If you’re a human in society today then you are aware of how important it is to know how to do specialized work. The more specialized the work we do the higher our earning potential. That has been the rule for the past 250 years. But that’s changing. We are moving towards an era of intelligent work, in which what we know doesn’t matter as much as what we are able to learn. This article provides tips to study effectively.
My hope is that by the end of the article the reader will know a little more about how to use his/her head to greater effect. The more aware we are of how our brain learns, the better the decisions we can make regarding how we study, which means we learn more and increase our earning potential!
So read on if this is something which interests you.
How We Are Taught To Study – Ineffectively!
Let’s get one thing out of the way at the start. School indoctrinates us with terrible habits. You can read about how school does that here and here.
Another of school’s principal failures, which I don’t address in the previous articles, is that students learn little, if anything, about how to study effectively. Whether this is by design or an accident changes little. The fact is that at school we don’t learn anything about how to use our mind in the best way possible.
I went to private schools in Mexico City all my life. By scholastic standards, the schools I attended were excellent, which is not saying much. They were good at teaching me to sit still, follow orders and ignore my interests, but little else. By the time I started junior high school I believed that by getting good grades in school I would secure a successful and meaningful life in whatever field I chose to go into.
Boy was I wrong (read about that here).
I Became An A-Student In Junior High
In junior high, I figured out that if I sat down and drilled into my homework and coursework I was able to secure good grades reliably. And I noticed that getting good grades made me and my parents feel good. So I did it.
I would sit down for hours and do my homework and study for exams. That was my method. Sitting down and drilling into the material. I had never learned anything different, so that was my approach. It took me hours to learn simple concepts and do my homework. The worst was when my mind was foggy, so nothing stuck, which made me sit down for longer and drill down harder, forcing my mind to cooperate. Which did work, but at the cost of tremendous time and effort.
The fact was that I had no idea what I was doing. The brain/mind has evolved to learn. But I was not using my brain/mind effectively. I was forcing my brain/mind to learn things in a way which did not complement its natural abilities. So I wasted a lot of time fighting my brain’s/mind’s natural tendencies.
This was the method of study which I adhered to for the rest of my scholastic career. I wasted tremendous amounts of time this way. Curiously, it was only once I left school and started reading about learning that I learned how to use my brain/mind effectively.
Isn’t that laughable? I only learned about these things once I LEFT school! What a joke.
What We Learn At School
The way I learned to learn at school was to sit down, open my book/notebook or whatever and read text over and over until it stuck in my head. I also learned to take notes in the way we all learn to take notes; on ruled paper, using one color, writing from left to right and top to bottom (if you learned in a language like Farsi or Mandarin, this was different for you, of course). I learned that I had to sit still, with my head buried in my notebook, reading or solving problems, in order to learn the material for my classes.
Odds are this was your experience too, unless you went to a Montessori school or some other alternative system.
The issue with learning to learn this way is that it goes against how we have evolved to learn! For millions of years, human beings spent their days moving; gathering food, hunting, migrating from one site to another and dancing. Sitting still for hours on end is not conducive to a healthy body nor mind.
This whole “sitting still for 8 hours a day” is a recent invention, in an evolutionary time frame. It began during the industrial revolution, during which work moved from the countryside to factories. Instead of swinging a hoe all day long, work became sitting at a work station and performing a specialized task over and over again.
Sounds like the modern schooling system in a nutshell, right?
Language In Learning
Additionally, language as we know it is also a recent invention in an evolutionary timescale. Not as recent as the “sitting still for 8 hours a day” idea, but we have only been using language for a minute fraction of time during which life has existed on this planet. According to scholars, the earliest language could have developed was with homo habilis, about 2.3 million years ago. With the emergence of language proper with homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago.
But remember, the ancestors to human beings were alive waaay before 2.3 million years ago. Life on planet Earth originated around 3.9 billion years ago. Ever since then we have been ceaselessly evolving, until today, with our upright, bipedal walking, opposable thumbs and big heads. At most, language has existed for about 1/1000th of the time that life has been kicking about on this planet.
This means that language is a very recent addition to our cerebral toolkit!
There are other, deeper, more primal and ancient processes which underpin our learning capabilities. Things like color, sound, rhythm, shapes and textures engage these deeper processes and allow us to anchor what we learn at a level which goes deeper than intellect. Written language is an effective tool to store and transmit information across generations. But it is not the only tool we have to learn.
Yet at school we are taught to rely solely on sitting to read and write in order to learn the material we are presented. And that means we are ignoring the vast majority of our ancient learning mechanisms.
What I am going to present to you now are simple techniques which take advantage of our ancient primal learning mechanisms. They are not difficult, and I guarantee that if you apply them to anything you want to learn you will drastically improve your effectiveness.
Learning To Learn
All of what you are about to read comes from the book “Use Your Head” by Tony Buzan. Mr. Buzan was an author and educational consultant who died in 2019. He popularized the idea of “mental literacy”, which means “knowing how to use your mind.” Also, he was the founder of the World Memory Championships, an event which tests competitors’ memorization abilities by having them memorize strings of numbers hundreds of digits in length, among other challenges.
He was a controversial figure. Buzan was rather eccentric, and based on what I’ve read about the man, he could come across as a showman who was always looking to sell something.
Whatever your opinion of the man is, I can tell you that I have applied a few of the ideas Buzan popularized and they have served me well. If we close ourselves off to all new ideas we never learn anything new. Until we try a new way of doing things we don’t know whether it works for us or not. So I invite you to try out a few of the ideas which Buzan wrote about.
How To Maximize Learning Through Reading
Every student today has to read to learn. Naturally, in our speedy society, “speed reading” is all the rage today. I’m not convinced by the value of “speed reading.” Because I believe truly learning something means stewing in it, meditating on it and finally integrating it into our lives. That takes time. We can speed read all we want, but if we don’t take the time to integrate what we learn into our belief system, we might as well be reading empty words.
I am a huge believer in the power of reading to improve ourselves. You can read about that in this article. By practicing effective habits we can maximize the value we get from the time we spend reading. These habits go against what many of us have been taught to do in school, so they might seem counterintuitive at first, but they work.
Let’s Do An Exercise
By doing this exercise you will experience firsthand how you can use your mind more effectively, so I invite you to do it.
Read this list of 20 words. Memorize as much as you can, but don’t take too long doing so:
Now get a pen and a piece of paper and write down as many words as you can, without looking at the list again.
How did you do?
Unless you have been trained in memorization techniques you probably remembered 7 items from the list. If you remembered more or less don’t let it go to your head, the ability to memorize things does not equate to intelligence.
But I bet there is a pattern to what you remembered. If you look at the list and at the words you remembered, I believe you mostly remembered some words at the beginning of the list, some words at the end of the list, the word “Alien”, and maybe the words “computer” and “mouse.”
Does that sound about right? That’s because there are commonalities across all human brains when it comes to learning. They are:
- The Primacy Effect – Relates to our tendency to recall items at the beginning of a list.
- The Recency effect – Relates to our tendency to recall items at the end of a list.
- The association/linking effect – Relates to our tendency to recall items which are linked to other items.
- The Von Restorff effect – Relates to how we remember the weirdest/most uncommon item in a list.
How To Take Advantage Of These Effects
To take advantage of the primacy effect and the recency effect all we have to do is take more breaks!
Sounds counterintuitive, but if we allow for periodic breaks throughout our studying, we have more “starts” and “endings” to our studying, which means we increase the recall of material through the primacy and recency effects.
The way I do it is I study for 50 minutes and then I take a 10-minute break. During the break I walk around the house or I go outside and walk around the block. I then return to my studying with a fresh mind and a ready to start studying again. Studying this way makes learning much more effective and effortless.
To take advantage of the association/linking effect
It’s also straightforward. Knowledge is a network. Much like the neurons in our brain, when we learn something new it doesn’t become knowledge until we link up what we learn with other meaningful knowledge or experiences. Therefore, the more knowledge we have the more likely what we learn will become caught in our existing network of knowledge.
The way I utilize the association/linking effect is by skimming material. When I skim something I am going to learn about I prepare my brain for what is to come. I lay a tenuous network so that when I study the material deeply it has a greater chance of becoming caught in my knowledge network. I’ve found that the more I learn about a topic the easier it is to learn about it, because as the web of knowledge grows so does the material which gets caught in it. It becomes easier for me to make associations.
As an example, let’s say I meet someone for the first time and they tell me their name. Let’s say it’s David. If I try to link the name “David” to the person’s face upfront I will have a harder time than if I link the name “David” to the image of my brother, who’s name is David. I am so familiar with my brother that it’s effortless for me to think about him along with his name, David. So I can link the new person’s name to my brother’s name and so remember their name better.
This Leads Us To The Final Effect
To take advantage of the Von Restorff effect we have to use our imagination. The word “Alien” was easy to remember in the list because it was unlike anything else on the list. It also engages our imagination. So by linking the things we learn to extravagant/uncommon/weird images, we increase their memorability. This is how mnemonics work.
As an example, this can be applied in learning taxonomy, or the classification of biological organisms. In taxonomy the major classification ranks are: Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.
What if I asked you to learn all those words in that order? How long would it take you? Would you be able to write it in an exam?
But, if instead of forcing your mind to remember, you applied the Von Restorff effect by, say, coming up with a memorable phrase which helped you remember, then you’d have a much easier time in memorizing them.
Like the phrase: Dumb Kings Play Cards On Fat Girls Stomachs. Can you imagine the dumb kings playing cards on the fat girls stomachs? Do you see the image in your mind’s eye? How easy is it to remember that? From there you can link each element in the image to a word and have a much easier time recalling them.
This Is Just The Beginning
There are many other techniques which I apply to my learning, which I will not go into in this article. This article is meant to give you a taste of what it’s like to use your mind effectively rather than forcefully.
Most of us learn that forcing our way through life is the most effective way to get things done. We learn to force ourselves to work, to exercise, to study and to eat healthy. Forcing ourselves to do things is exhausting. It’s much more effective to work intelligently, honoring our human nature (which is lazy), rather than constantly pushing ourselves to do things in ways which don’t match our evolutionary design.
It’s a goal of mine to show my readers how by making intelligent choices human beings can accomplish more by doing less. In order to make those intelligent choices we need to have access to the right knowledge. That’s where this website comes in.
I hope you got something from reading this article and that it inspires you to take a renewed approach to your reading and learning. We live in a time where our outward success is not determined by what we know, but by how well we can learn new things and reinvent ourselves within a dynamic economy.
Will you apply anything of what you read here?
To our wealth and success.