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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 September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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