Studying efficiently. Practical advice

The article was last modified 9 August 2015.

I would like to share my personal experience about techniques that help to learn efficiently.

In physiology there are concepts of positive and negative reinforcement. I will explain them with an example. At the circus the animal is taught a trick. If it performs the trick correctly, it immediately gets a piece of something tasty. This is positive reinforcement. If the animal does not perform a trick or performs it incorrectly, it gets a weak blow by the whip. This is negative reinforcement.

Everyone knows what "reward" and "punishment" mean. What is their difference from a positive and negative reinforcement? The reinforcement is made immediately after a correct or incorrect action. Punishment or reward may follow after some (perhaps even significant) time after the action. Psychologists and physiologists have proven that for learning positive or negative reinforcement is much more effective than reward or punishment that follow some time after the action. More about this read in a wonderful book by Karen Pryor "Don't Shoot the Dog!" A person, wanting to learn, does not need to be reinforced the way animal is. The realization that he or she acts (or thinks and reasons, assumes) correctly (or incorrectly) will be sufficient reinforcement. For example, you solve a problem and make a mistake. Will be much more useful if someone will correct you immediately after an error than if you incorrectly solve the problem, and the error is found during verification by the teacher a couple of days later.

It is convenient to reinforce youself when you have a text you are studying before you. Close your eyes and try to mentally reproduce the information that you need to know. You will know immediately what you do not remember, what you remember incorrectly, and will be able to fix it.

Here are some techniques for learning foreign languages using reiforcement. Those who want to learn to speak a foreign language and already know it`s essentials, can find an interesting book or text of a native language-speaking author and translation of this book into language being learned and train, trying to translate text into foreign language and instantly looking at translation done by professional interpreter.

Modern technologies made audiobooks easily available. You can find the text written in your language and its audiobook translation. Read a piece , try to translate into the target language, listen to the translation. This technique seems to me to be even more useful. However there is a problem, which programs to use. The best of tested by me was the program WorkAudioBook. One of its many merits is that it can play one sentence and stop.

You can find two audiobooks - written in your language and its translation. Listen to the piece in your language, try to translate, then listen to the translation. I haven't found suitable software for this method yet, if you know, tell me. However, you can use the same WorkAudioBook. I open each audio file with it, move windows apart, and listen, switching between them. Unfortunately, when you close the program, it remembers the position of only one audio file. I have to write the position of the other.

When I started learning English, at first I just read adapted books, looking up new words in the dictionary. But soon I understood, that this method is not very efficient. Often I failed to remember the word I found in the dictionary. When I met it again in text I had to browse the dictionary again and again. So I started to write unknown words and now I write them like you see in the photo. The words are written on one page and their translation on the other. The advantage of this form of writing is that you can cover the page with translations with a paper, try to recall them and instantly slide the paper and check yourself. I advise everyone learning foreign languages to make such a notebook and train with it regulary. One can also cover the page with words and try to recall them by their translations. I find it very useful to "structure" new words. More on this below.

Not once a thought came to me that it would be useful to write summaries of books like words and their translations, so that I could cover part of a notebook with a paper and check what I remember. But its unconvenient to write a summary in form of questions and answers. Sometimes material remains difficult to formulate in the form of questions and answers, and it is better and simpler to write it "as it is". Besides, the resulting summary is not compact. Once a brilliant idea came to me. If you want to write information in form of question and answer, draw in the beginning of the line a sign, for example a downward looking arrow. On the side of the arrow write the question, and below the arrow - answer. Information, which is not formulated as a question - answer can also be written with an arrow. Write the beginning of the phrase on the side of the arrow, and the end of phrase, containing information to be remembered, below the arrow. Look at example of such summary in the photo. The digits in it are numbers of pages in the book the summary was written from. Its not a big work to write the number and you easily find the page by it.

Writing a conspect is useful not only because it makes repeating the material later possible. You have to formulate the information concisely, which helps to remember it well. The verbal formulation is worth doing, even if you (like often me) are too lazy to write the summary.

Subjects such as mathematics and physics are difficult to master without working on exercises and problems. Textbooks and Internet offer many detailed examples. You can work with them like this: open an example so that only formulation of the task is visible. Begin to solve. Open the example so that only the first step of solving is visible and compare your solution with that given in the example. Continue solving, then open the next step and so on. By the way, examples often help to understand what is unclear after reading the tutorial.

I had long ago discovered that when you study intensively you finally arrive at a stage when new information doesn`t stick in your head. For new knowledge to be digested time must pass, definite processes in the brain must take place, these processes are not felt by us, they also run, when we sleep. The conclusion - breaks from studies are necessary.

Two - three foreign words are memorized easily, to learn ten words a day effort must be applied. The conclusion from this: study regulary. If you studied today, learned something, your brain is working in background, processing and digesting new information to make a long-term knowledge. But if you didn`t study it`s not working.

Repetition is mother of learning - says a russian proverb. I have read in several books, that curve of forgetting looks like in the picture. The conclusion from this: the earlier you make repetition, the more effective it is.

To avoid processing tons of waste rock in the hope of finding a precious nugget, its desirable before reading scientific or technical book or article to have an idea of what useful information we can hope to extract from it. Maybe the text should be read only selectively, and maybe its not worth reading at all. Good advice I have read on the Internet. Before reading the actual book to read: introduction, table of contents (chapter headings), summary of each chapter, if any, bold text, captions. To read first and last paragraphs of the article. Read the first sentences of each paragraph. I have not yet read entire books this way, as for articles, I find it very useful.

Questions and "helping" words and phrases

Textbooks usually offer questions and tasks after presenting information. However, there are lot of books whithout questions and tasks. So it's good to have a set of questions useful for studying material on a variety of topics. It is useful to have a way of generating such questions. Here are several questions that are useful in many cases. I think that the first question that is worth trying to answer after reading, say, page, chapter or paragraph is "what`s important here?" If text doesn`t contain anything that is, in your opinion, important , you can skip all other questions.

To make it easier to extract important information I sometimes find useful to mentally divide it into following categories: (important) objects, (their important) properties, relations, actions.

The next question is " what is unclear in important?" Now that you have decided on the important and unclear, try to "finish the picture", that is, guess, imagine, how the aspects that are unclear to you may be arranged. Your surmise may be correct or utterly wrong. It is possible (and maybe likely) you will not be able to do this task. The value of it is that brain will "immerse" into the topic, will start working actively on the material.
To which category (categories) it would be most proper (useful) to include this (important)? Why should we do this? To try answering two next questions. What you know about (important by these categories or categories close to them)? Try to remember the main facts or, if you are unable to, something.

Here`s an example. Now I am learning commands of Linux operative system. I find it useful to include a command into two categories:
1. By it`s action (for example, Linux command, shutting down the computer)
2. By it`s first letter
Next, I try to remember Linux commands with the same or similar action and starting with the same letter and generally similar in spelling. Similary I work with foreign words.

The category should not be too big, general. It would seem proper to include a command into category "Linux operative system". But if start to remember everything I know about it, it will take a very long time.

Then try to answer the second question:
How this (new knowledge) is (or can be) connected to facts that you know already (by those categories and not only them)?
It is worth searching not for all connections but for those that are important and interesting to you. Below is a list of "helping" words and phrases and comments to them that can help you do this task.

Let us continue with the previous example. The command may be similar or different to others, (similarity / difference). It can be better or worse than other commands in some respect (advantage / disadvantage). It can be performed before or after other commands (past/ present / future), be performed for some reason, cause some consequences that are similar to those of other commands (cause / effect). It may be part of a group of commands, it may have an extention that other commands also have. (supersystem / subsystem). It may be connected to other commands (connection), it has some function, that can be similar to that of other commands. Finally, you may think about what would happen (based on what you know), if this command did not exist (what if).

What`s the value of this group of questions? New information is memorized better if it forms connections with information already stored in memory. This was proved by psychologists.

Another way to connect new knowledge with one that you already have is to find suitable analogy, image or metaphor. The folowing question will help to do it:
What does it remind me of?
Use it if you are unable to find a suitable category.

When a text contains a lot of important facts, newly perceived information tends to push from the memory facts perceived earlier. To prevent this, here's a question for you:
How this (important) is (or can be) connected to important that was before (earlier)?

It is useful to look for connections not only between important facts. Suppose you read a scientific text with a lot of formulas and do not understand it. Try the following: Mentally select a piece of content that you understand. It is impossible that you understand absolutely nothing. You understand the words and phrases , dont you? This fragment may be very small. For example, let it be not a formula, but part of it, or even variable. Mentally select another piece, which you understand. And try to find a connection between them. Then look for the link in another pair of fragments. And so "play" with the text. Which parts to choose, decide yourself. Let's formulate this method in the form of a question:
How this is connected to this?
Although it is very similar to the previous one, I decided to make it a separate question.

How this (big quantity of important information) can be (better) structured, to remember it better?
Trying to answer other questions that are offered here you will be structuring information, but maybe you will want to do it in a more convenient for you way. It is useful not only to do a mental structuring, but to keep its results in the form of a summary or scheme. I`ll give analogy with the computer. If data in it is well structured, it is easy to find the needed file. If songs are in a separate folder and are well structured, if the photos are in a different folder and are also sorted by subfolders as convenient for you, then search is much easier than when all this is thrown into the same folder "My documents". In memory also it is easier to find information, if it is well structured.

Can this be made easier to remember?
Instead of memorizing multitude of facts and details, it is much simpler, easier and wiser to find a feature, rule, algorithm, principle that connects them, and remember it istead. It is useful to find a suitable analogy, image or metaphor, so that these facts and details become easy to get. By the way, images are remembered very well. The techniquies of professional mnemonists are based on this. Besides, not everything is worth remembering, because there are reference books, textbooks, internet, where you can look up. You need to decide for yourself what is worth to remember, and what is not. As an example of making information easy to remember, here is an anecdote about Einstein. A friend told him his phone number and added that it was hard to remember: 24-361. "Hard to remember?" - Einstein was surprized. "Two dozens and 19 by the power of 2"

Where this can be used?
I think any comment here is superfluous.

You can also try to think up good questions and try to answer them yourself. By good questions I mean questions, reflection on which will extend and enhance your understanding of the material. It is not necessary that you could answer them. Mental work on them will not be lost. Such questions can come to you while you read the text.

You can also think up questions using a list of "helping" words and phrases. Below is an example of such a list (together with questions discussed above).


"Helping" words and phrases

  1. the cause (goal) / consequence (the causal chain)
  2. past / present / future (time chain)
  3. similarity (analogy, metaphor) / difference
  4. advantage / disadvantage
  5. super-system / subsystem (elements)
  6. connections
  7. function
  8. energy
  9. what will happen if

Commentary to "helping" words

5-8. We live in a world of systems (for example, the Earth is part of the Solar system), constantly have to deal with them (e.g., with different machines), are part of them (for example, part of the state), are themselves systems (of organs, cells). Systems consist of elements, which in turn can also be systems. Systems have properties not possessed by their elements individually (for example, a car can move, and its separate parts can't). To understand the system, it is important to know, how connected are its elements, how they interact. The system has a main function, or several ones (for example, the main function of the plane is flying). Energy passes through the system, is consumed by it and accumulates in it (e.g. energy of the fuel in the tank drives the car, charges the battery and makes lights shine). More about the systems read in the book by O'Connor and McDermott "The Art of systems thinking".

9. Note the last item in the list of "helping" words "what will happen if". Suppose you learn from the book about some new and important facts, patterns, properties and relationships of objects, etc. You can try to change them mentally and to think what would be the effect of such a change. The easiest thing is to think what would happen if these facts, properties, etc. would not exist. (What if the wolves didn't eat rabbits?). This can help you to see new aspects of the problem, to lead you to useful ideas. In the book of Mark Meyerovich and Larisa Schragina "Technology of creative thinking" there is a set of techniques of such mental changes. Here it is:

If anyone finds these techniques confusing, I refer you to the book, they are explained in detail there. I think that they are useful to have at your disposal.

This list, of course, isn`t a dogma. You can add to or remove questions and phrases from it. You can make a similar list with different questions. I can tell from personal experience that it`s far from always possible to think up a sensible and useful question with the "helping" word.

Useful questions can be used to make the process of repetition more effective and diverse. Take some question from the list above, or think it up using "helping" words, or just take "helping" word and repeat the material, regarding it from the point of view of this question (helping word). When repeating another time take another question (word).

Perfecting the image

I`ll tell about another technique I use. Some sciences are hard to understand by persons of medium intelligence, like me: maths, physics, computer programming and so on. Often after reading a chapter in a textbook I understand the contents, but the image in my head about what I have read is "obscure". Then I, changing the image in my mind, try to make it clear. I call it "perfecting the image". We can change the image in our head as we wish, we are constrained only by the power of our imagination. Often text contains a lot of important information, and I can`t imagine it as one picture. So I work on image of one "piece" of information, then the next and so on, and afterwards try to get a clear "general picture". Why is it useful? If the image in your head is clear, its easier to mentally operate it. I am also sure that it will be remembered much better.

Sometimes, when I am working on a complex task or problem, a vague idea comes to me. Then I work its clarity, so that instead of a vague idea I had a clear "picture".

And I feel it is desirable that the image of the new knowledge was "beautiful" and pleasant to work with. Then it will be easier to remember. No proof of that, just my feeling.

Can one, burying himself in the textbooks, using questions and "helping" words and "perfecting the image", learn, say, drive a car? I think the answer is obvious. These techniques may be quite useful in studying the structure of the car and traffic rules, but to be able to drive a car you need to practice. Often practice is the most effective and indispensable way to learn something. To learn to drive one has to drive. To learn programming one has to write code. How would you learn, say, computer, without having the opportunity to practice it? To break your head on the solution of practical tasks, have the "feedback", that is clearly see and feel the results of your actions, can be more useful than just converting words from the books into vague images, and then trying to make them clear. An excellent way of learning is game. But this topic is beyond the scope of this article.

By the way, for me too it would be interesting to have a "feedback". If you have something sensible to say on the subject you can write here: You tried my techniques, find them useful or useless? You have ideas how to improve them or critical comments?

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