Studying efficiently. Practical advice

The article was last modified 3 March 2017.

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.

Thinking is useful and necessary. When we think, the brain intensively processes and assimilates information. Newton discovered the law of gravity not because the apple fell on his head, but because he thought a lot on this topic.

However, thinking only is not the best way of learning. Imagine three students. One was given a very difficult task. He suffered a lot before he solved it(or maybe was not able to solve). If the student solved the problem, it's likely he'll remember how to solve such problems. If he was not able to solve it, you should not assume that it is a waste of time and effort. Perhaps a solution will dawm on him in the future, like it happened with Newton. However, the student could spend too much time trying to solve the problem in ways that are incorrect. Long unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem can greatly reduce the motivation of the student.

Another student was given the task, and simultaneously the correct solution was given to him. However, knowing the solution greatly reduced motivation of the student to delve into the task. As a result, the student may not learn how to solve the problem.

The third was given the task, he began to work, but was not able to solve it. The student asked for a hint, immediately received it, continued his work, stuck again and got a clue, and it happened several times, until he reached the correct answer. This method seems the best for me. The student did not suffer, but was not bored. For the time that the first student solved a problem, the third solved several oned and developed a good skill.

But what if there is no one to give you a hint? In textbooks and on the Internet there are many detailed examples of solving problems. You can work with them in this way: open the example so that only to make visible only the formulation of the problem. Begin to solve. Open the example so that you can see only the first step of solving the problem and compare your solution with the example. Carry on, then open the next step and so on. By the way, examples often help to understand things that are unclear to you after reading the textbook.

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. Some "helping" words described below can help you do this. If you use them, you may mot close eyes at first.You will know immediately what you do not remember, what you remember incorrectly, and will be able to fix it.

Reading a textbook or watching an educational video it is useful to stop sometimes and try to predict the following content. It should be noted that it will be useful in case you have enough information to generate a guess.

What the above three tips have in common? The use of reinforcement. You make an assumption, and immediately know whether it is true or not. You can call this method guess - compare. Because it is very effective, I advise to use it widely. It should be noted that sometimes, or even often your guess will not coincide exactly with the reference material, not because it's wrong, but because, for example, a task can have multiple solutions or the solution can be differently formulated.

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. And other information that does not require mental strain in its perception, does not require memorization, and is interesting, is still perceived without rejection. If you have come to the above-described condition, do not force yourself, try to analyze the information that has already been perceived, or take a break. 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.

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.

"Helping" words and phrases

Let me offer you a set of words and phrases that help me to generate questions useful for deeper understending and better remembering of the material. I call them "helping words". "Helping" words are useful not only for this. They presume a certain kind of mental operation, the direction of analysis of the material. They can help to find analogies and come up with metaphors to help you remember the material. They make recalling the information easier. Here are the words:

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

Groups of "helping" words and phrases

"Helping" words and phrases can be combined into groups. What will this give us? Helping word prompts us to analyse a certain parameter of the studied material, for example, time analysis (what happens in time with the studied object (a temporary chain or line),), spatial analysis (how are the studied objects in space (spatial schema)). For a better understanding of the material it can be very useful to define not one "parameter" of the analysis, but two or even more. Here an analogy is appropriate with the analysis of two-or more-dimensional graph, which shows us how the value of the parameter we are interested in depends on the values of other parameters. For example, we may combine "temporary chain or line" and "spatial schema" in one group. This group can hint us to review, how "spatial schema" changes in time. For example, if we study the internal combustion engine, we can try to mentally reproduce, how the movement of the piston correlates in time with the opening and closing of the valves, fuel injection, etc. If we add to our group the "tree of conditions", perhaps it would prompt us to analyse of how the engine will operate (in space and in time) depending on whether or not some button is pressed and (or) the position of the lever.

The helping words from this article can be combined into many useful groups. Take, for example

We can, for example, just go through the actions of the object ("object + action"). And we may additionally analyze the reasons of its actions ("object + action + why") the way it acts ("object + action + how"), time, or place of the action (+ when or where). Then we can build a temporary sequence of actions, to distribute the actions on the timeline or to build a spatial map of actions. The relationship between objects and object properties can be analyzed similarly, for example: "object + relationship + why", "object + property + why". If the relations and properties depend on the position in time or space, respectively add (+ when or where). Perhaps, with this analysis we will see some interesting patterns. I'll give you another examples:
"tree of conditions" + "a causal or logical chain"
With these "helping" phrases, you can try to make a "logical" diagram of the material according to the pattern: "if A, then B, from B follows C".
Analysing the "similarity / difference" it can be very appropriate to set several parameters of the analysis and consecutively make a comparison by each of them. For the parameters you can use "helping" words (e.g. "properties" + "spatial schema" + "dynamics" + "function", etc.), or you can try to find more suitable for specific case parameters. For example, if you compare apples, it makes sense to set parameters: organoleptic properties, winter hardiness, storability of apples, ripening time, size of trees, etc. I will explain the term. "Organoleptic properties" means the aggregate impact on our senses. Organoleptic properties are the appearance, sounds, smell, taste, etc. It is useful sometimes to analyse these properties. You can combine this comparison with evaluation ("better/worse"). In a comparative evaluation ("better/worse") you can likewise set several parameters. Mental change ("what if") can be combined with spatial and (or) temporary, systems analysis, and evaluation ("better/worse").
"tree of conditions" + "better/worse"
I will continue the example with apples. You can make a "tree of conditions", depending on combination of which (region, availability of irrigation, groundwater level, etc.) one variety of apples is preferable to the other.


I offer a few questions that I think are useful for studying material on a variety of topics.

It is useful to try to formulate questions the answers to which you wish to obtain before reading the text. When reading you will already be ready to search for these answers. For example, you have to take the exam on the subject. It is advisable to read the questions that will be on the exam before you start studying the subject. Let us formulate the relevant question:

And, of course, you are free to think up useful questions yourself without any "helping" words. They'll probably come to your mind during reading. The list of questions and actions that are useful when you don't understand the material, is below, in the section "What to do if you read the text and do not understand it."

When what questions to use? Answering any of them requires time and effort. Depending on the material, a particular question can be very useful or not useful. I usually feel whether the question was useful to me or not. I currently can only only recommend to rely in the selection of questions on your experience and intuition. Here is a metaphor. Imagine a workmans set of tools. Some of them he uses very often, some rarely and very rarely. The workman can have favorite tools. Doing similiar work one workman prefers one tool, and other workman another. The workman knows when and how to use each tool. But to obtain this knowledge (experience), practice is required. Another metaphor which comes to mind is the search for something valuable in a pile of trash. Most of the items you discard as useless, but sometimes you find things that are really valuable.

If you can't answer the question, you can try to break it down into sub-questions and answer them. You can look for answers to similar, perhaps more simple questions. I think that if you failed to answer the question, it is likely that mental work you have done was not in vain, it will useful for remembering and understanding.

You can write up the questions you cant answer. You can review the list of questions from time to time to search the answers for those questions, and check the questions answers to which you already know.

You can use questions to make the process of repetition more interesting and useful. Take any question from above, or think it up with a "helping" words, or just take a "helping" word and repeat the material, considering it from the point of view of this question (helping word). When repeating another time take another question (the 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. The arguments in favor of this assertion are written in my another article, which is not easy to understand.

About the benefits of re-reading

Sometimes, when you read a scientific or technical text, you understand very little. But when you read the second time you begin to understand. This means that during or after the first reading the processes occurred in the brain that have enabled to reach understanding after the second reading. So reading and analysing text (for example, using the questions listed above) may be useful, even if you do not fully understand it.

What to do if you read the text and do not understand it

To read the a text and understand it is unpleasant and not very useful. Rereading doesnt always help. Often it is impossible to understand the text because you cant imagine the complex processes that are described in it. Another possible reason for the misunderstanding is that you have the experience, different from life and professional experience of the author, and therefore you do not understand things that are obvious to him. Another cause of misunderstanding lies in the fact that words are often too blunt an instrument to accurately convey the author's idea. In addition, the author may not be able to use this tool well. Different people sometimes undersand the meaning of the same words differently. The result is often that the author puts into words one meaning (based on his experience and understanding of the meanings of words), and the reader "extracts" from the text a different meaning.

I think we should move on the road to understanding with "small steps". If the text can be interpreted in different ways, select one of the options as a working hypothesis. Consequently, it may appear that your assumption is completely or partially wrong. However, it will give you a base for further reading and analysis.

Many authors, being experts in their field, not posess the gift to write clearly. If the text is hard to understand, look for another on the same subject.

Error handling

When you use the "guess - compare" method, your assumption will sometimes not coincide with the material on which you check. Such a mismatch may not always indicate your mistake, as I wrote above. Sometimes it can be useful to handle it with a "helping" words, especially in cases when you are really wrong. I think the most appropriate word here is "why" (your guess is wrong) and "similarity / difference" between your answer and correct one. This will help you better remember the correct answer and avoid mistakes in the future.

Antropomorphic images

From the practice of mnemonists we know that to remember material better, you can associate it with an unusual, emotional image. This gave me an idea. Let me go to the side a little in my reasoning. We humans are social animals, adapted by evolution to interact with other people. For us to live a full life it is required that they taught us language, taught us a set of skills, including the ability to build relationships with others. We wonder at ability of penguins returning from the sea, to find in the colony, among many other penguins and their eggs their own eggs. Aliens arriving on Earth would be surprised at our ability to recognize faces, which, incidentally, is provided by a special structure in the brain. Actions coordinated with the actions of other people enable us to effectively survive. Therefore, a significant proportion of the interests of the people is focused on other people. The man was created by evolution to be interested in other people. Evidence of this is massive interest in TV series, the tabloid press. We often encounter people talking with enthusiasm. Of course sometimes they discuss serious topics, such as how to arrange the state. But I think more often they just gossip about other people. What does all this have to do with the topic of the article? Our thinking abilities are also hardwired to interact with other people. To imagine another person, his actions for many people easier and more interesting than imagining some abstract things. Most people have a capacity for empathy. These characteristics of human thinking can be used in studying. Here are two examples. There is a theory of inventive problem solving (TRIZ) created by G. S. Altshuller. It is a system of techniques to develop solutions of technical problems, creating inventions. It has a trick called "the method "small little men"" which uses the described above feature. You analyze the technical problem and imagine many little men in the light of this problem - what effects (forces, fields, etc.) they are exposed to, how they react to these impacts (e.g., where they are moving). You can imagine yourself one of these little men. There is a term - "anthropomorphic", that means having human form. The method of "little men" uses anthropomorphic images. But such images can be used for analysis when studying, for memorizing the material. Another example is the study of history. You can analyse certain events not only "from outside", but try to imagine yourself in the place of some historical figure to understand the motivations of his actions. This technique can be successfully applied when analyzing the actions of modern politicians, opinions of journalists.

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