Tag Archives: Study Technique

The battle for deliberate practice

It’s exam time and your students are preparing. You’re going around the class, observing how students are studying and, shock horror, they are re-reading and re-writing their notes. The notes are literally going from one notebook to another notebook without going through their brains in-between. As a teacher this is one of the most frustrating things for me to see, and recently I’ve been on a bit of a war path to try to stop it.

This is a short post to celebrate some of my students doing deliberate practice. This year I’ve been stressing the importance of students re-doing questions (as opposed to just re-reading them).

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 9.54.23 amPictured right is how Ericsson describes deliberate practice (pg. 367)

 

They way that I’ve advocated for this is to ask students to 1. Identify questions that they got incorrect in our weekly tests, 2. Get a book or another sheet of paper and cover the answer, 3. Re-do the question, 4. Slide the book/piece of paper down and check, 5. Re-do again if they got it wrong, 6. Re-do again a few hours/days later to consolidate.

I’ve felt like a bit of a broken record but then, today, I had my day made when walking around the class I saw these two students!

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To attend to the motivational segment of the task, I knocked up this sheet that I gave to students at the start of today’s revision session.

Deliberate practice for the win. Just wanted to celebrate. Hopefully it pays off in their exam.

2 weeks before departure, Burmese language progress

This post is part of my ongoing Journal on learning Burmese. You can read the whole Journal here

So, 2 weeks out. Quick update.

Progress is coming along well. Tomorrow morning I will have made Anki cards for the whole of the Burmese By Ear course and it’ll be time to get stuck into revising. Happy I’ve stayed on track up till this point. But there’s still a lot to do…

I’ve put together a screencast with a bit more detail (actually, a lot more detail) about my studying approach. It includes one morning Anki card making session, and one Anki revision session. So it’s what you could call one ‘study cycle’ I guess. The Anki revision session includes not only my Burmese content but also my cards from all other languages and most of my other decks, so you’ll be able to see all of the other topics that I’m using Anki to stay on top of also.

WHY SO MUCH DETAIL OLLIE?????

When I was starting out learning Mandarin I was super inspired by other language learners like Scott Young and Benny Lewis , but I wanted more detail on exactly what they did in their study sessions, and always had trouble finding it. As I refine my own method, I’m keen to try to share some of this fine-level detail with others who are curious. The screencast in this post has been created for just this reason.

Enjoy!

One month till Myanmar. Cranking up the Burmese…

This post is part of my ongoing Journal on learning Burmese. You can read the whole Journal here

It’s October 7th and November 7th is departure date. For the last 2 months or so I’ve been passively listening to the Burmese By Ear recordings for about 15 mins per night whilst I make my lunch for the following day. Now it’s time to ramp things up. I’ve made a schedule for turning the entire Burmese By Ear course into Anki cards, it can be seen below (numbers on the right correspond to chapter numbers, there are 12 chapters in total in the course).

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This schedule should have me done with the entire Burmes By Ear course on Oct 28th, with plenty of time to revise the whole course leading up to the 7th. My goal is to be able to say every phrase in the course without significant delay by the time I get to Myanmar. This should provide a strong foundation for communication as soon as I land. Here’s the contents of the course as an overview of what I hope to have mastered by November 7th.

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 10.27.36 pmI’ve allocated 30 minutes every morning to this task. I’m hoping that that’s sufficient for me to be able to turn the phrases into the cards (I’ve allocated approx 15 minutes of ‘tape’ to each of the 30 minute sessions). I’m sure I’ll have a pretty good feel for how I’m tracking after the first day or two.

I’ve been refining my language study method over this year, and it’s now to the point where I feel it worth sharing. In the following video I show you how I conduct a typical 30 minute study session, inclusive of adding new phrases to a spreadsheet, importing that spreadsheet into Anki, revising the phrases before putting them into the standard Anki spaced repetition sequence (what I call ‘in circulation’), and then using the Anki spaced repetition function in order to revise content. It’s a pretty comprehensive video, I hope you get something out of it.

I’ll post again in about 2 weeks to say how I’m tracking and whether I think I’m going to hit my target. Wish me luck!

S.A.(U).L.T : My 5 step approach to efficient learning and studying

This post is for application once you’re at the point where you actually WANT to learn. If you’re still struggling with motivation please refer to this post on motivation.

Efficient studying will look different for everyone. And there are many different techniques that can help. The path to efficient study for me has been ongoing, and it’s been something that I’ve been working on for several years. At this point in time I can distill my learnings to date into 5 steps that I feel encapsulate the main things that I’ve learnt about how to learn as fast and as well as possible.

I use an acronym to remember my approach. S.A.(U).L.T. The letters stand for

  1. Screen shot 2014-09-12 at 4.43.31 PMSurvey
  2. Acquire
  3. Understand
  4. Link
  5. Train

The U is in brackets for 2 reasons. Firstly, because depending on the content, understanding may come at this point, or it may only come after all other four steps. This may sound a bit counterintuitive, but it’s something that we have to learn to be comfortable with. Secondly, because putting U in brackets makes the acronym look more like S.A.L.T, which is easier to remember!!!

Survey is about working out what you need to learn. This can be thought of in the ‘ask around’ survey kind of a sense or the ‘survey the scene’ kind of a sense. If you’re preparing for a test, Survey is about finding out what is most likely to come up in the test, if you’re trying to learn a language, Survey is about finding the high frequency words, and learning them first. In this step we are sketching the outline of our learning and trying to recognise patterns in the information that we can take advantage of. Read the article on survey here.

Acquire: after you’ve pinpointed the key lessons that you need to learn to reach your learning goal, acquire is about finding the best information that you can in order to understand it. This step includes knowing when to bail on your lecturer and how to take notes effectively. See the article on Acquire here.

Understand: Some things you’ll understand straight away and the ‘understand’ step will easily fit in right between acquire and link. But sometimes this is a huge challenge. This is the step where we often are challenged in moving from concrete to abstract ideas, or the other way around. We can think of understanding as the lynchpin or keystone of learning. It needs to be there otherwise learning hasn’t really taken place. But, as mentioned, sometimes we have to be patient and follow through with the next two steps before we truly understand. Here’s the article on understanding.

Link: Ever understood a concept in class but the next day it was just as much of a mystery as before your revelation? This is because you didn’t Link your new knowledge to something you already know. Once we’ve gained an understanding of a concept (or whilst we’re trying to gain an understanding of a concept) we need to explicitly link it to something we already know so that our newly acquired knowledge doesn’t just float away. Here’s how to Link.

Train: Train/Practice/Review, all of these words mean the same thing. This last step of efficient learning can take as little or as much time as you like, it depends on what you want out of it. If you only want to remember the info for a multiple choice test tomorrow, your requirement for training will be minimal. If you want to remember it for life, this will be an ongoing process. This article first deals with why you should bother training then moves on to how to do it. Article on Training.

Train: The last of the 5 steps of efficient learning

This is the fourth in the five steps of efficient learning that are outlined here

Train: Train/Practice/Review, all of these words mean the same thing. This last step of efficient learning can take as little or as much time as you like, it depends on what you want out of it. If you only want to remember the info for a multiple choice test tomorrow, your requirement for training will be minimal. If you want to remember it for life, this will be an ongoing process. This article first deals with why you should bother training then moves on to how to do it.

Why Train?

Training facilitates the following process, each of outcomes is discussed below1.

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In the following I refer quite a bit to the importance of storing things in long term memory in order to make space in your working memory for thinking. If this doesn’t make sense to you yet. Read this article on how knowing things facilitates Critical Thinking.

From Short Term to Long Term Memory

This is the difference between remembering something for only a short period of time and having it available to call upon whenever you need it. As I explain in the critical thinking article I linked to above, without storing information in your long term memory you’ll be clogging up your working memory and be significantly compromising your ability to solve problems. Unless you’ve remembered it you simply don’t know it.

Making it Automatic

I remember one time when I was learning to drive I was travelling along the highway with my friend in the back seat and my mum suggested that I change lanes to take an exit. I checked my mirrors and started to do a head check when I felt the steering wheel move. I looked forward again and mum was holding the steering wheel. I glanced at my mate in the rear view mirror and he had a very worried look on his face. I had been veering off the road!

At this point in my learning-to-drive process I understood how to do it and I could physically drive. All the info of the process was stored in my long term memory, but the process wasn’t automatic for me yet. It took conscious concentration for me to drive and I’d have to go through the steps in my head. eg: when taking off:  “clutch in, turn car on, indicate, get the revs up, let the clutch of slowly till it bites, ease the hand break off, check mirror, shoulder check, move out onto road”. This was an attention consuming process and meant that if I got distracted by something my passengers were in a risky position!

This is the same for all learning. For something like maths, we want to make the basic rules of algebra automatic so that we can think about how to solve new problems without having our working memory clogged up with wether you need to divide or multiply both sides by 5 to isolate x.  Training to the point of automaticity is vital for taking your learning to the next level and especially for performing well in stressful situations.

Transfer

I mentioned transfer in step 3: Understand. Transfer occurs when you’re able to apply an idea or concept to an unfamiliar situation because you understand it well enough. Transfer can happen shortly after a concept has been transferred to long term memory, but training helps to cement it, and automaticity frees up working memory space so that you can think of new and more creative ways and apply the concept to novel situations.

Other than just being able to solve questions that we’ve never seen before, there are other ways that we can test for transfer. One way to test for transfer is to ask if we could think of a new situation in which the principle in question could apply, this new situation could be just  an example, or it could be in the form of an analogy.

eg: If your english class has just been exploring the concept of Irony*, the teacher may ask ‘can anyone think of any new examples of ironic situations?’. A student may reply, ‘You’re walking to work then a piano falls on your head’ . If this is the case, you could conclude that this student hasn’t quite grasped the concept solidly enough for transfer to occur. If, however, they suggest ‘You poke your eye out whilst putting on your safety glasses’ or ‘The ambulance set out to save the lady but ran over a man on the way’ it would be clear that transfer had occurred.

*Irony: A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things. (In French ironie du sort.) -Oxford english dictionary.

How to Train

Screen shot 2014-09-12 at 4.36.05 PMThe most important and most ignored principal of revision is to SPACE YOUR PRACTICE. This is the case for mental tasks. For physical tasks ‘cramming’ can often be effective because muscle memory is different to mental memory. The best way to space out your practice is by using Spaced Repetition Software. If you have read many of the articles on this blog before then you should be familiar with the software Anki by now. This article I put together about Anki is one of the first articles I ever wrote on this blog, and it remains one of the most relevant.

Once you’ve got your head around spacing your training effectively here are some other tips. These tips have been written with maths and physics type questions in mind, but they apply to many other scenarios too.

  • Practice with questions that have solutions so that you know you’re practicing the correct thing!
  • ‘Batch’ your practice. ie: Practice one type of question at a time. Make  sure you understand how to deal with that type of question before moving on to the next
  • Shorten Feedback loops: This is related to batching. If you practice a question that’s too long, by the time you get to the end of it you won’t remember what you were doing at the start. It can be helpful to do one section of a question at a time and check your progress before moving on.
  • Time yourself: In a test situation you have a limited time. You need to develop the ability to answer questions quickly so that you get through the test in time. Ideally the questions that you know how to do you should be able to do them under the time allocated to them to free up time in the test/exam for you to deal with questions that you haven’t come across before.
  • Practice questions multiple times: A trap for young players, I’ve often heard the comment ‘I’ve done this question before’. That’s great, but can you do it again? More importantly, will you be able to do it in the test? You really want to be training to the point of automaticity.

EXCELLENT. So now you’ve Surveyed the topic, Acquired the best possible information, Understood it (maybe already, maybe understanding will come later), Linked new info to things you already know and you’ve just Trained your skills to the point of automaticity. Now it’s time to work out how to perform under pressure (article to come soon).

References:

  1. See kindle Location 2074 of Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students LIke School?

Memory 201: Mnemonics – Supercharging Your Memory

If you’ve already read the  articles Memory 101 and Memory 102 then start reading from the “Mnemonics” heading two paragraphs below this message. 

In the previous two articles in this memory series I wrote about how, in order to remember something new, it’s necessary to link new knowledge to existing knowledge. We called this existing knowledge ‘memory anchors’. There are two main ways that we can link new knowledge to old knowledge. The first is anchoring for meaning and the second is through using mnemonics. This article addresses the latter.

Anchoring for meaning is a much stronger way of building memory connections than mnemonics is. Anchoring for meaning means we logically connecting ideas in ways that reflect how those concepts are actually linked in the real world. However, there will be times when anchoring for meaning isn’t possible (see the bottom of the anchoring for meaning article for examples) In times like these a Mnemonic are your best bet.

In this mnemonic, knuckles represent months with 31 days and spaces in-between knuckles represent months with 30 days (except for Feb of course)

In this mnemonic, knuckles represent months with 31 days and spaces in-between knuckles represent months with 30 days (except for Feb of course)

Mnemonics

Mnemonics are an array of memory techniques that can be used to memorise something. They can be linked to something on your body, someone you know, or something you’ve imagined. One of the key things to be sure of when you’re making a mnemonic is that the thing you’re attaching the new info to isn’t going to disappear (ie: it’s a good memory anchor), eg: tThe hands in the above picture aren’t going anywhere… hopefully. Here are some of the key mnemonic methods.

  • Acronyms: This is when you create a word where each of the letters of that word is the start of another word. An example of this would be S.A.(U).L.T. This acronym stands for Survey, Acquire, Understand, Link, Train, and is the one that I use to remember the five steps of efficient learning. When making an acronym, it’s ideal to make it in such a way that the word that’s the basis of the acronym (S.A.(U).L.T) is easy to remember itself (this one looks like SALT, with a bowl of salt ‘U’ in the middle). These are great for remembering combinations of words or concepts.
  • The Link Method: The link method is when you link various things together in any way you like, often this works best if you visualise them being linked together. This is a great way to remember lists of objects. For an example of the link method in use see this article.
  • Method of Loci, aka: Journey Technique: Method of Loci is a fantastic method for remembering things such as speeches or essays. You think of a location that you already know well, such as your house, and you attach different points from the speech or essay to different locations in the house. For an inspiring example of this see Joshua Foer’s TED Talk on it.
  • Stories are pretty self explanatory. This is a good one for teachers. If you are looking to teach your lesson in the format of a story, the four key components of a good story are  causality, conflict, complications and strong characters (the 4 Cs). How to make this work is a bit harder than it sounds and for those interested in exploring storytelling further, Daniel Willingham in suggests the book:  Druxman, M. B. (1997). The art of storytelling: How to write a story.
  • Songs: Awesome! put the info you want to remember into a song : )
  • Analogies: I leave analogies at the end here because they’re half way between anchoring for meaning and mnemonics. They’re finding an example of something that we already know where some key characteristic/relationship reflects a key characteristic/relationship in the new thing that we’re trying to learn. Analogies are a powerful way of understanding difficult concepts and I discuss them in more detail in this article about understanding.

Mnemonics require creativity to come up with. Perhaps you struggle writing songs, so maybe that isn’t a good one for you, perhaps you have trouble visualising things, maybe the link method isn’t going to be that useful. Regardless, successful use of mnemonics is something that is going to take time and practice to develop. I must stress, mnemonics can be anything. It’s simply a creative way of linking ideas together in such a creative, funny, emotive, sad, etc way that you’re not going to forget it!

You can often find mnemonics that others have found helpful such as SOHCAHTOA or ELI the ICE man. That said, mnemonics that you make up yourself are more likely to stick in your head batter.

Once you got a mnemonic for a concept the next step is to practice it frequently enough that you remember it! This brings us to the last of the 5 steps to efficient learning, Train.

 

Link: The fourth of the 5 steps of efficient learning

This is the fourth in the five steps of efficient learning that are outlined here

Ever understood a concept in class but the next day it was just as much of a mystery as before your revelation? This is because you didn’t Link your new knowledge to something you already knew. Once we’ve gained understanding of a concept (or whilst we’re trying to gain an understanding of a concept) we need to explicitly link it to something we already know so that our newly acquired knowledge doesn’t just float away.

In Cognitive Science, linking new information to old is referred to as “Anchoring” (we can connect the concepts of ‘Link’ to an ‘Anchor’ by thinking about how anchors are usually on the end of chains that are made of links). For a more in-depth discussion of Anchoring you can read this article, Memory 101: Memory Anchors-The Basis of Remembering. 

If this concept intuitively makes sense to you then you can move straight on to exploring HOW to anchor information.

There are two ways to anchor a memory in your mind. You can either attach it to previous knowledge in a way that is logical and reflects connections in the real world. This is called “Anchoring for Meaning“. If this isn’t an option then you can link the new knowledge to old in a way that doesn’t make sense necessarily but that is memorable. This is called “Anchoring via a Mnemonic“. To explore these two concepts, check out the links below.

After you’ve got a hold of step 4: Link, you can move on to the final of the 5 steps of efficient learning, Train.

 

Understand: The third of the 5 steps of efficient learning

This is the third of the five steps of efficient learning that are outlined here

Understand: Some things you’ll understand straight away and the ‘understand’ step will easily fit in right between acquire and link. But sometimes this is a huge challenge. This is the step where we often are challenged in moving from concrete to abstract ideas, or the other way around. We can think of understanding the lynchpin or keystone of learning. It needs to be there otherwise learning hasn’t really taken place.

Screen shot 2014-09-12 at 11.17.01 AM

But sometimes  it’s unrealistic to expect understanding to come straight away. Sometimes the content is just so hard that it’s going to take a while to sink in. In this kind of a scenario we may have to be patient and follow through with the next two steps (link and train) before we truly understand. Regardless, there are things we can do to boost our chances of understanding, and make it happen faster. This article details some excellent methods.

But first, Here’s my top tip for understanding: DON’T LIE!!!

DON’T LIE!!!

This may sound like a strange place to start when we’re discussing understanding but it really is the basis. What I’m talking about here is lying to yourself or to your teacher. If you tell yourself that you understand before you do, or tell your teacher that you understand before you do, then the next piece of content will be moved on to and that just doesn’t help anyone.

I can’t stress this enough. It’s a lesson that has taken me a long time to learn. But not for myself, It’s never made any sense to me to lie about whether I understand or not. But it appears to be pretty common for lots of people*.

As a teacher I’ve been in the following situation countless times: I’ll explain a concept and a student says ‘aha‘ or ‘oh, I get it now‘ or ‘yeah, that makes sense‘. I think ‘great, we’ve really had an aha moment!’, only to discover that they fail the test and when I ask them ‘what happened’ they tell me they didn’t really understand in the first place.

As such, now if a student says ‘aha’ or another such exclamation I’ll say ‘great, now you explain it to me’…. 

Half the time, that’s what I hear. Which is great. It’s honest feedback. We can’t learn without honest feedback. If you tell me you don’t understand then I can take a different tack and approach explaining it from a different direction. Honesty: This is the first and most crucial step to understanding! 

*I’ve learnt that students behaving this way is probably because they have are performance goal orientated student rather than a mastery goal orientated student. This means that they are more concerned about other peopling thinking that they understand than they are about actually understanding. Therefore they’ll go to lengths to keep up the charade that they understand, even to the detriment of their education!

What is understanding?

Good question!!! At this point it’s important for me to comment on the connection between step 3: Understand, and step 4: Link. In many ways understanding is simply linking new things that you learn to things that you already know in a way that is going to help you remember. More links to things you already understand represents deeper understanding. Here’s an example.

-In year 10 you may learn about the derivative. You learn that the derivative tells you the slope of a line, and that for a straight line, the derivative is only a number.
-Then in year 11 you might learn that the concept of the derivative is more broad, it actually gives you the slope of the original function (whether it be linear or quadratic, etc) for any x value (don’t worry if you don’t know what I’m talking about, just keep reading).
-Then in year 12 you do a physics unit and find out that the derivative links displacement to velocity, and that acceleration is the derivative of velocity!
-Then years later someone points out to you that the formula for the surface area of a sphere is actually also the derivative of the formula for its volume! WOW!!!

Screen shot 2014-09-12 at 11.19.18 AMPerhaps in year 10 you did understand the derivative as it was taught to you, but every additional link that you made to other things you knew about (velocity, displacement, area, volume, etc) represented an increase in your understanding of the concept of a derivative. It broadened your understanding and increased your ability to transfer. Transfer is the ability to apply the concept to new situations where you haven’t seen it used before. This is the basis of creativity and is one true tests of understanding.

This concept map of derivatives can be found  on Darylin Barney’s page here. My derivative analogy can be found here

How do I get understanding?

As mentioned, linking is understanding, but sometimes the concepts that you’re trying to understand are so foreign that your brain doesn’t manage to naturally make any links. In situations like these there are a couple of things you can do.

Find an Analogy:

Maybe you’re trying to understand electrical circuits and you find it helpful to think of them as rivers, maybe you’re trying to understand what goes on in an atom and you think of how the planets orbit around the sun to try to understand how electrons orbit around the nucleus. Analogies are powerful tools for understanding. You can find analogies by googling ‘analogy for electrical circuit’ or ‘analogy for the atom’ and this can set you on track to better understanding. A good teacher should help you out with this! A good teacher or tutor can also introduce you to helpful analogies. Click here for a bit more info about analogies and to see an example of how analogies can be used to understand a complex concept like the derivative.

The Pokemon Card Method:

This is to be used when you’re really clutching at straws (as I have been many times). The idea of the pokemon card method is that when you’re a kid (and assuming you collected pokemon cards) you don’t really know why certain pokemon are good, or why they would make a good addition to playing deck, you just know that they’re good. You know they’re good because you’ve probably heard it from your friends (maybe they even tricked you, sorry younger brother…). So you do your best to collect a card of that particular ‘good’ pokemon. Over time you collect more and more pokemon and you learn how they can work together to win pokemon battles. Through the relations that you see between the cards (link), and how they interact with each other you get a better understanding of why the cards you collected in the first place were good (or you realise you were fooled!). In this analogy pokemon cards represent facts or phrases that you know are important, but you just don’t understand yet. So that’s basically the pokemon card method. You collect up key bits of info, even though you don’t understand them yet. As an example, here are some pokemon cards (key phrases) that I collected when I was trying to understand Wave Mechanics at Uni.

-Probability density: Is the probability of finding a particle at a given position. It is the wave function multiplied by the complex conjugate of the wave function
Eigenfunctions are: Solutions to the Time Independent Schrodinger Equation (TISE)
Eigenvalues are: allowed total energy values that are possible in conjunction to solns to the Time Independent Schrodinger Equation
Any linear combination of wave functions: is also a solution to the Time Independent Schrodinger Equation

Now, I can guarantee that when I wrote these things down I only knew 2 things. 1: It was important. 2: I had no idea what it meant. Then I went away, and I tried to get these phrases in my head**, I also brought them along with me to lecture (along with about 100 more of them) on my computer and when the lecturer said one of those words (eg: eigenfunction’) I could use the search function in my word document to pull up that line. Over time my brain started to see the words such as ‘eigenfunction’ as cues to bring up phrases such as ‘solution to the TISE’. As I began to internalise these ‘facts’ my brain began to automatically build connections between the concepts. This happened till eventually I was able to explicitly talk about the connections between these concepts, at which point I began to feel like I was ‘understanding’ wave mechanics!  At the end of the semester, I understood enough for transfer to occur. Ie: I was able to apply the concepts that I now ‘understood’ to situations that were unfamiliar… questions in the exam! Understanding success!

Since that time I’ve come to a better understanding of why this method actually worked. It’s because facts are the foundations of critical and scientific thinking.

**What I was doing to memorise them at the time was to print out two lists of them. One was the complete list and the other was a list with just the parts in bold on it. I’d staple the only-bold-bits page in front of the complete-sentences page and try to recall the full sentence from the cues on the only-bold-bits page. This method was pretty effective, but at the time I hadn’t heard about Anki. If I had have I would have used it to get these phrases into my head as it’s much more efficient.

Conclusion

Don’t lie, and keep trying! Ideally you’ll begin to understand after steps 1: Survey and 2: Acquire. But if you can’t, try to use the analogy or the pokemon card method, or just move straight on to step 4: Link then 5: Train. Understanding WILL come later if you keep on working and following through with the process. In the words of the great Physicist Erwin Schrödinger.

“In an honest search for knowledge you quite often have to abide by ignorance for an indefinite period… The steadfastness in standing up to [this requirement], nay in appreciating it as a stimulus and a signpost to further quest, is a natural and indispensable disposition in the mind of a scientist.”

Check out the next of the five steps, Link.

Acquire: The second of the 5 steps of efficient learning

This is the second of the five steps of efficient learning that are outlined here

After you’ve completed the first of the 5 steps of efficient learning, Survey, it’s time to acquire.

Here we’re talking about acquiring the best information that will enable you to get to a point of understanding as quickly as possible. Two main ways this is going to happen.

  1. If you’re in a live learning situation, such as at school or university or a conference, your acquisition is delivered straight to you (though you may need to supplement it with further info later on).
  2. If you’re undertaking a personal learning project, acquisition following the survey step should be quite straight forward. From downloading relevant technology to buying the materials or visiting the websites that you’ve pinpointed to be most relevant.
Which of the four live learning scenarios is this one?

Which of the four live learning scenarios is this one?

In personal learning projects the acquisition quite naturally follows the survey, so I don’t feel we need to spend much time discussing that, but for a live learning environment the distinction between the survey and the acquire steps can be a bit grey, so let’s explore that in more detail.

The first thing to note here is that which of the steps a lecture covers really depends on both the quality of the lecturer and the difficulty of the subject. Quickly identifying which of these following situations you’re in can greatly help you to learn efficiently. Consider the following Four Live Learning Scenarios.

  • Good lecturer, Easy subject-Awesome, the lecturer has already completed the survey step for you and distilled the key lessons that they’re going to try to impart. Acquisition is also taken care of, they’re delivering the key lessons in a format that’s ideal. If the subject is easy enough (or your background knowledge is good enough) you may even be able to make it all the way through the understanding and even link steps in a single lecture if the conditions are optimum. Here you may even want to skip the lecture and watch it later fast forwarded in VLC media player to save you time.
  • Good lecturer, Hard subject-Ok, so the lecturer has distilled the lessons and is imparting them in a practical way but alas, you’re struggling to take in any of the information. In this kind of situation you’re best to use the lecture as just the survey step. Pay great attention to all of the topic headings and the way that the lecturer has ordered the information and linked different things together. Take comprehensive notes to give you the best opportunity to review the info later on and learn from what this great teacher had to say after the lesson. Another approach is to not actually attend the lesson but instead to use lesson recordings (if available). This will allow you to
  • Bad lecturer, Easy subject-This is pretty common. A lecturer takes some material that isn’t too difficult and manages to confuse the whole class. In this situation don’t try to use their classes for either the survey or the acquisition step. Just skip them. Do however stay in touch with someone from the class to try to get an idea of the kind of stuff that is going to be on the exam. You can also survey past exams to achieve the same ends. Do your own independent survey for relevant info (ask someone who’s already completed that unit and try to get their notes) and try to find some good online tutorials.
  • Bad lecturer, Hard subject-this is very much similar to the ‘bad lecturer, easy subject situation’. The only difference is that it’s now more important to try to identify what you’re going to be tested on. Another key point is that it may be to your benefit to find a (good) tutor in this scenario. Tutors can help you to both survey and acquire. But if you do your survey first you’ll be in a much better position to get the most out of your tutoring session. You’re wasting your time and money if you rock up to your tutoring session with no idea of what you want to learn.

 Screen shot 2014-09-12 at 9.58.48 AMDespite the suggestions above of what you should/could do in each of the four live learning scenarios there will be times when it’s just not possible for you to run away, despite the warning signs. This could be for a number of reasons such as

  • Attendance is compulsory
  • Learning materials aren’t available elsewhere
  • You don’t trust yourself to study independently so think you had better attend!**

In this kind of situation we need to bite the bullet and do the best we can with what we’ve got. And that requires one key skill. Note taking. See this article on my method of note taking before moving on to step 3, understand.

*this was the case with me for the first couple of years of university but eventually I came to the realisation that I’d be better off leaving if the lecturer was bad. After I did it once and worked out how much easier it was to teach myself the stuff there was no turning back!

**If this sounds like you then I suggest you try to nip this one in the bud quickly and sort it out. Check out this post on motivation to try to get better control in such situations.

Survey: The first of the 5 steps of efficient learning

This is the first in the five steps of efficient learning that are outlined here

Screen shot 2014-09-12 at 9.08.03 AMSurvey is about working out what you need to learn. This can be thought of in the ‘ask around’ sense of the word, or in the ‘survey the scene’  sense. If you’re preparing for a test, surveying is about finding out what is most likely to come up in the test, if you’re trying to learn a language, Survey is about finding the high frequency words, and learning them first. In this step we are sketching the outline of our learning and trying to recognise patterns in the information that we can take advantage of.

The best way for me to explain this is through examples.

Example 1: Maths exam

2011, Semester 2, 5 days out from my Differential Equations and Linear Algebra exam. I’d really left things to the last minute. I’d just returned from a conference that I attended in the middle of study week and I now had less than a week to learn a 13 week unit that I really hadn’t been paying attention to*. The first step? Survey! The goal of the survey was to identify exactly what I needed to learn to get the maximum outcome with the minimum effort.

This was me doing my best to employ the 80/20 rule. Asking: ‘Which 20% of work will give me 80% of the results?’ Did I try to work through all of the lectures from the unit? No, not enough time. I began with the end in mind. I started by looking at past exams.**

My Survey of past exams spanned the 2002 exams to the 2010 exams (I chose these ones because these were the ones for which the lecturer had been the same, and he was my lecturer that year, so I assumed they would be a good indication of relevant info). I tried to identify similar questions in each exam and I grouped them into PDFs so I could see each ‘category’ of question in one place. Here’s what they looked like in my folder

Screen shot 2014-09-12 at 7.59.52 AM

And here’s an example of what one of the PDFs looked like.

Now, whether you have or haven’t studied Differential Equations and Linear Algebra before, it’s clear that doing this did one thing of great value. It allowed me to identify patterns in the past exams, patterns that I could use to target my study. I now could see exactly what I had to learn to prepare. I spent the next three days looking at one question every morning, and one question every afternoon, here’s a re-make of what my study timetable looked like

Exam study timetable

I teamed up with buddies to work through questions that each of us struggled with, and I and I got the  80/20 rule spot on, I got 80% for the unit.

*Since this time I’ve learnt a lot about learning and knowledge acquisition and have come to realise the massive weakness of this ‘leave it to the last moment’ approach. If you don’t space your revision you’re really doing yourself a disservice and you’re likely to have the info just fall out of your brain post-exam. Furthermore, I recently found out about the importance of actually memorising things long term for life learning and better comprehension/critical thinking. This completely changed my view of how I studied in my undergraduate degree. I include this example here to express the value of the survey stop, not to glorify cramming!

**Whether this exact technique will work depends on the nature of the unit and the lecturer. In the above, for dramatic purposes, I leave out the fact that I’d chatted to a number of previous students of this class and they’d all told me that the exam was pretty predictable each year. This pre-survey survey gave me confidence that I’d be able to use the survey technique to reduce my study time and learn the content in 5 days.

Example 2: Learning Mandarin

Tiàowàng: To scan from afar, to survey the scene from an elevated position

Tiàowàng: To scan from afar, to survey the scene from an elevated position

My primary learning project at present is learning Mandarin. I started in November 2013 (10 months ago now) .But how did I start? With a Survey of course. But this survey was different to the maths exam. I wasn’t learning for a test, I was learning for living. So I saw it in a different light. For this survey I employed the most important survey principle that I know: ‘Ask someone who knows.

This is a principle that I apply to absolutely everything I start, from calling my grandma to ask her how to cook a christmas pudding to reading books about how the stock market works. In the case of Mandarin, I knew of 1 person who I knew had learned languages quickly before, Tim Ferriss. So I read up on what he had to say about language learning.

This introduced me to Spaced Repetition Software  and the idea of Frequency Lists. I then spoke to someone else at a conference and they told me about ChinesePod. Finally, I tracked down a friend of a friend who had taught himself Mandarin and was fluent. We met up at the local library and I we had a great chat. He taught me two vital lessons in that conversation: Firstly, that communication is mostly nonverbal, so when communicating in the language that you’re learning, don’t stress too much about the words, think about the meaning (sounded strange at first but became more clear as I began to communicate more, and allowed me to accelerate my communication). Secondly, it’s ok if sometimes you don’t feel motivated. Just because you stop for a week doesn’t mean that you have to stop for ever. Just pick it up again and keep going.

Conclusion

By taking a step back at the start of a learning experience and asking ‘what exactly do I have to/want to learn and what’s the best way to do this?’ you can help yourself to first see the patterns of your learning task before you move into the detail. Ask someone who knows and sketch out the outline and the main points of the task before you begin. This is the difference between completing a puzzle when you know what the end picture is supposed to look like vs. when you don’t. Scope out the scenery. Do a survey.

I’ll note that both Tim Ferris and Josh Kaufman call this step ‘deconstruction’.