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How to study effectively: a no bullsh*t guide

This isn’t one of those articles promising a list of ten study hacks that will ‘turn you into an instant genius, ninja assassin and sexual powerhouse’. I can only apologise.

Instead of advising you on which brain pills to take, where to buy your throwing stars and how to wash your unmentionables in liquid testosterone, I want to change the way you think about studying. That doesn’t sound like much, but a little insight can have radical results.

We already have an innate sense of how to learn. But somehow when we think about this formal, stuffy activity called ‘studying’, we forget.

Let’s say that I want to referee American football but I am completely new to the game – I don’t even know which end of the racquet to hold or how to sit on the horse. What should I do? Should I start memorising the official rule book? How about if I just turn up at a game and offer to referee? Or should I watch a video called ‘the basics of American Football’?

Unless you have a burning desire to see me chased around a field by some incredibly burly men, and this isn’t that kind of website, it’s obvious that throwing myself in at the deep end is a bad idea. Similarly, trying to memorise pages of rules without understanding the basics of the game is clearly going to be nightmarish, but watching an introductory video would be a good place to start.

We already have an innate sense of how to learn. But somehow when we think about this formal, stuffy activity called ‘studying’, we forget. The word itself conjures up a mental picture of a guy hunched over a textbook, so we just panic and hit the books, hoping that something – anything – will sink in. Thankfully there’s a way to look at revision that restores those good instincts and I can sum that up in one simple sentence: learning is a process not a single activity.

To become a football referee, I would eventually have to memorise the rules of the game, and at some point, I would have to get out on the pitch, but I need to do things in the right order. I need to follow the process.

So, how does it work?

I might be the first person to have told you that learning is a process, but I’m not the first person to have noticed. In the nineteen fifties, a guy called Benjamin Bloom identified six different levels of knowledge, this is called Bloom’s taxonomy of learning. Catchy, isn’t it?

It’s a little complex for what we need, so I want you to just think about the first three levels: Remembering, Understanding and Applying

Bloom put remembering first because being able to explain something demonstrates greater knowledge than just being able to recite it from memory. That makes sense, but it’s not the right order for learning. It’s far easier to remember things once we understand them.

The order we need is: Understanding, Remembering and Applying. This can be a little fluid in practise, but it is the basic sequence.

This all seems straightforward, so it’s hard to see how it can help you to study effectively. So let me give you a glimpse of the magic. When I was in high school, one popular way to revise was to highlight passages in our textbooks. Now answer me this, in terms of those three stages, what is it good for?

In the words of Edwin Starr – ‘absolutely nothing’.

More critically, if you can pinpoint your problem with a topic to one of those levels, the way to fix it becomes obvious. Each stage in the process has techniques that are particularly suited to it and you’ll run into trouble if you try to use the wrong ones. For example, flashcards are a great tool for memorising information, but they’re not going to help you learn how to apply knowledge on an exam.

Next time, I’m going to talk about a good approach for step one of that process.

  • Learning is a process
  • The order we need is Understanding, Remembering and Applying
  • There are techniques suited to the different stages

Read part two in this series

My book is now available! You can read about it here.

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