How To Learn Effectively
In the past, you may have had some negative experience with learning. You may either have muddled through your school work in a hazard way, or you did read widely but found it difficult to remember what you have read. If those descriptions sound familiar to you, I may be able to help reshape your attitude towards learning. So today I will give you three strategies to learn more effectively.
1. Reflect on your own learning styles
The first aspect of effective learning is to recognise your own combination of learning styles then work out strategies to utilise your strengths to help you learn more easily.
What is VARK?
Past research in cognitive psychology has found out that people do process information differently. A New Zealand inspector of the education system Neil Fleming and his colleague Colleen Mills have summarised those differences using a model called VARK, which stands for Visual, Auditory, Read/Write and Kinesthetic.
The four phrases represent the major learning styles demonstrated by people who are learning. If you are a visual learner, you like information to be presented to you in the format of pictures.
If you are an auditory learner, you prefer information coming through your ears. Likewise, if you have a read/write style, you prefer reading text. And if you belong to the last group, you like to process the information by trying it out.
Most people however would have a combination of all the four traits and some are more dominant than the others. You can use an online VARK questionnaire to help you figure out your learning style.
Example of questions in VARK questionnaire
A typical question can be like:
“You are not sure whether the spelling of the word “dependent” is dependent or dependant. Do you:
- R) look it up in the dictionary.
V) see the word in your mind and choose the best way it looks.
A) sound it out in your mind.
K) write both versions down.
How you answer each question will help the algorithm work out a set of scores which give you an indication of the most optimal way for you to take in new information.
Learning strategies for visual learners
If you are predominantly a visual learner, you want to take advantage of tools like mind maps, whiteboard or large papers with coloured pens, drawings, diagrams, stick figures and visualisation.
Learning strategies for auditory learners
If your dominant learning style is auditory, then you need to make full use of your sound system. You can listen to recordings of lectures, seminars, training courses, or audiobooks. Alternatively, you can join discussion groups, debate societies or clubs. And interviewing experts who have the knowledge you want can also help.
Learning strategies for Read/Write learners
If you love reading, then you should read anything you can get your hands on. You can also write copious notes or articles to help you understand the subject.
Learning strategies for kinesthetic learners
If you belong to the last category, you are a hands-on person so to speak.
Learning Strategies for the Kinaesthetic style of learning may include:
Attend workshops or interactive classes.
Watch physical demonstrations.
Take on practical projects and experiments.
Last time I checked my VARK result, I found out I am predominantly a VAK learner and to a lesser degree auditory learner.
So my own learning strategy involves all three types of processing channels.
Take writing a speech as an example, I first put each idea into an index card of their own. I then label each card so they can be identified. I then put all the cards on a corkboard and visually shuffling the cards around until a workable logic appears in front of me. I then expand on each idea to eventually fill up the body of the speech.
This strategy has worked wonders for me, so you should figure out your own combination of learning styles as well.
2. Stay organised in an information world
If you are serious about acquiring and keeping up to date with your field of knowledge. It is very importance to be organised. I will say it again. If you want to build up your knowledge over time, it is crucial to be very organised. Why? There are a number of good reasons.
First of all, there is an enormous amount of information out there all competing for your senses.
In 2013, It was estimated that 304,912 titles were published in the United States alone. 184,000 titles were published in the UK during the same year.
If you punch a search term such as “how to train your dog” into Google, the search engine gives you 110,000,000 search results.
A four-year medical degree requires students to go through around 30 textbooks.
A textbook such as Robbins and Cotran’s Pathologic Basis of Diseases has 1408 pages of detailed information.
Of course, you don’t have to read every bit of information under the sun. But even after you have managed to filter out the gems from piles of irrelevant information, there are still enough information to cause your brain to overheat.
Next, let’s have a close look at our memory.
Our short-term memory sucks
When new information comes in through your senses. The majority is filtered out, only a small portion is stored in what is called your short term memory. Why short term memory?
Because that memory simply doesn’t last. If you try to remember a random phone number, you can probably hold it for a few seconds. The longer the number is, the more difficult it will be for you to remember the number even for a split second. So the short term memory sucks.
The importance of having a good system to organise information
You may wonder how you may ever learn anything if our memory is so unreliable. The truth is we do have other ways to cope. A more effective way of remembering things is to build links between new information and your existing knowledge.
This is where understanding comes in. The deeper you can understand the subject, the more connection points there are. As a result, your memory of the information can last a bit longer.
Of course, this process does initially take time. If you are taking a study course, most likely, there will be much more information than you can process.
So this brings our next point: you need to have a reliable system to store and retrieve information at a later time. Nothing can be more frustrating than knowing you have got the information somewhere but no way in hell you can find it when you need it.
How to organise information
How do you organise your information? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. The subject itself can be a book on its own.
With so many applications or computer programs available nowadays, it can easily get very confusing and trapped in the never-ending process of trying to work out all the whistles and bells within the program rather than using it as a tool to meet you needs. You have to figure out the best way that works for you.
But a few simple principles here may help you get started.
First of all, you need to label the information so it can be retrieved easily. Keywords or tags are commonly used if you keep all your information in a digital format.
Alternatively, if you stick to paper, you have to maintain a physical filing system. You may use index cards or tabs with alphabets to help you store and retrieve information.
Another thing is to make sure you can access your filing system no matter where you are. This can be cumbersome if you rely on a physical filing system.
At last, make sure you always have a backup of your information just in case your computer dies of a hard-drive failure or your paper files goes up in flames. You don’t lose years of hard work.
The last point I want to cover is the revision. Don’t underestimate the value of revision. It is a key ingredient to the success of your learning.
Memory fades over time
Why do we have to review what we have learnt? For a simple fact: our memory fades over time.
In the 19th century, a German psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered an interesting fact that memory fades exponentially, which means initially the loss of memory is substantial.
Around 50% of what you have learnt will disappear in just one day. After 3 days, Over 80% of the information will fade away. And if you leave it for a week without any revision, nearly 99% of what have remembered will be gone with a trace.
One way to slow down this process is through repetitive revisions spaced out over a period of time. Therefore, you need to review frequently when the memory is still fresh. Then over time, the need to revisit the material gradually diminishes.
Good revision practice
So what is a good revision practice? The least effective method is to simply browse through your notes. Research has found that you only remember 20% of what we read, 30% of you hear, 40% of what you see, 50% of what you say, and 60% of what you do. If you can do all of that, you can remember 90% of you are learning.
A couple of strategies which have worked for me.
Teach what you have learnt to others. It not only clarifies the information in your own mind but also tests the depth of your understanding of the subject.
The second strategy is to test yourself. A good way to achieving this is to use flashcards.
So what are flashcards? They can be as simple as a piece of paper with questions on one side and answers overleaf. If you can recall the answer to the question without having to flip over and check the answer, you have passed the test for that piece of information.
Schedule your revision
Depends on how much you are trying to learn. It’s fair to say that you won’t be able to review everything you have learnt in one day. So you must schedule your revision.
There are a couple of ways to do this. You can create a revision plan. This can be a simple handwritten note which describes what you want to review and when to do so. If you are computer savvy, you can make up a table using excel then put the revision tasks in a calendar program like outlook.
There are numerous other options and it can get as sophisticated as you wish.
There is however a simpler option which covers both flashcards and revision scheduling. You can use a computer flashcard program such as Anki to achieve this purpose.
It is a very neat program that is very customisable. All you need to do is to put the information you want to remember into the program and it will automatically show you the material you need to learn for the day. I highly recommend this program if you are serious about learning.
So far I have covered three strategies which you can use immediately to jump start your learning.
Just to recap: you need to be aware of your preferred learning styles and using appropriate strategies I have mentioned to improve your ability to absorb information. You also need to develop a reliable system to keep your information repository in good order. At last, have a revision plan to keep your memory fresh.