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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.

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    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 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

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