Study methods are paramount

Less than an hour ago I received my grades for the three courses I tried in university. Philosophy: 15/20, statistics: 3/20, linear algebra: didn’t take the exam. You might be surprised, but I’m actually happy with those results. One, because I never passed a philosophy or psychology class up to now, even at a tenth of the university difficulty. Two, before I enrolled I knew the chance was slim of passing statistics and linear algebra the first try. My mathematical intuition was non existent and my study methods, well, weren’t methods at all. I’ll talk about those later.

At the end of the semester I did however feel I had a reasonable chance to pass statistics, but then cancer struck one of my parents, which drew me into an existential quest for existence during the two week study period. This was a surprise because I thought it wouldn’t affect me. Anyway, the lack of learning during that period is evident. I only answered one question on the exam. The good part is; I’ve experience the exams, I know what to expect and I’m confident it’s doable with a rigorous work ethic. It will definitely be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

As for linear algebra, it would have been possible too if I didn’t waste so much time on inefficiently relearning all the required math for STEM-fields. I worked without a plan and suddenly realised I was out of time. Since short I’ve been logging every single thing I do throughout the day. From studying to sports to going number two. When you count all of the little intervals where you’re doing nothing but idling, it quickly sums up to a quarter or a third of the day. This was mind blowing. So much wasted time. For example, I would frequently be distracted for 5 minutes doing this or that or simply not knowing what to do next after a finished chapter. Those 5 minutes felt like 30 seconds, so you don’t feel bad if you have three short breaks in one hour. But, in total that’s 15 minutes you haven’t studied; thinking you’ve studied a full hour.

That was one problem. The lack of a study method is the second. During my past experience in high school and college, I merely practised rote learning. It didn’t even reach that level. I just re-read things until my mind felt familiar with the content. This does not mean you understand things. Only now I realise why I always failed psychology or philosophy courses. While reading the textbooks I felt confident I somewhat grasped it, but on exams I always blacked out. I would know where the answer was located in the book, but the rest was forgotten. Logic, otherwise helpful to give a reasonable answer, couldn’t help here because, yeah, psychologists and philosophers have a difficult way of communicating ‘simple’ things.

This time I suddenly realised, “What am I doing? You’re learning philosophy the same way again.” I did some searching and found a technique I heard from  Jim Kwik. A technique that’s apparently been used for ages. What you do is imagine a familiar location, like your home, and attach information you need to learn to objects you won’t forget. This worked wonderfully. First I stored the textbook content page; all the titles and subtitles. From there I just had to follow a timeline in my head to know what this or that chapter contained. Obviously each chapter has a lot of information which you can’t completely store in your brain. Luckily I wrote a summary of each section. So I created the most absurd events in my mind, containing the crux of the summary.

It doesn’t sound believable without an example, so here it goes: My father’s working place meant the scientific revolution because it had a ruler and a welding station. They respectively mean math and experiments. As we enter the place the light switches on; the optimism of enlightenment. My father has a bust of Mozart, so I replaced it with Newton. Above the the bust there was a painting of Galileo. In the middle of the working place I hung a big curtain with ‘the new scientific method’ written on it. That meant a new way of looking at science from there on. Behind the curtain stood Francis Bacon, baking some bacon in boiling water on my father’s stove. The latter reminds me of Robert Boyle, who invented the first vacuum pump. Because the water was boiling, Bacon hurt himself and hit his head against a giant clock in the air. The clock reminds me of the watch without a watchmaker, a chapter about God and a creator, etc. Of course the clock fell, causing a big rupture underneath the curtain. This meant the split between empiricism and rationalism. Between the rupture hung a bridge, with Descartes standing on it.

On and on it went, until the entire textbook was in my head. Most things are easy to remember like this, only the little details need a reminder. After finishing a complete chapter I took a piece of paper and starting writing down everything I could recall. When you can’t come up with anything new, you take a red pen and write down everything you forgot and see how you can improve your story. Creating this elaborate and sometimes insane storyline took some time though; it wouldn’t have worked starting only the day before and I definitely could have perfected it if I dared to utilize this technique earlier.

Lastly, my biggest mistake with statistics was not making any exercises on paper and assuming the questions would remain basic. I learned my lessons the hard way. Hopefully someone can use my faults to learn it the easy way.

PS I just finished reading Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman and The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined. It is so important to learn basic concepts of things. Learn as if you have to explain it to someone. Apparently rote learning is commonplace, even with highly regarded scientists. This stifles the joy of knowledge and does not grow your brain to its true potential.





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