Exploring basic studying techniques

October 2019, by A. Santacoloma

If you are still «hard learning», by which I mean you are reading and repeating the desire material endlessly over long periods, you are living in the Stone Age. Where have you been, while the internet is bursting with information about methods and techniques to improve your learning experience?

Well, I must confess I lived in the Stone Age for most of my student life because I was unaware that a great variety of learning techniques is available. 

Let us focus first on three basic strategies that are central for any effective learning experience. Without a doubt, there is abundance of options out there, thus I have chosen the most practical as well as time saving techniques I have become acquainted with.  

1. Spaced repetition: The brain is capable of wonders nonetheless; it is not very good at cramping information in one go. Neither is the brain good with too long sessions of demanding focus. Long sessions are mostly a waste of time, effort and can be very discouraging. (Unless you are in “the zone” and then, by all means, keep it up, you pro). However, if you are like most mortals, rather, space out your studying over time. Create sessions that vary from 20 to 60 minutes, depending on your ability to focus and add some breaks in between. For example, if you have a short session of 20 minutes take a 5 to 10 minutes break but if you have a 60 minutes session, add a 10 to 15 minutes one. 

If you are following me, you know now that spaced repetition requires study sessions that stretch over defined time spans (20-60 minutes) where you are fully focused and that are carried regularly over days, weeks or months. 

For example, you want to learn a subject over, say, the next month. In order to achieve this, you will first want to read the material. This you will do in the first week (document of 200 pages), you can divide then, the 200 pages in some four and a half sessions of 60 minutes each. However, cramping information is not a good idea. Therefore, do it in two separate days, first day two and a half and the last two sessions the next day (these are the longest sessions). Next, you will create a subset of information that you will need to use for learning during smaller sessions of 20 – 30 minutes and then use the remaining sessions to repeat the content you have organized (Studykeep can help you organize your information in flash cards for example). In our example, every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday you will repeat the content twice a day for 20 minutes. At the end of the month, you will have the material on your mind and you will have spent a total of 280 minutes for the reading (average reader speed of 100 pages per 140 minutes) + 480 minutes of spaced practice during the week represented by repetition windows of 20 minutes twice during the chosen days. 

Depending on your learning subjects, practices can be shorter or longer while the time it can take can vary accordingly too, the most important part was to give you the basic idea of how the sessions work.

2. Retrieval practice: depending on the information that you are learning, space practice will not be enough. Another option is to practice bringing information to your mind without the help of external sources. While commuting, showering, eating alone, in the privacy of your mind or even while exercising recall what you have been learning in as much detail as it is possible. This can be tricky especially at the beginning if you are not use to it, though the more you do it, the easier it will get. With this technic, you will build strong neurological pathways while training your memory and your ability to retrieve information. The best part without spending extra study sessions. Talk about efficiency! 

3. Elaboration: Is another variation of the retrieval practice but it goes one-step further it requires active understanding and the ability to apply what has been learnt. To do this find a friend, a parent, a sibling, someone to whom you can explain and describe the ideas you are learning with as many details as you can recall. 

The effects of this technic are most obvious when we learn a language. Have you been there? You are trying to have a conversation though the words seem to be missing in your mouth. You know, you learnt them but when in that conversation they are not available to you. This means, they are still passive concepts and only through the process of speaking, we transform the passive knowledge into active knowledge. 

Congruently, elaborate on the topic enthusiastically because it is boring to listen to someone who does not care for what he or she is saying besides; when we are enthusiastic, we create an optimal mental state, in which learning is easier. 

If you want more, try using concrete examples while learning, especially when learning abstract ideas. Furthermore, you can use dual coding, which is mixing words and visuals. Moreover, you can combine the new ideas (which have established neurological pathways) with other concepts or prelearned concepts. Additionally you can use interleaving, a notch more advance, is a technic that requires you to switch between ideas while you study (of course respecting your sessions). For example, the first session you do math, the second you do biology, and so on and so forth. 

After this super short introduction to different learning techniques, I hope you get curious and keep on searching new ways to learn. Ideally, you will find those techniques that suit your natural tendencies. Deeply I am wishing this blog post will help you develop the habit of trying new methods and combining strategies that match your learning abilities. Do not forget to reflect after on how do you learn best, and consider the maximum length of your sessions; what is the maximum time span you can handle while still at optimal concentration capacity. If possible, keep always on learning and learning how to be better at it. 

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