Check out the first and second parts! This is part 3 of my buffet of study techniques. Be sure to check out my post onActive Recall and Spaced Repetition to learn the main principles which efficient and effective studying is based. Applying methods without understanding the principles is a great way to waste time and energy, but once we understand the principles then we can mix and match the different strategies to develop our own personalized study system.
Scope the Subject
I first brought up the idea of Scoping the Subject in my post on Note-Taking. Scoping the subject is most effective when we do it at the beginning of a study session or when we are learning something new. It is simply asking yourself how much you already know about a subject before diving in.
Scoping the subject has many forms. One of them is through a mind map, which I also talk about in my Note-Taking post. Through creating a mind map, we can easily visualize the information we know and how they are related to each other.
Another way to scope the subject is to skim through the chapter of a textbook and noting any recurring words, phrases, or topics that you are not familiar with. These little holes of unknown are going to be landmarks, so to speak, that our minds will be on the lookout for when we actually learn the material. This is gives our minds an aim. Without an aim, it is extremely difficult to know what to pay attention to. The idea of people needing aims and direction can be taken much further than studying and I talk a lot about it here. People need purpose and purpose only exists in relation to something else. Scoping the subject gives us that reference point necessary to relate to something.
One more extremely helpful aspect of scoping the subject is having a ready made list of the concepts that we need to know. This list can be prioritized which is key to scheduling and timetables.
Build Knowledge Frames
I brought this up in my note-taking post a little while ago. Knowledge Frames work fantastic with mind maps. In a sense, mind maps are a type of knowledge frame. Knowledge Frames can be thought of as a generalized representation of a concept which smaller details can easily be attached.
I originally head of this idea from Dr. Andre Pinesett, a Stanford trained medical doctor who is an expert in student success. He says that students should build a simple understanding of a concept, then expand on that simple frame by adding details to it later on. In one of this long-form videos, he brings up learning the flow through the heart, a concept which most people find difficult to commit to memory.
The best part about knowledge frames is being able to learn these complicated ideas easily and simply. I used knowledge frames to help me memorize blood flow through the heart during EMT school. I’ll show you how I did it here –
One could simply memorize the flow of blood through the heart:
Vena cava → right atrium → tricuspid valve → right ventricle → pulmonic valve → pulmonary artery → lungs → pulmonary veins → left atrium → bicuspid valve → left ventricle → aorta → the rest of the body…
….but that’s not intuitive if you aren’t familiar with anatomy. The best way to memorize the flow isn’t through brute force memorization, but through knowledge frames.
First, we have to create a simple and generalized conceptualization of blood flow through the heart:
This is the heart, or at least an extremely simplified version of it. This box will be our initial knowledge frame. As long as we think about the heart like this, it will be easier to learn the smaller details. Now that we’ve build the foundational structure, let’s hang some details on it.
Blood only comes into the heart through the atriums, from the top. It starts a the right atrium.
There are 3 valves between each opening so the blood doesn’t flow backwards. The names are tricuspid, bicuspid, and pulmonic. The tricuspid and bicuspid valves are between the atrium and ventricles and the pulmonic valve is between the right ventricle and the lungs.
I remember this through the classic mnemonic “Try it before you buy it.” The pulmonic valve is named such because it leads to the lungs and things related to the lungs are known as pulmonary.
Veins carry blood towards the heart and arteries carry blood away from the heart so the blood leaves the right ventricle through the pulmonary artery and enters the heart through the pulmonary veins.
The blood enters through the superior and inferior vena cava and exists through the aorta.
And there you have it! The entire flow of the heart in 4 steps. We can always memorize complex systems and ideas, but chances are there’s a way to understand these things that are less burdensome. Now that we’ve created a knowledge frame, I recommend drawing out the frame in its entirety for active recall.
I’ve also used this idea (before I knew it had a name) in my chemistry classes to learn VSEPR theory in a simple and intuitive way. I’ve also used it to understand cellular respiration and all its’ little details. It’s difficult and time consuming to create knowledge frames but once they are made, they are invaluable, our understanding becomes solidified, and our retention skyrockets.
Find ways to simply concepts, then hang the smaller details on your frame.
Clearly Articulate Failure and Success
“When things cannot be defined, they are outside the sphere of wisdom; for wisdom knows the proper limits of things.”
Seneca (Letters from a Stoic XCIV – On the Value of Advice)
Always set an intention with every study session, set clear boundaries for failure and success. This is so we know when we’ve finished studying and when we’re behind. I don’t mean using time as a measurement. Have concrete goals that you can measure yourself up against.
This can look many different ways depending on the situation. When I’m working with my students, my goal is usually to do practice questions that cover the topics they will be tested on until they are able to complete the problems without mistakes. Sometimes, I’ll have less qualitative specifications for a study session. If time is short, I may say that the student has to do at least 20 practice problems.
My girlfriend is currently studying for the MCAT and she has the goal of finishing 1 chapter of new information per day. This way, she’ll know when she will actually be done studying. Rather than aimlessly trying to “study as much as we can,” we know exactly when we are done for the day.
As with most of the things I like to share, this lesson can be taken much further than simply studying. Articulation is the highest level of understanding and paying attention to how well articulated our goals and boundaries are will change our lives for the better.
Apply this to any endeavor you choose and watch your accomplishments slowly grow.
Past Papers, Exams, and Essay Plans are Crucial
I mean this with my heart and soul. Textbooks, the internet, fantastic tutors, friends are all great resources but nothing compares to old exams and thorough plans.
When we study for an exam, we want to be able to answer the questions that come up on the test and the best way to do that is to practice recalling the concepts that will be covered on that test. When many students, including myself, try to create active recall questions they inevitably wonder if the questions they’re using are sufficient for the exam.
How do we know we’re studying the right questions?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard and thought “I didn’t study any of the stuff that was actually on the test.” There are few things that suck more than preparing for the wrong situation, especially if the stakes are high. Studying the wrong material sucks so bad. We put in the work, only to discover that we’ve sacrificed the wrong thing.
Nothing is better than studying old exams or past papers, especially if those tests were administered by the same professor! This way we’ll already know what their tests are like. We will know what types of questions to expect, the wording of the questions, the length of the exam, and so many other things. By reviewing an old test, we remove a lot of the uncertainty surrounding it, which gives us more confidence and lowers our need for anxiety. Anxiety is our response to preparing for unknown variables and studying past exams takes out many unknowns.
If old exams aren’t accessible, practice tests are usually supplied at the end of a chapter which cover the 80/20 of the need-to-know for most STEM classes.
If you have to write an essay, examine the structures and characteristics of past essays can provide a stronger structure to work with especially in timed constraints. Read over an old essay and ask:
How did they structure this paper?
Why did they structure it that way?
What are weakness of this paper? Avoid those.
What are strengths of this paper? Mimic those.
Plagiarism is a terrible thing, but finding inspiration from others is totally fair game. In Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, he talks about the uniqueness of each individual how that affects our ability to imitate. Kleon suggests that if one were to try to make a copy of another’s work, individualism would influence the work enough to create something new. I believe this is so true! By allowing ourselves to be influenced by our surroundings, we are naturally influencing the world around us. When we look over old papers, I suggest mimicking as much as possible. Allow your own voice to shine through, but steal the concepts, plans, and ideas and make them your own.
Once the ideas for the essay are gathered, write out an outline over and over and over and over and over until you can write that essay in your sleep.
Be Mindful of Diminishing Returns
“The last 10 percent of performance generates one-third of the cost and two-thirds of the problems.”
Norman R. Augustine (1935 – )
The idea of unproportional output to input is found in so many places and has been given many different names from many different people. The 80/20 rule is a fantastic example. I think everyone should spend a little time learning about these different observations and natural phenomena because the knowledge of these ideas changes how we would approach situations in a more powerful way. These ideas are powerful because they are based on the assumption that diminishing returns are something to pay attention to.
The Point of Diminishing Return is a phenomena of systems and it is the point when the ratio of output/input has decreased to a point where it’s no longer reasonable to continue. In terms of studying, this is the point when you would have to put in MORE effort to be able to learn LESS information. The point of diminishing returns eventually turns into Negative Returns, which should be avoided at all costs.
Derek Sivers has a fantastic story about him biking which illustrates this idea perfectly, I write about it in my post Another 5 More Tips for Better Scheduling. 45 instead of 43 is the preferred method of doing things.
Ramit Sethi also preaches his idea of “getting the big wins” and moving on with his life, which also is predicated on the idea of calling it quits at the point of diminishing return. Ramit calls it The 85% Solution – get 85% of it right and move on! I love this because it allows us the freedom to leave if something takes too much of our precious and nonrenewable attention. I do this all the time with my students, if we come across a problem that takes 20 minutes for us to complete I would either try to break down the concepts into smaller chunks or just leave it. I will literally say “don’t worry about this and plan to get it wrong on the test.” This idea shocks people, but it gives us the freedom to move on and cover other material. When it comes to studying rather than use the 85% solution, I say do the 90% solution – get 90% of it right and move on.
One thing to consider is where the point of diminishing returns actually is. One person’s point of diminishing return can look different from another’s. So the question is –
What determines our own point of diminishing returns?
I believe it’s a few different things, but the biggest factor lies in our trajectory. Our future plans decide where our point of diminishing returns are. This is another reason why Clearly Articulating Failure and Success is critical to being a better student. Where we are going decides what our present circumstances mean to us and through clearly defining where we are headed, we can more easily determine if our efforts are worth it.
We don’t have the energy to fight every battle. We must pick and choose. Know when it’s time to back away and know when it’s time to push.
“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…)
I like to keep in mind that no one way of taking notes is the best way overall. Notes are best used for recording information and some of these methods can double as fantastic study tools, but I don’t recommend making notes as a form of studying. Some methods will be better for certain situations and it’s up to us to decide what’s best for ourselves. These are a few methods to add to your arsenal. The best part of having access to different method is being able to combine them with each other to make your own unique method. Remember, you know yourself best when it comes to your learning and what works for you. Try out a few of these popular methods and tweak/modify them to fit you to get the most out of this.
The simplest method to take notes. Good for lectures or textbooks. You start with main ideas listed as a bullet point then supporting details will be listed under that. Eventually, you will have an organized system of key ideas. This blog post was originally designed using the outline method!
Outlining has its perks but be aware of thoughtless recording. Sometimes when we’re outlining we tend to write down non-crucial information, which takes cognitive resource away from more high-yield concepts. It’s easy to mindlessly copy everything the professor is saying without internalizing it and putting in the effort to learn the material.
This is an excellent method for taking notes on a laptop if your class allows for that. I did my fair share of handwritten outline notes in high school, then in college I typed most of my notes outline style in my humanities classes. I don’t recommend this style for math and physical science classes but it’s great for other classes like history or psychology.
Great if a teacher provides an outline where the readings contain many clear headings and sub-headings
Results in well-organized notes
Indentations and groupings show relationships between information
Main points/headings can be used as active recall study questions
This system is hard to use if the lecture is moving too fast
Permits Thoughtless Recording
Must be careful to maintain organization
This method is great for visualizing large amounts of information. You can also use mind mapping as a form of active recall. So it’s a great tool to use when first studying a new subject. Mind mapping can be a way for you to write down everything you know without having to write paragraphs on paragraphs.
To use mind mapping you want to start by writing the overarching topic in the center of your paper and put a circle around it. Then write down words that are related to that topic by branching out. Then flesh out those branched words with more words. Eventually you will have a giant web of concepts/topics/and words that will all be related and the relations will be very easy to see.
I don’t recommend this method for taking notes in class but their great for reviewing and getting an idea of how much you know about a topic. Mind maps shine brightest when we are scoping the subject. That is when we ask ourselves how much we know about something before we start studying. It gives us a frame to hang the new information on when we learn something new, which helps with information retention. Mind mapping can build knowledge frameworks, which are powerful for understanding complex systems.
Great visual aid
Fantastic for recording ideas when brainstorming
Great method for less structured lectures
Engages multiple sense when we learn which improves information retention
Not suitable for all learning situations
High distraction potential
Extra supplies required
Details can be easily missed
The Boxing Method
This method involves taking related notes and organizing them into boxes to get a better idea of which concepts are related and which ones aren’t. Typically we would write all of the notes from our session, be it lectures or textbook reading, and organize the notes into boxes later. An iPad or other tablet with a note-taking app, like Notability, would probably be best for this method but you could also write your notes and rewrite them in boxes later. This can help with learning the relations between different ideas and focusing on one idea at a time.
Easy to see the relationships between details
Keeps notes organized
Good for textbooks or organized lectures
Not great for disorganized lectures
More nuanced connections aren’t easily represented
The Slides Method
In college, there’s a common technique to take notes on PowerPoints where students will write down anything that is not included in the PowerPoint. College professors will often post their lectures online and students will print them out before class with the intention to use them as notes.
To be honest, this is a pretty lazy way to take notes but it can also be incredibly efficient. Since most of the information is already recorded for you, the majority of your energy can be spent paying attention to what the professor is actually saying. Instead of focusing on writing down everything the professor says, you can just write down the facts that are not included on the slides. Just be weary that the information that you do not write down still must be consolidated in some fashion, so try to make sure that you spend time after class accommodating those concepts.
Do not let the
laziness take over! Be careful with this method, it can lead to a lot of
information being overlooked.
Most of the information is already recorded
You can focus on what the professor is saying
Won’t miss key concepts
Encourages passive learning
Small details are not as easily recorded
Could decrease engagement in class
Originating from Cornell University, this is probably the most famous note taking system consequently making it the most misused note taking system. In order for it to work, like most things, it must be used properly. This system was designed to help us create an efficient way to review our notes after our lectures and properly increase retention.
To use this method properly we divide our notes into three distinct sections.
The question column – this section is to contain questions that are answered in our note-taking column and are designed to be the questions that we want to use when reviewing time comes along. Usually these questions will cover main ideas within the lecture, but sometimes they can cover specifics also.
The note-taking column – this is where the bulk of our notes will be. We can use any method to take notes here. Most people typically use the outlining method. This is where we would look to find the answers of our questions if we aren’t able to answer them during our review phase.
The summary column – this section will be at the end of our notes. To get the most out of the Cornell method its best to take 2-5 minutes at the end of a lecture to summaries the main points to remember. This gives us a great resource to look back on later to find out what this set of notes contains but also gives us an opportunity for active recall practice to help with retention. If we’re going to use Cornell notes, it’s imperative to do this section, the retention we get just by spending 2-5 minutes writing the summary saves us hours in studying later!
Organized on multiple levels
Doubles as a great review tool
Encourages active learning
Summary and questions require more effort
The note-taking column has limited space on a standard piece of paper
The Flow Method
Developed by Scott Young, a writer best known for going through MIT’s computer science curriculum in just one year. He claims that our brains store information in unique ways that do not mimic the way we write them in our notes and in order to make effective notes, we must record information the way that our brains encode it. The question would then be, how do we know how our brain will store information? The answer would be that we write our notes however we see fit, in a new creative way. By doing it this way, our notes will most resemble how we make sense of the information in our heads. Making note-taking a creative process will help the information find a nice home in our mind. The Flow Method is based on 3 principles, simplify, visualize, and make connections.
The Flow Method has many different forms and that’s what makes this method difficult to perfect. I do not recommend this method for all subjects, but it would be best for reviewing in detail-dense classes like anatomy, physiology, or biochemistry.
To effectively implement the flow method we can do a few things to get started:
Use arrows to connect terms and ideas
Write new concepts in your own words and relate them to things you already understand, even things that aren’t related to the new concepts
Create new metaphors to explain the ideas
Draw pictures and funny doodles to represent new information
Create flow charts or algorithms to represent how the new concepts relate to the big picture
Capture the information in a pyramid or hierarchy
Simple if done correctly
Captures complex and nonlinear ideas easily
Great for detail dense subjects
Requires understanding of your own mind
Has the potential to be disorganized
The Charting Method
Taking notes helps with the learning process, but reviewing and studying should be done with active recall. Some of these methods are great for active recall, while some require some modifications. The charting method is a general term for organizing information in a chart. The chart can look like a box with columns like this:
Or a venn diagram or T-Chart like these:
Charting is fantastic for capturing and organizing high yield information. A good chart will have all the pertinent information you need to know without bogging you down with extraneous facts. Making charts or recreating them from scratch can be a fantastic form of active recall as well.
Reduces amount of writing
Compares similar topics easily
Great for memorizing and comparing facts
Fantastic tool for scoping the subject
Chart organization can be difficult for new information
Requires additional time to create chart
Some details may not fit in chart categories
Handwritten vs. Typed Notes
In high school, I mainly hand wrote my notes and in college (for my non-STEM classes), I typically typed my notes. Each has their pros and cons and each have their time and place. When we hand write our notes, our brains uses more neurons and our minds use more effort to record the information which results in higher retention. When we type our notes, our brain and mind uses less energy and we are less likely to remember what we typed. However, typing notes is much faster than writing and we are able to record more information than we would have if we recorded by hand. Typing has a narrow scope when it comes to academic subjects. I wouldn’t recommend typing notes in a math, chemistry, or physics class but typing can do wonders in a social science, history, or humanities course.
When we hand write notes we get a little less effectiveness for efficiency and with typing we get more efficiency for effectiveness. When we hand write our notes, we should take extra precautions to make sure that we aren’t missing valuable or crucial information. When we are typing our notes, we should spend a little extra time going over the material to make sure it really sticks. I recommend using my method of systemic consolidation. It’s efficient, effective, and supported by evidence based theories about learning.
Effectiveness and efficiency aren’t the only trade offs when it comes to handwriting and typing notes. There is also the trade of syntax and meaning. Typing gives us more syntax but less meaning and learning lies in the meaning. This is why we are more inclined to forget new information that we typed. We get more of what our instructor is saying, but we take in less of what they mean. On the flip side, when we’re writing, we get less syntax and more meaning. We aren’t trying to write down every word the instructor says (less syntax); we try to figure out what they mean and quickly record something that can represent it (more meaning). This synthesis step we take when we’re handwriting something is why we remember what we write down better than what we type.
This video does a great job comparing handwritten and typed notes and highlights a few of the points I touched on earlier.
Nowadays, we can get access to the best of both worlds with pretty low friction. My iPad pro with the Apple Pencil are great for combining the speed and efficiency of computer notes but also gives me the option to draw diagrams and encode information at any given moment. You don’t necessarily need an iPad pro and the Apple Pencil, this can work on any tablet that supports a stylus! I love that we have tech that can further our learning capabilities so easily. Tablets can be a pretty hefty investment, but I highly recommend getting one not only for the note taking purposes but because it can remove the friction to a lot of other productive behaviors like reading. I’m all for investing in things that make doing our ideal habits easier and more fun.
When do you use each method?
When thinking about which method of notes to record in a class, it’s important to consider what kind of class it is. Understanding the class structure will help you answer questions like
Is it better to handwrite these notes or type them?
Should I draw a diagram or just jot down bullet points?
What should my notes look like?
There are two categories classes can fall into, concept based and fact based. Concept based classes are usually the math and physical science type classes where we are expected to learn a concept and apply them broadly over many different situations. The concepts are usually simple to understand but the difficulty comes from being able to apply them in different contexts. Fact based classes are usually the history, social, and life science type classes where we are expected to memorize facts and synthesize an understanding of a bigger picture. The facts usually aren’t difficult to make sense of and the difficulty of these classes typically comes from the high volume of information we are responsible for knowing. From my experiences as a student and tutor, I’ve noticed that the handwritten flow method is best for most concept based classes and typed cornell notes or charting notes are better for fact based classes, but I encourage you to find what works best for you. Note taking takes a while to develop, especially when developing the little adjustments for yourself
Systemic Consolidation & Expansion
Note taking is a useful skill in the world of academics but it isn’t an effective way to review material. Some methods, like the cornell notes, are designed to be used later as an active recall resource but with systemic consolidation, all of your notes can be effective active recall resources. The idea is to shrink down your notes into a smaller space. I don’t mean write smaller, I mean try to capture the same ideas in less physical space. This is useful for a few reasons:
it forces you to cut extraneous information
it encourages you to develop a special neural pathway to recognize the same information from less cue input
you end up being able to recall most of the information in the process
Back in college, my engineering professors allowed us to use one notecard on the test with anything written on it. We could write examples, formulas, concepts, sentences, pictures, anything as long as it fit on a notecard. (As my classes got more difficult, that notecard grew to an entire sheet of paper.) My classmates and I took advantage of this situation and wrote down as much as we could on those little notecards. We weren’t able to literally fit everything, so we had to be smart and intentionally choose what to save in the notecard. This process of separating the wheat from the chaff helped me learn a huge portion of the material and by the time the test came, I rarely had to use my cheat sheets. After discovering this little trick, I periodically consolidated my notes every exam. This not only allowed me to review for my exams effectively and efficiently, but it gave me clear and powerful study resources that came in clutch during finals week. Taking notes alone isn’t an effective study technique, but when its coupled with systematic consolidation, any note-taking method can be made great!
Making things smaller isn’t the only way to use notes effectively. Systemic expansion is a fantastic option to further enhance and deepen our understanding. I like to use this method to make my online content. The main idea is to expand on the knowledge you are trying to understand by incorporating it within a larger creative project. As a tutor, I know when I learn something for the first time there are going to be gaps in my knowledge and if I’m going to be able to disseminate knowledge that will actually help students, then I need to make sure my own knowledge is thorough and accurate. Through systemic expansion, I give myself an opportunity to articulate my thoughts more clearly and examine gaps in my understanding. As much as I’ve rejected the idea, writing is rewriting.
When I learn something new that I may want to share with someone later I usually take notes in my notes app that comes on my iPhone. This is mainly because of convenience, it’s easy to quickly catch a thought in my notes while I have it. There isn’t anything special about the notes app in particular. Once I get some time to actually think about the idea deeply I organize it in Microsoft OneNote into it’s appropriate notebook. I like OneNote’s notebook-section-pages organizational style, it adds structure to my content. Right now, I have three main notebooks that I split up my interesting ideas into. There are two notebooks geared towards education and building a curriculum that enhances the education of students using the current system in place. One notebook is for my (future) online course and another is for the in-person course. The third notebook I have is a collection of ideas for creativity and the creative process. Each notebook then has their own sections and each section has subsections (pages) that I can use to specifically categorize each bit of information. Each of these ideas is then fleshed out in a blog post! I plan on taking these ideas even further by turning them into youtube videos, lectures, and hopefully books! This process is long, effortful, and difficult but my understanding and knowledge of each idea will grow and be strengthened through every step of the way.
When practicing systemic expansion, you don’t have to expand in these exact steps. Get a feel for how you would like to expand on your ideas. Creating something out of the knowledge that we are trying to learn is the best way to encode information that sticks around for the long run. If you’re interested in maximizing your understanding, periodically consolidate your information but expand on the ideas in a creative project that spans over the medium to long term.
Thoughts on Highlighting
Throw away your highlighters! Highlighting is not an effective use of your time. It’s an example of prioritizing short term over long term. It feels good and productive to highlight things in a textbook, but in order to encode the information in ours heads we would need to reread those sections again instantly doubling our work! The reality is we would probably have to read outside the highlights for context potentially tripling our work. Highlighting is one of those methods that breeds more work and the benefits you do get from highlighting are not worth the time. You are better off using one of the methods mentioned above incorrectly than highlighting.
I suggest finding other methods that work best for you. The methods I listed here are popular and effective but we all know ourselves best. Becoming a great note taker is a personal art and needs to be formed over time, so try different things out and see what works best for you. Remember, making notes is not a reliable form of studying, I recommend practicing systemic consolidation or expansion as a replacement! Taking good notes is a skill and because of that we aren’t going to be pros at it when we first become intentional with our note-taking. It will take us at least 20 hours to learn how to take effective and efficient notes. With learning new skills, there is a transition curve that we follow. So if at first your notes aren’t stellar, keep at it diligently and actively find ways to improve. Over time you’ll become a master and recording information will be second nature, especially after designing a system that works best for you!