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The most effective way I know to learn
From elementary school through graduate school, my study routine remained the same. Reread the notes that I had written, reread the relevant sections of the text book, and memorize, memorize, memorize. I had many of these long frantic study sessions over the course of two decades. The only real innovation in my study habits happened when I was in graduate school, where I studied with a group of equally stressed individuals. I would not have passed otherwise.
But that changed once I started working. I’ve always enjoyed learning, but unlike when I was in school, I no longer had the luxury of the entire day to study and learn. To continue progressing in my understanding of programming concepts, history, math, or any other subject that caught my eye, I had to discover a more efficient method. On top of this like many, I’ve always had trouble remembering things that I’ve read. I found the experience frustrating as it always just felt like wasted effort if I forgot it in a few weeks or months. So while I wanted to learn more effectively, I was willing to make a trade off in speed if I could retain the information longer. My first epiphany that I could do this came from this YouTube video
It’s a fantastic video and you should definitely watch it. But to summarize these are the main take aways
Break your study time into timed chunks with breaks in between
Create a dedicated study area
Differentiate between concepts and facts
Learn how to effectively study using textbooks
Avoid confusing recognition with recollection
Use the SQ3R method
Ensure you get proper sleep
Expand on your notes right after class while the material is fresh
Teach what you've learned, even if it means talking to a wall or a chair
Explore mnemonic devices like "ROY G. BIV.”
I won't delve into all these techniques, but let's expand on SQ3R. This method proved exceptionally effective for me when studying textbooks and online courses. SQ3R stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review and the way it works is like this…
Survey: Before diving into a chapter or video, skim through it. Pay attention to headings, bold and italicized text, and images. For online courses, read video titles and chapter names. Previewing the material familiarizes you with the content and helps it stand out as you dive deeper. It also provides a framework for note taking
Question: While scanning the material, ask yourself questions like "What is X?" or "How does X relate to this chapter?" This primes your mind to search for answers as you read or watch
Read: Self explanatory, but now that you have an idea of the content, comprehension becomes more straightforward
Recite: After reading a page or watching a few minutes of a video, summarize what you've learned. Explain a formula, narrate a historical event, or discuss a fact. This immediate feedback reveals how much you've retained
Review: Often, people start and stop at this step. Review chapters, videos, or books you've covered. Go over old quizzes. If you've effectively followed the previous steps, this should mainly involve brushing up and tying loose ends
While SQ3R greatly improved my note taking and knowledge retention, I want to stress that note taking is a skill that requires practice. I was one of the people that hated looking over my notes because they sucked and never contained the information I needed. SQ3R helped by giving me a better framework. But it was only after critically reviewing the quality of my notes, that I began to identify deficiencies in the way I wrote things down. Gradually, I started to realize what types of information I struggled to remember, or different ways I could write things that would help future me understand what I wrote later. This remains an ongoing process for me, but is definitely better than it has ever been. You might be thinking to yourself “Note taking is a great way to condense and summarize the information you’ve just learned, but what about techniques for remember specific facts?” I’m glad you asked dear reader.
Step 8 in Marty Lobdell’s tools for effective studying is using mnemonics. Mnemonics are quick and easy ways for remembering things. They are especially helpful when they can also be associated with a visual like for example in remembering the order of the planet with, My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas (rip Pluto). Not only does the first letter of each word correspond to the first letter of each planet, but the visual of being served 9 pizzas by one’s mother is a powerful image to imagine. Besides mnemonics creating little songs for pieces of information like in the periodic table song, establishes a rhythm that makes discrepancies evident when you forget or misplace words in the song. These tools all work in the same way, you are attaching more to the piece of information you want to remember than just the fact. Any way that you can think to do this would be helpful. But the problem is, not everything can be wrapped up in a handy mnemonic, or put into the words of a song. And let’s face it, some of us are just not that gifted musically or artistically, so what do we do then?
Arguably the most potent technique for rapid memorization is the Memory Palace. I first encountered this concept in a TED Talk by Joshua Foer, where he explored the techniques used by participants in the United States Memory Championship. These memory athletes memorize vast quantities of data, from binary numbers to decks of cards and names, using the Memory Palace technique
Foer's talk traces the technique's origin to Simonides of Ceos, a Greek poet, who by sheer luck survived the collapse of the banquet hall he was entertaining at, when he was called outside to talk to two men. He was asked to identify the bodies in the rubble. He discovered that he could remember who each person was by walking through the banquet hall in his mind, and remembering who was at each location. This incident led him to realize that pieces of information can be associated with physical spaces, making it retrievable by mentally traversing those spaces. He called it the “Memory Theater” and taught it to many people. It became very popular in ancient times, and its widespread use is why we say "in the first place" to describe recalling information during conversation today.
I’ve used Memory Palaces to memorize lots of things quickly, from counties in Michigan to the names and orders of United States presidents. What I like about this technique is that not only is it an effective tool for learning, but it makes life more enjoyable. Now when I go through my day to day and I walk into a residence, or establishment, I immediately think of what information I could store in it. All of a sudden places I frequent become new sources of inspiration. The grocery store, church, the park, old apartments, my favorite pizza place, all become potential palaces. There are lots of videos, articles, and books that go over how exactly to employ this technique, but one I found helpful was The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas.
Similar to note taking, these techniques require practice. It takes time to discover and refine Memory Palaces and commit information to memory quickly. I’m not here to tell you that this “one weird trick” will give you a photographic memory, but I can guarantee that you will improve your ability to retain information, and memorize it quickly, if you learn this technique.
Finally, my latest addition to my learning arsenal is the Zettelkasten, a note taking system developed by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, which involved flash cards and a slip box. During his lifetime, Luhmann created over 90,000 of these cards, and the system has seen a resurgence since being digitized and shared online. The Zettelkasten enabled Luhmann to maintain remarkable productivity, publishing over 50 books and hundreds of articles during his lifetime, including many books after his death.
The Zettelkasten process comprises four stages:
Take notes and highlight as you read.
Reread your notes and highlights, then rephrase them into your own words on flashcards, including only one idea per note, and add them to a slipbox for literature notes.
After finishing a book, create a reference note for it, including author name, title, copyright etc.
Periodically review your notes, seeking connections between ideas across different books. When you find them, tag them and add them to your "permanent note" slipbox.
For me, the Zettelkasten shines when reading non fiction. I use page marker stickers to highlight ideas, since I don’t like marking pages with a highlighter. Then, I transcribe the ideas or quotes onto flashcards. If it's a direct quote, I jot it on the front of the flashcard with the page number and the source. On the back, I note what the quote means to me or what idea it sparks. I avoid transcribing verbatim. If I don’t have anything additional to say about it, it doesn't belong in my Zettelkasten. I store these notes in a slip box with dividers to keep them in alphabetical order.
I don't maintain a separate Zettelkasten for permanent notes, partly because I've just started implementing this method for a few books, and partly because I'm not rigidly adhering to the pure Zettelkasten approach. As I accumulate more notes, I'll continue refining this slip box method to align better with my other techniques.
And that’s it. That’s how I learn new things, some of which ends up becoming the articles I write here. I’d like to point out one thing about all of this. One crucial aspect of studying is recognizing that everyone is different. Blindly adopting someone else's techniques won't yield the same results as developing and modifying your own system. If you have no study habits, then following a system is helpful. But practice often reveals modifications to these techniques that make it uniquely effective for you. But once you have something that works for you don’t fall into a common trap. Some people elevate their personal preference for the way they do things to a moral imperative, and criticize others for their techniques. No one likes this person.
My note taking and Zettelkasten system is completely analog. This is for a few reasons.
Better retention: Studies have show that people who handwrite notes are able to retain the knowledge better than those that use other methods. Plus it helps me practice my handwriting
Intentionality: Analog note taking eliminates my temptation to paste large bodies of text or media snippets into rich digital note taking software. It keeps me focused on the core ideas and concepts, minimizing distractions
Access Control: Limiting access to my notes reinforces memory recall. If I can't easily look up information on my computer or phone, I’m more likely to rely on my memory, strengthening my retention skills
Screen Break: In a digital age filled with screens, opting for handwritten notes provides a valuable break for my eyes. It also allows me to practice and maintain my cursive handwriting skills. I spent a long time learning them, so I’m going to use them!
In the pursuit of these ideals, here is my kit. It’s only slightly more fancy then the one I had in middle school.
While I have an analog system that includes binders and handwritten notes, there are plenty of digital resources that can replace most or all of the workflow I’ve shown above. Here are some of the digital resources I’ve come across
Obsidian - Like a digital Zettelkasten
Readwise - Sends you daily emails of your best highlights from Kindle, Instapaper, iBooks, etc.
Anki - Dynamic Space repetition flash card tool
Inkdrop - Note taking app
I hope to continue refining and learning new techniques over the next few years. It’s always a balance between honing the technique so you can learn better, and actually learning the things the techniques are in service of. While my system works for me, I’d love to hear what your system looks like dear reader, so please drop a comment down below!
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