Learning is a skill. Just like throwing a ball, baking cookies, playing an instrument or even public speaking, it is something that we can practice and refine. Just like those skills, we have to start somewhere. If you have never thought about your ability to learn as a skill, then a good place to start is by finding out what is the most effective way to improve and get the most out of it. And to do that we should aim to practice under the best conditions. So what are those conditions? How can we get the most out of studying when we do decide to do it? I believe there are four key ingredients that make for an effective study session and luckily, they all start with T!
Commit!! You need to commit some time during your day or week when you will sit down and practice your new skill. The beauty of it is that it can be any time of the day! This could be the first thing in the morning or the last thing you do before going to bed; whenever you feel capable of studying. When you set aside as little as 15 minutes to do some study regularly, you will not only build a study habit, but you will become better and better are retaining knowledge and learning new topics.
The only catch to this tip is you have to commit yourself. It will have to be the only thing in front of you; the only thing you are focussed on since when we switch from one task to another, or switch from sending a quick message back to our work, it is said that it can take another 2 minutes for us to regain the focus we had before changing our attention. Believe me, I know how hard it can be to remain laser-focussed on a mundane topic but by training ourselves to stay on task, we save ourselves all the time and brain power that would be used if we were swapping back and forth between two things.
The best way I find to do this is to schedule it. Write it down somewhere that those 15 minutes first thing in the morning, after our afternoon snack, or just before going to bed will be dedicated to study.
Now that we have put some time aside to study, we need to have a clear idea of what we will do. The more specific, the better. We often set aside hours and hours for entire topics such as chemistry or physiology, or for whole assignments like essays and presentations but only because we think to ourselves, “Well if I am going to do study chemistry, that is such a big topic so I ought to give myself a fair bit of time for it”, but we are never going to sit down and study everything from organic chemistry to stoichiometry to electrochemistry.
Set yourself a small topic and focus on just that for a set period of time; no distractions. For instance I may try to learn exclusively about alkanes, alkenes and alkynes in my session today; what are they, and how do I name them. If were to sit down and exclusively read about all of our organic functional groups, their names and reactivities and how to produce them using various catalysts and temperatures and pressures, I would feel unmotivated at the start because of the sheer volume, and disappointed by the end because I was not able to retain anything and would have to do it all again. Even if you are not particularly interested in chemistry, surely the first option sounds much better than second.
If we cut our large topics down into manageable chunks, one week of trying to study an entire topic turns into seven days of confidently digesting seven smaller topics. By being as specific as possible, we can set ourselves achievable goals which helps our confidence and also our retention.
What if I told you there was a way to find out definitively what you do and do not know before taking an exam? Because often times, when we do find out what we do not know is during the test. We will come across a question and curse ourselves for not studying that topic because now we do not know the answer. The only way (unfortunately) is to test ourselves as much as possible beforehand.
This is the hardest part of this post. How hard is it to sit down and do some questions when the answers are at the back of the book or is just one Google search away? There is a safety net that protects us from committing an answer. We may sit and decide between writing one thing or another and think that we might be right but before writing anything down, we check the answers to make sure. After checking, we realise we are completely off track, but will try to convince ourselves that we had a general idea of what the answer was and that the wording in the question was ambiguous and that if we knew what the question was trying to say then of course we would have got it correct! There is a lot of pain in admitting we are wrong but that is the most effective way to learn.
Before starting any study, it is important to ask yourself what you hope to learn during this session. And if you are struggling to find questions to test yourself, come up with your own!
Get out there and use the knowledge or skill you just learnt! Test yourself by seeing how well you can explain it someone else! Being able to communicate what any knowledge you attain is 90% of why you attain it in the first place. This could be in an exam, during a presentation or in an assignment; you are often being assessed on how well you can communicate your knowledge!
Learning by teaching is an experience that will cement that idea in your brain. And after all, this is what knowledge is all about; sharing it with other people to educate and solve problems!
These are just a brief overview of the tips I can give you to jumpstart your study. By allocating a set time to study on specific topic, and to consolidate your learning through testing yourself and teaching others, you are well on your way to become a better learner and a better student!