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How to Study Less by Learning Things Once

How to Study Less by Learning Things Once
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    You read over your notes. Then you read them over again. Then you read them over a third time. Then you take the test and are surprised at just how much you missed. Despite reading everything three times!

    A lot of study time is wasted because of one problem: you fail to learn things the first time around.

    Repeatedly going over the same information like putting a band-aid over a sieve. It may reduce the water that slips through, but it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem: that you have too many holes.

    The key to reducing the amount of time you study is simple: learn things the first time you see them, instead of after dozens of repetitions.

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    This is all easier said than done. I’m sure if your mind was without holes you could easily capture any information that slipped into it. The real question is how can you do this? I don’t believe it is just a matter of being a genius or chance, but based on how you study.

    Step One: Find the Holes

    If you want to repair a leaky brain, you need to figure out where the holes are. Identify what type of information you have trouble remembering. Recognize when you’ve just gone over information you don’t quite understand. Here’s a few questions to ask yourself after every chunk of ideas to find your holes:

    1. What from this section am I most likely to forget?
    2. What concepts are completely new to me? (Rather than ones that feel familiar)
    3. Which ideas am I having the most difficulty grasping?

    When you identify weak points, you can invest more time in fixing those instead of wasting time with a blanket studying technique of all information.

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    Step Two: Repair Weak Points

    Once you’ve identified potential weak-points, you should immediately seek to fix them. Drop everything your doing and seek out a fix for the problem. Programmers understand that a bug left in the system can create several hundred times the cost to fix it later. As a learner, you need to understand that the same principle of fixing problems quickly also applies.

    There are hundreds of books written on various strategies to fix weak points, which is a bit outside the scope of this quick article. But here are a few starting points:

    1. Memorizing?If you need to store arbitrary information, try using the link method. This is where you visualize an exaggerated image that combines the two things you want to associate. You can memorize formula’s this way by linking vivid pictures to the different symbols. A formula such as F = C/A, could become a scale with hundreds of (F)eathers on side and a giant (C)aterpillar sitting over millions of (A)nts.
    2. Conceptualizing?If you need to understand information try drawing a picture or diagram to combine the ideas.
    3. Retaining?If you need to retain a complicated mass of information try using metaphors and vivid examples to connect the abstract information into something you can easily relate to.

    Repairing weak points in your understanding isn’t that difficult – if you first know where they are. Simply focusing on a piece of information can help you understand it. But if you don’t know which parts you’re missing, it is easy to skim over everything and not realize what you’ve missed.

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    Step Three: Check Your Understanding

    Do you “get” it. Does the information make sense to you at a deeper level, or does it seem arbitrary, meaningless or difficult to derive? Most school tests and virtually all real-life tests are designed to answer a single question: do you understand what you’re studying?

    If you aren’t sure, that’s when you need to start working deeper. Keep asking yourself “why” until you reach a point where the subject makes sense. Here are some tips for improving your understanding:

    1. Look for sensory descriptions.Your brain isn’t a computer. It’s designed to retain emotional, vivid and sensory information better than abstract or dry details. Link a sensation, picture or story to the abstract details. When learning how to do determinants (a form of math using matrices) I imagined my hands moving through the diagonals, one adding and one taking away.
    2. Get the background.A lot of information that seems meaningless makes more sense when given a context. If your stuck on trying to wrap your head around a particular point, do some research into it’s origins. This may take more time up-front, but can save hours as future concepts are built upon it.

    Step Four: Test Yourself

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    Whenever you’re experimenting with new learning methods, you need to measure the results. Check to see whether your new system is actually helping you remember more. Once you get familiar with a system, you can more accurately judge the extent of your knowledge. But until then, test regularly so you can tweak the system to fix errors.

    The best tests are objective ones. If you’re in school, look for past exams, tests or textbook questions to check your understanding. If you’re teaching yourself, come up with short exercises that can prove to you conclusively you know what you’re doing.

    The most important piece of advice I can give is this: treat study time as being sacred. Go in with the expectation that you will either learn everything through the first go, or you will identify areas that need further clarification. Focus and become aware of any potential holes so you can learn things once.

    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 July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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