Effective study method: How to develop it?

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Many students write to me subjecting me to the problems they encounter at school, and it is just the exchange of emails that I have daily with them to make me think that the difficulties they encounter depend not so much from poor application or from the generic “do not be carried”, but from the simple (and correctable) fact that they do not have an effective method of study.

Developing an effective method of study is not obvious, especially in a school system that almost always forgets to teach learning. And it is not obvious even to give recipes that work on every occasion, because everyone has his own style of learning, his favorite subjects, his times, his goals ….

A bit like diets in fact, The individual needs and starting points are very different: there are those who are in great shape and those who are overweight of 30 kg , who is 50 and who has 20, who never moves from the office or who is interested in doing it and who in 3 months wants to run the New York marathon. And so you can not prescribe the same thing to everyone!

However it is certainly possible, just as it is done for food, to establish some “healthy” principles, which generally work for most people. And on which it can then vary in the face of specific objectives or problems.

The 5 steps of an effective method of study

An effective method of study, just like an effective diet, has nothing convoluted or strange, but consists of a few simple steps, each with its own function and logic:

Choose the appropriate teaching material

It is an extension of the principle, also valid in life, so set an objective must be pursued with appropriate tools. And therefore an effective method of study can only begin with the choice of effective teaching material. Imagine it absurd to study biology on a 20-year-old book. Or to have photocopied by mistake the notes of another professor. Or to prepare a high school math test on a university book. Or, in reverse, to try to pass the pharmaceutical chemistry exam by studying your biology book. If you commit this kind of mistake in the choice of material, the results can only be disappointing, even studying a lot.

A medical student told me that, after having spent 2 months on a book of Radiology, the last model of the American edition, he had obtained worse results than his classmates, who had only been able to skip the professor’s lectures. He had worked hard but did not reach his goal, simply because he had not chosen an appropriate instrument.

The good news is that in order to properly choose the didactic material it is essential a normally pleasant activity: fooling around a little outside the classroom or from the study room and listening to urban legends and anecdotes about this and that exam, or about Professor X and Professor Y. The student who wants to optimize the teaching material, I must keep the ears straight as a secret agent and treasure the experience of others. With one eye, however, the reliability of the sources: unfortunately, in fact, in the fouling outside the classroom those who speak with more authority are often students in the seventh year out of course, and tend to psychological terrorism and hyperbole. Do not get caught up!

Finally, one last thing really important to have an effective method of study: the study material not only has to choose it well, you must also know how to build it well.

Did you know that there is a method to take notes in class, developed by a large American university, which can save you many hours of time when you’re back?

You may also like to read: Study Method: Start your day!

Quickly process teaching materials

The first thing to do once you have chosen the appropriate study material is to process it(in the sense of analyzing and processing) as quickly as possible. Note that processing is different than reading carefully, memorizing, emphasizing, making patterns, or whatever else you are used to doing when you start studying.

Processing the material has the goal of building as quickly as possible what the British call the “bigger picture”, or the overview of what you need to know. Think about when you make a puzzle: if you do not know the image you need to reproduce, it will be very difficult to connect all the cards to each other. And the same thing happens with the didactic material if you do not know it properly before starting to study it in depth.

When you are studying something new it is as if you were about to enter an unexplored territory: orienting yourself is very difficult if you do not have a route map. Processing the material quickly is as if, before going on foot in a territory you do not know, you flew over the air: you certainly can not capture all the details, but you will see how extensive it is, what are its boundaries, which presumably the most points difficult and which ones are easier … And everything will be easier when you have to follow it later.

To process the material quickly it is essential to know the techniques of fast reading and skimming; learning to master them is perhaps the best time investment anyone can try to develop an effective method of study.

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Explain things as if you were talking to a 5-year-old child

Before going into the study of the details, and after having processed the material for the first time, reread it and make sure you understand the conceptual part. Going to the intensive memorization phase without having digested the conceptual part is a great waste of time.

On the social network Reddit there is a section that I like very much and that is called “explain like I’m 5”, that is, explain it to me as if I were a 5-year-old boy. And the idea is exactly this: you’ve really only understood one thing when you’re able to explain it in such a simple and clear way that even a 5-year-old can understand you.

“If you can not explain something in a simple way it means you did not understand it well enough”

To simplify and clarify concepts you can help a lot of two strategies:

  • Learning to describe things with similarities: in the previous point, when I explained what it means to me and why it is important to process the material, I have used several, such as the unexplored territory, the map of the route, flying overhead. I did it just to add clarity to what I wrote.
  • Use concept maps: these are graphic representations of the conceptual content of a topic. Unfortunately, on many internet sites for students and professors there is a huge confusion between conceptual schemes and maps, and even at school many learn how to do it as patterns.

Now,  the problem is that the schematics are used to make the washing machines work, not the brain .

A conceptual map is not a scheme: it responds above all to “why”, not to “what”. In the diagram of a washing machine you find information such as: what should I crush to get it started? In the conceptual map of a washing machine, if there were, you would find information like “why some have the opening in front and others above?”. Not that the schemes do not serve, but are part of the next step, more mechanical, of storing details.

Memorize the details (but only the useful ones) with advanced strategies

In the process of material processing and conceptualization you have certainly also memorized many things. But probably not enough to pass your exam, especially if it is one of those high-mnemonic content. If nothing else, however, you already know what and how much you have to memorize, and then your effort will be well focused. At this point you have to memorize: making patterns, repeating, highlighting 6 colors, are all things you probably already do, but I’m not sure the ideal of an effective method of study. In fact, not only are storage methods decidedly slow, but also not very reliable over time. The memory techniques are much faster and allow a better memory of information even after a long time. Among the memory techniques that are certainly worth using are the method of the keyword, the method of the loci, the phonetic conversion, the alphanumeric files, the palaces of memory, spaced repetition or SRS (better if with software or app).

They are not easy to master, but they allow amazing results, which can also reduce the time spent storing by 70-80%.

An effective study method prepares you in a “holistic” way

It’s really frustrating when you have a lower performance than the effort you’ve made and what you know. Yet not only does it happen sometimes to everyone, but there are people who do not continually make as much as they could.

Maybe they have an effective method of learning to learn , but when it comes time to show they have learned they go into the ball.

For this reason, an effective method of study must be completed with tools that allow you to make the most of the exam or the interrogation.

To do this it is necessary to have a “holistic” approach to the study, that is an approach that also takes into account psychological and physical aspects, and not only the fact of having studied or not so well and well.

First you have to eliminate the fear of the exam: the fact of being well prepared already helps a lot, but if you do very simple things like learning some quick relaxation technique and eating light the day before and the same morning, you will be surprised examination anxiety will decrease and the results will improve.

Furthermore, after completing the assimilation phases seen in the previous points, you will have to practice repeating the material in a random way, just like in the exams.

Many students tend to repeat starting from page 1 and going to the end, but that’s not how a question or written task works! While what you want is to simulate the situation of the exam in the best possible way in order to improve your performance when you find yourself really giving it.

It is much better then to do a random repetition : put in forty about possible questions (the most difficult, not the easiest), and then extract and answer; open a page of the book at random, and starting from that topic try to talk as much as you can while making as many connections as possible with other parts of the material; alternates detailed answers and conceptual answers, detailed speeches and schematic summaries, written parts and verbal parts. In this way you will get bored less, you will keep the concentration higher, and you will feel really ready for any eventuality, and therefore safer than you. The length of this phase can also be very short, it is often enough to simply dedicate it the day before the exam: the aim is not to face any eventuality(by definition the possibilities are almost endless!), but make you feel prepared to face it .

From an effective study method to an efficient study method

An effective method of study achieves the result.

An efficient method of study, on the other hand, is not limited to achieving the result, but it does so with less effort.

For example, going from one point to another hopping on one leg is certainly effective, but doing so using two is certainly more efficient.

This is why I described what I think is an effective method of study trying to shore it up here and there with strategies that also make it efficient, that is, decrease the effort needed to implement it.

But the beauty is that while effectiveness is by nature limited (that is, the result is said that one thing by definition “was effective”, period), efficiency is not at all : from a point to other you can go hopping on one foot, walking with two, by bike, by car, by plane, with the interstellar rocket …

Therefore, learning a “method of effective study”, that is, giving results, is only the starting point for an improvement that can theoretically be without limits.

It depends on you.

Even if efficiency, at least in my opinion, should not become slavery or anxiety: you can study fast reading techniques and know how to read and understand in a thousand words a minute, but this should not prevent you, if you want it, to calmly enjoy a text that you like!

Writing this article cost me time and work.

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