How to study? Effectively!
Learn how to study
People were able to acquire new knowledge and skills since the dawn of time. Even in the second half of the 20th century people believed that the efficiency of information memorization depends practically entirely on the inborn predispositions of a given person. Only the later specialists in the field of memorization – with Tony and Barry Buzan at the forefront – noted that mental aptitude may be effectively developed and trained. The first studies and – as a result – the first memorization techniques were developed in the 1970s. Today it is a well known fact that one of the most important – if not the most important – element of the process of memorizing new information is the proper education methodology. Without it hours spent over textbooks may not bring any notable results.
Many researchers develop operating diagrams aiming at optimising the work of the human mind for several years. During their studies they formulate hundreds of hypotheses or assumptions and present arguments to support or refute them. A few interesting ways to make a better use of one’s brain stand out among this – on the first glance quite worthless – medley.
Laws of memory
This term encompasses the main principles which regulate the way the brain works when memorizing information. As there are many such laws, I will focus here on the most important of them:
Law of novelty – information acquired recently are easier to recall.
Law of beginning, end and break – information are most readily memorized during the initial stage of learning. With every passing minute the efficiency of memorization decreases, until at the final stage it starts to increase again. A break introduced between subsequent periods of learning increases the share of intense “beginnings and ends”, minimising the impact of the less effective “middle”. Total time of continuous learning should not exceed 35–60 minutes, while a break should last for 4–8 minutes.
Law of repetition – material which is frequently repeated in specific intervals is memorized for longer period of time and in greater proportion. When you familiarise yourself with a given content only once, you will be able to keep it in your memory for up to several dozens days.
Law of uniqueness – information which is original, unorthodox and seemingly unreal is more easily memorized. This stems from activating the right cerebral hemisphere responsible for abstract thinking, which works in tandem with the left cerebral hemisphere responsible for acquiring and processing knowledge and perceiving the environment in analytical terms. All mnemonics considered to be the most effective methods of acquiring knowledge are based on this principle. I will discuss them further in the article.
The most popular methods are not always the most effective
In May 2013 a “New report on the effectiveness of learning techniques” was published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest magazine. The report focused on the 10 most popular methods of acquiring knowledge. These included inter alia writing summaries from covered material, underlining and highlighting key phrases, reading the text multiple times or solving descriptive and memory-based exercises related to a given topic.
The results of conducted study turned out to be surprising. All of the above-mentioned methods were regarded as quite ineffective! It has to be borne in mind that Polish education system, and especially the publications used within this system, are based on such methods. The fact that these methods do not bring the expected results has an impact on the pupils learning outcomes.
What are then the most effective memorization techniques? The most effective memorizations techniques include learning through asking questions and answering them yourself, linking freshly acquired information with the ones acquired earlier, solving logical and practical exercises and quizzes, spreading learning over a period of time and dividing material into narrower thematic sections.
Traditional notes are out of date
Notes are one of the most important sources of knowledge for pupils and students. The former use them to compile the most important information contained in textbooks and provided by teachers, the latter treat them as personalised summaries of attended lectures. These activities have a common purpose – to gather as much knowledge in as little words as possible. A pupil or student has to single out the most important out of hundreds or even thousands sentences for the purpose of memorizing them in detail.
How do such notes usually look? Due to the fact that they are prepared in a hurry, notes aren’t usually very aesthetic-looking, are frequently drafted entirely in one colour, without keeping appropriate space between subsequent notions. All of this makes it significantly more difficult to assimilate the information contained within them. Therefore it is important to devote more time to preparing such seemingly trivial thing as notes by separating them clearly into different paragraphs, highlighting important words using a different coloured pen and underlining the most important elements. Marking keywords which make it easier to memorize the most important information may also prove helpful. Preparing notes in such a way is definitely more time-consuming, but a few additional moments wasted at this stage will pay off handsomely during the information acquisition stage.
Concept maps, mind maps
Is the method of compiling notes described above (the so-called linear method) the only available one? Definitely not! There are many more effective methods. One of them is the concept map. This method was developed by prof. Joseph D. Novak, lecturer at Cornell University, in 1960. This method is based on establishing logical connections between subsequent elements of definitions of given phrases. Each map starts with the most general term which is subsequently developed into other related topics. Then those topics are broken down into their constituent parts, whose significant elements are placed in “clouds”, while links are placed on the lines connecting individual clouds. The map may propagate radially or circularly, may run into a dead end or return to the starting point – it all depends on the nature of a given topic.
Mind maps are similar to concept maps, though they differ with regard to the way in which topics are presented. The main topic is placed in the centre. The main topic branches into subsequent elements containing more specific terms (or pictures, which are frequently used to add variety to the map). Each of these smaller terms is subsequently divided into even narrower concepts. Such divisions are made until a reasonable method of fragmentation of a given concept is discovered. Mind maps (contrary to what one might expect) are made faster than traditional notes and are significantly more effective.
Chain association technique
This technique is very helpful whenever there is a need to memorize a series – not necessarily related – words, e.g. the shopping list. The reasoning behind this method is very simple. One has to create a story which would be as unreal, untypical and unlikely as possible and incorporate the terms to be memorized into its structure. Why shouldn’t you rely on tales which are reflected in everyday life? These takes have a poor effect on the imagination, and thus hamper the ability to memorise information. The more unusual threads, the more active is the right hemisphere of the brain, and this is reflected in an increase in the efficiency of the entire mind. Thanks to this, remembering a few terms will no longer be an issue.
Paradoxically, it's far more profitable to read at a single text a fast rate several times, rather than to focus on it for a long time, but only once. Slowly getting a grasp of a given text often makes us go back to its earlier parts to refresh the information needed to understand the next paragraph. In the meantime, however, we lose the track of the current thread, which in turn reduces concentration and decreases the efficiency of learning. By reading quickly, we may skip a few words or sentences and do not get deeper insights into a lot of details, but we do not usually lose the track of the plot. Any deficiencies may be made up for, by reading the material once again. Then, it also becomes possible to memorise only material information. Any subsequent revision only consolidate the newly acquired knowledge.
Most people read at a similar rate to the rate at which they speak, i.e. below 400 words per minute. This is due to the vocalisation of the read text. Usually we read the content in our minds (or even aloud, silently) to ourselves to properly assimilate it. Elimination of vocalisation is very difficult, but possible. If we could eliminate the transitional stage between reading and adopting words, the speed of reading will increase significantly, and reach even a few thousand words per minute.
The technique of hooks
This technique is useful when you need to memorise a long sequence of digits, for example phone number or social security number. The most significant thing about this technique is the to associate a given digit with an object resembling it, e.g. 2 resembles the shape of a swan, and 8 – a snowman. If you master these 10 simple associations, it is sufficient that you connect them with a chain technique of associations. This will allow you to include even more complicated numeric strings in a neat story. This technique, however, works well usually only in relation to numbers consisting of not more than 10 characters. Otherwise, repeating the same symbols obscure the entire message.
Here are some techniques that will allow to effectively handle sometimes horrific amounts of material to learn.