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Education Productivity

Strategies for Better Studying (Part 1)

“All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we much think them over again honestly, until they take root in our personal experience.”

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

In light of my last post, Active Recall and Spaced Repetition, I want to go over different study methods that can be used with those principles in mind. Proven study methods used in conjunction with active recall and spaced repetition is the winning formula for any student looking to get better grades with less work and stress. It doesn’t matter which method you use, as long as the principles are being practiced. Pick the a strategy, combine it with another, modify it so it can fit your needs. I want my students to have an arsenal of methods to so they can design their own perfectly personalized study system. Over the next 4 weeks, I’m going to explore some of the most popular study methods that we can use to chop up, modify, and customize.

The Pomodoro Technique and its Modification

You may or may not be familiar with the word Pomodoro, but it’s Italian for tomato. I’ve been watching an absurd amount of The Sopranos lately, so I figured it would be appropriate to start with the Italian themed strategy. Now, I know what you’re thinking..

What do tomatoes have to do with studying?

Absolutely nothing. Pomodoro was the name of the tomato shaped timer that Francesco Cirillo used when he developed this technique!

Feast Your Eyes

The Pomodoro technique can be executed in 7 fairly simple steps:

  1. Clearly articulating what task needs to be done
  2. Setting a pomodoro timer (or any timer) to 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task without interruption for the 25 minutes
  4. Take a break for 3-5 minutes
  5. Repeat Steps 2 through 4 at least 4 times
  6. Take a longer 15-30 minute break
  7. Repeat as many times as needed

Each work interval of 25 minutes is commonly known as a Pomodoro. Do 4-5 pomodoros then take a long break. I use this method all the time just to get started! For me, starting something is usually the hardest part. My brain doesn’t like the idea of sitting down and working on something for hours, but when I practice the pomodoro technique, it’s much easier to get the ball rolling if I think I’m only going to be working on this for 25 minutes.

Using the Pomodoro Technique is a really great strategy and you will get tons of work done if it’s executed properly, but I find that I get my best work done when I’ve been working on something for hours uninterrupted and the Pomodoro Technique inherently comes with interruptions. So what I do is modify the technique to fit my own personal needs. If I’m feeling like it, I’ll use this technique the way it was designed but more often than not I just use it as a catalyst to begin my work flow.

In all honesty, I have an incredibly difficult time sitting down and writing for hours or producing for hours but over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at negotiating with myself to get things done. One of the deals I make with myself constantly is just do 1 pomodoro then you can play video games. Sometimes I work the 25 minutes and go play my video games, but most of the time I ride the momentum that I build during that first pomodoro and get shit done. When I make this deal with myself, I end up being more focused too. Getting my work done is important to me, so knowing that I only have this limited time to get it done helps me stay focused. There’s something about having a short time line that gets us out of our own way. The best part of that discovery is being able to trick our minds into getting out of its own way.

The pomodoro technique is effective because it works under the assumption that we get our best work done within the first 25 or so minutes of beginning. It’s easy to come to this conclusion, if we examine our productivity as a function of attention span. I view my attention span as a period of time which I can voluntarily focus on something without suffering or wanting to do something else. There are certain days and conditions that contribute to a longer attention span, but on average my attention span is about an hour. There are been times when I really developed myself in this domain and I got it up to 3 hours but there have also been times in my life when I let it drop to 10 minutes. There’s no shame or ought when it comes to attention span, but I think it is something we should take into account when we are designing systems to optimize our learning capacity. Rather than define a pomodoro as 25 minutes, I define a pomodoro as equal to my attention span at the time. It’s useless to sit down and stare at your paper if the only purpose is to wait out a pomodoro session. Adjust the length of each session and you have a game plan that works best for you, but that leave us with the question:

How do we know how long our attention span is?

So there are ways to determine an attention span, but what I find best is to just start a timer whenever you start a project and whenever you feel the desire to seek out different stimulation or take a break stop the timer. I spent a day and timed my attention span (and because I’m a total math nerd) I averaged it out and defined that as my pomodoro. Nowadays, my pomodoros last about an hour, but on days when I’m not feeling up to it I make them as low as 10 minutes. This is a great technique to bang out loads of work and overcome that high activation energy required to get started.

The Feynman Technique

I’ve mentioned this technique in earlier posts, Active Recall and Note-Taking, and it’s fairly simple. The Feynman Technique is based on the idea that we truly understand something if we can explain it in simple terms. When I first started tutoring, I wasn’t aware of all the different learning and studying theories but I noticed that I was gaining a deep understanding of math quicker and faster than my students. At first I thought it was strictly a function of time. Since I’m doing math more often than them, I’m improving faster than them. But I’ve always felt like there was a bigger reason and it is because I was constantly explaining complex ideas in a simple way. This exercise 1) forces me to find any holes in my knowledge and 2) is an excellent active recall technique. If I’m explaining something that I don’t have a deep understanding of, then I’ll stumble while I try to explain these topics. I’ll take note of that stumble and fill that little knowledge pothole, so next time I run the neural pathway it’ll be smooth.

If you don’t have another person to explain it to, try writing it down in simple terms and reading it after some time has passed. It takes more effort, so it may actually be more effective. Explaining concepts to other people, especially students, gives an opponent processing benefit but writing it out and reading it back to yourself is an excellent test for understanding.

Incorporate Concepts into Everyday Speech

This is one of those things I’m always doing without people knowing. By sliding these new concepts into conversations with people helps with firing the neurons connected to the concepts you’re interested in. I tend to look like a nerd, but I don’t mind because I get my recall in. Additionally, using the information in a creative way helps with retention.

Most people usually don’t see conversations as a creative, but they are! We are creating conversation and humans live in conversation. Our environments are results of our conversations and by injecting our concepts into our speech, we build the concepts right into our fabric of reality. The idea of speech being one of our superpowers is an old one and definitely deserves it’s own time in the sun, but I’ll just leave this tip here. Incorporating our newly found knowledge into our everyday speech is a solid strategy to get those neural pathways fired and help with knowledge retention.

Simulate the Test Environment

For a while many of my students would do fantastic when I’m working with them, but when it comes to taking the test they end up failing! They understood the material fine and whenever I’d ask them what they think happened they tell me that they forget everything when they’re under pressure. This problem drove me crazy for a long time, until I took a deep dive into the human mind to understand.

Our minds are constantly making associations and we perceive the world on so many different levels. I recommend checking out Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lecture series for those interested in diving deep into why that is. Our minds and bodies are navigating space and time constantly fluctuating between order and chaos. The world of what we already understand and the world of what we don’t. When we’re in the world of order, we aren’t anxious and can predict the outcome of our actions. When we’re taking a test, it’s much more comfortable to operate in the world of order. However, taking a test in a classroom is different than taking a test at home.

While it seems like the same thing, the test in a classroom environment is unfamiliar to the parts of ourselves that are adapted to the test in a home environment. The unfamiliarity causes us to activate the parts of us that navigate the world of chaos and that part of us may not be equipped to handle the questions on the test. This is why many students, including myself, don’t perform as well on tests than we do while we’re practicing. The solution to this problem is to simulate the test environment as much as possible while studying. The small associations we make while learning (or studying) the material can act as cues when we are trying to recall the information later. That’s why my students do better when practicing math with me. We usually practice in the same place, so their minds are associating their work with myself as well as the environment around us. Those minor associations make the recall significantly easier!

Back in high school, I noticed that my calculus skills were much better when I was in my math class but I didn’t know why. Today, my math skills are much better when I’m at a student’s home or in the tutoring center. I’m not as math savvy in my personal life.

“No Stakes” Practice

Every since I was a kid, I’ve always liked the idea of practicing something with no serious consequences. (Probably because life tends to be unwavering about consequences.) The opportunity to be a n00b is powerful because it frees us up. It gives us the freedom to make mistakes, and mistakes light the path to mastery. When we’re free to make mistakes, we’re free to learn. I talk more about this is my The Power of Failure post. Not to brag, but I’m constantly told that I make difficult academic subjects easy not because I explain things well, but because I have a relaxed attitude about it. I was so surprised when I first heard this, but after reflecting on it for a while it made complete sense. Once my students understood that nothing bad really happens if they make mistakes, they are more willing to give things a try. In those attempts, mistakes would inevitably be made but they would learn from every single one.

When we try something new, or if we’re trying to improve a skill, we should allow ourselves “No Stakes” practice. Trial runs with nothing at stake tend to carry high yield lessons. I don’t just try this strategy when I’m studying, although it is fantastic for it, I also use it when I draft blog posts and make music. I give myself a “no stakes” pomodoro, so I have a definite time when I can stop making trash but that time is crucial because I edit that trash into most of the creative projects I put out. I freedom to make mistakes is priceless, don’t underestimate the value of “no stakes” practice.

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