How to self-study science from textbooks like a boss?
July 15, 2015 1:55 PM   Subscribe

I'm an (older) grad student doing research in applied physics. I've ticked all my class requirements but have a shortlist of subjects I feel would be useful to my research and my career. I've translated these into a list of reputable, recommended textbooks to read. I've started reading those, usually in the evenings after all daily tasks are complete, and I enjoy it very much - but does anyone have tips to maximize the payoff of those reading hours?

Some extra points:
- I want to keep this learning "pleasurable" - for example I wouldn't like taking detailed notes
- I've so far skipped all problems but am considering reading the books entirely once, then going through them once more to solve a few problems from each chapter
- I'm looking to get the "big picture", not to grasp all the details - if I ever need them I can come back to the books later on
- I don't annotate or even know how to. I've tried doing it but never got anything out of it.

Thanks so much everyone!!!
posted by Riton to Education (10 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
if you're focussing on the big picture i think enjoyment is key, so you sound good to me.

one thing that often helps with understanding is explaining. if you don't have anyone to share what you learn with (or they are not quite so interested...) then maybe something like writing blog posts might help? (or participating in some related online community - answering questions on s.o. or, well, reddit...)
posted by andrewcooke at 2:00 PM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Here's a good guide to the evidence. I think the takeaway is that you have to test yourself in some way. If you want to learn the big picture, then test yourself on that.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 2:04 PM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

For retention you want repetition before the memory fades, and active memory, so you remember the thinking process as well as what you read.

You don't want mnemonics for facts, so you can avoid a lot of memorization techniques. You want to remember these as tools... so use them somehow.

Some things you might try are visualizations, drawings/comics, jokes, or writing down the thing you just learned as if you were explaining it to another person. Explain it to your pet out loud, or talk about it with a colleague. Create a mini lecture you might give to a class on the topic. Consider writing and solving your own question, not a text book question. If you write computer code, maybe write a program related to it. Try to apply the thing you learned to problems you have familiarity with.

Or do text book questions. There is a reason you do math or physics problems even if you understand the concepts, because practice and repetition helps reinforce the memory. You also become more capable at using these things. That's also much of the benefit of note taking, repetition and putting things in your own words or reinforcing your own understanding in the moment.

One other thing that might be useful... go and figure out how to find papers relevant to these topics. You don't have to read through them, but figuring out the best way to search for the topic may help seat it in your memory.

Basically you want to incorporate these into your existing mental tool set, so try to work with them so you get a feel for them.
posted by gryftir at 3:50 PM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Scott H. Young has set and accomplished some interesting learning challenges for himself, like completing all the MIT courses for computer science and doing all the problem sets in one year, and (one that sounds lots more fun to me) spending a year in 4 different countries trying to reach a good level in each language. I would Google for his blog and you'll find some useful articles there.
posted by AuroraSky at 4:19 PM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm not a physicist, but if it were math, you would have to do the problems at the end of the chapters.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:54 PM on July 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you're trying for the big picture, I would agree that teaching it to someone else is a really good option. For each topic you read about, write a blog post, make a video of yourself giving a lecture, draw a diagram, or sing a song--whatever you find enjoyable. Maybe even find a partner in crime who doesn't have a physics background and wants to learn, and record your conversations as they ask questions and you formulate answers. And then, whatever medium you decide on, post the results to Metafilter Projects!

(You could probably even do the same sort of thing with the end-of-chapter problems--the audience would be more specialized, but you could still record yourself talking through the process of finding solutions. Of course, all of this assumes that you find writing/lecturing/etc. to be enjoyable, which you may not.)
posted by fermion at 7:32 PM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I suggest using Anki flashcard software and cloze test questions to test yourself on the things you want to remember.

So, for example, you could have a question like this:
In a grounded-emitter transistor circuit, such as a light-switch circuit, as the base voltage rises, the emitter and collector currents rise exponentially.
Anki would create three question cards for you:
In a __________ transistor circuit, such as a light-switch circuit, as the base voltage rises, the emitter and collector currents rise exponentially.
In a grounded-emitter transistor circuit, such as a light-switch circuit, as the __________ rises, the emitter and collector currents rise exponentially.
In a grounded-emitter transistor circuit, such as a light-switch circuit, as the base voltage rises, the emitter and collector currents rise __________.

As Mr. Know-it-some says, testing yourself (and doing it at increasing intervals, using spaced repetition) is the key to learning and retention. Anki makes that so much easier.
posted by kristi at 7:39 PM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm also coming from a math perspective, but agree that you really want to be doing some of the problems. Besides the fact that trying problems helps you figure out whether you actually understood/processed what you read, it's pretty common for big ideas and examples to be "hidden" in the exercises. (Well, it is for math anyway, and I assume the same is true for the mathematical sciences.)
posted by ktkt at 9:55 PM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Another thing I might suggest if you aren't doing it already is to have two good textbooks for each subject, that way, if an explanation in one seems totally opaque, you can flip to the other's explanation of the same topic and have a better chance to triangulate what they're getting at.
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:08 AM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you want to get an idea of what's happening for 'cocktail hour' conversations, then reading will suffice.

If you want to understand what's happening, you have to solve problems - and many of them. Period.

Once you start to develop some mastery, also ask yourself in each problem: what are the boundary conditions/assumptions/limits that the problem relies on and what would happen if I changed or relaxed them?
posted by lalochezia at 6:24 AM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

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