Learning is a lifelong journey. It is one of the best things you can do for your happiness, health, and productivity. Despite this, many people tend to shy away from the new. It is challenging to tackle a new field, face a mountain of new material head-on, and learn new skills. Part of that challenge is simply not knowing where to start. Though it seems some students are given a guide book to study habits, they are far and few between. For the rest of us, I offer this seven step guide to studying so it sticks. The directions are easy to follow, and they will leave you confidently acquiring new skills as you continue to live a rich life of learning and discovery.
The first step in conquering any topic is to paint in broad strokes. Take time to get a general understanding of the material without any pressure to learn it. Approach your material like a fiction novel that is there for your enjoyment. Lightly read about what you will be doing and why. Skim a chapter or article on the subject. Watch a video or audio lecture while you do household chores or while driving. The aim is to come away with a general understanding of the subject and of your lesson objectives.
Once you’ve become familiar with the material, it is time to dig deeper. What exactly do you need to do? What are the steps involved? A good way to get started is to look at what other people have done. If you’re writing code, check out github.com, Kaggle.com or stackoverflow.com, to examine different ways to complete the same task. Make sure you understand the why behind every how. What makes the most sense to you? Make a detailed list of exactly how you will tackle your new project. If there are several ways to complete the project, spend some time brainstorming before you begin. You might even want to plan out two or three potential routes of action.
The next step is to test your plan. Using the steps you have created, work through the problem in real time. Do your steps make sense? Do they work? If you have more than one plan of attack, try them all. Time spent understanding the nuances of your approach is time well spent. Feel free to amend your notes and the steps you have designed as you go along. Think of this stage as exploratory learning.
Practice makes perfect. You can practice by quizzing yourself. No cheating! Don’t look at the steps you’ve designed until you have made a concerted effort to move through the problem on your own. If you get stuck, take your time to really read through the section you’re having trouble with. Repeat it to yourself several times before moving on. You can’t get away with passively reading or copying information when you practice. The definition requires you to be an active participant, which is the best way to learn.
Learning a skill is different from just memorizing steps. You need to understand the steps involved and the thinking behind them so that you can then apply these same ideas to any variety of problems. The best way to make sure you’ve really mastered the concepts is to practice applying them in a number of scenarios. Use practice problems that ask you to use the skills you’ve learned in slightly different ways. If you get stuck, turn to a friend or teacher for help. You can even post your problem on sites like stackoverflow.com and let the crowd help you figure it out.
It is tempting to master a subject and then leave it untouched for several days. This strategy, however, has a catastrophic impact on learning the material so it sticks. You haven’t really mastered a topic if you’ve only been working on it for one day. This is cramming. True mastery demands practice over time. Start every day. Then, perhaps, limit your practice of this particular skill to every week. If you see yourself slipping, go back to practicing more often. Most lessons build on each other, introducing topics that require knowledge of previously mastered material to understand. Soon you will be practicing lessons where lesson one is merely a small part of the whole, one you completely understand. That is mastery.
Don’t get discouraged if on your first couple passes through the material the concepts aren’t quite sticking. That’s normal! It is even more normal if you’ve been out of the studying and learning habit for some time. Learning is like exercising a muscle. The more you practice, the stronger your learning capabilities grow, and the faster you’re able to pick up new material in the future.
This is one of many reasons to keep learning, no matter how old you get, and a reason to get back to learning if you haven’t stretched that muscle recently. Let Edlitera become your very own brain-exercise machine. With several classes to choose from and Ivy League instructors to support your growth, there is no reason to wait. Start learning today, and watch your professional potential grow alongside your skills, knowledge and capacity to learn.