Learning how to learn is an essential skill for every lifelong learner. Here are some techniques we can use to help us remember things, take notes and retain information, structure study time, and avoid common learner mistakes.
1. How to Remember Things Efficiently
Spaced repetition is a scientifically proven method of remembering concepts in a more efficient way. If we review something we learned enough times in a particular interval of days, we are much more likely to remember the material than if we didn’t try this method.
For example, let’s say we learned 30 new English words for the SAT on Day 0. If we review the 30 words the next day, we retain about 80% of the words. But just before we’re about to forget those words, the forgetting curve resets and goes back to the top of the graph. When we review the words again the next day, we find that we still retain about 80% of the words we learned. The next time we review, for example, on Day 6, we reset the curve again. By this time, we are pretty familiar with the words we learned so our intervals should get longer and longer.
There is a popular flashcard software called Anki, which uses an algorithmic approach to adjust the learning curve. This article has some useful examples on converting notes to flashcards. This article has a list of rules to keep in mind when using spaced repetition software like Anki.
However, there are also some potential pitfalls associated with spaced repetition that we should be aware of:
1) Mistaking the flashcards for the learning process
Ideally, we want to learn the material and make connections before committing that to flashcards so we’re not memorizing blindly.
2) Poor flashcard design
One example of a bad flashcard is one with too much information on it. Consider creating atomic flashcards (flashcards that contain one or a few concepts as possible) and breaking up larger concepts into separate flashcards.
3) Not reviewing flashcards daily and creating too many flashcards
When you don’t review your flashcards daily, it could rapidly increase your daily number of flashcards that you need to review and may lead to burnout.
Consistency is key if you want to see the magic of spaced repetition. On the other hand, making too many flashcards will also lead to burnout. Using the example of learning vocabulary, 10-15 new flashcards cards per day is a good starting number. It shouldn’t lead to more than 20 minutes of review.
2. How to Take Notes and Retain Information
To retain information from your notes, you need some procedure that will help you interact with the semantic content, which means the meaning of the words you read. You need something that forces you to think through the ideas in the text. You need to avoid passive reading or “autopilot mode”.
A philosophy professor named Jeffrey Kaplan made a YouTube video about note taking and said, “If you think through the ideas, the powers of retention and memory that you will gain will be incredible.”
The author Scott Young published an excellent article on note taking strategies. He said we can ask ourselves the following questions when thinking about how we take notes:
1) What am I trying to remember?
Alternatively: What do I think I’m going to forget?
2) How am I going to use this information?
On a test, cited in an essay, or background for deeper thinking?
3) What do I plan to do with the notes later?
Will you be studying them extensively? Keeping them in your records, just in case, but otherwise not looking at them again? This can dictate the level of detail you might need for your notes.
Scott Young also provided some guidelines that we can use to evaluate if our notes are good. Good notes help you concentrate on the material and prevent your mind from wandering like in passive reading. They also focus your mind on the right level of information. Lastly, notes create a reference document that you should use to review.
Finally, here are some additional tips to consider, especially when you are taking notes in college. Reading before lecture and taking notes will help you maximize the time you get out of that lecture time so you can focus on processing the information said by your instructor on a deeper level. What many students don’t do is refine their notes within 24 hours of taking them in lecture. Refining them and engaging with them by looking for connections, coming up with questions and converting them to flashcards are all helpful for you to understand the material.
3. How to Structure Our Study Time
There are various methods we can consider to structure our study time. One popular method is the Pomodoro Technique. This technique involves working on focused work in 25 minute increments. After each Pomodoro, there’s a five minute break.
However, the Pomodoro Technique has some drawbacks. It can push you to work even when you feel like you need a break and it forces you to take breaks during your flow states. You might be studying for 25 minutes, get into the flow and not want to stop at the end of the timer.
The Flowmodoro technique fixes the issue of interrupted flow states and is more flexible. The first step is to write down the task, such as math homework. The second step is to write down the time you start working on it, and then work until you feel like you need a break. The third step is to write down the end time when you feel tired or distracted. These steps aren’t always necessary but they can help us keep track of our personal flow states and when we feel the need to take breaks. You can refer to the Google Sheets example in this article to get a better sense of the steps outlined above.
The difference with this technique is we don’t work for a specific amount of time like in the Pomodoro Technique, and there’s no timer to tell us when we should stop. As you feel your energy levels coming down, you can write the end time of the study session and optionally any interruptions you had too.
Another approach we can use to structure our study time is to use interleaving. Interleaving involves studying topics within the same subject by mixing them up, rather than studying each topic separately. Most classes use a blocking approach to present topics. We usually fully cover topics before moving on to new topics. But interleaving our studies is more effective since it encourages us to look for patterns among the topics that get mixed in our practice.
For math problems, we typically read a chapter and then do problems in the chapter that are similar to what was discussed in the text. A more effective approach is practicing different kinds of problems from multiple sections mixed together. For example, some math questions might ask you to “solve for x” but would involve different strategies like factoring, using the quadratic formula, and completing the square. Mixing the problems will help you prepare for tests that require you to know what strategy to apply to a problem that has many types, like “solving an equation for x” or using integration techniques in AP Calculus BC. To learn more about interleaving, refer to this article.
We can also use retrospective revision timetables to better plan our review sessions. A lot of people might try a prospective timetable where they plan out their study schedule by writing the dates in advance along with the topics the professor will cover. A retrospective timetable reverses this so that instead of starting with the timeline, you start with the list of subjects and topics. The YouTuber Ali Abdaal introduced his approach to retrospective timetables in this video and in this article.
To start creating your retrospective timetable, you can make a spreadsheet for a subject and list the topics for that subject in the first column. Then, as you test yourself on the topics, write the current date in the column for that topic. You’ll repeat this for multiple topics and color code them (for example, green means “familiar”, yellow means “middle”, and red means “not at all”) so you can know which topics you are confident on and which ones you might need some more review.
When reviewing for a test or final, Ali recommends that we start studying the most difficult material first since we tend to get comfortable with topics that are easy for us. When he was in medical school he used this spreadsheet to pinpoint which topics he should spend more time on. This technique also makes use of active recall and can go hand in hand with spaced repetition.
4. Common Learner Mistakes to Avoid
Here are three mistakes that a lot of learners make during their learning process.
The first mistake is memorizing what needs to be understood. Learning is much more effective when we go beyond memorization. Memorization is still important but sometimes we need to think critically about a piece of information so it removes the need for rote memorization. So if we’re learning a new math formula we can ask ourselves what happens if we change the parameters in the equation, we can think of real world examples, how the equation relates to other equations, and the derivation of the equation and its main idea. Building connections and uncovering these insights help us create a logical framework to help us increase our understanding.
The second mistake is not getting enough practice. Going to class, highlighting text, and rereading notes are simply not enough to retain information and engage with it. They have their importance, but we also need to try things that promote active recall like trying to answer a question after reading and closing the book, getting consistent practice, writing questions as we read, and getting feedback.
The third mistake is not being interested in what we learn. There are many factors that could prevent us from developing an interest in a subject, maybe a professor might present the topic in a dry way or maybe the subject has no appeal to you. The mistake lies in thinking that we shouldn’t do anything to change how we learn a “boring” subject. I’m not saying that it’s your fault that you might find a subject boring in the beginning. Two things we can do are making personal connections and looking for questions to stimulate our curiosity. This won’t make everything interesting but it could change your perspective and it may work on some subjects.