The following is the transcript from a short presentation I gave virtually at James Madison University.
How to Learn
If I asked you, what learning process do you follow? What would you answer? Would you say something like “I take notes and study”? How you do those things can significantly impact how much you learn. So then why do many people go through life without really understanding the mechanisms in which we learn? And no I am not talking about visual, audio, etc. I am talking about the best practices for how to learn overall.
The process of learning is the ability to recall. To simplify the process the brain needs to know how to access information, one key element of that is having connections between brain cells. Much about the brain and learning is still unknown or not studied sufficiently to come to conclusions. Regardless, I am going to do my best to share practices that are somewhat grounded in science and effective.
One of the points of debate in academia is the use of technology for notes vs handwriting notes. Some classes even outright ban the use of technology in the classroom. There is a study that shows people who handwrite notes performed better on a recall based test. Many people incorrectly assess this as the actual handwriting causes one to recall things better. This is not necessarily true. The scientific literature supports that generally, people who type notes are susceptible to be distracted and/or that person is not a skilled typer and there is more cognitive load associated with the typing, more cognitive load means that one will have a harder time paying attention to the source of information. It is not because handwriting is somehow better connected to recalling. The literature also shows that handwriting can be advantageous because one can draw figures quickly and easily. Is one method better than the other? maybe – it depends on the person and the situation.
The next thing we should discuss is enhancing notetaking with recall strategies. Now that we have the notes we need to use them in a way that trains our brain to recall information and make connections. One of the first things you want to do after taking notes is to take them again, but this time in your own words. What works best for me, is I open up a blank document on the computer and type out as much as I remember – without looking at my notes. Then I go line by line to add more and more to the document. The goal of this task is to practice recalling and have the notes in my own words. Over time you want to practice recalling by opening up the document and without reading, go through and try to recite as much as you can from memory, then read the document and reinforce what you forgot. You want to be able to articulate your thoughts to reinforce that you actually know the concepts. If you do this a couple of times you should have a good grasp on what you are trying to learn.
This last idea is borrowed from the Feynman technique, from the great Nobel prizing winning physicist Richard Feynman. Lastly, When you think you have a good understanding of the material, you should try to articulate your thoughts on the material as if you were teaching it the concepts to someone else. It is important to articulate your thoughts in a concise yet coherent way.
The final thing to keep in mind is improving the process, as the great Stephen Covey says in his book 7 habits of highly successful people, we must sharpen the blade. Experiment with your studying and learning habits to find what works best for you. As you find the process that works best for you, and you become better at it, you will become enlightened in a certain way. Able to learn and recall information much better than before.
To conclude, I believe we must give credit where credit is due, and many of the ideas in this speech I learned from an amazing faculty member here at James Madison Univesity, Dr. David Daniel. Professor Daniel is a leader in learning psychology and brain science.