“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
Harrington Emerson (1854 – 1931)
Part 1 can be found here. This month I’m building an archive of study strategies that can be chopped for parts to build your own personal efficient and effective study system. I recommend checking out my post on Active Recall and Spaced Repetition to get your principles down before going through the buffet of methods.
The Leitner System
I mentioned this strategy in my post on Active Recall and Spaced Repetition. The Leitner system is designed for reviewing flashcards or other types of active recall questions. I love this system because it integrates the principles of active recall and spaced repetition so it is efficient and effective!
The system is pretty simple. The student starts with all the flashcards in Box 1. If the student answers the question correctly when the question moves to the next box. Each box is reviewed in different time intervals. Box 1 is reviewed every day, Box 2 is reviewed every other day, Box 3 is reviewed every week, so on and so forth.
As usual, I like to modify established techniques so they can better fit my needs. With the Leitner System, I changed my review intervals based on when my exams came up. So rather than studying Box 3 every week, I would study Box 3 every 3 days if my exam date was close. Modifying the Leitner System requires careful planning in advanced and won’t work for short term deadlines. The key to this method is the spaced repetition and that is a function of time. I recommend using a study calendar to keep track of which box is reviewed on which day.
Here’s a visual example of one way to execute the Leitner System, when the questions are answered incorrectly they are sent back to Box 1.
Here’s a modification, it’s less effective but more forgiving, when the questions are answered incorrectly they are sent back to the previous box.
The app Anki is a fantastic study app that automates the Leitner system and it’s what I use whenever I study my flashcards. I recommend it for any student who’s trying to maximize their efficiency with as little effort as possible.
Do the “Deep Work”
Whenever I get stuck on a project it’s usually because I’m avoiding doing the deep work. In Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, he explains the differences between deep work and shallow work, why deep work is more effective, and ways to implement deep work with more ease.
Deep work as defined by Newport is “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” I like to think of it as the challenging aspect to our assignment or project and that challenge is what specifically deters us.
Most of us opt for shallow work instead, which Newport defines as “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” Things like emails, meetings, text messages and other mundane tasks fall in this category. Many people love to fill their schedules with shallow work because it feels good to accomplish so much, especially if the work is easy! The issue is that no real value comes of shallow work. Only performing shallow work is a promising way to live life like The Last Man. So this leaves us with the question –
How do we know what our deep work is?
“In sterquiliniis invenitur” (you will find it in a cesspool)
Jordan Peterson talks about many myths and stories and how they relate to the human unconscious, which is a telltale sign that he was influenced by Carl Jung. In those stories, and in “real” life too, the characters learn the most when they voluntarily come in contact with their own fears. This is the basis of most psychoanalytic theory. People make tremendous progress when they voluntarily confront that which disgusts or terrifies them. This is precisely how to determine what deep work needs to be done. Deep work lies in what frightens or disgusts us! It’s no wonder we have a proclivity to avoid it and prioritize shallow work.
“In filth it will be found.”
Carl Jung (1875 – 1961)
This idea was also hinted at in the story of The Holy Grail. The Holy Grail is a sacred cup in many different pieces of literature. It was thought to provide riches, boundless happiness, eternal youth, and a bunch of other things that people would do anything for. Well in the story, the people searching for the Holy Grail are told that it is in a forest and in order to find it each adventurer must enter the part of the forest darkest to him. Sounds like voluntarily subjecting oneself to the disgusting and horrible. Sounds like deep work needs to be done.
This lesson can go beyond study skills. Searching for the deep work in any dimension of our lives can open doors to opportunities that can lead to a life better than we could imagine, and that’s not an exaggeration.
Once the deep work is identified, we have to be able to actually do it. Since deep work is inherently difficult and pushes us to our cognitive limit we have to dedicate as much cognitive resource as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to get into Flow State. It’s easiest to think about flow as being in “The Zone.” We know we’re in flow when we are completely immersed in the activity. Our focus is energizing, we enjoy the work, and we’re completely in the present moment. When you’re in flow, you’ll know. Pay attention to when your in flow state and be mindful of the things that made it possible.
The best ways to get into flow are to work on one thing at a time, minimize distractions, and work for extended periods of time. Whenever I’m in flow I do my best work be it music, tutoring, or writing. Flow is the key to getting deep work accomplished.
I rejected this idea a lot in college, but whenever I did the deep work I found that my test anxiety would go away. Identify what you really don’t want to do, develop a strategy to get that done, and enjoy the rewards of being the Hero that defeats the dragon and gets the treasure.
So what happens if you’ve identified the dragon, set up a nice workplace with minimal distractions, told all your loved ones that you need time to work, and have all the things you need to get work done but your mind just won’t focus because you keep thinking of all the things you “should” be doing instead?
Whenever I found myself constantly distracting myself with other responsibilities, I write down what it is on a list and save it for later. So let’s say I have to write a blog post about study strategies, but I keep thinking about how I need to clean my bathroom, walk the dogs, and email my clients. I’ll write clean bathroom, walk the dogs, email clients on a list that I’ll attend to once my deep work session is completed. This way I don’t have to worry about forgetting to do it and I can maintain the work momentum I’ve already created.
In my notes app, I have a non-time sensitive to-do list and this is where I put most of the stuff that takes up unnecessary cognitive load. If you get distracted while work, just jot it down and get to it later. Focus on what’s in front of you now. Cal Newport has a bunch of other strategies to make deep work less of a hydra and more of a dragon and I recommend checking it out!
Avoid Pseudo Productive Habits
Pseudo productivity, or false progress, can do us and our endeavours a serious harm. We spend out limited attention and energy on something that leads us down the wrong path. Not only do we have to work harder to get back on track, but we won’t get as far as we would have if we stuck with truly productive methods. There are many pseudo productive habits that lead us astray. Rereading chapters, rewriting notes, listening to lectures in your sleep, and (like I mentioned in my Active Recall post) highlighting. Underlining also works to your disadvantage just as much.
When we highlight or underline phrases, we have to reread the highlights (instant double workload) and read for context (instant triple workload). Not to mention risking over highlighting, which just makes everything way more confusing when you go back to study the material later. Beware of staring at answer keys for long periods of time or making trivial aesthetic adjustments to your assignments as well. We all want to have nice notes, so they’re easy to look back on later, but if it takes us hours to clean them up, this process is doing more harm than good.
We love to do things that make us feel like we’re making progress. After all, happiness comes from us observing ourselves move towards a goal. The issue is that we may we heading in the wrong direction without knowing. A good marker for spotting pseudo productive habits is through an 80/20 pareto analysis of your productive habits. When I do this, I write down all of the “productive things” I do often and apply occam’s razor – entities should not be multiplied without necessity. I cut out all of the actions that do not absolutely need to be done. I stick to the 20 percent of actions that yield me 80% of my results.
Trim the fat. Be honest with yourself. Clearly define your goals. Pay attention to your progress.
Treat Studying as a Function of Topics
“I spent 6 hours in the library!” “I stayed up all night studying” “I need more time to study!”
All quotes from people who see studying as a function of time. Studying for longer periods of time DOES NOT yield better grades. It’s all about the quality of the time spent while studying. See studying as a function of topics, not time. Measure progress by which concepts you covered rather than how much time you spent learning it.
The projects and exams that people study for are testing how well you understand the material, not how long you’ve studied it. As long as you understand what you need to know, what difference does studying it for 10 minutes rather than 3 hours make?
Using Active Recall and Spaced Repetition, the time we spend studying can be much more effective. It’s possible to learn something quickly, remember the first time you touched a hot stove? Aim to learn things quickly and thoroughly, do not aim to spend more time. Our time is limited and precious. It is the only resource that cannot be replenished, why waste it on low yield studying?
“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!
The Pomodoro technique can be executed in 7 fairly simple steps:
Clearly articulating what task needs to be done
Setting a pomodoro timer (or any timer) to 25 minutes
Work on the task without interruption for the 25 minutes
Take a break for 3-5 minutes
Repeat Steps 2 through 4 at least 4 times
Take a longer 15-30 minute break
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.
“The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. Two, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future.”
Peter C. Brown (Make It Stick)
Minimum Effective Dose
The MED or Minimum Effective Dose is the smallest amount of input for a desired outcome. I first came across the idea of the minimum effective dose when I was reading Tim Ferriss. He gives the example of boiling water. When you boil water, you add heat until the water boils. Adding more heat doesn’t make the water “more boiled”, so it would be a waste of resources to continue to add heat once the water is boiled. The amount of heat required to boil the water is the MED. Tim was obsessed with finding MEDs for exercises to trigger hormone cascades in the body to produce specific results. Tim is a don’t-do-more-kettlebell-swings-than-absolutely-necessary type of guy and applying that idea to everything makes life way easier and does wonders for our productivity. If we aren’t doing extra work, then we have more time and energy to do other things that are important to us. Our energy and attention are finite, so using minimum necessary force is in our best interest if we want to get more things done. It’s also a widely practiced Eastern virtue for many different reasons, it’s much to better to get the same results with less effort.
“Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.”
Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching)
I like to think of learning as broken up into 2 parts: Understanding & Remembering
Understanding is to perceive an intended meaning. A good test to see if you have correctly internalized that meaning is being able to teach it to someone else and answer questions they have on the subject.
Renown American theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman, is known for many things in the world of science, but to us study geeks he’s the brilliant mastermind behind the Feynman Technique. His technique is based on the pretty simple idea that “we thoroughly understand something when we can explain it to a five year old“. If we can simplify complex ideas into elementary speech, then we have a truly deep understanding of those said ideas. Using our sophisticated understanding of a topic, we can carefully discern which parts are deemed unnecessary for an accurate conceptualization. If we don’t understand it well enough, we’ll have trouble explaining it to someone else in a simple way. This is how I was able to grow my skills quickly as a math tutor. I would constantly be explaining complex ideas in simple ways which gave me an opportunity to fine tune my understanding of the subject.
If you want to test your understanding, using the Feynman Technique is a fantastic way to see where you stand. I’ll go over other techniques for testing understanding in future posts, but one more noteworthy technique is Scoping the Subject. Scoping the subject is great for setting up an initial framework when learning new material.
To scope the subject, flip through whatever material that needs to be studied that day and pay attention to headings, bold or italicized words, words that don’t seem familiar, and any questions that are presented in the material. Start writing down what is already known about each concept/fact or start writing questions for concepts/facts that aren’t familiar. This gives our brains a fantastic starting point. Now when we study the material, our brains are going to be looking to answer the questions that came up while we were scoping the subject. We are delicate creatures and our minds need purpose. Scoping the subject gives our study session little landmarks. There are many ways to scope a subject, but I recommend creating a Mind Map. I go in-depth about mind maps and other note-taking techniques in my last post here.
Here are a few questions to ask when testing understanding:
What did I just learn?
What are the key points?
Can I rephrase this in my own words?
Does this make sense?
Can I explain this to a 5 year old?
Remembering, in terms of learning and studying, is the ability to recall or recognize information that was encoded in the past. For most exams and metrics, we are expected to remember and synthesize information that we’ve previously been exposed to and the best way to do that is practice.
I’ll go into detail another time about MEDs for understanding, but as for remembering the MED lies in Active Recall and Spaced Repetition. I’ll break down each of these terms, explain the ideas the lay the foundation for why they work, and suggest different actionable techniques that can be used to learn everything and never forget.
Active recall is the scientifically most efficient and effective way to study anything. Active recall basically means testing yourself. It’s doing activities that force you to bring up the information out from the depths of your mind. When you practice active recall, you move slower (as in you cover less content), but you are less likely to forget the material that you do go over and your understanding of it will be much richer than if you used other methods.
The Forgetting Curve
Active recall and spaced repetition is nested in an idea known as The Forgetting Curve, coined by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus back in the 19th century. The forgetting curve illustrates transience – the fact that our minds forget information over time.
When we first learn something, we slowly forget it over time unless we are forced to recall that information again. Every recall slows down our forgetting rate and the amount of information that can be forgotten becomes less and less. The further we are on the forgetting curve, the harder it is to recall the information but the stronger that connection becomes. My graph isn’t drawn to scale lol but the forgetting curve mimics something like this. For all you nerds out there, here’s the equation Ebbinghaus based his forgetting curve from:
The forgetting curve can be proven by our knowledge of 2+2=4. I love using the 2+2 example with my students because most of us confidently know that 2+2 is 4. This is because we’ve had to recall 2+2 so many times that it’s made a permanent home in our long term memory.
When we first learned what 2+2 was, our brain created a neural pathway specifically made for 2+2 is 4 and every time we need to know what 2+2 is we send an electrical impulse through that pathway. The neurons in our brain are so specific, we create pathways in our brain for literally everything we do. We have more neurons in our brain than stars in the milky way galaxy! The first few times it’s going to be difficult to recall the information, but that is because the neural pathway for 2+2 is weak. Every time we fire that neural pathway, our brains decide that this specific pathway is useful for survival and it reinforces the pathway so it’s easier accessible for further use.
The forgetting curve is also supported by Neural Pruning and Long-Term Potentiation, the biological basis for encoding and retaining memory. Basically, neural pruning is our brain removing “useless” information over time to “free up space” for more “useful” information which gets strengthened through long-term potentiation. Our brains decide what’s useful and useless based on how often we have to use that information. Our brain thinks as long as we use it often then we need it for survival, and our brain is only interested in survival. It’s not so concerned with the other things we tend of value.
In a sense, the forgetting curve outlines our neural pruning rate. Once something is considered useful, then it’s strengthened (more information is retained) if it’s used multiple times over time through long-term potentiation. This is why active recall used in conjunction with spaced repetition is the most efficient and effective way to learn new information. We trick our brain into thinking that it needs this new information for survival and we use our in-built mechanisms to bring that information to the front of the line.
Ebbinghaus believed that stronger minds can retain information for longer periods of time, and thus their forgetting curve would be slower. This was the basis for his idea of Strength of Memory. We can strengthen our memory so it’s easier for us to remember information over time. I was pretty excited to read about this because it’s proof that once we become better at studying and learning we get to actually put in less work as time goes on. It’s comforting to know that the toughest times are right now and things get easier later. At least with studying and information retention, I know that’s true as long as I keep using my brain.
Active Recall vs. Passive Learning
In my opinion, the easiest way to think of Active Recall is by pulling out the information from the depths of your brain. It’s firing the neuron sequence that’s specific to the information you are trying to learn, and like the forgetting curve suggests, the more we fire that neuron sequence, the stronger that neural connection is. The stronger the neural connection is, the longer we retain the information. Passive learning is relying on cues or other aids to help pull up the information, this can also be known as recognition. I talk a little bit about the difference between recall and recognition in the 2nd part of my The Brain vs. The Mind post. Passive learning is a lot easier to practice than active recall, but it is so much less effective.
Examples of Active Recall
Practice problems. Practice problems. Practice problems.Question Based Learning (QBL) is the best way to encode information. By doing problems, our brains are framing the concepts in concrete examples. This helps us understand why we need to learn certain facts or ideas, and that why is the key to truly internalizing the information.
However, not all questions are created equal. When it comes to study efficiency and effectiveness:
Multiple Choice Questions < Fill in the Blank < Free Response
Free response problems are the most difficult, but that challenge is precisely what we need to develop. The idea of challenge being what we need to develop is known as Opponent Processing. Free response questions are least likely to give us cues to use recognition to retrieve the information, which allows us to solely rely on our recall ability.
Fill in the blank problems (without a word bank) can provide a similar experience, but the nature of the problems provide a context that allows for recognition to carry us part of the way through.
Multiple choice problems are the least effective questions to use for active recall because the incorrect options will point us in the direction of the correct answer. Additionally, as we learn we may unconsciously associate the incorrect answer choices as triggers for the right answer. Multiple choice problems provide the highest probability of recognition as the pathway to retrieve information rather than recall, and that can fool us into thinking that we understand something when we actually don’t.
This isn’t to say that multiple choice questions don’t have their place – they are extremely useful, but as a form of an active recall study technique, they fall short. If all you have are multiple choice problems, don’t throw them out! They can still be used to cover a multitude of topics. When answering a multiple choice question – answer the question but ask a few other questions too:
Why are the other choices incorrect?
What are they other choices?
Which topics do they relate to?
How are they different from the correct choice?
What is the opposite or inverse of this question?
What are some questions that could be related to the other answer choices?
What are the opposite or inverse of those questions?
Asking ourselves these series of questions will help us suck the juices, so to speak, from each question. Using this method could make multiple choice questions more effective than free response, but keep in mind, it’s all about how much effort we have to put in to pull up that information. The more effort required, the stronger than neural pathway gets developed and the slower we forget!
Running through it in your mind. I love doing this, because it’s low friction, it’s quick, it’s easy, and I can do it everywhere at almost anytime. Remember, the whole objective is to just get the neurons firing so if you’re just sitting in a waiting room you can ask yourself a question, you can answer it in your head, and it’ll have the same effect! I did this all the time in EMT school and one of my students practices this method as his primary method of studying for his EMT school. Don’t worry, he knows his stuff well!
Including it in a creative project. I forgot where I’ve heard this, but one of the best way to encode information to long term memory is to utilize it in a creative project. Creating something with that information will create a huge number of unique connections and that gives us many different neural pathways to retrieve the information.
I can personally vouch for this, every time I use information in a creative project I feel like I understand it on a much deeper level. I see this happen with my girlfriend and her students as well! Doing something creative with information is an opportunity to put the new info in different contexts. We get to test it out and see why it’s useful or important. No surprise though, when I use new info in any project I end up learning way more about it in the process and the emotional impact of learning these new things helps it stick with me.
Explaining it to someone else. Also known as, The Feynman Technique. According to acclaimed physicist Richard Feynman, if you can explain it to a five year old, then you truly understand the idea. Explaining things to someone else also lets you see if you have any gaps in your knowledge. This is a fantastic reviewing technique and it’s the reason why I tutoring comes to naturally to me now. When I first started tutoring, it was difficult because my own knowledge wasn’t complete, but when I started explaining things to other people I found where my knowledge holes were, filled them, and now most of the concepts I help my students with are second nature.
Using the concepts to solve a problem. This is similar to practice problems, but it doesn’t have to be an explicit discrete question. When we solve the problems, we see the reasons why knowing something is important and that reason drives us to make strong neural connections. If something is important or useful to know, then we are going to want easy access to it and solving problems is the catalyst to make it all possible.
Creating a mind map. This is a fantastic method for getting ideas out when scoping a subject. Creating the mind map helps with retention because it utilizes the new information in a creative project, but it also allows us to pull out all the information we know related to the subject. There’s the active recall element, it’s all about firing those neurons! This technique only works with the book closed, most active recall methods are done with the book closed. Making a mind map while looking at the textbook defeats the purpose. Creating the mind map organizes the information in our minds. I talk about scoping the subject, creating mind maps and other forms of information capture/externalization in my post about Note-Taking.
Use systemic consolidation or systemic expansion to deepen understanding. I also talk about this in my post on Note-Taking. Systemic consolidation is a method designed to emphasize active recall while simultaneously creating a study resource.
THIS IS NOT SIMPLY REWRITING YOUR NOTES.
It involves “shrinking down” any notes that you have taken onto a smaller piece of paper. I recommend consolidating a months worth of notes into one notecard. It may seem impossible, but that challenge is the active recall element of this method. The small space forces you to examine what absolutely can’t be left out targeting the high yield information. This processes activates the filters in your mind that help you distinguish the different concepts from each other.
Systemic expansion is also a method designed the emphasize active recall, but in this process we flesh out our ideas rather than trim the fat. Systemic expansion is what I practice when I make my blog posts. When I first get an idea, it’s usually some one line small note in my notes app on my phone, but because I’m interested in teaching individuals I expand on that thought through many different mediums. The information starts in my notes app, then I move it to OneNote, which helps me organize the information a little better and I expand on it there. Once I have that higher articulated version of the information, I then expand even further in a blog post. Each of the ideas fleshed out in a blog post are then added to the book that I’m trying to write and the courses that I teach. The idea is that my understanding becomes deeper and deeper with each iteration of expansion.
Flashcards. Ahh, the tried and true method of the ages. I used to hate flashcards when I was younger, but now that I know a thing or two about studying I can see that flashcards are the way to go. Putting a question on the frontside of the card and the answer on the backside is a fantastic way to trigger active recall. The thing about flashcards is that they’re painful to get through if you don’t know the material well, but the genius of this method lies in that pain. When we feel pain, we remember things much more easily. Our brains don’t know the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat, so when we get a question wrong our body and mind will respond to that as a threat. When we flip the card to reveal the answers, our mind makes it a point to remember that just in case the threat comes back. I can go on for a while about flashcards, but know this – high quality flashcards can cover weeks of information in a matter of hours.
Make a connection to your personal life. Connecting things to our personal lives give the information an emotional charge and the more emotion we can attach to things, the easier they are to remember. Learning happens once we bring the abstract down to Earth, I like to do this in my classes. Whenever I explain an idea, I try my best to accompany it with a quick and apparent example in the real world. Don’t be afraid to make it ridiculous too, the crazier the connections the easier it will be to remember. I recommend making multiple connections to your life. If you have multiple access points to that information, then it will be easier to access especially in high pressure situations.
Review questions at the beginning and end of a study session. Active Recall is most effective when it’s done at the beginning and end of the study session. Reviewing past material at the beginning of a session prevents us from forgetting it, further solidifies the information into our long term memory, and primes our minds for the new information to come.
Putting the new information in context will also help with deepening understanding. Reviewing all the new information learned at the end of a study session also helps with retention by at least 15% (according to Spitzer), with literally no extra studying. The extra 2-5 minutes spent at the beginning and end of a study session can dramatically reduce the number of study sessions you’ll need and improves understanding. My girlfriend is currently using this method to study for the MCAT. Since she hasn’t learned all the material she needs to know for the test she has to balance reviewing old material and learning new material. To achieve this balance, she reviews all the questions that are due for spaced repetition at the beginning of the session which recalls all the past topics and places the new information in context. After reviewing those questions, she learns the new material (through other active recall methods as well) and turns that new information into practice questions which she reviews at the end of the session. Studying this way provides intentional structure to our sessions that maximize our results.
Examples of Passive Learning
There are so many different methods to studying. Each having their pros and cons. The problem with so many methods of studying is that many students love to pick the methods that appear effective and feel productive, but actually waste our time and triple our workload. Let’s start with my most despised method.
Rereading Notes or Reading the Textbook. I cannot begin to explain how much I hate this method. It seems like rereading notes or reading the textbook would be the right thing to do. After all, the information can all be found in our notes and textbook right?
A lot of students pick this method of their primary study method, but that’s working under the assumption that all we need to do is simply expose ourselves to the information. When we are studying for exams or trying to learn new things, we have to be able to recall and synthesize the information. The more difficult the exam or project, the higher the level of sophistication is required to recall or synthesize. Simply rereading notes or the textbook keeps the depth of understanding at a baseline. Only when the mind uses the information to solve problems or make connections is when things get interesting. So rather than rereading notes and reading the textbook, utilize any other active method of studying. Only use the notes or a textbook as a resource if clarification is needed. This goes for PowerPoints as well, try to only use them for clarification.
Highlighting. This one drives me crazy too. This isn’t to say that highlighting doesn’t have it’s place. I love highlighting when I read and research, but highlighting is not something to do when you are studying for an exam or a class. There way too many problems with highlighting, but only I’ll outline a couple.
1) Highlighting can easily lead to over-highlighting and it’ll be too difficult to come back later to see what is actually important. This leads to time and energy wasted just trying to figure out what needs to be learned.
2) Even if we don’t over-highlight, we have to reread the highlights which instantly doubles our work. But the reality is that we have to read outside the highlights too, so we can understand the importance of the highlight with context, which can easily triple our workload. While highlighting feels productive, it’s a trap that gives us more work that we need. Don’t give into the good feelings of pseudo-productivity, practice studying actively and keep the work at a minimum.
Only looking over solutions to problems. Not gonna lie, I did this all the time in college. Whenever I’d study for an exam I would look over my practice test, but I wouldn’t actually work through the problems. I would just look at the solutions and thinking to myself “yeah, that makes sense. I totally got this.” I can assure you that I did not “got this”. Yeah, the solutions made sense when I looked at them and I could easily recognize the concepts and practices, but the exams I took were testing my recall or synthesis abilities, not recognition.Practicing recall and synthesis enhances recognition abilities, but practicing recognition does not enhance recall and synthesis abilities. Just looking at the question does not encode the concepts. Working out the problems proves that you know how to do the problem on every level of our perception.
Listening to lectures in while sleeping. This is not how learning works. This just makes it harder to go to sleep. Additional unnecessary extraneous load is burdensome on the mind. We learn when we’re awake, we consolidate when we are sleeping.
Summarizing. Summarizing doesn’t seem to be an effective study technique for exams that require recall and synthesis as well. While a student will receive some benefit from summarizing a lecture after they’ve just heard it or summarizing a chapter after they’ve just read it, this method won’t help with inference making and incorporating the information into other higher-level cognitive tasks. If we were to summarize, we’d understand the big picture (which is helpful) but we will inevitably miss some of the details and nuances.
“Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility. But these benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort, but not the benefits the effort produces. Learning feels slower from this kind of practice, and you don’t get the rapid improvements and affirmations you’re accustomed to seeing from massed practice.”
Peter C. Brown (Make It Stick)
Every time we recall information, it gets easier to recall and we forget less of it! We are also able to recall less often because our rate of forgetting is lower. This is the idea behind Spaced Repetition, which makes our studying more effective and efficient.
The point of being efficient is to get better results without having to do as much work and there is no better to do less work than to actually do less work! We aren’t designed to workout the same parts of our body all the time. If we do too many bicep curls or deadlifts or run too many miles at once, we could risk injury. We aren’t machines, humans require a refractory period, a time to relax and recover. This isn’t to say, we shouldn’t be diligent and work at something every day, but we should keep in mind that there are optimal times to work on a certain parts of ourselves. We shouldn’t try to fire the same neural pathway every second of every day. We need to give our brains time to establish and strengthen the connections.
I like to think of learning like a laying a brick wall.
Each layer of the brick wall is a little tidbit of information and when we want to build a wall we have to lay each layer down in a timely manner. We place a layer of bricks, add some mortar, wait for it to dry, then add the next layer. We can’t just keep adding layers on top of layers without waiting for the mortar to dry. If we do, the entire wall easily collapses and if it doesn’t collapse, the wall will at least be crooked. Our knowledge works the same way. We have to learn a little bit of information, wait for our minds to build and strengthen the necessary connections, then build upon that knowledge once we understand the previous information. The question then becomes –
How do we know how long to wait before we build the next layer?
This is where Spaced Repetition comes in handy. The Forgetting Curve suggests that we strengthen our neural connections in direct proportion to how difficult it is to recall that information. So it would be in our best interests to recall the information right before we forget it. It’ll be hard and it takes the most effort, but it’ll give us the strongest connections with the least number of study sessions.
Thankfully, this type of knowledge has been around for awhile and there are a few established study methods and resources that Spaced Repetition and Active Recall into account. These are the best two in my opinion –
Leitner System – coined by the German Scientist Sebastian Leitner, it’s a system that’s used to practice flashcards that has integrated the principles of active recall and spaced repetition. The flashcards are sorted into groups and the different groups are reviewed over different time intervals.
The system is simple, yet effective. Initially, the student would start with all of the flashcards in Box 1. If they get the question correct, then they get to put the flashcard in the next box. If they get the question wrong, they put the question back in Box 1. Each box is reviewed in spaced intervals. When I practice the Leitner System, I review Box 1 every day, Box 2 every 3 days, Box 3 every week, Box 4 every two weeks, and Box 5 every month. I keep a study calendar that lets me know which days to study which boxes because it’s not worth the trouble remembering. This gradual increase will help me focus on the questions I don’t know and stop using valuable time on questions I already understand. The time intervals don’t have to be broken up exactly like this, I recommend adjusting your review schedule to the time frame that suits you.
Here is a variant, the incorrect answers don’t have to be sent back to Box 1. They can be sent back to the previous box. Adjust the systems as you see fit, just maintain the principles of active recall and spaced repetition.
Anki – every good pre-med already knows all about Anki lol. Anki is a study app that automates the Leitner System, but with some added benefits. When you answer a question, the app asks how difficult it was for you to recall the information. You can answer easy, good, hard, or again and depending on your answer, the app automatically sorts the questions for you. The easier the question was for you, the later Anki will ask you again. Making great Anki cards is a skill all in itself and requires its own 20 hours to get used to but I think the effort is worthwhile. Anki is cross-platform so it’s easily accessible. It’s free for most devices which is nice, but it costs a pretty penny to get it on iOS. It’s a little expensive, but it’s worth the investment when you get to knock out questions in the nooks and crannies of the day. Rather than scrolling through the same Instagram or Twitter feed, you can knock out 1 or 2 questions when you’re in line at the store or waiting in a restaurant.
When it comes down to it, the method we choose to study with doesn’t matter as long as we have the principles of active recall and spaced repetition integrated into our practices. Studying is all about firing the neural pathway in our minds and strengthening the connections that we want. Here’s a list of some peer-reviewed academic studies done on study strategies that support the claims in this blog post in case you wanna look deeper into this! Big thanks to Dr. Ali Abdaal for the curating!
Dunlosky et al 2013 – [Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. – PubMed – NCBI](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2…)