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Five Ways to Study Smarter


Most of the time, our approach to studying for an exam or just to keep up with coursework consists of two basic strategies: memorization and formulas. That is, we attempt to simply memorize attributes and facts or we come up with tricks to help ourselves remember concepts.

These strategies both have their place in learning, but they’re not particularly helpful in the long term. What if there were ways to study that helped us truly understand and learn the concepts our instructors and textbook authors were hoping to pass along?

Think of it this way: Our goal, learning, is similar to building a highway. We could approach building this highway a couple of ways. We could simply take the building materials – the concrete, rebar, gravel, asphalt, pavers, and paint and apply them in what we hope is the right order in the right place and hope what turns out is a highway. Or we could go up in the air, survey where the highway is supposed to go, make maps, draw plans, and theorize about what the highway will look like and where it will go. Ultimately, it takes a combination of these two approaches to create the result you want. Same thing with learning. Not only do you want to have a big picture view, you want to be able to understand the details.

Here are five ideas to help you gain both the big picture and the smaller details of challenging concepts.

Use Metaphors: In the paragraph above, we compared the process of learning to the process of highway construction. This uses a metaphor as an organizational tool. Comparing a complex idea to a simple one helps you to organize information in a way that helps you better understand. It simplifies relationships between information, helping you make sense of complicated subjects.

You Have Five Senses – Use Them All: Sometimes, abstract ideas are tough to comprehend because they seem to be removed from what we can feel, touch, taste, smell and hear. Break that mold by creating pictures, sounds, feelings, tastes or smells tied to the relevant information. For example, when I think about the process of photosynthesis, I imagine that I hear a waterfall, which reminds me of this little equation: (Carbon Dioxide+Water=Sugar+Oxygen). Use your imagination.

Help Someone Else Learn: Albert Einstein once said “If you can’t explain something to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it.” He’s right. Find somebody who doesn’t understand what you’re trying to learn and teach it to them. This forces you to make sure you know what you’re talking about. Taking ten minutes to teach someone else is the equivalent of studying for an hour.

Consistency, Not Cramming: If you don’t know the material, force feeding yourself information in a few hours before an exam isn’t going to do much more than frustrate you. Study each week’s lesson a little bit either before or after each class session. This way, studying becomes a comprehension check or a review rather than a first blush at new concepts. You steadily gain ground each week instead of trying to stuff it all in your head right before an exam.

Choose Function over Form: Have you ever known someone who has meticulous, beautifully outlined class notes and a textbook full of carefully-crafted, color-coded highlights? Is this person always the most knowledgeable about the subject matter? No. Your goal is to comprehend the course material so that it becomes part of your working knowledge – for exams and for future work. So if that means you have a spiral notebook full of shorthanded notes and a textbook full of sticky notes, so be it. If outlines and color-coded highlighters actually help you, fantastic – use them to the hilt. Just make sure that you’re using study materials in a way that makes the most sense for you – not to demonstrate your penchant for neatness or index cards.

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