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Effective learning: looking for the best academic skills and techniques
February 20, 2014 1:04 PM   Subscribe

What are some effective academic skills, techniques, and tools for effective learning and succeeding academically? — Looking for uncommon, highly effective techniques that aren't the oft-repeated ones ("don't procrastinate!") but more like "use spaced repetition software to review the major concepts all throughout the semester". — I'll share some of my own.

I've just returned to college after a few years, and I've picked up some effective study techniques in my time away from college, such as using the Cornell Notetaking Method combined with spaced repetition learning and other techniques of that type.

I'm looking for the best academic skills and techniques. What was essential for you in college? Were there any techniques that you thought were crucial? What advice do you wish you could give freshman-age you?

Note-taking systems? Interacting with professors/TAs? Studying techniques/plans? Anti-procrastination systems? Routines? I'm interested in any advice around succeeding in college—especially uncommon techniques. Some examples of my own are below.



Some of my own:

• Convert class notes into Anki documents and review them throughout the semester. Don't just take lecture notes and read them before the test; convert them into question–answer format and review them to keep them fresh.

• Learn and consolidate. Learn during a lecture, consolidate the thoughts after class in the form of a summary. When finishing a unit, consolidate the overarching ideas from that unit. On Sundays, consolidate your thoughts on the week—what went well, what didn't, and things to change for the coming week—to constantly make progress.

• Plan your day, down to the half-hour. Don't just assume that you'll "get to stuff" — actually plan when you'll get to it during the day. I use my phone's calendar to set out all the stuff I want to do during the day, and I adjust as I go. This gives me awareness of where my time is going, and lets you be honest with yourself about how much work you can actually get done.

• Use the absolute best tools. OmniOutliner for notetaking. iStudiez for organization. Anki for memorization.

• Constantly identify weak points in your understanding of a subject—deliberately at first, like a weekly review—and use any opportunity possible before class to get those weak points strengthened and any questions answered. Without a routine, things get in the way and these weak points don't get addressed and then show up on the exam.

- Before diving in to a week of studying, identify the study techniques to be employed. In a large survey/introductory course, an understanding of both facts and concepts are important, so I know that I have to attack it with a general summary of the conceptual ideas and techniques in that unit (so I need to type up a document for that) plus a hard-core internalization of all the vocabulary (define the vocab on my own, compare to textbook definition, correct mistakes, and dump into Anki).

- SQ3R method, Cornell Notetaking, get ahead, plan things out early, etc.
posted by markbao to Education (22 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
 
I haven't really ever made use of this, but I have heard that reviewing study material right before you go to sleep can help improve retention of new associations.
posted by foxfirefey at 1:11 PM on February 20


My piece of advice is to know your learning style. I'm an auditory learner so recording lectures and reading aloud help me far more than note taking or writing repeatedly.
posted by AlexiaSky at 1:12 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]


Your current techniques seem focused on during and after class. You can also preview the material on the syllabus, outline it, and make predictions about what you think each lecture will cover. Then when you attend lecture, you already have a framework to plug those concepts into.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 1:16 PM on February 20 [4 favorites]


At some point, the learning style has to be effective, along with being efficient. Techniques and technology aren't the most effective ways to do it better/best, and after a point, the time you spend on all of that is going to be counter-productive. Reminds me of the author of Lean In, who mentions keeping a diary for scheduling appointments. Antique method for some, serves the purpose effectively and efficiently for many- its not the method, its what works for you the best.
posted by xm at 1:20 PM on February 20


Foxfirefey touches on this, but sleep is crucial to learning. Get the optimal amount, and make sure it's good quality. If you don't allow your brain to lay down the information properly, you're doing it wrong. Actually, strategic napping is one of the most powerful techniques I've ever learned. I've used it a lot between Anki sessions.

Similarly, (and again, less of a technique and more of a hack) figure out ways to get your subconscious working for you. Whenever I'm working on synthesising a whole bunch of information, I have to go away and do something completely different, as in, not study related. Go for a walk, ride a bike, bake a cake or take some time out with a friend. After this I generally end up with a much clearer view, and often have a brand new line of attack. If you exercise, you get bonus points because your brain loves the extra oxygen.

Finally, figure out when your best time of day is for each of your set activities. Then work with yourself to optimise your days. It's rare for my brain to properly show up at the circus anytime before noon, so I generally fill mornings with less taxing activities. Idea-juggling for me is an afternoon sport. If I tried it in the morning, I'd just be wasting my time. YMMV.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 1:40 PM on February 20


Research has shown that studying in multiple, different locations improves recall. So instead of reviewing your art history notes three different times in your bedroom, study them in the cafe, the library, and your bedroom.
posted by vegartanipla at 1:41 PM on February 20


My most effective learning tool in college was very low tech (back then there wasn't a lot of tech anyway!) - go to every single class no matter what and pay attention the entire class. This saves you a lot of time trying to read and learn things on your own. It also helps you to know what the professor thinks is important instead of guessing later as you read chapters. You are older than the typical college freshman, so you may already know this. But it always amazed me how much the freedom of attending classes impacted the students and how many blew them off frequently.

The other thing that I found useful was actually helping/tutoring those people who never went to class (informally, usually my boyfriend and friends). This reinforced all of the concepts as I went over it with them. Then I usually did not need to do a ton of studying before an exam.

I imagine that depending on your major some things will be better than others for you.
posted by maxg94 at 2:03 PM on February 20


Thanks for your responses here! Responding to a few:


foxfirefey — "I haven't really ever made use of this, but I have heard that reviewing study material right before you go to sleep can help improve retention of new associations."

Nice, I have heard about that one before as well. I'll try this at one point—I want to figure out a way to measure whether it makes a real impact.


AlexiaSky — "My piece of advice is to know your learning style. I'm an auditory learner so recording lectures and reading aloud help me far more than note taking or writing repeatedly."

Thanks for reminding me about that. I haven't really figured out what my learning style is, and to be honest I'm a bit put off since "learning style" is so tied into stuff like NLP, but I'll take some time this weekend to figure out what I'm best at.


Bentobox Humperdinck — "Your current techniques seem focused on during and after class. You can also preview the material on the syllabus, outline it, and make predictions about what you think each lecture will cover. Then when you attend lecture, you already have a framework to plug those concepts into."

I've heard a lot about doing the reading before lecture and it seems to go both ways: read before and maybe hear the same things (but strengthen your understanding based on the reading), or read after with the framework of the lecture. I probably agree with the former. Previewing material using the syllabus and making predictions is a great idea, though—haven't thought about that.


xm — "At some point, the learning style has to be effective, along with being efficient. Techniques and technology aren't the most effective ways to do it better/best, and after a point, the time you spend on all of that is going to be counter-productive. Reminds me of the author of Lean In, who mentions keeping a diary for scheduling appointments. Antique method for some, serves the purpose effectively and efficiently for many- its not the method, its what works for you the best."

Yeah, efficiency is definitely a concern here. I think that these techniques and such are thorough, but definitely at the expense of time; I haven't yet gotten to the point where I've figured out what things I can make more efficient, though, but I'm working on it.


Juso No Thankyou — "[...] sleep is crucial to learning [...] Actually, strategic napping is one of the most powerful techniques I've ever learned. I've used it a lot between Anki sessions.

Similarly, (and again, less of a technique and more of a hack) figure out ways to get your subconscious working for you. Whenever I'm working on synthesising a whole bunch of information, I have to go away and do something completely different, as in, not study related. Go for a walk, ride a bike, bake a cake or take some time out with a friend. After this I generally end up with a much clearer view, and often have a brand new line of attack. If you exercise, you get bonus points because your brain loves the extra oxygen.

Finally, figure out when your best time of day is for each of your set activities. Then work with yourself to optimise your days. It's rare for my brain to properly show up at the circus anytime before noon, so I generally fill mornings with less taxing activities. Idea-juggling for me is an afternoon sport. If I tried it in the morning, I'd just be wasting my time. YMMV.
"

Thanks for this. Sleep is actually the biggest change I've made: going from 5 hours a night to 8 has completely changed the amount of energy I've had, and now I recognize why I felt so fatigued all the time and lacked focus for non-interesting things. 7.5–8 hours is like magic. I'll have to look into strategic napping as well (need to find a place other than the library to pass out).

I haven't yet been able to work in breaks nor figure out what times are best for me yet, but I will set some reminders to check in over time to see if I can make any progress on those fronts. I'm starting to get a hunch that I get a lull around 12–3pm and 12am is a hard stop when waking up at 8, so that's a good start.


vegartanipla — "Research has shown that studying in multiple, different locations improves recall. So instead of reviewing your art history notes three different times in your bedroom, study them in the cafe, the library, and your bedroom."

Awesome. I love changing up locations so this is great news.


maxg94 — "My most effective learning tool in college was very low tech (back then there wasn't a lot of tech anyway!) - go to every single class no matter what and pay attention the entire class. This saves you a lot of time trying to read and learn things on your own. [...] The other thing that I found useful was actually helping/tutoring those people who never went to class (informally, usually my boyfriend and friends). This reinforced all of the concepts as I went over it with them. Then I usually did not need to do a ton of studying before an exam. [...]"

Yeah, I definitely can't believe the amount of people who don't go to class. Even when I zone out in class for a few minutes, I realize when I come to that I have to go back in my own time to the lecture recording (when available) and spend those few minutes again. And the idea of teaching people is great—I have yet to get the opportunity to do that quite yet, but I think I'll try to set up study groups for the next midterm.

Thanks again!
posted by markbao at 2:12 PM on February 20


Check out The Now Habit. (You dont have to be a procrastinator to read/learn from it.) I love the concept of guilt-free play and setting up a timer for 20-30mins of uninterrupted work. For some reason, it seems to me that you might be at the point where you already know a lot of the techniques to bump up effectiveness, if you need them at all (think law of diminishing returns). You might be at a point where "Know thyself" might work better...
posted by xm at 2:21 PM on February 20


The one thing I tell everyone who asks is to do all of the reading for every course in the first two weeks. Buckle down and power through. That way every lecture is a refresher and fills in details to an existing knowledge framework. You will also take far better notes if you know the domain ahead of time.
posted by srboisvert at 2:46 PM on February 20 [5 favorites]


Review the chapter before going to lecture. Writing extensive notes while listening to the lecture decreases retention and thus is counterproductive. Ideally, a recorded lecture would be available to refer back to if you missed anything so you could take notes before and after the lecture, allowing you to just focus on learning the sets of information/train of logic being taught in class.

Don't wait for your brain to be overloaded while studying. The recommendation is to take a few minutes off every hour to do something that relaxes your brain. But it's also okay to be flexible here - if you are in the middle of wrapping your mind around a large concept, don't force yourself to take a break.

Also, don't forget to keep exercise in your schedule no matter how busy you get.
posted by FiveSecondRule at 3:11 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]


srboisvert — "The one thing I tell everyone who asks is to do all of the reading for every course in the first two weeks. Buckle down and power through. That way every lecture is a refresher and fills in details to an existing knowledge framework. You will also take far better notes if you know the domain ahead of time."

That's an interesting idea. Have you found that it's hard to remember the reading done 2-odd months ago? Or does the framework that it builds make up for it? I wonder if a quick glance/skim would get you 80% there.
posted by markbao at 4:23 PM on February 20


The most effective techniques revolve around the following:

1. Repetition is the mother of memory. Repeat repeat repeat. We don't do this enough. We somehow always think that if we do something several times and understand, then we know how to do it. In most countries, repetition is a highly ingrained process and their test scores show it. More importantly by doing things again and agian, you build stamina and will power.

2. If you're doing a theoretical heavy subject, always ask yourself questions from the perspective of someone who doesn't know much about your topic. If you're studying some aspect of theology or literary theory or poltical science, imagine a person who is ignorant of it trying to attack your ideas. How would you defend yourself? Do you understand your topic enough to maintain a dialogue with someone who was intellectually opposing your contentions.

Example: I had a very religious gym teacher in middle school. He was an intellectual and had great counterarguments to supposed atheists. I have always had his arguments in the back of my mind when reading writers hostile to religion. Although his criticisms weren't always spot on, his down-to-earthedness, a hard worn pragmatism, was somethign I carried with me and I tested out all ideas I learned by imagining him trying to attack it. Could I defend myself? Were my answers fair, logical, coherent, and most importantly effective?



3. Counterfactuals. Use them. In econ class, you often learn about comparative advantage. Simple idea. But it's actually not. Ask yourself "under what conditions, realistic or not, would comparative advantage not occur." When learning linguistics and the idea of recursion in languages, ask yourself, what would a language look like without recursion? What features or properties would we expect to see in a language that didn't have this postulated universal characteristic. Last one, again from economics: Why does the idea of marginal utility NOT contradict the concept of returns to scale (up to a point of course).

4. Think backwards. Look at the conclusion your author makes and ask yourself the following question: What ideas, operations, dynamics did the author have to take into account--to notice--for him to come his conclusion? You are teaching yourself to think differently, which is what we mean when say rigor. When you come across something especially insightful in your reading, ask yourself "What should I have noticed from the beginning so that I could have come up with that insight myself.

example: In a statement, Nietzsche noted that the problem with Hamelt wasn't that he thought too much but that he thought too well. That is insight. How should I have been thinking and approaching the text to get that kind of insight out of it myself.


5. Repetition. (see number 1)


6. The biggest myth in American pedagogy, and it is one that comes from our consumer-oriented approach to education, is that a necessary condition for effective instruction is that it be fun, pleasant, enjoyable. That is a myth. Not all effective learning techniques are pleasant. In fact, many are not. If it doesn't feel natural at first, it might still be good for you. I always balked at the idea of doing drills, math drills, and hated them. Yet not a single person I know who is comfortable with numbers got that way without the necessary and intiially unpleasant repetition of these drills. After a while it's no different than exercise. What used to be hard becomes either enjoyable or completely neutral.


7. Read. Read. Read. Knowledge is like compound interests. The more you learn, the more you slog through, the more resiliency you bring into your next endeavor. Seek to apply multidisciplinary insights from other fields into whatever you're studying. Don't be like the man with the hammer to whom everything looks like a nail. Many of the specialities and disciplines overlap. Their insights can carry weight across conceptual dimensions. You can do it. It requires effort and diligence but you can master it. After a while, it becomes a habit.


8. There is a famous technique that was partially devised by NOam Chomsky's wife Carol Schatz Chomsky. It's often used with students who are slow or poor readers. They are told to read a task to themselves either out loud or to themselves along to a video cassette of that tape being read. Something about this technique helps to inculcate reading and decoding in students. Why is it not more readily known? It's cheap and most people who propose new learning techniques or offer up "added value insight" just wanna make money. The technique Schatz devised is still pretty cheap and hard to make tons of cash money off of.

9. I have never found studying in groups to be effective. There is a natural desire to want to interact more than learn. I might be wrong in this and it's not for everyone but a quiet study place is generally all you need. I remember cuddling up in the Regenstein Library in Hyde Park doing problem sets in calculus and taking law school classes. I don't think I would have gotten much added value from doing it with other students.

10. Beware of fads trends and anything that reeks of marketing. Learning along with sex is something we're all pretty good at. The insights are pretty old, time immemorial at least. You, in the words of Dr. Spock, know more than you think you do. Take the plunge.
posted by caudal at 6:32 PM on February 20 [6 favorites]


SQ5R
posted by ms_rasclark at 6:45 PM on February 20


That's an interesting idea. Have you found that it's hard to remember the reading done 2-odd months ago? Or does the framework that it builds make up for it? I wonder if a quick glance/skim would get you 80% there.

I would reread before lectures to refresh what I had read before. I never just skimmed because the errors are multiplicative. If you skim and get 80% then you now have that as a ceiling rather than 100%. Then factor in however imperfect your memory is, then how imperfect your understanding is, and then your performance anxiety and so on.

I also never skipped a class and did my best to pay attention and I took very good notes. Not verbatim notes but organized notes - Identified headings and subheadings and key points.

There are people who claim they don't work and still do well but I am never sure if I believe them. I do know a lot of people who deliberately understate how much work they do in order to make themselves seem brighter (and maybe to handicap others who believe them). Regardless, that wasn't me. I'm pretty average intelligence wise (just notice my sloppy casual message-board writing!) but my grades were outstanding because I put in strategic hard effort to get them.
posted by srboisvert at 7:59 PM on February 20


Here are two things I do when studying that seem to help with understanding and retention:

1. Compare new information to information you already know. How is this new piece of information similar to and different from related concepts that you're trying to learn, or that you already know? Sometimes this will create comparisons of closely-related ideas; other times you'll come up with outlandish analogies across disciplines that will still help you understand and remember the ideas better. Also consider where the new concept fits into the mental framework you already have -- what facts does it relate to, and what holes in your knowledge does it fill?

2. Try to explain the thing you just learned to someone (even if the someone is an imaginary friend that you talk or write to). Trying to explain something clearly will reveal the parts of it that you still don't understand fully, and will also help you remember it better.
posted by vytae at 11:32 AM on February 21


Reviewing the material that will be lectured on the day before class is critical. Here's what you should be doing each day:

1) Go to class and pay attention; 2) Do the exercises for the section of the textbook that was covered in that day's lecture, then; 3) Read the section of the textbook that the instructor will be covering the next day. Pay attention to the highlighted boxes where important information, like new formulas or solving methods are imparted. Carefully read all examples in that section. After each example, the textbook usually gives a problem for you to work on your own. Do these.

Everyone knows that they should be doing steps 1 and 2, but most people don't even consider doing step 3, or have never been encouraged to do so.

If you are a student who struggles with some subjects, the first time you are exposed to new material, your mind may be confused and a little discombobulated and will have lots of little nagging questions. Then hopefully, the second time you are exposed to the material, if you are paying close attention, those little holes get filled in and you have your "aha" moments. "Oh, that's what that meant!"

If you don't review the material ahead of time, your discombobulated moments will be occurring during the lecture, and you may never be able to adequately fill in the holes. You want that disorienting experience to occur BEFORE the lecture, so that the lecture becomes the "aha" moment, that fills in the holes that you were first exposed to the night before.
posted by marsha56 at 2:54 PM on February 21 [2 favorites]


It's nearly impossible for me to learn something I'm not really interested in. I simply don't care enough to keep my focus on it.

So I ask the instructor what originally got them interested in it.

Best case: they were right, and this helps me.
Worst case: they're more likely to answer my other questions, at least.
posted by talldean at 6:52 PM on February 22


Alternatively? Treat academic life like a real job. Spend a full nine or so hours a day *working*.

You've spent years, likely in public schools, learning not to take school all that seriously. Relearn that, and take it seriously enough that it's What You Do.
posted by talldean at 6:53 PM on February 22


Learning styles don't exist.
posted by knile at 3:31 PM on February 24


Related reading: Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence - Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork
posted by knile at 3:33 PM on February 24


knile, I was going to come in with a link to that same paper. The video was new to me. Thanks!
posted by secretseasons at 8:11 AM on February 26


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