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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

How To Learn More And Study Less

This is a guest post written by Scott Young. Every Monday is Productivity & Organization Day at Zen Habits.The title of this post sounds impossible right? My current GPA is a 4.2, which rests midway between an A and an A+. Despite this, I didn’t actually spend much time studying. Using some of the techniques I’ll describe, I’ve been able to:

Place first in a three province wide chemistry test. Of which I didn’t study or was even taught much of the material beforehand.
Score the top spot in a standardized English exam for my school (no studying here either).
Achieved an A+ in an economics course where I didn’t even attend the classes.
I say all this not to boast about how great I am, because I feel my accomplishments are rather modest compared to many people I know. I also won’t discount genetic or environmental advantages that can partially account for my small successes. I mention this because I want to illustrate a point:

Time spent studying does not equal learning.

More studying time won’t help if the way you are studying is flawed to begin with.

Holistic Learning
Smart people don’t just learn better. They learn differently. While many students get caught up in memorizing facts, intelligent learners know to seek the bigger picture and connect the facts together. This form of learning I call holistic learning.

Holistic learning is basically the opposite of rote memorization. Instead of reciting lists of facts, rules or formulas, you seek to connect ideas together. Instead of having separate boxes in your head for geometry, algebra or ancient India, you deliberately link facts together, so they form a bigger picture.

Excessive studying shows you aren’t learning holistically. It shows that you didn’t learn the material the first time. If you properly link ideas together to see the bigger picture, studying should only be a brief refresher.

How to Boost Your Study Habits
Holistic learning isn’t like a brainstorming technique or mind-mapping. It is fundamentally changing how you look at the process of learning and how you absorb information. As such, there isn’t an easy ten step program to master it.

But there are some tools that can help you shift your learning habits so they become more holistic:

Visceralize - You’ve probably heard of visualizing, right? Visceralizing means taking all of your senses and connecting it to information. Studies have shown that people remember more vividly information that comes to us in an emotionally aroused state. Linking feelings, senses and imagery to bland ideas makes them more real. You probably counted on your fingers when learning numbers, why can’t you do the same when you are learning now?
Metaphor - The heart of holistic learning is relating things together. Metaphors are literary devices that link two things that normally don’t go together. Come up with metaphors to describe more complicated ideas in simpler terms.
Ten Year Old Rule - Explain ideas to yourself as you would to a ten year old. Sure, this isn’t always possible in your last years of a medical degree or learning how to apply neural networks to computer AI. But the idea is that you should be able to “dumb down” an idea enough so it seems obvious to yourself.
Trace Back - Put away your books and start with a random fact or concept. Then relate that idea to another concept in your subject. Keep doing this tracing pattern until you’ve linked many ideas together. The Gupta Dynasty reminds you of ancient Greece which reminds you of Socrates, reminding you of Confucius…
Refresher Scan - Scan through information in your text book. Notice whenever you encounter information that you either don’t remember or weren’t 100% sure about. Quickly link that information back to existing ideas through viscerlization and metaphor. If your refresher scan is turning up more than a few points per chapter, you haven’t learned it thoroughly enough.
Compress Information - Not all information works well for holistic learning. A common point cited to me is learning anatomy for first year medical students. Anatomy involves learning arbitrary Latin names for hundreds of different elements of your body. There often aren’t clear patterns and constructs, just a dry list of facts. When encountering information such as this, your goal should be to compress it. Find ways to group information into smaller chunks of memory through pictures or mnemonics.
Write - Take a piece of paper and write out the connections in the information. Reorganize the information into different patterns. The key here is the writing, not the final product. So don’t waste your time making a pretty picture. Scribble and use abbreviations to link the ideas together.
Scott Young is a blogger on learning, productivity and habits. You can check out his website here. If you want to learn more about Holistic Learning, download his free e-book: Holistic Learning: How to Study Better, Learn More and Actually “Get” What You Want to Learn.

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