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10 Tips to Study Smart and Save Time

10 Tips to Study Smart and Save Time

I recently got my marks back from University. My grade point average was a 4.2 out of a possible 4.5, resting between an A and a perfect A+. In itself, this isn’t an incredible achievement. But I managed to do this while spending only a fraction of the time studying than many of the people I knew.

Is it just natural talent? Perhaps. I’ve always had a knack for understanding concepts and learning new ideas. But I also believe the way I learned the information played a role. Instead of cramming last minute or memorizing details, I try to organize information in a way that makes it easier to recall.

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This strategy of organization I label holistic learning. Holistic learning is simply the process of organizing information into webs, that interconnect ideas. Instead of forcing ideas into your skull, you focus on the relationships between information. Linking ideas together to see the whole, instead of just the parts.

Building an Understanding

Learning is a process similar to building a house. You aren’t fed the complete picture. Limitations on communication prevent the instantaneous transmission of knowledge. Instead you listen to lectures, read textbooks and take painstaking notes to try and comprehend a subject.

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You are fed building supplies, bricks, mortar and glass. It is up to you to assemble the building. Unfortunately, most learning strategies fall into two basic types:

  1. Memorization – Instead of building anything you simply stare at each brick for several minutes trying to record its position.
  2. Formulas – This is the equivalent to being blind, fumbling around a new house. You can’t see the building itself but you learn to come up with simple rules to avoid walking into walls.

There is nothing particularly wrong with either of these strategies, assuming they aren’t your entire strategy. The human brain isn’t a computer so it can’t memorize infinite sums of knowledge without some form of structure. And formulas no longer work if the questions they are designed to solve change scope.

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Learning Holistically

The alternative strategy is to focus on actually using the information you have to build something. This involves linking concepts together and compressing information so it fits in the bigger picture. Here are some ideas to get started:

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  1. Metaphor – Metaphors can allow you to quickly organize information by comparing a complex idea to a simple one. When you find relationships between information, come up with analogies to increase your understanding. Compare neurons with waves on a string. Make metaphors comparing parts of a brain with sections of your computer.
  2. Use All Your Senses – Abstract ideas are difficult to memorize because they are far removed from our senses. Shift them closer by coming up with vivid pictures, feelings and images that relate information together. When I learned how to do a determinant of a matrix, I remembered the pattern by visualizing my hands moving through the numbers, one adding and one subtracting.
  3. Teach It – Find someone who doesn’t understand the topic and teach it to them. This exercise forces you to organize. Spending five minutes explaining a concept can save you an hour of combined studying for the same effect.
  4. Leave No Islands – When you read through a textbook, every piece of information should connect with something else you have learned. Fast learners do this automatically, but if you leave islands of information, you won’t be able to reach them during a test.
  5. Test Your Mobility – A good way to know you haven’t linked enough is that you can’t move between concepts. Open up a word document and start explaining the subject you are working with. If you can’t jump between sections, referencing one idea to help explain another, you won’t be able to think through the connections during a test.
  6. Find Patterns – Look for patterns in information. Information becomes easier to organize if you can identify broader patterns that are similar across different topics. The way a neuron fires has similarities to “if” statements in programming languages.
  7. Build a Large Foundation – Reading lots and having a general understanding of many topics gives you a lot more flexibility in finding patterns and metaphors in new topics. The more you already know, the easier it is to learn.
  8. Don’t Force – I don’t spend much time studying before exams. Forcing information during the last few days is incredibly inefficient. Instead try to slowly interlink ideas as they come to you so studying becomes a quick recap rather than a first attempt at learning.
  9. Build Models – Models are simple concepts that aren’t true by themselves, but are useful for describing abstract ideas. Crystallizing one particular mental image or experience can create a model you can reference when trying to understand. When I was trying to tackle the concept of subspaces, I visualized a blue background with a red plane going through it. This isn’t an entirely accurate representation of what a subspace is, but it created a workable image for future ideas.
  10. Learning is in Your Head – Having beautiful notes and a perfectly highlighted textbook doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the information in it. Your only goal is to understand the information so it will stick with you for assignments, tests and life. Don’t be afraid to get messy when scrawling out ideas on paper and connecting them in your head. Use notes and books as a medium for learning rather than an end result.

More by this author

Scott H Young

Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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Last Updated on May 14, 2019

8 Replacements for Google Notebook

8 Replacements for Google Notebook

Exploring alternatives to Google Notebook? There are more than a few ‘notebooks’ available online these days, although choosing the right one will likely depend on just what you use Google Notebook for.

  1. Zoho Notebook
    If you want to stick with something as close to Google Notebook as possible, Zoho Notebook may just be your best bet. The user interface has some significant changes, but in general, Zoho Notebook has pretty similar features. There is even a Firefox plugin that allows you to highlight content and drop it into your Notebook. You can go a bit further, though, dropping in any spreadsheets or documents you have in Zoho, as well as some applications and all websites — to the point that you can control a desktop remotely if you pare it with something like Zoho Meeting.
  2. Evernote
    The features that Evernote brings to the table are pretty great. In addition to allowing you to capture parts of a website, Evernote has a desktop search tool mobil versions (iPhone and Windows Mobile). It even has an API, if you’ve got any features in mind not currently available. Evernote offers 40 MB for free accounts — if you’ll need more, the premium version is priced at $5 per month or $45 per year. Encryption, size and whether you’ll see ads seem to be the main differences between the free and premium versions.
  3. Net Notes
    If the major allure for Google Notebooks lays in the Firefox extension, Net Notes might be a good alternative. It’s a Firefox extension that allows you to save notes on websites in your bookmarks. You can toggle the Net Notes sidebar and access your notes as you browse. You can also tag websites. Net Notes works with Mozilla Weave if you need to access your notes from multiple computers.
  4. i-Lighter
    You can highlight and save information from any website while you’re browsing with i-Lighter. You can also add notes to your i-Lighted information, as well as email it or send the information to be posted to your blog or Twitter account. Your notes are saved in a notebook on your computer — but they’re also synchronized to the iLighter website. You can log in to the site from any computer.
  5. Clipmarks
    For those browsers interested in sharing what they find with others, Clipmarks provides a tool to select clips of text, images and video and share them with friends. You can easily syndicate your finds to a whole list of sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Digg. You can also easily review your past clips and use them as references through Clipmarks’ website.
  6. UberNote
    If you can think of a way to send notes to UberNote, it can handle it. You can clip material while browsing, email, IM, text message or even visit the UberNote sites to add notes to the information you have saved. You can organize your notes, tag them and even add checkboxes if you want to turn a note into some sort of task list. You can drag and drop information between notes in order to manage them.
  7. iLeonardo
    iLeonardo treats research as a social concern. You can create a notebook on iLeonardo on a particular topic, collecting information online. You can also access other people’s notebooks. It may not necessarily take the place of Google Notebook — I’m pretty sure my notes on some subjects are cryptic — but it’s a pretty cool tool. You can keep notebooks private if you like the interface but don’t want to share a particular project. iLeonardo does allow you to follow fellow notetakers and receive the information they find on a particular topic.
  8. Zotero
    Another Firefox extension, Zotero started life as a citation management tool targeted towards academic researchers. However, it offers notetaking tools, as well as a way to save files to your notebook. If you do a lot of writing in Microsoft Word or Open Office, Zotero might be the tool for you — it’s integrated with both word processing software to allow you to easily move your notes over, as well as several blogging options. Zotero’s interface is also available in more than 30 languages.

I’ve been relying on Google Notebook as a catch-all for blog post ideas — being able to just highlight information and save it is a great tool for a blogger.

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In replacing it, though, I’m starting to lean towards Evernote. I’ve found it handles pretty much everything I want, especially with the voice recording feature. I’m planning to keep trying things out for a while yet — I’m sticking with Google Notebook until the Firefox extension quits working — and if you have any recommendations that I missed when I put together this list, I’d love to hear them — just leave a comment!

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