night vision goggles to survey his Venus flytraps. Yeah, he was that cool.”
- “Okay, despite being a super smart surveying gardener, he somehow is also a classical architect. I bet he would build a little classical dollhouse to store his night vision goggles. Yeah, he would pop them in after dinner every day…”
You can continue in this fashion, creating ridiculous scenes that are incredibly memorable, and each thought can lead to the the next. This takes practice, but eventually you will be able to create strong anchor points for all of your learning materials in your long term memory. Take notes in your own words as well.
By the way, remember how hard it was to recall things without referring to the source? That’s why it’s important to not only encode the information you’re trying to learn, but also to revisit it often. Cramming is never a good idea.
This answer is only meant to get you started. To take your learning to the next level, I recommend the following:
- Coursera class