As advances in cognitive science continue to point out, you need more than time and effort to become a great learner.
You have to give your days structure, exploit the way your memory works, and pay close attention to what you do and don’t know.
Unsurprisingly, top students at top schools — MIT, Cal Tech, and the like — have some of the most effective study techniques.
Here are a few of their tips, care of a recent Quora thread.
They track their understanding of the material.
Instead of relying on what they think they know, the best students take inventory of their knowledge.
“I saw a lot of people thought that they understood what was going on in a class, but could easily get tripped up by the basics even after the class had moved onto more advanced topics,” says David Koh, who graduated from MIT in 2011. “Having a thorough understanding of the basics is particularly key, because most advanced material is really just an extension of the basics.”
This can be done in lots of ways. Ask your instructor for old quizzes to check your understanding against, or, better yet, help other people study. Koh says that this will reveal the gaps in your own knowledge.
They take better notes.
One key to his success: Instead of just writing notes that summarized what he’s learned, he structures his notes to promote the retention of facts.
To do that, he makes written notes that function like flash cards.
I write them in a form where I separate a “stimulus” from a “response.” The stimulus are cues or questions (think: front side of flashcard), while the response is the answer to the cue (think: back of flashcard). But the stimuli are to the left of a margin, while the responses are to the right.
And voila, you can quiz yourself on your understanding. Just lay a sheet of paper over the “back of the flash card.”
While it seems unremarkable, cognitive science shows that a flash card method is one of the best ways to learn.
They take care of their bodies.
Ming Jack Pao graduated from Johns Hopkins at 20 years old.
One thing he wishes he would have learned earlier: taking care of himself.
“I really, really abused my body when I was younger and am still paying a price for it now,” he says. “It took me years to get healthier, and it’s more than worth it.”
The physical health helps his mental performance.
“I can concentrate significantly better now than before and just everything about my life and body works better,” he says.
They put structure into their schedules.
Jessica Su, who graduated from Cal Tech in 2013, emphasises the simple things that give your week structure.
For one, she always got eight to nine hours of sleep a night.
“This allows me to go to class well-rested and do my problem sets with greater efficiency,” she says.
And just as rigorously, she always went to class.
“Always go to class,” she writes. “Even if the lectures are not useful, they serve to structure my day. Having lots of free time creates diminishing returns for me — three hours isn’t too different from four hours, but having one block of three hours and one block of one hour is significantly better.”
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