How To Study Like Scientists

Would you like to learn or study better? To study like successful students, scientists and professionals do? I would: I’d save a lot of time.

Education expert Dr Oakley flunked maths and science at school and become a linguist instead. After joining the United States army, she was forced into electronics classes which switched her on to the careers in maths and science available to the mathematics minded. So what did she do? She became envious and decided to become good at maths and science. Many years on her brilliant book Mind for Numbers teaches how she studied to retrain her brain in the intelligence necessary to become what she became: a doctoral engineer. As she says “as with studying language, the better I got, the easier it became”, and her earlier difficulty taught her how to not waste time in friction with the material; she learnt what really works to make progress.

1. Study in bursts of 25 minutes focused and 10 minutes relaxed

Via Mind for Numbers

“Focused mode thinking is essential for studying math and science. It involves a direct approach to solving problems using rational, sequential, analytical approaches. The focused mode is associated with the concentrating ability of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, located right behind your forehead. Turn your attention to something and bam–the focused mode is on like the tight penetrating beam of a flashlight”

Whereas the other modes:

“Diffuse mode thinking is also essential for learning math and science. It allows us to suddenly gain a new insight into a problem we’ve been struggling with and is associated with “big picture” perspectives. Diffuse mode thinking is what happens when you relax your attention and let your mind wander, This relaxation can allow different areas of the brain to hook up and return valuable insights. Unlike the focused mode, the diffuse mode seems less affiliated with any one area of the brain–you can think of it as being diffused throughout”

The focused mode then allows us to solve problems and take in information, but it is the diffuse mode that stores and solves that information–and creates memories and solutions from that focused mode input. Both are important – being creative without materials is impossible, or as she says: “you can’t make a brickwall without clay”. Ultimately creativity or insights rarely come from thinking in a focused mode; “the harder you push your brain to come up with something creative the less creative your ideas will be”.

Taking breaks in the study sessions do not really break from the learning process, they are essential to it. Rewarding yourself with what you enjoy at the break end of a study session is the best means of thinking about it and progressing as it allows the diffuse mode to kick in and replenishes the eyes ability to concentrate for another session. This study technique is called the Pomodoro method, because its creator originated the idea with a tomato – pomodoro – timer.

2. Value the process over the results

Progress is incremental in any learning. Being able to do several of those study sessions a day and working through the textbook will get results. But the measure of your concentration should be via time spent, including ‘breaks’, rather than on parts reached. It’s better quality to remember and recall information from some chapters properly, than have a superficial fail grade understanding of the book as a whole.(Though surveying the whole and themes does aid memory).

3. Use spaced repetition

Via Mind for Numbers

“As you may have guessed, this technique involves repeating what you are trying to retain like a new vocabulary word or a new problem-solving technique, but spacing this repetition out over a number of days. Putting a day between bouts of repetition–extending your practice over a number of days–does make a difference. Research has shown that if you try to glue things into your memory by repeating something twenty times in one evening, for example, it won’t stick nearly as well as over days.”

When making knowledge or learning you are effectively building synaptic structures in your brain: if you don’t leave time for neurones to strengthen, extend, myelinate then it will be forgotten as that structure comes down; rather like laying too few bricks or with too little mortar in a brickwall. (Boasts about cramming and late-nights are mostly boasting stupid time-management and brain ignorance)

I use the free flashcard spaced-repetition software Anki, you can get here.

4. Quantity becomes Quality

“Creativity is a numbers game: the best predictor of how many creative works we produce in our lifetimes is . . . the number of works we produce.” Similar to Ray Bradbury’s advice to write story after story: the more you do something and with more deliberate practice the more probable success becomes. In fact, the shift from quantitative okay to high quality is analogues to the input of focused and churned out diffuse thinking.

5. Recall material to learn material
if you cannot recall something you do not know it (in a useful, tangible way).

Via Mind for Numbers

“Attempting to recall the material you are trying to learn–retrieval practice–is far more effective than simply rereading the material. Psychologist Jeffrey Karpcike and his colleagues have shown that many students experience illusions of competence when they are studying. Most students, Karpicke found, “Repeatedly read their notes or textbook (despite the limited benefits of this strategy), but relatively few engage in self-testing or retrieval practice while studying.” When you have the book {or Google!} open in front of you it provides the illusion the information is already in your brain.”

This can be as simple as remembering the details of a chapter or putting a page in the mind’s eyes via the Pomodoro technique above. This recall and self-test strategy was more effective than reading, re-reading, mind mapping, highlighting or doodling with colours.

6. The Feynman Technique

Named after the famous physicist, this technique is to explain what you’ve learned or are learning to others simply enough that they get a grasp of what you meant. Research backs this up: teaching or explain concepts to others does help them learn, but significantly helps the teacher learn. Especially as dialogue allows insights of gaps or unknowns your mind would never, otherwise, be made aware of.

7. Remember Practice Makes Permanent

Many students waste time on the same things, that they already can do rather than the challenges that they can’t and would actually be worth their time. Once some concepts are embedded in long-term memory revisiting them for working memory can be a bad allocation of time and resources. Moreover, what you practice is not perfect but permanent: if you learn something incorrectly it becomes harder to correct therefore feedback and self-testing are even more essential than you can imagine.

8. Multitasking Is Myth: Progress Comes from Zero Distraction

Distractions make you stupid, less able to focus means less able to solve problems and learn information. Have a study space where you cannot be interrupted during your study bursts (say, a library) and aeroplane mode on phone and internet-site blockers on your devices.
Put knowledge Into Chunks

9. Separate your learning into chunks of information

By putting it into chunks, memory is able to memorise it easier. And building a network of chunks works like a library index of chunks you can use in further learning new concepts. This build-up of chunks is what makes learning new information is something you alreday know about much easier.

Via Mind for Numbers

“Learning fundamental concepts of math and science can be a lot easier than learning subjects that require a lot of rote memorisation. This is not to trivialise the difficulty or importance of memorisation. Ask any medical school student preparing for board exams! One reason that statement is true is that once you start wookring on a math or science problem, you’ll notice that each step you complete signals the next step to you. Internalising problem solving techniques enhances the neural activity that allows you to more easily hear the whispers of your growing intution. When you know–really know–how to solve a problem just by looking at it, you’ve created a commanding chunk that sweeps like a song through your mind.”

Further still:

“Before an exam, be able to list everything on your sheets: the subjects, the types of problems within the sections, and the techniques. You’d be surprised by what just being able to list the sections and subjects will do for you, let alone the types of problems and toolbox tricks. This type of verbal recall allows you to recognize types of problems more quickly and have more confidence before you go into an exam”

Indeed studies have shown that merely the feeling of control and overconfidence are correlated with student success. The causal reasons being they are confident because they are competent, of course, but having a feeling of confidence and control prevents performance inhibiting anxiety–confidence and optimism become a self-fulfilling prophecy of success. (I hope so, too).

To sum up:
Study in bursts of 25 minutes focused and 10 minutes relaxed
Value the process over the results
Use spaced repetition
Quantity becomes Quality
The Feynman Technique
Practice Makes Permanent
Multitasking Is Myth: Progress Comes from Zero Distraction
Put knowledge Into Chunks

There are many more chunks to Mind for Numbers but working memory is tight; there are other evidenced ways to improve grades and learning from oddball sounding handwriting and talking to yourself. Other research show the more common sense but strangely ignored neuro healthy diet, toxin cleansing sleep, and brain cell growing exercises help

One thought on “How To Study Like Scientists

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.