Mike Gemmell is the founder and president of Restore Our American Republic (ROAR). Prior to founding ROAR, he was a geologist specializing in groundwater resource development, a technical writer, and a freelance writer addressing environmental and other cultural issues. For more information on his professional background please see: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelmgemmell.
Effective Study Tips
The thought of beginning a day of studying can often push a normal person into procrastination mode. Why? Because we see it as something we have to do rather than something we want to do.
The purpose of this essay is to convince you that with a better approach, your time spent studying can be both more enjoyable and more effective. In other words, it may become something you may actually want to do.
Learning consists of several steps:
- identifying new facts and their logical relationships
- integrating those facts, logically, with your existing knowledge, and
- applying your new knowledge to a real-life problem or situation.
Identifying New Facts and their relationships
Reading and listening to lectures are the typical ways that we identify new facts to study and learn. When we study any material we need to identify the important new facts, convert those facts to knowledge, and confirm that our new knowledge has “stuck” with us. This is usually achieved by writing down notes on the reading or lecture and then reviewing those notes (hopefully!) within one day of the lecture or reading. This tried and true formula will usually confirm that the material has stuck with you. What I want to suggest is using this same approach but with some added techniques that will help you understand the material more thoroughly, and in turn help you retain the material more easily.
One method of outlining / recalling that helps put the new material in a logical hierarchy is known as a “structured recall”1. Using this technique helps you, the student, to more easily see the logical relationships between the new facts you are studying. Let’s look at an example of this for the subject of a business plan.
Ex 1: Structured Recall technique for new subject material of a business plan
So, you have just read about, or listened to, a fascinating lecture on creating a business plan, and you want to maximize your retention of the material so that you can become the next Bill Gates. Of course, while you are reading your chapter or listening to the lecture you have already taken careful notes and identified the most important ideas, or at least tried to. According to your notes, the most important ideas supporting the development of the business plan are the following:
- Having a product or service to sell.
- Having a sales/marketing plan for that product or service.
- Composing a competitive strategy to help you develop an ever-increasing revenue flow.
- Developing a financial plan for your business.
- Developing a vendor strategy for products or services needed to create your product or service.
The “Structured recall” technique can be visualized as a bike wheel with the most important concept in the middle, or hub (the hub in this case is “business plan”) and the supporting concepts, i.e., the five stated above each on their own spoke connected to the hub of the wheel.
After placing each of the five concepts on their respective spokes, you may place additional subsidiary concepts as lines coming off of those spokes (subsidiary concepts would be perpendicular to the original five spokes). For instance, the financial plan would have subsidiary concepts coming off it such as: managing cash flow, balancing accounts receivables, estimating revenues, etc.
This sort of summary outline can be developed on a single piece of paper so you can see all basic elements of your chapter / lecture very quickly. Reviewing the material like this will help you more clearly see the relationships between the different concepts. For instance, developing a vendor strategy will be affected by your cash flow and other financial issues.
Integrating new Knowledge with your existing knowledge
After taking notes and developing a structured recall of the material, you will want to integrate your new knowledge with what you already know. But before you can integrate it, you must check to see that you thoroughly understand the relationships between the new concepts that you have learned. Fortunately, these two issues, checking the logical relationships, and integrating the new material with your existing knowledge, can be merged almost seamlessly by using either of the following techniques (using both together is even better):
- Writing to understand, and
- Teaching yourself as if you are your own student.
The process of writing deepens the thought process that has already started with the writing of lecture notes and the development of a structured recall. All writing relies on our subconscious, so the knowledge you already have will be brought to bear in the writing process. By doing this, it automatically helps you integrate the new material with your existing knowledge. Also, genuine knowledge is rarely useful if it cannot, at some point, be communicated to another person. The process of writing organizes your thoughts and enables you to more effectively do this. Writing a useful summary is an excellent way to achieve this.
Once the summary is written, you can give yourself a lecture from your own essay and determine if the presentation makes sense. If it does, you have successfully learned the new material and integrated it with your existing knowledge. These two techniques work even better when combined because the written summary becomes the “lecture material” to teach yourself from.
Applying New Knowledge to a real-life problem or situation
If time permits, and if the material is important enough, you will want to apply your new knowledge to a real-life problem. Nothing increases our confidence as much as using our knowledge to solve an actual problem. In this case, you might want to write an actual business plan for a new product or service, and submit it to a qualified professional for review. Or, if time does not permit that at least contact a qualified professional and discuss your understanding of the process to create a business plan and verify that they agree with your approach.
If you can learn more intensively with greater clarity and at the same time more easily integrate your new knowledge with your existing knowledge, you will become a much better student. And the better student you are, the more you will enjoy your studying experience. It takes time to develop these techniques, but it can be done. For further reference on study techniques see the selected references in the following section.
- The “Structured recall” technique where the main idea is placed in the center of the page and subsidiary ideas radiate outward like bicycle spokes comes from the Evelyn Wood Reading courses. Any of their materials from the mid-1990s onward such as Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics on book or tape (pryor.com) will present the “Structured recall” technique for improving retention of reading material.
- Study Skill Strategies, 1986, by Uelaine Lengefeld, 62p. Study Skill Strategies is filled with practical techniques for improving your study skills.
- Study Methods and Motivation, 1998, by Edwin Locke, 187p. Study Methods and Motivation has many practical study techniques, but in addition has a philosophical discussion of motivation as well as a discussion of the use of logic as a learning tool.