How to learn better

Once a straight-A student, having no significant worries at school, I quickly learned that university is going to be a next level challenge. From the first multiple choice exam the battle to survive in medical school started. Other students were also struggling with the great amount of material, but at least the majority was passing the exams and moving on. I, on the other side, spent a lot of time studying, but was failing almost every exam. I was stuck, as if I couldn’t escape the cycle, always fighting to keep up with the new material. And it felt like I was the only one struggling so much. I searched help from professors and other students. No one seemed to understand. It took me *years* and *years*of trial and error to improve my learning. To understand that it was my responsibility to get better. To get to a place where I can confidently tap on my shoulder and say that I can learn almost anything and pass almost any exam. (Yes, I hear the physicist laughing. Shut up.)

I tried so many different strategies to improve my learning. Nothing I am going to mention here is going to be brand new information. I didn’t invent the principles. I just ordered them in the most effective way they worked for me. For example my personal experience says that it is more important to improve your learning by having a distraction-free environment (1. point) rather then having the perfect Anki cards (3. point). Of course Anki is an extremely useful tool, but it won’t help, if it is not used. So first make sure Netflix is switched off, before you take out your colourful pencils and markers. In other words:

Let’s first lay the foundations of our magnificent learning palace and then focus on what kind of door knob would suit the closet full with mnemonics.

I also don’t claim that these tips are the only and best way to go. For some people learning at home is the best environment and they are productive there. (Yes, I don’t know how, but such people do exist.) So, my first tip on the list won’t be the best option for you. That’s fine. Then stay at home and use tips 2, 3 and 3.5. Adapt the advices to optimize *your* performance.

And regardless of your specialty, if you are a student or just a human being, who needs to remember a lot of information, I really hope that this post will be helpful. If not, go to the next article and never give up on yourself and your ability to change and grow. If I can get myself out of failing almost every exam to a decent level of performance, then anyone can.

Working hard always pays off. Sooner or later. Photo by Bethany Legg on Unsplash

So here are my starting tips for improving your learning performance in order of importance.

1. The power of social pressure

The library, the computer room, the coffee shop or anywhere where there are people should be your new study place. We all know how peer pressure works wonders. Every time I go to the library, I have more often than I would like to admit zero motivation to even open the book, but the moment I see all these people judgingly and yet discreetly looking around, I quickly start studying. And when I am done, I usually feel pretty good about myself. It’s like going to the gym – you hate it when you go, but when you are there and take action, you are proud, because you took care of something you know it’s important in a moment when you didn’t feel like it. In other words:

 You may not be motivated to do something, but that is not an excuse for not doing it. 

Motivation comes often after we have started working. Just get yourself into a productive environment, where you can feel that someone/something is holding you accountable and let the pressure do its work. 

PS: Studying with a friend, group or joining forums didn’t work so well for me, but it’s as well “peer pressure” options you could consider.

One of the few places, where you could sit for hours and leave with more then when you came without the need of a wallet. #Knowledgeispower

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

2.Study the right material

For the exam you need to know the right material. I struggled with this a lot, because I couldn’t quite see the difference between studying hard and studying smart. I thought that if I studied hard and a lot, I would pass any exam. Yeah… no.

 You need to be specific in your knowledge and the energy and time you invest in each topic. How do we do that? By studying and practicing test questions. By going through them, you get an idea of what is important, what you must know in any case. It’s like creating a relief of the material. Some things stand out, they are constantly asked and therefore must be learned, others take second row seats and you will be forgiven if you forget them. For example, after I have learned the lectures and given material on the topic of heart arrhythmia, I first start doing questions only on this topic. The questions I get then wrong are usually the ones that carry an information I haven’t properly learned (saved in the brain) or understood (haven’t processed it long enough). Then when I am done with the test, I go back to the lecture/books, learn it (advice on “how” is my 3. point) and usually get a feeling if the material sits right. If not, I go back to the topic and process it until it is fully understood and learned. I know it sounds simple, but these are some basic principles I didn’t have. So, for some of us, it takes time to develop these learning strategies.

(This advice comes from the standpoint of a medical student in Germany. If you don’t have the possibility to practice test questions or that’s not a common practice for your specialty, then you can use scripts from previous years or ask other students, who already went through it. Apply the principles to your situation and be specific.)

The important thing is to frequently do questions, so it becomes a habit and do them early enough, so you have the time to build the relief to an otherwise flat material.

Your goal is not to test yourself and see how less you score and give up. I used to get so discouraged. But when I started doing questions frequently I started looking at them as a learning opportunity and less as a “look what you forgot again, Susan”.

As if the material becomes alive. It’s not anymore a pile of random facts. It’s a story. Some things are important, they stand out, others are more in the background, helping us to understand the whole picture. Photo by Viktor Talashuk on Unsplash

3. How to study effectively

If you were able to get yourself out of bed, went to the library and prepared the right material… well, that’s a great start! You are now in a productive environment, ready to step up your learning strategies. Now, we focus on *how* to learn effectively. How to make the most of the 1, 2 or 10 hours you have.

You have here many options, but don’t feel overwhelmed, because there is an order to them, too. The most important techniques are active recall and spaced repetition. Punkt. Точка. Point. That’s the only truth. Don’t even try to argue. In other words:

if you frequently quiz yourself, the material will be remembered!

Wow, powerful stuff, completely brand new information, mind blown, I know. I know. Even if you don’t use the techniques that follow, these two go back to the core of what learning is. Frequently repeating the new information, until you know it well. I know that sounds too simple and maybe even unhelpful. The options that follow are going to help you practice spaced repetition and active recall so you can actually apply it.

So the specific techniques that you should try, that will do wonders, *if* you practice them are:

1.Short and manageable flashcards (Anki) – if you want to perform like a pro, Anki is the way to go. It plans for you the spaced repetition, so you don’t have to worry about scheduling a revision.
2. Interesting and/or personal mnemonics – Mnemonics are the fun and engaging part of learning. For example a favorite mnemonic of mine is for the layers of the epidermis: Britney Spears glows like candy for Stratum basale/spinosum/granulosum/lucidum/corneum.
2. Pomodoro is a brilliant method to track the actual time spent studying. It works like this: study 25 minutes, take a 5-minute pause. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Have a break. Get back to it. Repeat. It gives you the feeling that you use your time effectively. As well a great option.
3. Colorful markers – because why not Susan!?
4.Making smart notes – (My personal favorite) So instead of passively re-writing the whole lecture in your notebook, just actively recall the slides you have learned and without watching, write the summarized information with simple words, in a way you fully understand it. That means: don’t write down information you don’t understand or don’t know, telling yourself that you will learn it later. YOU KNOW YOU WON’T DO IT, PATRICIA.

Only make notes with information actively extracted from your brain, not passively seen with your eyes.

Have fun. NOW.
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

3.5. Five, four, three, tw… what was I supposed to do now?

And the most important advice at all – the thinker thinks, and the doer does. Probably that phrase is incorrectly used, but I really like how it sounds so I will keep it.

After you have found a helpful tip, here or anywhere else, go and apply it. Just go and try it for yourself. Is it helpful or do you need to modify it to your situation? Knowledge has the potential to be power, but it is only that – a potential. It is useless without application. So now go and good luck!

A photo of a monkey thinking really hard.
Photo by Juan Rumimpunu on Unsplash

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