How To Learn—Its Not Studying

I have recently shared my ideas about learning with two of my godchildren. As they gave me positive feedback, I thought I would share my advice with everyone.

Learning is difficult. Far more challenging than studying, which would be an inconsequential thought except that too much of the academic world reaches for test score results, as if test scores are the end all. Although I agree that great test scores and achieving certifications (degrees, class rank, or professional licenses, for example) are routes to great opportunities, I disagree that getting opportunities is the purpose of education. However, many educational policy-makers seemingly disagree. It is as if intelligent people have forgotten that what you do with your opportunities is a far better predictor of success than whether you are granted an opportunity. Except by irrational discrimination, those who learn are not denied opportunities, hence the ultimate differentiator of those who learn and those who skate is not who gets an opportunity but who creates value with an opportunity.

Therefore, when people show their first comprehension that memorization is not learning, I suggest the following route to learning—This route assumes you are taking in new information through reading, as opposed to observation, though the principles apply whichever way you gather information. Some of this advice I received from my friends at Howard University in January 1981 and other points I learned throughout the rest of my academic career. I hope the advice stimulates positive thoughts in your mind. Moreover, I hope you desire to share your thoughts with your friends or children, someday.

First Activity

Read the material completely taking no notes and making no marks. If a summary is available, read the summary first and then the material.

First Activity Purpose:

To place the ideas of the author into the short-term memory of your brain. At this point of the learning process, your brain is registering new facts and concepts, but does not yet understand how to connect them with one another, nor with the other experiences stored in your brain. The remaining learning steps are designed to establish and strengthen future connections. Establishing connections, is commonly named learning, while knowledge refers to the relative strength and number of connections in the brain.

Second Activity

Read the material after a break in time (at least 20 minutes) from the first reading and take notes of the important concepts and facts. It does not matter how you take notes, highlight the book, use a separate notebook, or record them digitally, just use your preference. However, the note taking must result in a list of questions that you would ask someone else to answer, if they were available, while reading.

Third Activity

Answer the author’s questions aloud. Authors usually place questions at the end of the material or sometimes within the material to highlight what they believe are crucial points. While answering these questions, refer to the original material and read it again, if needed, to form your answer and continue making your list of questions, which you began during the second activity.

Third Activity Purpose:

To build connections within your brain. You are only halfway through your learning. You will likely find, as I have, that not all authors are equally skilled at conveying their concepts. Some authors simply are easier to understand. Despite concerns about authors varying abilities, answering questions aloud is an important step in forming connections within your brain.

Fourth Activity

Ask the questions on your list to someone knowledgeable in the area you are learning. As you improve in asking question you will come to value the skill required to ask a good question, but do not let inexperience deter you. Ask questions, and where you think you do not have a question, ask for confirmation of what you think you know.

Study groups are helpful for this purpose. As you understand the answers to your questions, you will likely find multiple questions answered simultaneously. Thus, many of your early questions are no longer unanswered.

Final Activity

Explain the material to a fellow learner and answer questions by creating original analogies. If there is no one available, write a summary for the material with the assumption that you are leaving it for the next person who wishes to learn what you now know. Verify, for each statement in your summary, with evidence the source of your summary conclusions. Study groups are frequented by fellow learners, however, with the Internet discussion groups, blogs, and wikis it possible to find fellow learners all over the world.

Explaining thoughts held within your mind is the rewarding stage of the learning process, because you have mastered the material well enough to explain to others.

Now where are the opportunities that allow you to create value?

My godchildren had similar responses to this information, “it makes sense but, who has time to do all this work?” And my answer is always the same, “you have the time, it is difficult, and you have to want to learn. But time is available once priorities are aligned.”

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