Learning how to learn is the ultimate meta-skill. A trait that all of us need to master in our lifetime. Over the course of my life as a student, I’ve had periods where I’ve achieved ridiculously low grades ( My teachers in primary school were concerned that I had learning difficulties with mathematics) to times when I flipped that (100% in statistics and other subsequent maths exams). This turnaround was not consciously of my own doing, but rather instead of a string of wonderful teachers in my later years. They had used specific techniques and tactics in order to allow their students to absorb material more effectively. Over the past few weeks I’ve delved into books on meta-learning and the art of self-teaching to uncover the exact techniques that top students, effective teachers and memory champions use to learn. In this article I want to outline 9 key concepts.

All of the below are extensively backed up with research and in the interest of getting across a message, I’ve omitted referencing. This information is taken from a couple brilliant books I’ve read called ‘Make it Stick’ and ‘A Mind for Numbers’.

1) Retrieval

Re-reading is not learning. Re-making notes on a topic is not learning. Re-making mind maps by referring to your notes is not learning. Highlighting your passages and reading them is not learning.

Don’t do the above. They are quite literally a waste of time.

You learn by quizzing. By answering questions. Forcing yourself to actively engage your mind in trying to answer a solution. This feels hard. Learning is meant to feel hard. Rereading is easy. Rereading is a waste of time.

2) Spacing

Spacing is the opposite of ‘massed practice’ which is cramming. Spacing instead involves doing questions, every day over a long period of time. This is called ‘spaced repetition’. Ignore your intuition- it tells you to keep going over an answer again and again till you are ‘fluent’. But that is a false sense of fluency. That information has gone into your short term memory only, and has not been consolidated into your long term memory. To get information into your long term memory, you need to revisit it in spaced intervals.

Anki is a great tool for this.

3) Interleaving

Interleaving is the concept of ‘mixing up your quizzing’. This means answering questions not in an obvious structured order. For example :

A baseball player practices by hitting 15 straight balls and then hitting 15 curve balls. He will do better at practice. But in the long run, he will not develop competency to hit a curve ball.

Another baseball player practices by setting the machine to randomly fire curve balls. He will do worse at practice. It will be more frustrating. But over the long run, he will learn more.

Mix up your questions sets. Don’t do them in a logical order. This is hard. It forces you to think, to strain. It will feel slow compared to ‘massed practice’. But this is the proven way to learn.

4) Elaboration

Elaboration is the concept of explaining concepts in your own words. See the ‘Feynman technique’.

This involves relating a concept to your own life outside of class, creating your own examples and metaphors.

For example, to explain angular momentum:  an ice skater speeds up her rotation as she brings her arms closer to her body.

5) Generation

Generation is the concept of trying to answer a question or solving a problem beforehand, instead of just reading the solution. Have a go at a question/problem, even if you get it wrong, as long as you get the solution you will remember it a lot better than just reading the solution. Studies even show that if you delay getting the solution (waiting for the answers till the end of a quiz) it will ingrain itself deeper into your mind.

6)  Reflection

This involves ‘journalling’ on what you have learnt. Asking yourself questions such as :

  • What did I do wrong?’
  • What did I do right?
  • How can I improve next time?

For example : you might see a patient on ward rounds as a medical student. If working on your communication skills, write down your process. How could you frame a question in a simpler way? Are you speaking too fast or too slow?

I am huge advocate of journalling daily. It is a way to organise your thoughts and experiences. As Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

7) Calibration

Calibration is aligning your view with objective reality. It is too easy to lie to yourself. You might read over some text, and say ‘yeh, I know this’. Or you might just skip a question saying ‘I definitely know this’. This is called the ‘Illusion of knowing’- where re-reading text gives you a false sense that you know some material.

To get rid of this bias, test yourself. Do quizzes, answer questions. Exams and test results are concrete measures. This keeps you tethered to reality.

If your grades are bad, this is another indication that you are doing something wrong. Don’t take it personally. Look at it objectively. Exams are there to be a compass; something you periodically check to see if you are moving in the right direction.

8) Mnemonic devices

This is obvious. We’ve all been taught this. But use it, it is powerful. One caveat is, these are used only for recall. Mnemonic devices are not a substitute for understanding a concept. They are simply a tool to help recall information and organise it in your mind. A mental filing cabinet.

Examples :

ROYGBIV to remember the colours of the rainbow.

Mnemonic devices can also be visual. If you want to read more about this, see the loci method. This is visual mnemonic device that has been used for thousands of years to organise large amounts of information. It is a technique used by memory champions. I’ve used it to memorise a deck of cards. It works.

9) Focused vs Diffuse Thinking

This concept is more pertinent to solving problems and creativity rather than memorisation. There are two modes of thinking.

Focused thinking is where you are deeply concentrated on a problem. You’ve got the blinders on and are closed to other possibilities. You need this mode to get work done.

Diffuse thinking is thinking that happens subconsciously in the background. Where your mind is still working on a problem in the background. This often leads to those ‘aha’ moments either in the shower, or when taking a walk or exercising. It allows you to step back and find a new way of looking at a problem.

To optimise problem solving, you want to switch between the two modes. This means – work intensely on trying to solve a problem… then walk away. Literally go take a walk. Your subconscious will work on the problem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s