The 5 Rs for Effective Note-Taking
How we take notes significantly impacts our learning outcomes. A successful note-taking technique should aid in remembering, retaining, and recalling information effectively.
Clearly, there are a number of different ways we can take notes when learning stuff. Summarising, highlighting, and creating mind maps are just a few of the most popular methods. And to a large extent, the ‘correct’ note-taking method is a very personal thing. If you’ve already found a technique that works for you, there’s really little point in changing things. Do what works.
But, regardless of our preferred method, a good note-taking + learning technique should have some easily identifiable characteristics. These essential characteristics are known as the 5 R’s of note-taking:
- Record – there should be somewhere to take our notes (obviously).
- Reduce – there should be somewhere to summarise those notes.
- Recite – there needs to be an easy way to test ourselves using our notes.
- Reflect – our notes should be related to other notes we’ve already written.
- Review – we should regularly revisit our notes to ensure maximum retention.
✍️ The 5 R’s
The most obvious aspect of any note-taking method is that we need somewhere to actually write our notes.
Whether we’re sat in a lecture, learning from a textbook, or following an online course, it’s important to have a blank page to write down all the meaningful points and ideas that you hear/read.
My advice is to use bullet points wherever possible as this helps to organize the notes coherently and helps us to scan for the most important information. Other things I’d suggest are:
- Use bold headings when moving on to a new point.
- Aim for telegraphic sentences (i.e. brief sentences).
- Leave as much white space as possible on the page to increase readability.
- Include abbreviations and symbols when writing stuff down. This is one of those seemingly minor note-taking tips that seriously helps when it comes to ramping up our learning speed.
Once we’ve written our notes, we need to summarise everything into our own words.
Summarising is a brilliant way of consolidating our understanding of the information, helps us to see where there are gaps in our knowledge, and there’s even some evidence to suggest it strengthens our memory. At the very least, by condensing our notes we’re essentially stripping away any information that isn’t 100% essential for us to know.
A lot of people will skip this crucial step thinking “I won’t forget this stuff” or “I’ll just summarise it later”, but these thoughts just make our lives so much harder when it comes to revising it later. I find it’s best to summarise everything straight after I’ve learnt it, so the material is still fresh in my mind. But don’t worry if it takes you a day or two to get this step done.
Another helpful tip is to reduce our notes by creating a bunch of questions that we can test ourselves on later. These questions should be focused on the main ideas that we’re learning rather than the nitty-gritty details, because the purpose is to ensure we understand the general arguments/points for each topic.
The idea is that self-testing makes revision cognitively demanding as we have to try even harder to retrieve the information we want. This sounds counter-intuitive, but research shows that this helps our brain to better store and recall that same information in the future.
Recitation involves explaining everything we’ve learnt aloud, in as much detail as possible, without looking at our notes.
The process here is similar to the Feynman technique, which encourages us to identify knowledge gaps by explaining a topic as if we’re speaking to a small child. By doing this, we can’t hide from what we don’t know. If we struggle to explain something, we receive instantaneous feedback that we don’t understand the topic well enough. And, therefore, we’ve got to go back to our notes and learn them a little more.
Recitation is also far more beneficial than passively reading our notes (a common learning strategy for many students). The reason: reciting our notes helps transfer the information more effectively from our short-term memory to our long-term memory.
In one study, students were split into two groups and given 7 minutes to read a text. After a short break, the first group was told to repeat the exercise while the second group tried to recall as much information as possible from memory (i.e. recitation). A week later both groups were tested on what they’d learnt. The results were pretty incredible:
- 40% of the read-only group answered the questions correctly.
- 61% of the ‘recitation’ group answered the questions correctly.
Put another way, the simple act of reciting everything we know about a topic helps us to remember and retain more information.
“If you read anything over twenty times, you will not learn it by heart so easily as if you were to read it only ten, trying to repeat it between whiles, and when memory failed, looking at the book” – Francis Bacon
Our brains remember information by associating new knowledge with the stuff we already know. So by reflecting on the things we’ve learnt previously and connecting those facts/ideas/experiences to our most recent notes, we’re giving ourselves the best chance to learn.
I’ve personally found that reflection is not just a retrospective process. By also reflecting on what we’re going to learn in the future it makes it a lot easier to incorporate and understand that new knowledge when we eventually come to learn it.
You may try to reflect in three different ways:
- Build scaffolding – Make a few notes before you start writing your notes to think about what you already know about the topic (i.e. backward thinking reflection).
- Make predictions – Write a sentence about what new knowledge you may learn at some point in the future (i.e. forward thinking reflection). Basically, you may make a prediction as to the sort of topics or information that may be relevant and connected to what you’re learning about right now that you haven’t directly learnt about before.
- The big picture – Try to think about how your notes relate to the big picture (i.e. present thinking reflection). The best way to do this is to write down 2-3 topics that are similar and write down any areas that confused me, which then acts as a springboard for further research and learning.
Finally, we should spend 15 minutes at the end of each day to ‘review’ the notes we’ve written. This is the only reliable way to avoid knowledge decay.
The truth is, our knowledge has a half-life. This means that everything we know has an expiration date, and we’ll forget the information we don’t regularly revisit. So scheduling time for distributed review of our notes (i.e. regularly reviewing our notes rather than, let’s say, cramming it the night before a test) better encodes that knowledge into our long-term memory.
📝 Implementing the 5 R’s
Now we know the characteristics of effective note-taking, we need a seamless way of integrating them together into a single strategy. This is where the Cornell Method comes in handy.
The Cornell Method of taking notes was created by the director of Cornell University’s ‘Reading & Study Skills Center’, Walter Pauk. In his book, How to Study in College, he says that the reason we often struggle to take effective notes is because doing so requires work – we need to put in the time to actively engage with what we’re learning about.
But this isn’t something that most of us find particularly fun or intuitive.
Luckily, the Cornell Method is a guided strategy for actively engaging with what we’re learning, by building the 5 R’s of note-taking directly into it.
The Cornell Method
Using this note-taking method is pretty straightforward. All we have to do is divide a single page of A4 into four sections:
- The right column – this is where we write our main notes from the lecture, video, or textbook. Here we are focused on RECORDING the meaningful points and ideas.
- The left column – this is where we write down any comments about what we’re learning (like if we agree/disagree) and jot down the key ideas discussed. I also like to use this section to write questions that test the most important pieces of knowledge, then use them as the starting point for RECITING what I remember.
- The bottom row – at the bottom of the page, we REDUCE our main notes into a few bullet points that summarise everything into our own words.
- The top row – other than writing the topic (e.g. anatomy) and date (e.g. 25/06/2025), I use the top row to REFLECT on the things I’ve previously learnt. This mainly involves finding 2 or 3 related topics I’ve written using the Cornell Method and listing them in the corner of the page. This helps to create a web of knowledge, which I then use to REVIEW multiple topics.
Eventually, we should get something that looks a little like this:
Learning effectively begins with effective note-taking. And one of the best ways to take effective notes is by using a method that incorporates the 5 R’s.
For me, the Cornell Method is the easiest method of doing this.
- Firstly, we get a clear, organized, and coherent set of notes.
- Secondly, each section of the page serves a unique purpose, helping us to record, reduce, recite, reflect, or review.
The Feynman Method: An Easy and Efficient Guide to Master Any Topic
The Feynman Technique
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” – Albert Einstein (attributed)
When we learn something, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we’ve understood it too. But, are we really learning effectively? Have we understood the concept or simply memorized some sentences?
The problem with the learning techniques most of us use (like highlighting, summarising, and rereading) is that, although they feel intuitively productive, they’re not very effective or useful in improving knowledge retention. So instead of using techniques that will help our knowledge to compound over time, we’re essentially resorting to learning hacks that help us quickly pass a test. This is a trap we’ve all fallen into at some point. I know I certainly have.
Fortunately, this is where the Feynman technique can help.
👨🏫 Richard Feynman
During his lifetime, he pioneered the field of quantum electrodynamics, re-invented our understanding of particle physics through his visual representation of subatomic particles, and won the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics. Beyond theoretical physics, he was an influential figure in the Manhattan Project, wrote a detailed report on the causes of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and had an incredible ability to communicate complex ideas with clarity and simplicity.
His name was Richard Feynman.
But it wasn’t his innate intelligence that made Feynman so brilliant (at least, according to the man himself). Rather, it was his systematic method of understanding, simplifying, and explaining difficult concepts that contributed far more to his eventual success.
This method is now called ‘The Feynman Technique’.
🤓 The Feynman Technique
The Feynman technique is based on the idea that one of the most effective techniques to enhance our understanding is to imagine that we’re teaching the material to someone who has absolutely no idea about the topic. Like a small child.
By doing this, we force ourselves to explain our thoughts fully and avoid glossing over topics we don’t understand well enough. Through the 4-steps of the Feynman technique I’ve outlined below, we’re encouraged to identify our knowledge gaps, reorganize our thoughts, and ultimately improve our long-term retention of that knowledge.
- Identify the topic
- Teach it to a child
- Identify knowledge gaps
We’ll look at each of these steps in turn.
1. Identify the Topic
The first step is to choose a topic we’ve recently studied and/or a topic we’d like to test our knowledge and understanding. This can literally be any topic we want.
My recommendation is to grab a piece of paper and write this topic clearly at the top of the page. Try not to pick a topic that’s too broad (e.g. “medicine”) otherwise, it’s going to be impossible to do step 2 properly. Just identify a topic that’s narrow enough to explain in no more than 5 minutes.
What are the learning benefits of identifying the topic?
- It makes learning specific – our focus is on one topic area, rather than an entire subject. So we know exactly what we have to know/learn.
- It keeps things simple – learning a smaller, more specific, topic makes it far quicker to complete the 4 steps of the Feynman technique. So we’re less likely to get bored or give up while learning/revising.
- We face our weaknesses – when we memorise it’s easy for us to skip over things we don’t enjoy. But by identifying our topic we’re facing our weaknesses and forced to confront what we don’t know.
2. Teach it to a Child
Pretend we’re teaching and explaining the topic to a small child or someone who’s never come across the topic before. The key here is simplicity – explain the concept using simple language. Don’t simply define the concept but, if it is a mathematical concept, for instance, work through examples to show how the concept works in practice.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool” – Richard Feynman
The classic mistake is to treat learning as a passive process. Rereading and highlighting are particularly popular learning techniques, but they’re largely ineffective because we’re not actually engaging with the material actively, it is passive. Teaching, on the other hand, is an active method of learning that is far more effective. After all, we can’t teach something without first understanding it properly.
My advice – take your piece of paper and explain your chosen topic in detail in your own words. Try to keep it brief, avoid technical jargon, and use examples/analogies wherever possible.
What are the learning benefits of teaching the topic?
- There’s no hiding – when we teach a topic, we can’t shy away from the things we don’t know. If there’s a gap in our knowledge, we’ll quickly find it. Remember: teaching is a feedback loop for finding what we don’t know, not for explaining what we do know.
- We get external feedback – when we learn through note taking it’s very difficult for us to tell when we’ve learnt something sufficiently well. But, when we try to explain a topic to someone else, they’ll often let us know if they don’t understand something or if our explanation needs further simplification.
3. Identify Knowledge Gaps
In step three, we need to pinpoint the areas we found difficult to explain or had to return to our notes/textbooks to refresh our understanding. If we had to use any technical term in our explanation, we should challenge ourselves to break those terms into simpler components.
If a child would struggle to understand us, we’ve found a knowledge gap that needs to be filled and simplified in step 4. The key is not only to identify complex areas of our own explanations but also to challenge and identify where we’ve made assumptions based on what we already understand intuitively. A child won’t intuitively know much about our topic, so we need to make sure our explanations strip things back to the basics.
What are the learning benefits of identifying knowledge gaps?
- It is an active way to learn – by identifying where we’re struggling, we become more intentional about our learning. Instead of covering the stuff we already know (like we do when we reread, highlight, and summarise), we automatically focus our attention on the topics that need the most work.
- Learning is iterative – it’s impossible to remember a topic if we only look at it once. The Feynman technique, however, rewards repetition. By teaching a topic and filling in knowledge gaps multiple times, we’re more likely to encode this knowledge into our long-term memory.
The final step of the Feynman technique is to rewrite our explanation of a topic in simpler terms. This often involves re-organizing our thoughts so the explanation flows more naturally, finishing incomplete thoughts, and finding simpler examples to break down complex ideas. This may take some time (or may have to be done multiple times) to get right.
What are the learning benefits of simplifying?
- Understanding starts with simplicity – we don’t understand something unless we can explain it simply. Using technical language or assuming our listener has an existing baseline of knowledge means we’re probably relying on memorization, rather than understanding.
- We build confidence – if we’re able to teach someone a topic we previously found confusing, it boosts our confidence and encourages us to learn even more.
💡 Why use the Feynman Technique?
Although it appears to be a simple technique, it’s highly effective.
The technique enables us to quickly overview a concept, identify areas that are weaker, and, critically, requires active learning – we are forced to move beyond passively rereading or highlighting and actively think about how we would explain a particular concept in simple terms.
It also automatically removes memorization from our learning process. In school, we memorize pretty much everything and quickly forget it all once we’ve finished our exams. But the Feynman technique goes much further, expecting us to prove our understanding of a given topic and clarify our thoughts.
Finally, the Feynman technique pushes us to explore topics that interest us more deeply. And this is the essence of learning anything: be curious and fall in love with what you’re learning. If we can have fun and enjoy the journey, then the learning will take care of itself.
“Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all” – Richard Feynman
If we want to learn more effectively and deepen our understanding of a topic, there’s really no better method than the Feynman technique. Every student should add it to their armoury of revision tools. In fact, every learner should leverage it to enhance understanding, increase productivity, and improve performance. It’s genuinely so useful regardless of what we’re looking to learn.
The Art of Reading More Effectively and Efficiently
It might seem odd to have a blog post devoted entirely to reading more effectively. After all, if you’re reading this, chances are you can read. But reading effectively and efficiently is its own skill – one that we’re never really taught how to do.
Throughout our academic life, we’re programmed to believe that effective reading is measured by speed and breadth. The more we can read, the smarter we look. And the more broadly we can read, the more intelligent we seem.
Because of this obsession, we have with reading more, we miss out on a lot of valuable insights. Wisdom from across the ages, the lessons mastered by people who’ve overcome extraordinary challenges, and the chance to gain knowledge that challenges our beliefs. All because we’re never taught the ultimate meta-skill: the art of reading.
Reading more effectively and efficiently means developing a watertight process to capture ideas, analyze arguments, and ask the right questions. It means identifying the right books to read, understanding the different reading goals, and using evidence-based techniques to increase reading productivity.
In many ways, improving the way we read is the number one skill that can change our lives for the better.
The good news is that reading is a skill that can be improved through practice, dedication, and the adoption of the four levels of reading.
The Importance of Effective & Efficient Reading
“A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read” – Mark Twain
Books have an enormous impact on people’s life. They’ve acted as a personal mentor and as a vehicle for compounding knowledge.
🧠 Books help us Compound Knowledge
“Compound interest is the 8th Wonder of the World” – Albert Einstein
Just as money accumulates exponentially, so too does personal knowledge as it snowballs and branches out over time. In other words, the more we read and the better our reading processes are, the more our ideas, beliefs, and opinions begin to develop at an ever-increasing rate.
Not only does our brain begin effortlessly creating connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information, but cohesive and creative solutions to some of our most puzzling and perplexing problems gradually emerge. It’s a personal superpower that all of us have the opportunity to discover.
“To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; Study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else” – Da Vinci
The Reading Objective
Increasing our ability to read more effectively, as a means to unlock our own personal potential, begins by deciding on a reading goal.
🤪 Category 1: Reading to Entertain
In this category, we read books purely for enjoyment. It’s how we spend the majority of our time as readers. There are no rules and there’s no need to think too deeply or critically about what we’re reading. The goal is simple: we can relax and immerse ourselves in the story.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with reading to entertain ourselves.
It’s a healthy way to escape from everyday stress.
🗞 Category 2: Reading to Inform
In this second category, we read books to learn specific facts or information about something. These books are typically easy to navigate and simple in their layout and structure. This lets us consume them effortlessly and jump around to relevant sections without losing the gist of what’s being said. The goal is to learn without judgement.
For example, we’d read the newspaper, a tourist guide, or the Guinness World Records, all to inform. Although we may find aspects of each of them entertaining, we primarily read these things to develop a factual picture of current affairs, a particular location, or some other snippet of knowledge.
Again, for most of us, reading to inform isn’t too problematic.
📖 Category 3: Reading to Understand
It’s the final category of reading – reading to understand – that most of us (including me) tend to struggle with. It therefore deserves most of our attention when it comes to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of our reading.
The problem is that out of the three reading categories, reading to understand requires the greatest cognitive effort. It forces us to challenge our preconceptions, critically analyse the status quo, and directly confront ideas that we may not be immediately comfortable with. This is hard. It can be uncomfortable. But it’s the only way for us to level-up our thinking and personal growth.
Ultimately, this is a skill that few of us have mastered. But it’s at the very heart of meaningful productivity and improving the way we read. Therefore, we need a method that takes us from reading at an elementary level (like when we’re reading to entertain and inform) to reading at an analytical or syntopical level.
Let’s dive into how we can do this.
The Four Levels of Reading
While the three categories of reading help guide our reading goal, the four cumulative levels of reading help guide our reading style. These levels were again devised by Mortimer Adler and operate to help us understand a book at a far deeper level than what most of us are used to. As we move up the levels we’ll not only find ourselves more capable of grasping the author’s perspectives and forge deeper insights, but we’ll have a process that works with every single book we decide to read.
This is great stuff.
This is great stuff.
👶 Level 1: Elementary Reading
Elementary reading is the most basic level of reading, where the reader absorbs the information presented in the text without fully understanding it.
This first level of reading is the style of reading that everyone knows how to do, as it’s what we’re taught in school. As an elementary reader, we can easily understand the words on the page, follow the plot, and have a solid grasp of what the book is trying to say.
However, even at this elementary level, it’s easy to screw it up by trying to read too quickly.
Trying to improve reading speed before understanding the fundamentals of effective reading is only going to hinder our capacity to learn new information.
My advice – we should try and first improve our reading level. Then, once we’ve mastered the art of reading analytically, we can worry about reading faster (and we’ll talk more about this later).
“Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension” – Adler
🔎 Level 2: Inspectional Reading
This second level of reading requires marginally more skill than at the elementary reading level. Inspectional reading is useful when the reader needs to get an overview of the topic but does not have much time. It involves looking at the headings, subheadings, and summaries to determine the main ideas of the text.
There are two aspects to inspectional reading: systematic skimming and superficial reading.
Analytical reading involves discovering the book’s central meaning, evaluating the author’s arguments, and developing a thorough understanding of the book.
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested” – Francis Bacon
It involves engaging with the text in a deeper and more critical way. Analytical reading requires the reader to ask questions, make connections, and take notes. The reader must understand the text’s main ideas, arguments, and evidence and evaluate how they fit together to create a coherent whole.
In particular, this level requires us to actively read the book, and “the more active the reading the better” (Adler).
However, perhaps the most critical component of active reading is continually questioning what we’re being told. Specifically, there are three core questions that we should be asking when reading a book analytically:
The Holistic Stage: What is the book about as a whole?
We largely uncover the answer to this question during the systematic skimming and superficial reading within level 2. The main difference is that, in the holistic stage of level 3, we’re tasked with identifying the questions the author is asking and trying to solve. Put another way, what was it the author was trying to answer by writing this book?
Furthermore, our written summary of the book is going to be more comprehensive than a couple of sentences. Think about how the structure and ideas flow in general, helping to guide us to the given conclusion.
The Specific Stage: What is the book saying in detail and how is it being said?
While reading the book, we need to ensure we’ve fully understood the author’s approach and be comfortable with interpreting their thinking. We should take the time to identify the special keywords that the author has chosen, verify our understanding of them, and try to appreciate their perspective.
In each chapter, the author will also make certain claims and propositions, which we should restate in our own words and decide whether or not their argument is strong. We should carefully evaluate how these claims and propositions are connected, and check to see if they flow logically from one point to the next.
The Veracity Stage: Is the book true, whether in whole or in part?
In the veracity stage, our task is to constructively analyze. To show where the author has been uninformed, misinformed, illogical, or incomplete in their arguments, clearly explaining what the shortcomings are and how the author’s reasoning could be improved. If we can’t do that then our criticism is unlikely to be constructive or valid.
“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks” – Adler
📚 Level 4: Syntopical Reading
The final level of reading is about our understanding of a subject more generally. Whereas analytical reading focuses on our comprehension of a specific book, syntopical reading helps shape our opinion and increase our overall fluency of the wider topic through understanding how different books relate to one another. This may sound a little abstract, but bear with me.
“The benefits [of syntopical reading] are so great that it is well worth the trouble of learning how to do it” – Adler
Through syntopical reading we’re connecting the best ideas on a subject, which acts as a powerful catalyst giving rise to creative solutions and real insight.
How to Read More
Only once we’ve mastered how to read effectively, by working up the four levels, should we think about reading efficiently.
Reading more exposes us to more opinions, helps us build connections between different ideas, and entrenches our existing knowledge. Think of effective reading as a well-constructed rocket, and efficient reading as a necessary upgrade to its performance. It just takes things up a notch.
There are three steps to reading more:
❤️ Step 1 – Love to Read
The first step of reading more is having the willingness to read more. And falling in love with the act of reading itself.
Read what you love until you love to read
In other words, don’t just pick up the classics because “that’s what clever people do”. Find the books written on topics that fascinate you and by those people you admire most. Just as we can fall in love with exercise by finding the sports we enjoy, we can fall in love with reading by finding the books we enjoy. The ‘fun factor’ is essential to productive reading.
Similarly, if you begin reading a book and you aren’t enjoying it, then there’s no obligation to continue. Just stop. We don’t need to finish a book just because we started it.
📱 Step 2 – Make it Easy to Access Books
Make it as easy as possible to pick up a book and read it.
Throughout the day you’ll find numerous opportunities to spend 5 or 10 minutes reading. So keep a book nearby. You don’t know when the next great reading opportunity will arise.
Other than that, try minimizing distractions.
We provide books here on 9jabaz for you to download for free so that you can access them anywhere, anytime. Check the link below to download any book of your choice, ranging from school textbooks (mostly Nigerian school textbooks) to Christian books. This will help you to read more!
👀 Step 3 – Work on Improving your Reading Techniques
The final, and least important aspect of effective and efficient reading, is technique. This is typically where most articles on reading begin but I’ve realised that this stuff is pointless unless everything else is in order.
If there’s one reading technique that’s going to help the most, it’s improving our consistency. Consistency really is king.
The final reading technique is speed reading. However, this comes with a word of warning: only speed read books that you don’t want to understand. Why is that? Well, when reading at speed we’re not going to have the time to think about what is being said or develop the insights necessary for true comprehension.
In conclusion, improving reading skills is a lifelong process that requires dedication, effort, and commitment. By adopting the four levels of reading, readers can enhance their comprehension and understanding of written texts. Moreover, with practice, patience, and perseverance, the art of reading more efficiently and effectively can become a natural part of daily life.
How To Learn Anything Faster
Learning how to learn is an essential skill that is often overlooked. It is crucial to improve our lives in various aspects. In this article, I will share nine evidence-based tips that have proven to be helpful for learning any subject:
1. Prepare yourself
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” This quote emphasizes the importance of preparation. Before diving into learning, it is necessary to be well-prepared.
2. Focus optimization
Using crutches or aids can help enhance focus. These tools can assist in optimizing your learning experience.
The first is the five minute rule. The idea is that if we want to do something and we’re finding it difficult to start, the five minute rule tells us to just work on the thing for 5 minutes. Then, after five minutes, we’re allowed to stop. We don’t have to continue if we don’t want to. But, more often than not, I find that if I’ve already started doing something, I do actually want to continue. The problem was just getting started.
The second ‘crutch’ I found useful is to chuck my phone away. I know it sounds simple but we’re so glued to our phones these days that by tossing our phone on the floor or leaving it in the kitchen, we can remove a key point of distraction and force ourselves to focus, free from distraction. And if there’s anything else we find particularly distracting – like tablets, TVs, or other interesting gadgets – it’s really helpful if we can place them as far as possible from our workspace.
3. Immerse in the subject
To truly grasp a topic, immerse yourself in it. Find opportunities to fully engage with the subject matter.
So the general principle here is that we learn best when we’re in the environment where we’re actually going to be using the skill.
My advice: step out of your comfort zone and fully immerse yourself in the thing you want to learn. It can be scary, but it’s 100% worth it.
4. Identify weak areas
Recognize your weaknesses and focus on improving them. Understanding your weak links can help you create a more effective learning strategy.
Constantly ask yourself the following question:
If the exam were tomorrow, what topic would I be the least happy about?
it’s very tempting to just do the stuff that seems familiar to us. If we’re studying for an exam, it’s very tempting to open the book to page one even though we already know that stuff.
But, learning only really happens when we’re trying to fix our weaknesses and there’s a decent level of difficulty. If something’s too easy, we’re not going to learn anything.
So, if we want to maximise our learning and learn faster, we really want to focus on those areas of weakness. In essence, we need to find the weak links and use drills to improve them as quickly as possible.
5. Test yourself
Regularly assess your knowledge and understanding. Testing yourself reinforces learning and helps identify areas that need more attention.
In the world of studying, there’s this thing called ‘active recall’, which applies to learning anything.
The idea behind active recall (or retrieval practice) is that we don’t learn by trying to put stuff into our brains. We actually learn, counterintuitively, by trying to take stuff out of our brains.
And if you’ve had that experience where you’ve read something in a textbook or on a website and you’ve completely forgotten everything a few days later, that’s just because you haven’t repeatedly tested yourself on that knowledge (try to recall all 9 of these tips in a few days time to practice!).
Without self-testing we’ll just forget everything we’re trying to learn.
6. Seek feedback
Obtain regular and intense feedback on your progress. Feedback provides valuable insights and helps you refine your learning approach.
It’s these tight feedback loops that encourage learning, whether it’s for exams or for anything else in life.
Don’t stop at acquiring basic knowledge. Strive to go beyond and master the subject through overlearning.
When we’re learning something we actually want to try and learn it in more depth than we necessarily need to. And the idea here is to continuously be asking why a thing works the way that it does.
In the end, we have a deeper appreciation as to why things are the way they are. And it makes learning anything else in that particular sphere so much easier and more efficient.
8. Use spaced repetition
Space out your study sessions to optimize retention. Spacing allows for better long-term memory formation.
The forgetting curve tells us that when we learn something – whether it’s a fact, a skill, or whatever – we’re going to forget it after a certain period of time. In other words, our memory decays over time.
So, in order to retain that information, we have to keep testing ourselves on the thing for our brain to absorb the information fully. It’s like with our muscles: if we don’t use our muscles, they’ll atrophy and get smaller (☹️). Equally, with our brains, if we learn a language when we’re five years old and then don’t use it for the next 10 years, we’re going to forget most of it.
9. Teach others
Share your knowledge with others. Teaching what you have learned reinforces your understanding and helps you retain information.
We often tell ourselves that we can’t teach someone something because we’re not an expert at it. But, for me, that’s not true. In fact, C.S Lewis talks about this thing called ‘the curse of knowledge’, which is that when we’re trying to learn something, we often don’t learn best from experts. Instead, we learn best from people who are just one step in front of us along the same journey.
It’s better to learn from a guide than a guru.
This is all to say, don’t be afraid to teach what you’re learning.
By following these evidence-based tips, you can enhance your learning abilities and achieve greater success in various aspects of life.
How To Study For Exams – Spaced Repetition
Table of Contents:
The amount of time we spend revising is always a controversial issue – some people prefer to downplay how much time they’ve spent revising whereas others are keen to tell you how much revision they’ve done. The fact is we’re all different in how much time we spend studying but if active recall is an effective technique, the next question I want to address is how we should be using it to enhance our performance. This is where spaced repetition comes in.
Spaced Repetition vs Cramming – The Theory and Evidence
As the name suggests, spaced repetition involves spacing your revision and reviewing topics, ideally by active recall, at specific intervals over a period of time.
It can be explained by the ‘forgetting curve’ – an idea that has been around in the psychology literature for over one hundred years. The forgetting curve is the idea that over time we forget things at an exponential rate – akin to the half-life of radioactive substances if you want a scientific analogy!
The way we can take advantage of the forgetting curve is through breaking the cycle by reviewing material at spaced intervals. This might be obvious to you but its importance cannot be overstated. The more that we practice and the more spaced this repetition becomes, the more likely we are to encode this information into our long-term memory.
In essence, the idea behind spaced repetition is that you allow your brain to forget some of the information to ensure that the active recall process is mentally taxing. The psychology literature suggests that the harder that your brain has to work to retrieve information, the more likely that that information will be encoded.
By spacing our repetition by a day, 3 days, then a week, we allow ourselves to forget some of the information such that when we revise the topic – through active recall – it takes active brain power. Rereading, on the other hand, has low utility because it is a passive exercise – just testing yourself once has been shown to be more effective than rereading the same passage four times.
What’s even more astounding is that evidence suggests that, even within the same study session, spaced repetition can be a more efficient technique in terms of retaining information. A 2011 study involving four groups of students who were tasked with trying to learn words in Swahili found that recalling information even within the same session had dramatic benefits. In the study, one group only studied the words once and this didn’t produce impressive results. The second group saw each word once and then had to recall a word once before being tested and, as you can see from the graph, just through recalling a word once, your performance increases. The third group had to recall the same words multiple times which produced similar results to Group 2.
However, most interestingly, the final group saw each word, recalled it, then had a gap of a few more words before recalling the first word again. In effect, this final group spaced their recall and, as the graph illustrates, the results are astonishing.
The students were doing exactly the same work – the only difference being that their recall was spaced out compared to groups 2 and 3. This study not only emphasises the power of active recall but also provides firm evidence of the power of spaced repetition and how we only need to restructure our revision slightly to obtain a substantial improvement in our ability to remember and recall information.
This active recall-spaced repetition combination can easily be adapted into our studying. For instance, let’s say you studied Topic 1 and Topic 2 one morning and planned to move to Topic 3 and Topic 4 in the afternoon. The results from this study demonstrate that you should go back to Topic 1 and write down – through active recall – what you can remember before moving onto Topic 3. You would then repeat this for Topic 2 after having studied Topic 3 and so forth.
In essence, spaced repetition over days and weeks as well as reviewing content on the same day, can both be extremely helpful for improving exam performance.
Applying Spaced Repetition
In practical terms, applying active recall and spaced repetition could be as simple as taking a pen and paper at the end of the day and answering your active recall questions, or constructing a spider diagram of what you’ve learnt – all with your book closed obviously!
But I know that different techniques work better for some people compared to others. The following strategies are the ones that worked effectively for me – if you’re struggling with your studying, then perhaps give these a try.
Summary / Extra Notes
- Active recall and spaced repetition provide a brilliant blend that can improve the efficiency and efficacy of your studies.
- Spaced repetition is better than cramming – even within a single study session.
- The spreadsheet system is very simple, gives a pictorial representation of where you are for each of your subjects and allows you to more effectively plot your daily timetables.
8 Strategies To Transform Your Student Experience
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