How to study and learn: a regime for “active” learning
Most exams in the sciences aim to test your ability to integrate field-specific terminology and critical thinking skills, a process that requires PRACTICE.
Critical thinking requires you “..to maintain a state of doubt [i.e., confusion] and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry” (John Dewey).
If you think that “active” learning is optional, you are mistaken. It is required.
To learn the language of science and to practice critical thinking skills, I recommend the following regime. You can prioritize those activities that work best for you, but you will only discover what is best by practicing.
- Come to class prepared: Reading the assigned text, reviewing the lecture plan (often outlined in the syllabus or posted lecture notes) dramatically increase your ability to learn during lecture. Generate questions from the text or topics that you can actively seek answers to during lecture. Be an active learner when you read; look up terms you do not understand. Wikipedia is good place to find basic definitions. I donate to Wikipedia; please use it.
- Participate during lecture: Active learning during lecture can involve taking notes (on paper or on the lecture slides you printed out or downloaded), asking questions (if you don’t like speaking up, write them down to address later via email/office hours), earnestly using clickers or other active learning tools provided by the instructor. If you are easily distracted by social media or other phone-apps, do everyone a favor and turn off your phone in class.
- Reinforce your learning RIGHT AFTER lecture: The ~6h after lecture are probably the most important time in your studying. During this time, you are likely to retain many of the details from lecture in your working memory (this fades with time, so the sooner the better). With help from your notes and text, re-write the lecture (do not just copy your notes). Write a list of terms to remember, and most importantly re-create the logic of the lecture for yourself, using the text, outside sources and your class notes. This is also the time to understand what you know and what you do not know. Make al list of what you need to ask in office hours (discussion board, email, class, etc) about AND look up those topics online. DO NOT LET YOUR CONFUSION PERSIST.
- “Teach” the material: The best way to learn is to explain the concepts to others. This can be done in small study groups where you actively participate. You can also explain the material or major concepts to your roommate, parents, siblings, or your dog. The point is to use your words (a wipe board is fun too) to re-explain the material. This oral approach will complement your writing-learning approach and reinforce what you know and identify what you do not know. Oral-learning can also take place in office hours where you come and explain what you know (or think you know) to a TA or instructor.
- Practice (at least once/week and more before a midterm): Most exams ask you to solve problems as a test of how well you integrated terms, concepts with problem solving questions. You CANNOT be good at problem solving questions without practicing. In my experience, the best approach is for you to practice writing and answering exam questions. Model your questions on homework, practice problems or old exams (or ask the instructor for guidance about the types of questions to expect). Mimicking questions you will find on the exam serves multiple purposes. First, it will allow you to calmly approach the same types of questions when you are in the room taking the exam. Second, you must understand the topics to determine what type of question to ask and how to answer it. This is a fantastic learning activity. Draw (diagrams) and write your own practice questions on a piece of paper. When you discover what you do not understand — again, seek help.
NONE OF THE ABOVE CAN BE EFFECTIVELY IMPLEMENTED THE DAY BEFORE THE EXAM
ALL OF THE ABOVE REQUIRES CONSISTENCY AND HARD WORK. PLAN ON 2-3 HOURS AFTER EACH LECTURE – SOME STUDENTS WILL REQUIRE MORE.
General Learning strategies: Realize that everyone learns differently and the way you learned in high school, JC or with in person classes may be different in a remote learning environment. You owe it to yourself to experiment with your approaches to learning. Seek advice from your instructor, compare notes with your peers, or search out a tutor at the Academic Assistance Tutoring Center. Here are some general suggestions:
- When you are “learning”, experiment with strategies to reduce distractions (e.g, headphones, sit outside, change study locations). Your attention may wander when you are stuck in one place for too long. Put it on “pause” and find a new place to refocus. Turn off phone notifications when you sit down to learn.
- Increase your learning capacity by taking care of your mind (Andrew Huberman’s lab at Stanford works on some of these issues; he has a lot to say, at least some of it makes sense to me. I borrowed heavily from his “neuroplasticity super protocol”). There are many factors that can affect your ability to learn. One of the most important is regular sleep and nutrition. These function together in concert with your body’s circadian clock and this part of your clock is triggered predominantly by light. Staying up all night whether it’s to study (this seldom works), being social or on screen time causes short-circuiting of your body’s ability to regulate nutrition, mood and cognitive skills. This is a disastrous approach and I urge you to avoid it. Here are some tips:
- Try to go to stop eating and go to sleep after the sun sets and you turn out the lights. Avoid screen time but if you must, try to reduce the amount of blue light you absorb.
- Evidence suggests that taking breaks during learning can be very important for establishing stronger neural connections. Build in mini-breaks where you do nothing for 10-20s.
- Limit study sessions to 90 minutes or less. Take a break and then come back to your learning. Space intense learning sessions hours apart and limit these to about 270 minutes/day.
- Take a nap or meditate with in an hour of a study session. Studies suggest this may help to increase learning.
- What kind of a learner are you? Do you do best with auditory input and get distracted by too many images on your screen? Ask your instructor for an audio only version of the media (or turn down the brightness on your screen). Find a classmate that you can talk through the material with instead of trying to re-read your notes/text. Are you a visual learner? Re-draw diagrams or make your own to understand material. Are you a kinesthetic learner? Make models out of your favorite materials to help you remember key spatial information. Use a wipe board and walk around while reviewing material.
- Do you thrive on personal interactions when you study? Get creative about finding a study group. Many students will be organizing Facebook, Slack, Discord or other platforms for meeting up to go over course material. Ask your instructor to post this information on the Canvas page. Ask your instructor to post a Google sheet you make to for students interested in “meeting” up for study sessions. Be as engaged as you can in meeting the challenges of our time.