Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Weekly Tip; Learn how to learn

Apologies, I've been studying for an exam so had to miss a weekly tip, but this study got me thinking. Many of us out there, me included were never taught how to learn, or if we were it was by outdated methods of repetition and myths such as reading slower equals better comprehension.

I will be honest, I didn't try very hard when I was in high school, I sailed through and got pretty good grades, A's, B's, C's. But when it came to A-Level's, it suddenly wasn't so easy, I was bright enough, but it was a lot harder, and I wasn't prepared. After this experience, I thought I was done with education, but within two years, I was at University. In the two years break, I did something that would have been very useful in my School days. I learned how to learn.

The result? I went from barely passing A-levels to a 1st class Business degree, to the great surprise of, well, everybody - including me.

So this tip is all about learning how to learn, in summary;
  • Don't be afraid to learn
  • You still need to study hard, but it can be more enjoyable
  • The key techniques; Memory Techniques, Speed Reading and MMOST (Mind-Map Organic Study Technique)
Don't be afraid to learn
When it comes to learning new things, many adults shut down. I've actually heard people say;

"Now I'm older there just isn't the space to remember new things", or;

"I couldn't remember things like that, my brain doesn't work that way" and my favourite;

"It's harder for adults, as children are like sponges when it comes to learning".

Lets think of it another way. Young children don't have inhibitions, they learn by asking "why?", and aren't afraid to get it wrong, that's why they seem to learn languages faster - it's because they don't anticipate the humiliation of getting it wrong, or the frustration of not being able to recall a word, they just have a go and if the word sounds passable they get applauded. 

Another thing that a toddler will do differently, is they don't get hung up on using the written language to learn, they learn with their innate ability to process the world using pictures, sounds, touch, taste and smell. In fact, they use these innate skills to learn how to read.

So don't be afraid to learn - if a toddler can do it, I'm sure you can.

You still need to study hard, but it can be more enjoyable
After years of frustration of comprehending the things that I was being taught, I figured there must be a better way of memorising things other than just looking blankly at books and notes and repeating things. As a part of this, I found a great friend called, it showed me a world of books I had never heard of before, the stuff that just wasn't available in my local WHSmith. You may have come across these techniques already - great! The thing is, many people haven't, and I still know people that think the way to learn is slow and by repetition.

The techniques I will mention will feel like magic if you've never used them before, and are actually pretty easy to get to grips with. Also, don't worry, this isn't an all or nothing thing. You can pick and choose a few favourite techniques. I really do suggest trying one or two out, as even a little bit of knowledge about better learning techniques can have tremendous benefits. Actually, just being aware that memorisation by repetition is all but useless is a start! I'm going to share the Key Techniques I've had most success with;

The Key Techniques;
There are many resources, techniques and books out there, my favourite is still Tony Buzan's work, he has a vast amount of publications, but I suggest starting with The Memory Book; How to remember anything you want, Buzan also has published dedicated Speed Reading and Mind-Mapping Books.

Memory Techniques
There are several techniques out there, but I suggest getting to grips with a Roman Room and the Peg System.

The Roman Room uses a room or place you already know, and objects such as furniture within that room to link to things you need to remember. So if you are in your lounge and you need to remember 'Banana' then you might look over at your sofa and see it's covered in rotten, smelling bananas (the more vivid the better), then you might look at the coffee table and you need to remember 'Theatre Tickets', you might imagine the whole cast of the play you want to buy tickets for trying to balance on the table, you can hear the table groan as its cracking under the weight... get the idea? Do this yourself, write down 10 items (or more!) and use this technique. If you struggle, don't worry visualisation can be tough if you are not used to it, but use all of your senses not just sight and sound - use touch, smell, taste, make it exciting or repulsive - anything to make it memorable. You can use an ever increasing number of rooms and build up your memory palace. This isn't just the stuff of Sherlock.

The Peg System is another useful tool that I use regularly for shopping lists and other items that I need to remember. This is where you have a pre-set list of memory 'pegs' that you use to link to the thing you want to remember. There are a few different types, but I use the number shape peg system where my peg is an image that looks like a number. So for example, I imagine;

1 looks like a paint brush
2 looks like a Swan
3 looks like mountains
4 looks like the the Sail of a boat
5 looks like a wheel chair
6 looks like a yo-yo spinning
7 looks like a boomerang
8 looks like an hour-glass timer
9 looks like a periscope
10 looks like a bat and ball.

I suggest coming up with an image that you are comfortable with, but once you have this list that you permanently keep, you then use this image to remember the thing you want by imagining the peg image with the item you want to remember.

For example, if you need to remember 'Coffee', take your number 1 peg, a paint brush, and imagine putting your paint brush into a big mug of coffee and accidentally drinking it! You can smell the odd mix of paint and coffee and see the mess you've made of the mug and the horrid taste! Use your senses (I could just imagine painting a coffee bean, but the more surreal and vivid you make it the better!).

Here are a few other examples;

You need to remember "Red Wine", you are on peg number 2 now, which is Swan. You could imagine a huge wine glass with a Swan swimming around it, staining it's perfect feathers red, and yes, drinking the wine, and because there is so much, the swan is very drunk!

You need to remember "Biscuits", you are on peg number 3 now which is mountains. You might imagine trying to climb a steep mountain, but the footpath keeps on breaking up, you look down and you are actually walking over a huge cookie that's full of chocolate chips, you dive down to eat it, but it tastes funny because of all the hikers that have been walking over it - mountain cookies are no good!

Now pause here, I've only gone through pegs 1, 2 and 3. So I would expect you to remember without the aid of this technique. So now try doing it with ten items and see how easy it is, and how long you can remember it for!

Speed Reading
This sounds positively frightening for many, but actually you will not only get through more material, but you will also remember more of it. The basic problem most of us have with speed reading is actually sub-vocalisation (we read the words in our head to ourselves). Getting rid of this is takes quite a bit of practice, and I only mention it because it's a good way to think differently about reading; So for a second, imagine looking at a picture of a boy on a bike, you don't need to stop and think "There is a boy, and he's riding a bike", you could probably take a 1 second look at it, turn around and someone will say "What did you see?". You would be able to describe it easily, perhaps in lots of detail, colour of the bike, age of the boy, his surroundings etc. All with out repeating it to yourself first. See how speed might be applied to words?

Okay, so that's not particularly actionable, so lets start with something easy to explain. I was sitting reading quite merrily using my finger as a guide across the page and someone sitting near me said, "You never learned to read without taking your finger off the page?". I smiled, as actually, this was something I had re-learned, as it is a fantastic technique for keeping your eye focused on the words you are reading and pushing your speed (ever had a time when you are tired and re-read the same line two or three times? This just doesn't happen if you use your finger!). Actually, it's better to use something a little finer than your finger, such as a pen. If you are reading text on a monitor, using the mouse cursor can do a similar job. Give it a try and just see how much easier it is!

MMOST (Mind-Map Organic Study Technique)
Many of you may be familiar with mind-mapping, it's quite widely used. If not, Tony Buzan's books are amazing, but just type "Mind-mapping" into a search engine for examples. Now, I don't want to go over mind-mapping, but actually the study intervals suggested by Buzan. I've used these to great effect and always kick myself if I try and take short cuts.

If you are trying to learn something, try this;
Study the subject for say 30 mins or perhaps you are in a class, then at the following intervals review what you have done and check for understanding (this can take a few seconds or as long as you need);
  • 1 hour later
  • 1 day later
  • 1 week later
  • 1 month later
  • 6 months later
  • 12 months later
If you are doing a course, revision becomes a breeze, I did this during my degree and it made everything so much easier. Even if you are not interested in learning memory techniques, speed reading or mind-mapping, this sequence of revising your notes will be much more effective than trying to cram before your exam!

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