Learning something can be a difficult task. This is especially true when the topics you are trying to learn is boring, which it normally is. This post aims to breakdown various practical methods you can implement right now to help you learn better and faster.
Now before we go in to actual topic, I would like to address you about what you are going to read.
- This blog post has many elements that is subjective. Implies, I have tried it and it worked for me. I hope it will work for you, which I am pretty confident it will.
- This post is a lengthy and I have tried best to keep it precise. You can easily scroll and just scan the headings if you don’t want to read through all of it.
- I aim to provide a 3 step formula for learning. This breakdown is to keep things simple and less overwhelming.
So, let’s get started…
STEP #1: Understand why the subject feels difficult
The first step about learning anything that is hard is to understand why it is so. It can be an easy subject but you are feeling it difficult because you are lazy and distracted. This is one of the core reasons for aspiring young students because they are easily occupied by modern tech.
However, it can also be because you have a hard time understanding a certain concept, or you do not have sufficient background knowledge about the subject. It can be due to the bad presentation of content on your study material. These are all usual factors.
As already explained, you cannot study a difficult subject until you understand why it is so. Normally it comes in to any of the following category.
- You are genuinely not interested in the subject.
- You lack knowledge of the topic’s background information.
- The concept is too hard to understand for your caliber.
- Your material is badly presented.
- You are distracted by modern day junk. (Too obvious)
1.1 How to figure out what’s wrong
In case your subject isn’t making it obvious why it feels hard, then you have to take some rest, sit back and relax. The chances are you will find out what is wrong. Try this:
- Do an introspection about the subject in your mind. This can help reveal your relationship with whatever you are trying to study.
- Try downloading notes from different sources for the same topic to see if it isn’t the bad material.
- See if you understand small parts of the topic, like how they wrote this equation or came to this assumption. If you don’t, chances are you are missing out on sufficient background knowledge.
- If the topic is beyond your brain’s caliber, it should be obvious by now. Don’t worry about it, I have some practical ways below to counter it. There is no such thing called “beyond one’s caliber.”
Step #2: Take practical steps
Understanding why your subject feels difficult is the easy part. Once you clearly understood what causes your subject to be difficult, it is now time to implement practical steps to improve your learning. This is where you have to take some strain, do trail and error and come up with creative ways to learn something.
Below are some key ways to address common issues when it comes to learning.
2.1 How to tackle an uninteresting subject
This is the most popular reason why most of you are reading this post. Being not interested is not something that you can actually tackle with a brain hack. Unless of-course, if you can make the subject interesting again. There are some ways I personally used to get through my engineering. I had to be at crossroads with many subjects I didn’t like and was completely off-topic and irrelevant to engineering. Here are two of my ways to tackle uninteresting topics.
- Learn real life practical side of the subject.
- Going out of syllabus
2.1.1 Learning real life practical side of a subject or topic
I remember when I stepped in to the fourth semester of my engineering degree and I had to learn business economics as a mandatory paper. This was an absolutely boring, clearly off-topic subject for me at that time. I had a hard time studying it because I couldn’t find any meaning to do so. Everything I cared about started and stopped at the flip of a switch.
I soon identified the biggest problem with this business economics paper was that it was a complete theory. There were only definitions, laws and graphs. So I decided to dig deep in to what exactly is the relation between this paper and mechanical engineering. I am not assuming my university is just too apathetic and added a subject out of the blue.
I researched my paper thoroughly and it’s applications in real life. I soon found a logical way to connect business economics to mechanical engineering. There is a lot of things a professional mechanical engineer should know about economics in general. This is related mostly to supply of rare earth elements, cost of power production, taxes in machined goods, labor charges and much more.
This has turned a light on me. I now know how most of the laws and graphs apply to my would-be carrier in mechanical engineering. I understood how things like recession can cost me my future job. Suddenly my subject turned interesting and I could study it, relate it and apply it.
So my piece of advice for uninteresting subjects is to find the real life applications of the same. See how it affects your life, job or business. This will get you inspired and interested in the particular subject.
2.1.2 Going out of syllabus
I know what you are thinking, you barely want to study what you are assigned to let alone going out of syllabus and covering topics that aren’t propping up your internals. But what if I tell you, it will in turn prop up your internal marks or finals, whatever you are dealing with.
Your syllabus is a fixed document and if you study only your syllabus, you are pretty much limiting yourself from the liberty of knowing more. Your syllabus can be uninteresting and boring but your subject will have many things that is interesting but beyond the scope of your syllabus.
If you are studying Fourier series and you find it boring, please learn how this mathematical concept is helping you read this article on your screen. (Fourier series applications in signal processing.)
Going out of the syllabus can get you many things. You probably never thought Fourier series has applications in such scale. There are also side topics that isn’t in your syllabus but that is quite interesting. Chances are, you can learn your topics better after seeing grand scheme of things about your subject. This is closely related to what I said above where I specifically mentioned learning real life applications.
However, going out of the syllabus is not just looking out for applications you can relate but also look for theoretical topics that you can learn that supports your syllabus. This will increase your chances of retention and knowledge.
This also helps you get background information about any particular topic you wish to study which makes it easy and interesting. This can also help you get through a badly presented material since most of them exists due to lack of necessary supporting information.
2.2 How to out perform your brain and learn things that is off your capacity
I have been to situations where I have to learn difficult concepts and I couldn’t do it. It was beyond what my brain could digest. Whenever I encounter such topics, I do a few things that gives me a boost.
- I read the entire topic even if I don’t understand it:
This is because a lot of the reasoning about particular topic is probably towards the dead end. Knowing the topic in general as a whole is important to start with.
- I teach an imaginary student:
Whenever I encounter concepts that is difficult to digest, I try to teach them to an imaginary student. This may sound weird but this works and I bet it. My thought process flips from being a student to a teacher. When I came up with ways to explain something, I understand it thoroughly.
- I Keep re-reading it:
This is a boring task but I assure you this works. If you don’t understand something, keep re-reading the topic from top to bottom. At sometime, you are going to get a click and eventually you will grasp the concept.
- I try to make analogies with concepts I already understood:
You will be amazed how much your topics actually compare. For example, if you know linear motion, you can learn circular motion by drawing parallel analogies. If you dig deep, most of your topics have analogies in other subjects or concepts that is pretty interesting to compare and learn.
Step #3: Rinse, Repeat
Your third and final step is to keep revising whatever you studied. I am not giving you a typical advice to casually revise everything. Students usually revises once they are completely done with their study material. That’s probably going to take too long and you will stop in the mid way.
What I want you to do is to stop whenever you feel the subject is difficult and start learning from wherever you began AGAIN.
When you start reading things that you already understood, it will give you a short burst of energy and motivation.
I do this a lot whenever I get hit by a wall and I easily make it through. This helps me retain my information and also break the hard concepts that was bothering me.
3.1 How to revise: Use hand notes
If you are that kind of guy that writes hand notes while studying, you are doing the best thing you ever can. If you aren’t, I highly recommend you do. This is because taking notes in a laptop or phone, while it is easier and fast has very low retention rate. That means you are less likely to recall it.
Hand notes is a time tested method for studying. Whenever you write something by hand, you are more likely to recall the information. It is easier to revise using hand notes than going through your text or printed material all over again.
I know you hear this all the time, but don’t underestimate this method. Make sure you use it whenever possible.
3.2 Prepare a study chart
This sounds time consuming but it is not. I am not asking you to make a big chart that comprises every element of each topic (Although, if you want, you can). I am just asking you to make a chart that covers each topics in order you studied.
Basically just list the names of all the topics in order you studied them. I use this when I have to cover large portions.
What I do with this list is, when I am done studying, I remove all the study materials from my table. And take this list and start recalling anything I remember from each topic. I usually don’t recall half of them right off the bat. I go through each topics and try to recall it individually.
Once I am done trying to recall each topic, I start revising the topics again. This time, when ever I see anything that I didn’t recall, I get a hit. It works like magic and chances are, these points that gave me an adrenaline rush actually acts as my reference to recall the entire topic during exam.
3.3 Making graphical representation
I do not recommend this for students that are doing professional degree. I have been through engineering and making graphical representation for something so lengthy is not possible. It’s time and energy consuming.
What is graphical representation?
Whenever I study a concept, like a force acting on a static body, I try to represent it with an image. More than equations and definitions, this image has very higher chance of retention.
But if you are doing professional degrees like I did, it will be very hard to keep with the limited time. So I urge you to search up graphical representations of any concepts you are trying to learn. Then learn that image first before going to definitions or equations.
Because during exam, and this happened to me many times, I always end up recalling those images. This helps me come with any definition or equations that need to support it.
These images are very easy to revise and recollect than the usual notes. So, always remember, visual information is much easier to understand and retain.
Bonus step: Make sure you aren’t missing out on these tips.
- Study on short intervals instead of going for long hours: I study for 50 minutes, then revise the whole thing I studied in the next 10 minutes. After that, I just wander off for 10-15 minutes before coming to my next session. I can tell you this works.
- Sleep is important for retention: Scientific studies have proved (if it isn’t already obvious) that brain develops permanent memory during sleeping. Sleeping is when things move from your short term memory to your long term memory. So without proper sleep, success is next to impossible. (I know schools have their own theories, but make sure you take care off yourselves.)
- Stick to the same text/notes: A common tendency especially for students pursuing professional education is to refer to to multiple texts or switch their material from time to time. This is a disastrous move in my strictly personal opinion. Revising the same book 10 times is more important than trying to study 2 books. Please make sure you aren’t wandering off and being overwhelmed by plethora of information out there.
You can learn anything. If one human being can conceptualize a certain topic, then another should be able to understand it. Do not fall for things like “average”, “high IQ” etc. First of all, these aren’t exactly scientifically agreed up on. There are no solid reference lines to compare one person to another. I see so many people fall for comparison traps and that isn’t any good for you or the society. This kind of system, especially enthralled by grading in schools keeps too many talents away from pursuing what they love.
They underestimate their capability to learn programming or pursue a career in engineering because apparently they got bad grades for math. You are beyond what some grading system rate you to be, go up and conquer your world.