Effective Learning Skills

( memory, concentration, reading & listening, exams, time use )

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.


  These “power tool” ideas for studying really work, and
your improved learning skills will help you immediately
and will continue paying dividends for a long time.

You can read the following sections (*) in any order:

20.3  Memory as a Problem-Solving Tool
20.4  Concentration, Confidence, and Fun
20.5  Active Learning: Reading and Listening
20.6  Exam Preparation and Performance
20.7  Using Your Time Effectively

* written in 1989 for my book,
Physics: Tools for Problem Solving
 


Copyright © 1989 by Craig Rusbult  (for the entire book, including the original Sections 20.3-20.96)
Copyright © 1989-2011 by Craig Rusbult  (for this page, which is being revised-and-expanded in 2011)

Using Metacognition in Learning Strategies   ( an update in 2011 )

        I've known about metacognition for decades, and recently (since May 2011) I've been examining the mutual relationships between metacognition, strategies for learning more effectively, and the process of design that is described in my model of Design Method.
        What is metacognition?  When you ask “how can I think and learn more effectively?” and you think about thinking with the goal of improving the quality of your thinking-and-learning, this is metacognition.
        In the context of this page about Effective Learning Skills, the most valuable educational application of metacognition is "a Cognitive-and-Metacognitive Strategy for Learning that use an observing-and-improving process of design, with evaluative Quality Checks (for learning strategies) and Quality Controls (for applications of learning strategies) that help you improve the quality of your learning, thinking, and performance.  Learning Strategies are a major part of an overall Strategy for Self-Education."
        A Learning Strategy is described near the end of my Overview of Design Method, using a framework that "views metacognition as a person's use of metacognitive knowledge for the purpose of metacognitive regulation."  After you have defined an objective (such as wanting to learn more effectively in lectures) and goals (for understanding more accurately-and-completely, and remembering what you have learned,...), the next step in developing-and-using a Learning Strategy is to "PREPARE by searching for strategies about ‘how to learn more in lecture’ from other people (what do they recommend, and why?)" and that's the purpose of this page!  In fact, I refer to this page:
Here is an example of the metacognitive knowledge you can learn for Preparation:  In my page for Effective Learning Skills [the page you're now reading] the section for Active Listening (which is part of a section about Active Learning) begins with a brief description of the similarities and differences between actively reading & listening;  this is followed by an in-depth examination of a strategy for learning from lectures in 3 phases (by what you do before, during, and after lectures), including the differences between pre-lecture preparation by using lecture notes (definitely do this) & textbook reading (maybe do this), and during lecture the time-sharing & time-shifting (for activities of listening & seeing, thinking and writing, plus metacognitive observing) that can help you learn-and-remember more effectively, and how to minimize distractions that begin externally or internally.    [ This is a summary of what you'll find later in the page if you click the italicized inside-the-page link for Active Listening. ]

If you want to explore these ideas more thoroughly, here are two options:
  • the Cognitive-and-Metacognitive Strategy for Learning outlined above, which is preceded by "Combining Cognition with Metacognition in the Process of Coordinating Design" and a description of five strategies, including Educational Strategies for Learners and Teachers.
  • Active-Learning Theories and Teaching Strategies which explains the basic principles of metacognition in a major section with 3 subsections:  What is metacognition, and how is it useful?  Metacognition as a Problem-Solving Approach to Personal Education  &  Metacognition and Formative Evaluation.
 
I.O.U. on September 8 — Tomorrow afternoon I'll return to revising this page, and hopefully the revision will be finished by mid-September 2011.  Currently only the section for Active Learning has been recently revised.
 


 
20.3  Memory as a Problem-Solving Tool

        Good problem solving requires an “active memory” that gives you quick, reliable access to essential thinking tools.  A good memory isn't sufficient to make you an expert problem solver (you also need an effective blending of creativity with logic) but it is necessary.
        To improve your memory, take advantage of original awareness with intention to remember, organization, and review.
 

        STORAGE: ORIGINAL AWARENESS with INTENTION TO REMEMBER
        It is useful to consider memory as a two-step process: storage and retrieval.  If you want to remember something, it must be “stored” in your memory.
        After being introduced to someone, have you ever forgotten the name?  When this happens you typically haven't forgotten the name, because you never really “had it."  But if you listen carefully (original awareness) and then silently review the name (intention to remember), the name is now stored in your memory so you can remember it later.  When you find something worth remembering in your reading or problem-solving practice, stop for a few seconds and review it before you lose it!

 
        RETRIEVAL: the importance of ORGANIZATION
        It's easy to find page 86 of a book, the word “grace” in a dictionary, or a book in a library, due to organization.  Book pages are in numerical order, dictionary words are alphabetical, and library books are arranged according to a system (Library of Congress, Dewey Decimal,...).  Logical organization also makes it easier to retrieve information from your memory.  Here is an example.

        Quiz #1:  For a few seconds, look at these 22 letters:  t s e k h a u o e n d y g c a l h t e y n m
        Then close your eyes and try to remember all of them;  don't leave any letters out, and don't put any extras in.
        If you were given enough time and incentive, you could memorize these letters.  But there is a better way to do it — by using organization!

        Quiz #2:  Try to remember these letters after a few seconds of study:  sneaky the lunch dog my ate

        Each quiz contains the same 22 letters.  So why is Quiz #2 easier to remember?
        1) QUANTITY:  It's easier to remember 6 things (in #2) than 22 things (in #1).
        2) MEANING:  Simply forming letter-groups isn't enough.  Is it easy to remember letter-groups like “temuy acnh gnte ysol aek dh"?  No, because they are not organized into words that have meaning.  A meaningful "lunch” is easy to remember, but not nonsensical letter-groups like “temuy”.
        3) STRUCTURE:  Can you organize the words of Quiz #2 into a sentence?  What does the dog do?
 

        RETRIEVAL: the importance of REVIEW
        If you want to remember something (concepts, equations, problem-solving strategies,...), review it.  A balanced combination — with review distributed throughout the course, plus a massed cramming session before the exam — is better than either one alone.
        Various types of review offer advantages.  For example, Flash Cards require activity, Summary Notes provide organization, and both let you make quick reviews of the entire chapter.  Generally, review is more effective when you are active.

 

        SUMMARY NOTES

        One powerful organizing technique is SUMMARY NOTES.  To make them, choose the most important ideas from your textbook, lecture notes and problem-solving practice, then organize these ideas into a unified summary.  Be creative.
        If you're writing with a computer, use its advantages:  it's easier for you to revise-and-supplement your notes, and you can make tables (to show relationships horizontally & vertically), plus other benefits.  Or if you want to make some summaries by hand-writing, you can divide information into idea-clusters, spread these all over the page, and use spatial cues to show their relationships;  use flowcharts, hierarchy structure, outlines, tables, or free-form chaos.
        Experiment with different kinds of organization.  Personalize your summary.  For example, an author may use several pages to explain a new concept, but you can use a small phrase (that wouldn't make sense to anyone else) to quickly remind yourself about the main concepts.   Invent and use your own system of symbols ( +  -  vs  !  ?  /  *  x  arrows  linklines ... ), underlining and circling (of various types), brackets { [ ( ,  differing print size, and (one of my favorites) colors.

        You can make your summary “from scratch."  Or use a chapter summary in this book [Physics: Power Tools for Problem Solving] as your starting point, and then change it in any way you want.  Make photocopies of my summary and you'll feel more free to experiment creatively;  if you don't like the changes you've made, just try it again on another copy by keeping the changes you like, discarding those you don't, and revising in other ways.
        Make a “rough-draft summary” early.  Then as you use these notes for problem-solving, think about how you can change them to make a new improved version.  You may find it freeing to use a pencil for the rough draft.  This encourages creativity because you'll feel more spontaneous if you know it will be easy to revise the summary later.
        In your early summary, include everything you think might be useful.  Then notice which tools are used most often when you solve problems, and edit the summary accordingly.  Eventually, you'll want to travel lightly so your summary includes only the tools you really need: no more and no less.  When you eliminate “excess clutter” the important ideas stand out more clearly.

        You'll learn a lot during the “choose and organize” process of making summary notes.  And when you study it, a summary is useful in many ways.  It will help you to:
        1) memorize.  When information is condensed in a small area you can literally see the visual and logical interconnections, and it is easier to understand relationships.  Because the information is organized on paper, it is easier to organize in your mind, which makes it easier to remember!  And summary notes are short, so you can do many quick yet thorough reviews.
        2) develop problem-solving strategies.  Most of the tools you need are available in clear view, so you can focus your attention on how to use them.
        3) acquire more knowledge.  New information is easier to understand when it is related to what you already know, if it is a variation on a familiar theme, or is a logical consequence of a principle you understand.  Summary notes organize the essential ideas into a framework, providing a structure where you can insert details and new ideas.

        a Section Summary:  The best way to insure good recall is good preparation, to achieve storage.  The final step of “retrieval” is usually easy if you've done a good job with the earlier stages:  1) learn with intention-to-remember,  2) organize the information (with intrinsic logic or an external system),  3) review actively and often, using appropriate cues.
        Other memory-improving tips are given in Sections 20.4 (the effects of interest and motivation), 20.5 (remembering ideas from reading and lectures), and 20.93 (principles for customizing & minimizing this book's flashcard cues, using sensory cues, plus memory tricks & systems).


 
20.4  Concentration

        According to the Random House Dictionary, concentration is “exclusive attention to one object” and to concentrate is “to bring all efforts, faculties, etc., to bear on one thing or activity."  Good concentration is an extremely valuable thinking tool.

        Interest and Activity
        Do you have to “try to concentrate” when you watch the climax of an exciting movie, or when you're in the middle of a fascinating conversation?  No; if you are truly interested in an activity, good concentration is natural and effortless.
        In her excellent book “On Becoming an Educated Person,” Virginia Voeks describes how interest-and-activity helps you learn more -- and have more fun -- when you read:  “Start with an intent to make the very most you can from whatever you read.  Treat the author as you do your friends.  When talking with a friend, you listen attentively and eagerly.  You watch for contributions of value and are sensitive to them.  You actively respond to his ideas with ones of your own.  Together you build new syntheses."
        You can read with similar expectations and results.  Expect the author to present facts you had not known before, to offer new ideas, to give new slants on old problems and to formulate new problems.  When alert to these things, you will see them.  Reading becomes refreshingly stimulating fun.  Of course, you can use this positive attitude for all of your studying.  Listening to a lecture becomes an exciting conversation, reviewing flashcards is a self-testing game, making a summary is a chance to be logical-and-creative with no grading pressure, and solving problems is a fun, idea-stimulating challenge.

        Ignoring Distractions
        The human mind responds to sensory input (sight, sound,...) and also constantly generates its own ideas.  When these mental activities interfere with what you are trying to think about, it causes external distraction (due to sensory input) or internal distraction (due to your thinking), respectively.  By using metacognition (being aware of your thinking, and thinking about it) you can more accurately understand why you're being distracted, and how you can maximize your concentration where you want to focus.
        The best way to cope with either kind of distraction is to provide competition, with interest and activity.  During an interesting conversation it is easy to totally ignore distractions (or tell them to “go away, don't bother me now, I'm busy") and keep good concentration.  When you develop an interest in what you're studying, distractions won't have a chance.  And if you are extremely active (reading, listening, thinking, reviewing, note-taking, ...) your mind is so filled with thoughts about physics that there is “no room” left for a distraction to squeeze into.
        If you have a valuable thought about a non-physics topic, quickly write it down.  The thought is on paper as a reminder, so you don't have to worry about forgetting it and you can return to studying with full concentration.  Later, look at the paper and give the thought your undivided attention.
        Taking notes during a lecture requires a combination of externally and externally directed concentration.  You must receive information (listen), process it (think) and preserve it (write).  Section 20.5 discusses ways to improve your note-making skill:  prepare before the lecture, concentrate during it, and review afterward.
        If possible, study in a quiet place.  But when noise occurs, ignore it and remember that your own response (of interest or irritation) is often the main distraction, not the noise itself.  If you learn to concentrate despite noise, you increase your own freedom because you can study in a wider variety of situations, independent of other people's actions.  This will also increase the freedom of others, since you can give them your “permission” to do what they want.

        BUILDING UP GOOD CONCENTRATION:  First, practice high-quality concentration under ideal conditions, like an easy interesting subject for a short time in a quiet place.  Then practice keeping good concentration when you're in non-ideal situations, until you can study a difficult boring subject for a long time in a noisy place.  { A similar “building up” strategy can be used to improve many other skills.}

        Fully Alive!
        Do you ever think “when I'm not studying I feel like I should be, and when I am studying I wish I wasn't"?  If there is conflict between your perceptions of what you “should” do and what you want to do, it will cause a waste of mental and emotional effort, like two tug-of-war teams pulling in opposite directions.
        The key to resolving this conflict is balance.  All work and no play (or vice versa) does not lead to a happy, productive, full life.  Don't make yourself choose between work and play.  Do both with enthusiasm!

        Studying is a two-step, two-level process:  1) just do it,  2) do it with gusto!
        You can make yourself study with willpower and the procrastination-avoiding techniques of Section 20.7.  To reach the gusto level, which is more efficient and more fun, generate interest with the “positive attitude” that was discussed earlier, and generate motivation with a “piecework incentive” attitude.
        When you are paid by the hour, you earn the same amount of money no matter how slow or fast you work.  But with a piecework salary the more you produce the more you earn, so you get to harvest the rewards of your own efficiency.
        Studying is a piecework activity.  If you are efficient, you automatically receive a higher “learning per hour” salary -- you'll learn a lot quickly, and will feel a real satisfaction about studying.  Later, when you “play” you can relax and enjoy it because you won't be nagged by worries about unfinished schoolwork.

        Be fully alive!  Wherever you are, be all there.  Whatever you're doing, do it fully.

        Factors that contribute to Success in Physics
        Motivation is important, but just wanting something doesn't make it happen.
        This diagram shows some of the factors that contribute to success in physics:

        Many arrows point toward the first box because many factors, including success in physics, affect your self image, values and goals.  These in turn influence your decisions about the time you'll spend studying physics, and what your attitude is during this time.  The quantity and quality of your studying (plus natural ability and previous background) determine your knowledge of physics and problem solving skill, and (along with exam-taking skill) your performance on exams.
        Try to learn from each exam so the next time you will do better in any part of the cycle ( self image, time & attitude, tools, exam skill) that needs improving.  Physics tools are interdependent, so an improvement in one part of the cycle also improves other parts of it and your overall skill can improve rapidly.
        For example, if you're good at doing something you'll probably like it (this is the opposite of “sour grapes"), and if you like it you'll usually become better at doing it.  When you break into this cycle by improving your “attitude while studying” your exam scores will also improve, which makes it easier to be enthusiastic about studying for the next exam, and you're into a very nice cycle.
        It helps when you have hope, when can see progress toward “knowing your stuff,” because you have a reason for realistic confidence and hope, and enthusiasm.

        Factors that contribute to Concentration
    Concentration is a “master skill” that affects everything you do.  If you have good concentration (represented by *'s on the diagram above) you will learn more during study and perform better on exams.  But what is good concentration?  You don't get it by “trying to concentrate", but by focusing on what you are doing, as you search for insight and use problem solving tools effectively and study actively (20.5) with the goal of increasing your knowledge and skill.
        As emphasized earlier in “Fully Alive,” motivation is important.
        A confident “lack of worrying” usually helps, but it isn't necessary.  You can learn and perform well in spite of anxiety, if you have a positive action focus.  Instead of worrying about negatives (what you fear, dislike, or want to avoid), focus your full attention on the “positive” of what you want to accomplish and the action you're taking to reach that goal.
        It is usually good to study enthusiastically with high intensity, trying to learn a lot in a short time.  Use piecework incentive!  I've noticed that many of my best ideas and exam performances come when I'm “trying really hard."
        But creative ideas and good performance also occur during times of relaxation.  One colorful example involves the great scientist Archimedes.  Over 2000 years ago he was appointed to test a king's crown, to find out if it made of pure gold, as ordered, or if less costly (and lighter-weight) silver had been mixed in.  To complete his analysis, Archimedes needed a way to find the volume of the crown.  For awhile, the answer eluded him.  But one day as he stepped into the bath he saw the water level rise, and suddenly he knew how to find the crown's volume!  Archimedes was so delighted that he jumped from the water and ran naked into the street gleefully shouting “I found it!  I found it!"
        In many situations a mixture of freedom-from-worry and high intensity, a sort of “relaxed alertness,” will help you to think more effectively.
        physical fitness and mental fitness:  There is an intimate connection between mind and body.  Each affects the other.  If you take better care of your body with “whole-person living” that includes good nutrition, exercise and (of course) getting enough rest, your concentration and thinking quality will improve.
        It isn't easy to know what produces good concentration because many factors are involved, their effect varies from one person to another, and the goal of thinking depends on the situation.  For example, the concentration needed for early exam-preparation (reading, lecture-listening, making summary notes, problem-solving while searching for insight, ...) is a little different than the concentration you need during an exam when you must work very fast.  This is why Section 20.6 urges you to do “realistic practice” during late exam-preparation.
        There is also a difference between converging thinking, when your thought is focused on a single well-defined goal, and divergent thinking, when you search for creative ideas but aren't sure what the ideas will be until you actually get them.  And some types of mental organization, especially for big projects that synthesize a variety of ideas, require a special kind of logic that works best when you think clearly but in a “diffuse” way, with your attention spread over a large area so you see “the big picture,” the overall patterns and links-between-ideas, how pieces of the puzzle fit together to form a unified and coherent whole.
        As with most skills, a good way to develop concentration is to search for insights.  Notice what works best for you in different situations, and practice until fast, clever, reliable thinking becomes a natural and easy habit.
 


 
20.5  Active Reading and Listening

        Activity makes studying more fun and more efficient.  Other parts of this book discuss the activities of making summary notes, using flash cards, and solving problems.  This section focuses on two important active-learning skills: reading and listening.

        Even though some educators sometimes imply that active learning requires physical activity — that students must “do” something (by discussing issues, solving problems,...) to learn in an active way — a major theme of my page about Active Learning is that "cognitive activity does not require physical activity."

 
Active Reading

        FLEXIBILITYDecide what your purpose is, and adjust your reading accordingly.  You may want to aim for maximum understanding, to get out of a book everything the author put into it.  Often, however, your goal is more specific:  you want to learn the book's main ideas, or look for a specific fact, gather ideas for a term paper,...
        Each goal requires a different approach, but here is a basic principle:  Unless you really need total comprehension, you should resist the compulsion to read every word in a chapter or every page in a book.  For example, most experts suggest that you preview a textbook chapter to discover its overall content and structure, before you read the chapter.  To do a quick preview, read the introduction and summary, look at section titles, things in special print (large, or in bold, italic, underline) and perhaps diagrams, whatever seems important.  This quick preview usually is a pre-reading, intended to be followed by a reading that is more thorough, although probably not aiming for total comprehension.  Or it could be followed by reading only some parts of the chapter, or even none of it.
        At a broader level, for an entire book you can do a quick survey (similar to a preview) by looking at the chapter and section titles in the table of contents, plus reading the back dust-cover and perhaps parts of the introduction or foreword.  Then you can decide whether or not you want to read some parts (those that seem interesting or useful) or the entire book, and either way you have the “big picture overview” understanding that you gained from the survey.
        To find the places where a book discusses a specific idea, check the index.  Or use the table of contents to find likely chapters, then check its section headings.  To search through text for a specific idea, form a mental image of the idea and use this as a “search target” when you scan pages while comparing your search-image with what you're seeing on the pages, searching for a match.
        a summary:  When you read with flexibility, you want to read for a purpose, in a goal-directed mission that is guided by an appopriate reading strategy.

        SPEED:  One simple, effective speed technique is effort — just try to read faster.  Another, as described above, is to be flexible so you don't waste time by reading more closely (and slowly) than is necessary.
        You should read groups of words, not one word at a time.  This is easier if you focus your eyes slightly above the tops of the letters;  as an experiment, try reading a line with only the top half of the letters visible, with the bottom half visible, and compare the results.  Or practice making fewer eye fixations per line (your eyes see clearly only when they temporarily stop) and decreasing the time-per-stopMove only your eyes (not your head), don't “lip sync” the words by mentally pronouncing them, and minimize unnecessary backtracking — by contrast with the productive backtracking you use after you realize (due to your metacognitive awareness) that you don't understood what you just read.  Most important, practice reading faster, to discover effective reading techniques (this is a cognitive-and-metacognitive Learning Strategy) and to develop good habits.  If your college offers a reading improvement course, it might be a wise use of your time to take it and get some expert advice.
        To QUICKLY LEARN (reading speed plus mental comprehension-and-remembering) you must gather information quickly with your eyes by using the “mechanics” suggestions in the previous paragraph, and process it quickly using the “thinking skills” discussed throughout this section.

        COMPREHENSION:  Accurately interpret the author's ideas.  Read carefully, think about sentence structure and word meaning [use the scientific “technical” definition of words like velocity, acceleration, force, work, energy and heat, not “everyday meanings”], study the diagrams, work out the examples & derivations, and answer the questions that are asked because they are designed to stimulate your thinking and this will help you learn.
        As described in Section 20.95, at a certain stage of the writing process a writer can make an outline that is organized in a “visual form” to show relationships (logical, historical, cause-effect, application, flowchart, hierarchy,...) between ideas.  A writer translates these ideas into a logical sequence so they can be printed in the linear-format sequence that you read in linear order, one word after another.  If you are a good reader you will try to translate ideas in the reverse direction, from linear to visual, so you can understand the relationships that the writer is communicating:

VISUAL OUTLINE,
   with relationships   
clearly organized

—(writer)→
←(reader)—

LINEAR WRITING
(so you must find
   the relationships
)   

        This ↔ translation is sort of like “freeze dried” food where water is removed and then (when you want to eat the food) is restored.  When a book is printed in linear form, the writer's “visual organization” is removed, but it can be restored by a skilled reader who does linear-to-relational translation, with a logical organization that often can be represented visually.  A good way to do this is by using “visual thinking” to make summary notes, as discussed in Section 20.3.    { Occasionally a book has helpful diagrams that show logical structure. }
        If you study many levels of geographical mapping (campus, neighborhood, city, state, region, country, world, solar system, galaxy, universe) you will discover relationships that are impossible to see when you only look at one level.  Similarly, it is useful to study the organization of ideas at different levels of detail: sentence, paragraph, subsection, section, chapter and book.

        CRITICAL THINKING:  Don't believe everything you read, but do be ready and eager to learn from your reading.  When a book discusses ideas about politics, philosophy or religion, use evaluative thinking.  This is usually called critical thinking, but it's important to remember that "critical thinking is not necessarily being ‘critical’ and negative.  In fact, a more accurate term would be evaluative thinking.  The result of evaluation can range from positive to negative, from acceptance to rejection or anything in-between;  critical evaluation can produce a glowing recommendation."  Keep an open mind in trying to understand ideas, think carefully about facts and their interpretation, consider the author's bias, then think for yourself and decide what you do and don't want to “accept” as an accurate description of the way things are in the world.
        When a physics book describes how nature behaves, you can usually be confident the author isn't trying to mislead you.  But what can you do when a textbook theory disagrees with your “common sense intuition”?  After you realize there is a conflict, you can use the same strategy that a scientist uses to evaluate competing theories:  you ask “Which theory gives a better explanation of the facts?”  If you decide to change one of your previous theories about “the way things are and the way things behave,” try to apply your new understanding of nature to physics problems and also to real-life situations outside the classroom.
        Also consider different levels of understanding.  Do you understand how a television set works?  If this means a knowledge of how to design or repair it, you'll probably say NO.  But on a practical level, you can say YES if you know how to plug it in, turn it on, flip the dial, and watch.  There are levels-of-understanding in every area of life.  Sometimes it is important to learn all you can about an idea and try to understand it fully, including many of the details.  At other times it's better to just use what you know and don't worry about any loose ends and unanswered questions.  Knowing what should be put into each category is an important part of wisdom.

        CREATIVE THINKING:  Often you'll want to use a book for inspiration, to help you generate your own creative ideas.  Look for ways to combine your new and old knowledge.  Ask “How does this fit into the structure of what I already know?”
        But remember which ideas are yours, and which are the author's.  Don't "put ideas on her page” that she didn't intend to be there.  And don't plagiarize by claiming that you discovered ideas when you actually read them in her book.
        Creativity and critical thinking are discussed more fully in my link-pages for Creative Thinking and Critical Thinking.

        STOP-AND-GO READING:  A good way to understand & remember ideas is to read for awhile, stop and think, read more, stop and think, read, stop, and so on.  What should you do when you stop?  Think, recite, write.
        Think  —  Read for awhile, then do one or more of the thinking activities described throughout this subsection:  try to comprehend what the book is saying, do critical thinking, and let the author's ideas inspire your own ideas.
        Recite  —  When you find something worth remembering, look away from the book and say the idea to yourself, either mentally or aloud.  This activity helps move the idea from temporary short-term memory where, like the “vanished name-introduction” of Section 20.3, it can be easily lost, into permanent long-term memory.  Recitation provides original awareness with intention to remember and makes you practice the active recall you'll need for answering questions, and solving problems on exams or in life.  Timing is important, because you must capture ideas while they're still in your short-term memory.  Don't wait until the end of the chapter to do reviews;  recite often, during stop-and-go breaks, while you're reading.
        Kenneth Higbee, author of the excellent book, Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It, summarizes the scientific research on recitation:  "The effectiveness of recitation does not depend on whether the learners are dull or bright, whether the material is long or short, whether the material is meaningful or not — in virtually every case it is more efficient to read and recite than to just read.  A recent introductory psychology textbook discussing learning strategies concluded that ‘recitation is the most powerful tool in all learning.’ "
        Write  —  Use a pen or pencil to underline, circle or bracket the most important parts, or highlight them with a translucent marker.  You can also write your own notes (comments or summaries) in the book's margin or on a separate piece of paper.  If you have good book-marking or notes, it preserves much of the thinking you've done while reading;  this will help when you review or re-read the chapter.
        Will stop-and-go reading slow you down?  Yes, but that can be good.  If original awareness is minimal and you don't understand-and-remember what you read, it would be more appropriate to call it “wasting time” than “reading”.  Activity breaks will help you understand and remember;  because of this increased efficiency of learning, frequent brief stops can save you time in the long run.

        RE-READING:  Use “successive approximations” to get an increasingly accurate and complete understanding.  It is often useful to do three readings:  a quick survey, careful reading, and re-reading.  Depending on your time, purpose and motivation, re-reading can be done carefully, or a quick review of the important points (use your notes and book-marking as a guide), or just read what you need for doing problems.

        Use a Learning Strategy in which (like the welder or skier in my own experiences) you “search for insight” so you can develop an effective way to combine your reading (surveying, careful reading, re-reading) with other important activities:  listening to lectures, making a summary, problem-solving practice, and reviewing for an exam.

 
Active Listening

        This is like active reading, but with two major differences.
        During a lecture you can learn from what is said (the content), and also how it is said (the style) by paying attention to inflection and rhythm, emphasis, voice pitch, posture, facial expressions and hand gestures.
        You control the pace of your reading, but a speaker talks as fast as they want.  Unless a lecture is recorded, stop-and-go listening is not practical.  Instead you must do five (or more) things almost-simultaneously — listen, see (for facial expressions,... and to get information on a blackboard, powerpoint slides,...), mentally process ideas, and write notes, plus metacognitive observing.  Here are three ways to improve your skill in listening-seeing-processing-writing-observing.

        PREPARE BEFORE THE LECTURE
        How?  Review your notes from previous lectures.  If the teacher's lecture notes from a previous semester are available, read them for a preview.
        Why?  Because the more you know about a subject already, the easier it will be to learn more.  In physics and most other subjects, with almost all skilled teachers the lectures are cumulative, so the next lecture will build on previous lectures.  If you understand the knowledge (the ideas-and-skills) in previous lectures, this solid foundation will help you learn new knowledge in the next lecture, and solidify what you already know.  You can probably write less in your notes because you already know many of the ideas-and-skills, so only a quick reminder that today “this idea/skill was explained” is sufficient.  You can do more thinking-while-listening, and it will be easier to make quick decisions about what is important enough to put in your notes.
        Should you read the textbook before lecture?  The answer is not simple (so this paragraph is long and is split into several parts) because there are two factors, based on two principles:   1) For the same reasons that reviewing lecture notes is useful, reading relevant parts of the book will help you understand the lecture.   2) But hearing the lecture will help you understand the book.  Which is more important, 1 or 2?   /   Although this depends on your situation, often it's best to read the relevant parts of your textbook before lecture.  But don't waste time by getting bogged down in reading when you don't understand, especially if help is available from the instructor, TAs, or fellow students who are your study partners in study groups;  usually your instructor has selected a textbook that is well written, and if you think logically the ideas-and-skills will make sense, so “give it your best shot” and maybe it will all fit together.  But if it still doesn't make sense after a reasonable investment of your time, you can move on temporarily and make a note that you'll want to re-read this part later.  Hopefully when you re-read it you'll know more because in lecture the teacher has explained it clearly in a way that will help you understand, especially if you have prepared by trying to learn it from the book.  Or you can ask fellow students, or a TA during class or in office hours.  And then you can re-read the book to get a fuller understanding.   /   But maybe your best strategy is to read the book after lecture, especially if your instructor's lectures are designed & performed — and are used by you — in a way that is highly effective in helping you learn.  Also, after lecture you may have a better idea of what the teacher thinks is and isn't most important in the book;  this perspective can help you develop an effective strategy for reading with a flexible goal-directed strategy.   /   Either way, whether you read before or after lecture, or both, here are some useful ideas:   If you compare the treatment of material by the textbook and teacher, you will learn something about the teacher's emphasis;  and, of course, the assigned problems are clues about emphasis.   Try to master each sub-area (by learning from lecture & book, doing problems,...) before you must move on to the next sub-area, especially when (as is typically the case in physics & most other subjects) many of the ideas-and-skills are cumulative so understanding this week will help you understand next week.
        a summary:  Definitely review previous lectures.  Probably read the textbook before lecture (and after), but maybe read it mainly afterward.  Definitely master each sub-area (by learning from lecture & textbook & discussions, working problems,...) before you must move onward.

        CONCENTRATE DURING THE LECTURE
        If you do high-quality practice, if you consistently listen with quality — relaxed yet alert, focused, motivated, confident — you can improve your skill in active listening with productive concentration.
        When you develop a strategy for learning from lecture by actively listening, an important decision (in your overall strategy and at each moment during a lecture) is how much of your limited mental resources you will devote to each aspect of the learning process, by listening & seeing, thinking and writing, plus metacognitive observing.  Sometimes some of these activities can overlap to produce simultaneous time-sharing, but often you will do time-shifting by quickly shifting from one to another.  You can try to improve each skill, and your strategy for blending them together in a productive way.
        Try to minimize distractions - both external and internal – by totally focusing on the lecture.  You can also use metacognitive awareness to observe your skill in focusing despite distractions of different types, so you can develop better strategies for improving your focus.
        Practice writing as fast as you can.  Push your limits!  Develop your own system of abbreviations, especially for words that you use often: w = with, fex = for example, and so on.  Try leaving out vowels, as in “rdng, wrtng, rthmtc."
        If the speaker is dull, use willpower to motivate yourself.  With a skilled speaker, don't think that you will automatically remember the lecture just because it is presented clearly;  you should take useful notes anyway.

        REVIEW SOON AFTER THE LECTURE
        Even though you won't be able to capture the whole content of a lecture in your notes, part of what's missing (in your notes) is preserved by your memory (in your mind), but only temporarily.  If you review your notes soon after the lecture while your memory is fresh, you can use the notes to remind you of weakly remembered ideas that will fade and vanish unless they are reinforced during an after-the-lecture review.  You can add these ideas to your notes.  And it is easier to interpret your abbreviations and condensations at this time than it will be later.  Don't rewrite your notes;  just fill the gaps, make comments in the margins (leave some space while writing), and do whatever is required to give your notes the logical structure of a coherent overview-summary.  Do you see why a well-timed review can improve your memory and also your notes?

        Overlap of Phases:  Of course, two of these time-phases (REVIEW and PREPARE) overlap because Reviewing After one lecture is Preparing Before the next lecture.
        Other Activities:  For a wider range of productive activities (before, during, and after lectures) you can use Cognitive-and-Metacognitive Strategies for Learning.  For example, you can experiment with different ways to “pay attention” and distribute your limited mental resources among the five aspects of active listening (listen/see, think & write, observe);  for each experiment-with-aspects you can observe the results and this will help you understand the effects of different combinations, so you can decide what works best for achieving different goals.  You can also run these experiments (and others) in different situations — for example, with lecturers in two physics courses, or in physics & biology & psychology & history — to learn more about the effects of attention-distributing factors in different contexts.

        TRANSFER OF SKILLS:  The focus of this subsection is learning from a lecture, but similar strategies & skills (appropriately modified for context) can be used in a wide range of situations, such as a conversation or group discussion, when you watch a movie or basketball game,...

 
a related topic:  A few ideas about Active Writing are in Section 20.95.
 


 
 
  20.6  Exam Preparation and Performance

        You probably have two learning goals for every college course:  1) to learn things that will be useful in your future courses, in a career and in life, and  2) to do well on exams so you'll get a good grade and “GPA credit” for what you know.
        This section will focus on the more urgent second goal, but the principles are just as useful for reaching the more important first goal.

        1) Gather Information
    Read the professor's course syllabus carefully.  If you miss the start of a lecture, when exam announcements are often made, check with other students to find out what you missed.  During lectures, listen for subtle clues (or obvious statements) about what the teacher thinks is interesting and important.  Try to “get oriented” and find out, as soon as possible:
        What are you expected to KNOW and be able to DO?  Will you be asked to solve problems, analyze statements about theory, or remember specific details?  If there are problems, will they be like those in the assigned homework?  Will the exam emphasize material from the text or lectures?
        What is the grading policy?  How much of the course grade is determined by midterms?  by the final exam?  by extras like quizzes, homework, labs, projects, papers, class discussion,...?  Will students be graded “on a curve"?
        What is the exam format?  Open book or closed book?  Will you do problems and show your work? do machine graded multiple choice? true-false? fill in the blanks?  Will there be “qualitative” questions?  Will the exam reward speed in doing many easy problems, or in figuring out a few difficult ones?  If possible, try to get one of the teacher's old exams; this will give you a better idea of what to expect.
        Selectivity is important.  You have a limited amount of time to invest in each class.  You'll want to use this time wisely, and this requires making choices.

        2) Early Exam Preparation
    Use the study suggestions from Sections 20.1, 20.3 & 20.5:  learn from problem-solving practice, make summary notes, read and listen actively.  Do most of your studying early, so you can “cram” effectively later.

    3) Late Exam Preparation
    Cramming will help you get better grades.  When you practice fact-recalling and problem-solving in the days before an exam, very little “fading” occurs between studying and the exam, so your memory and skill levels remain high.  But if you use the time before an exam for “original learning” that could have been done earlier, you're wasting time that is extremely valuable for memory and skill practice.  To be effective, cramming should be a supplement to earlier study, not a replacement.  It should be mainly consolidation (review & practice) of knowledge and skill that have been built on a solid foundation over a long period of time.

        If the exam is CLOSED BOOK, memorize everything you'll need to know.  { If you find out what information will be “given” on the exam, it decreases the amount you have to memorize.}  Practice solving problems without your summary notes, using only the information that you'll be able to use during the exam.
        If the exam is SEMI-OPEN (when you can use a limited amount of your own notes), make a rough-draft summary early, practice using it for homework problems and revise it to make an improved exam version.  If your summary is over the size limit, make a photocopy reduction; at 64%, two pages condense into one.
        If the exam is OPEN BOOK, it still helps to prepare.  Make a summary so you can quickly find things (on the summary or in the book) during the exam.  If you'll need to use textbook data-tables, know where they're located.
        When you study for a FINAL EXAM, review your midterms.  They are an example of what the teacher thinks is important.  Sometimes teachers put midterm questions, either as-is or slightly modified, on the final exam.

    Realistic Practice
    RELEVANCE.  When you seek out and solve problems similar to those you expect to encounter later, on an exam or in real-life situations, this realistic practice makes it more likely that in the future the information within a problem will trigger your memory of useful problem-solving strategies.
        SPEED.  If you always do homework problems slowly you'll get accustomed to “thinking slowly."  If you work at a comfortable slow pace you may not finish a typical exam, but if you suddenly change to “fast thinking” it may be difficult to avoid the rushed, frantic feeling that can lead to mistakes.  If you practice solving problems quickly before the exam, your ability to do fast-yet-clear thinking will improve, and so will your exam score.  { By doing homework quickly you also get to practice a wider variety of problems in the same amount of study time; this extra experience will help during the exam.  You may find it useful to try this stop-and-go combination: mix fast-thinking solutions with pauses to “search for insight” like the skier and welder. }
        Here is some excellent advice (for musicians or test takers) paraphrased from The Art of Trombone Playing by Edward Kleinhammer:  When you practice at home pretend you're in the concert hall, and when you're in the concert hall pretend you're at home.  Let's examine these suggestions.  First, practice "quality” playing -- with good tone, accurate rhythm and melodic feeling, just like you'll want to play during the performance.  Later, instead of being nervous you can play with the same un-selfconscious relaxed concentration you had in your living room.  And because you've practiced playing with good quality until it feels natural and comfortable, it will be easier for you to play with this same good quality during the performance.
        You can use this “practice --> performance” strategy to improve your exam scores.  During late exam preparation, practice doing problems quickly and confidently.  Then work quickly and confidently during the exam, just like you did in practice.
 

        4) Exam Performance
    The most reliable way to do well on exams is good preparation, as described above in 1-3.  But the quality of your thinking during the exam is also important.
        Some exam excitement is normal and — if you use it wisely — is helpful.  Instead of interpreting this as harmful "anxiety” you should choose to think of it as helpful “energetic alertness."  You can use your nervous energy for constructive action, and/or try to get more relaxed, physically and mentally, by breathing slow, deep, and natural.  However you feel, it's OK because, whether you feel excited or relaxed, it's what you do that counts, so concentrate on the here-and-now action of answering the exam questions.   { In most situations, experienced speakers, stage performers and athletes get excited before their event.  But once the action begins, their focus quickly shifts to doing whatever they have to do, and they perform well.  And so can you. }
        KNOW YOURSELF:  Do you perform better in some situations than in others?  If you can figure out what causes this difference in response, maybe you can learn to “focus your excitement” and perform well in a wider range of situations.
        MOTIVATION:  Avoid extremes of apathy or anxiety.  An effective combination is a strong desire to do well coupled with a lack of excessive worry about the outcome.   { Attitude, self image and concentration are discussed more fully in Section 20.4. }
        PRACTICE:  Use each exam as a chance to “practice doing your best", to perform as well as your abilities and preparation allow.  The accumulated effect of this practice will improve your skill at facing high pressure situations, in or out of school, with confidence and self-control.  This is a valuable skill to learn.
        { Different aspects of school let you practice thinking that is “deep” and “quick”.  In many life situations you work as a member of a group, are given a relatively large amount of time to solve problems (much longer than in an exam), are asked to do analysis that is deep, creative, complete, detailed and correct, and to make wise decisions.  In other situations, as an individual you must do quick evaluation-and-decision: for example, when you listen to a lecture, participate in a conversation or debate, give first aid or respond to other emergencies, play sports or drive a car.  Quick thinking is also useful for long-term projects because, as discussed in the “Efficiency” part of Section 20.7, “total time = sum of parts."  You practice deep thinking when you make summary notes, write a term paper, or do a research project.  You practice quick thinking when you listen to lectures, and solve problems quickly in homework or exams. }

        POINT STRATEGY:  In case you don't finish the entire exam, try to get maximum points by deciding which questions to answer first.  Consider these factors:
        How many points is a particular question worth?
        How certain are you of getting it correct?
        How much time will doing it require?
        PACING:  Start the exam working at “optimal pace” -- at a speed that you think is the best combination of maximum speed with minimum error.  After awhile, compare your progress with the time remaining and ask, “Working at the present pace, will I be able to finish the exam?”;  If necessary, adjust your speed.

        If you have a question, suspect an exam error, or if formulas are supplied on the exam and you need one that isn't there, ask the teacher about it.
        If you're not sure about the answer for a question, record your thoughts (cross off multiple choice options you've eliminated, write short comments,...) and go on to the next question.  Take advantage of “incubation” and when you return to the question later in the exam, you may know the answer.
        Should you guess?  Usually, but it depends on the grading policy and the “expected returns” from guessing.
        If you finish early, check your work.
 

        5) After the Exam
    Think about what happened so you can learn from it, for each phase discussed above.
        How was your preparation?  Knowing what you do now, would you approach it differently?  In what specific ways?
        How much “exam excitement” did you have?  Did it seem to help or hurt you?
        How was your pacing?  Point strategy?  For each question you missed, ask WHY?  Was it due to a lack of knowledge and skill, or was it a problem you should have been able to solve but didn't?  Ask the questions from the “How To Learn More from your Problem-Solving Experience” and “Find The Trouble and Fix It” parts of Section 20.2.
        Can you gain any insights from this experience?  What wise advice would you give, if you could talk to yourself two weeks before the exam?  Two days before it?  At the start of the exam?  Halfway through it?
        Can these insights help you prepare for your next exam?
 


 
    20.7  Using Your Time Effectively

        Dost thou love life?  Then do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of.  { Benjamin Franklin, 1746 }
        Three ways to use your time more effectively are wise planning, good timing, and increased efficiency.

        Planning
    The foundation of planning is knowing yourself and what you want to do with your abilities and opportunities.  { This doesn't necessarily mean having a specific career goal.  As a student, your immediate goal may be to earn grades (and skills) that give you good options to choose from later. }  Wise planning is choosing daily activities that help you make progress toward your long-term goals.  In his excellent book “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life,” Alan Lakein describes the relationship between goals and activities:
        “When you have planned well on both long-term and short-term levels, then goals and activities fit together like well-meshed gears.  Most if not all of the activities specified in short-term plans will contribute to the realization of the goals specified in long-term plans."

        When should you plan?  In the evening (so you can review the previous day and plan for the next) or morning (when you're well rested and ready to go), or at any time during the day when you ask Lakein's Question, “What is the best use of my time right now?"
        A useful time-management tool is a daily To-Do List.  First think of all the things you might want to do, then set priorities -- it is very important that you do certain activities today (so be sure you do them), others would be nice to do but they aren't “necessary", while some probably shouldn't be done at all (cross them off your list).  Then use this prioritized list to plan your activities for the day.
        You can use a time schedule, or just “improvise as you go."  The ideal amount of scheduling structure depends on your personal preference and the situation.  For example, when I tutor students a schedule is essential, but during work on this book I just wake up and start writing, then take breaks (for a nap, walk, prayer, eating...) whenever I'm in the mood for it.  Try different mixes of structure and spontaneity, and find out what works best for you in different situations.
        BALANCE.  Your daily plan can include studying, rest and recreation, work and play, solitude and socializing.  Leave some flexibility for “surprises."
        A portable to-do list (like a 3 x 5 card in your pocket) increases the probability of getting activities done, and decreases your memory load -- you don't have to think about “what to do today” so your mind is free for creative thinking.  I use a cheap alarm watch to remind me that it's time to go to class, or catch a bus, or...
        The purpose of planning is to use time effectively.  It's all right if you don't finish all of the activities on a to-do list.  If a list gets you to use your time for high priority activities, it has served its purpose.

        A little time invested in planning (it can be done quickly!) is a great investment.  If you ever feel “too busy to plan", consider it a reminder about the importance of planning -- you don't have enough time to do everything you want, so it is essential that you decide how to use your limited time wisely.
        When you set priorities, consider urgency and long-term importance.  To find out if something is urgent, ask "What will happen if I don't do this today?”;  Urgency tends to demand action, but non-urgent activities can be just as important because their effects are “cumulative” -- for example, brushing teeth, nutrition & physical fitness, and preparing for an end-of-semester term paper or final exam.  Be sure to do non-urgent yet important activities on a regular basis.
        Occasionally, to keep things in perspective, stop for introspection, orientation and long-term planning.  Re-think your present situation (Where am I now?), values and goals (Where do I want to go?), and time use (Are my activities effective in bringing me closer to my goals?).  Use orientation times to make a master list of activities.  Write your goals on the left side of a page, and activities that will help you reach each goal on the right side.  Then use this master list to help you make daily to-do lists.

    A whole-semester schedule of “things to do” will help you plan ahead, so you can skillfully coordinate your daily and long-term activities.  On this schedule, put the due-dates for everything that must be done (homework, exams, papers,... ) for each of your classes, and also “advance warnings” to remind you that (for example) you should begin writing your term paper at least a week ahead of time, plus extra events (sports, concerts, special lectures,...).  If you want, you can make a schedule that is more complex, with more rows, so you'll have one for each of your classes plus another for events.

  M T W R F A U
Sep 7               
Sep 14
             
etc
             

    Timing
    Good timing lets you take advantage of opportunities while they're still available.
        Timing is an important part of planning;  you are deciding what to do and also when to do it.  But planning doesn't always lead to doing.  A valuable time-use tool (Lakein devotes 1/3 of his book to it) is the ability to convert planning into action at the proper time.
        If you avoid an activity that you know is “high priority,” you are procrastinating.  You are especially likely to avoid a task you feel is unpleasant or overwhelming, or if you have doubts about whether you should do it.
        If you have doubts, re-think the situation and ask “Is this something I should do?  Is it a top-priority project?”;  If you answer NO, decide what you should do instead.  If you answer YES, then you can move into action with increased confidence that you are doing what you should be doing.

        It may help to think about why you are avoiding a project.  Does the project involve work you find unpleasant?  Is it in any way unethical?  Could it be dangerous (physically, socially, financially,...)?  Are you afraid of failure, or the changes in life that success might bring?  Ask yourself, “Is there any way I can decrease the project's unpleasant aspects, or change my attitudes toward them?”;
        The “unknown” is a common reason for fear.  If a project requires doing things you've never done before, it may be wise to get advice from someone with experience. { Talk with an expert, or ask a librarian to help you find useful books or magazine articles.}

        Alan Lakein suggests turning an overwhelming project into “Swiss Cheese” by poking holes in it with small tasks that are quick and easy to do.  You can gather information, do brainstorming (as described in Section 20.8), make a plan of action, or begin work on some aspect of the project.  After you've poked a few holes in it, the project may not look so overwhelming.
        Hopefully, your first small steps will lead to full scale action.  If your initial involvement leads to interest-and-enthusiasm, which leads to more involvement and more interest, you'll want to continue working on the project.
        But if your first steps don't lead to eager involvement, you have to use willpower.  This is easier when you give yourself logical reasons for “doing what you don't want to do."  Ask yourself, “What are the consequences of delay, and what are the benefits of doing the project now?”;  Convince yourself that since you have to do the project anyway, sometime, you might as well choose the best time to do it.

        Let's look at a common victim of student procrastination, a term paper that must be written.  If you wait until the last minute there may be unexpected interruptions or opportunities, you may be uninspired or have “writer's block", pressure-plus-fatigue can decrease your writing quality and speed.  If writing the paper takes longer than expected (it usually does) you face a difficult choice.  You can submit a late paper, or one that is poor quality compared with what you could produce with more time.
        If you begin early, you can take advantage of your moods and write when you want to, not when you have to.  You can make an almost-final draft, ignore it for a few days (or give it to a friend for constructive criticism), then look at it with “fresh eyes” and revise it into a paper you'll be proud to submit.  Perhaps the biggest benefit of good planning is the sigh of relief and night of contented sleep before the paper is due, the satisfaction of knowing that you conquered indecision, laziness and fear, that you acted responsibly and did your best.
        What are the benefits of studying physics regularly instead of only cramming before exams?  You can do repeated reviews that help you remember, make a summary and revise it, take advantage of “creative incubation,” prepare for lectures, and use the time just before an exam for realistic practice and effective cramming.  If you get behind in your classes, you may have to leap from one cramming crisis to the next as every crisis puts you further behind in all classes except the one you're cramming for.  This game of catch-up, which is inefficient because you don't get the benefits listed above, can be avoided if you study regularly for each class.

        Ask yourself, “Do I work well under pressure?  In what ways does my thinking quality depend on the type of pressure?  on the type of project?”;  If you don't work well with pressure, try to find out why and what you can do about it.  { Some possibilities are discussed in the “Exam Performance” part of Section 20.6. }  If you work best with pressure, try to analyze this high-intensity concentration and then figure out how you can do it all of the time.  Maybe you can pretend it's the night before the deadline, to fool yourself into thinking like you do when the pressure is on.  If you can do high-intensity thinking in low-pressure situations, the flexibility of your time planning increases and so does your freedom and sense of control.
        As much as possible, try to “use your moods” and study what you want to study, when you want to do it.  Then monitor your progress in each class, for each phase of studying (reading, lectures, making a summary, solving problems, review).  If you are neglecting a class (or part of the learning process) that you don't especially like, you can use willpower to get yourself to do it.
        You may find it useful to keep a record of the time spent studying each subject.  I keep three lists:  a simple checklist for activities (exercise, ...) and two “time lists” for writing.  One list is a record of writing time; I make a game of trying to reach my total-hours-per-week goal, and this helps me to be more disciplined.  The other list, which records the hours-per-chapter, reminds me to use piecework motivation, to think quickly so I can get this book finished -- with a satisfactory level of quality -- in a reasonable amount of time.
        If necessary, use the “no choice” weapon against procrastination.  Instead of giving yourself a choice between doing a high priority project and a desirable but lower priority activity, make it a choice between doing the project or doing absolutely nothing -- just stare at a blank wall.  This confronts you with your procrastination, eliminates rationalization, and soon gets you moving into action.
        If your studying is often interrupted by thoughts like “I'd rather be doing ___", there is a conflict of interest.  Physics will do better in this competition if you enjoy it.  I find physics fascinating and hope that you also feel a genuine enthusiasm for it.  But even if you aren't convinced that physics is fun, you can use willpower to do what you know is good for you.  An effective strategy is to link physics (or any subject you're studying) with a future goal and think about delayed gratification.  Say to yourself, “I'm doing physics now so I can do ___ later."

 
        Cooperation and Teamwork
        For many students, in many situations, studying with other students is an effective strategy.  If you don't know something, your study partners can help you learn.  And vice versa, which (because teaching is a good way to master ideas-and-skills) will help you learn.  And study groups can help you form valuable friendships.
        But for some students, in some situations, studying alone will be more effective.
        Probably you'll want to do some of each.  Based on experience you can try to know yourself, and your situations, well enough to know which blend of approaches (by studying with others and also on your own) will be most useful for you, in each of your classes.
        And you can develop strategies for making your study groups more effective, for keeping all of you on-task, but in ways that are not too overbearing so you also promote good social relationships.

 
        Efficiency
        To get more done, you can  1) waste less time, and  2) work more efficiently.
        There may be more time than you realize.  Do the following hours-per-week seem reasonable?  Sleep (50), classes (17), study (21) and meals (10), for a total of 98 hours.  There are 168 hours in a week: where did the other 70 hours go?  /  Some time is used for getting dressed, commuting, work (if you have a job) and play, but not 70 hours.  Do you think you could find more studying time by using small blocks of time (like “transition times” between major activities) that are usually wasted, and by taking large blocks of non-study time and cutting them down to medium size blocks?
        To minimize your transition time, be decisive and avoid procrastination.
        A good way to use small time blocks is to have 5-minute fillers, things you can do immediately with no “warmup":  review flashcards, read a textbook you carry with you (and mark it to preserve your thoughts), review and mark lecture notes,...
        Since “total time = sum of parts", one way to reduce big blocks of study time is to think more quickly and use better tools.  When you study, if your attitude is analogous to “working for piecework wages” you will be highly motivated to “learn more per hour” and you probably will.
        Be aware of your biological rhythms.  Find the times of day when clear thinking is easiest, and use these “prime times” for important creative thinking and for the most challenging parts of your studying.
        A writer never finishes a book.  Instead, at some point they decide it's “good enough” and they abandon it.  Similarly, you must decide on an acceptable level of perfectionism.  Is it a wise use of your time to “polish” a project, or should you abandon it and move on to another activity?  Try to answer without being influenced too much by laziness, impatience or frustration (these can make you give up too soon) or by excessive pride (that keeps you working past the point where it is worthwhile).
        Section 20.1's “Rapid Progress” and 20.4's “factors that contribute to success” explain how the interdependence of physics tools can let you make rapid progress.  Analyze your tools and find the places where more time and effort will bring the greatest improvement per hour invested.
        You can also be efficient in non-study activities.  For example, try to combine the tasks on a weekly to-do list into efficient “errand runs” that reduce the number of trips you make.  Sometimes you can do two things at once, like listening to educational tapes while you commute, jog, exercise, do dishes or clean your room.
        To organize your school-related or general paperwork, thus making it easier to find things quickly, use hanging files.  Ask about them at your college bookstore.
        About 1/3 of life is used for sleeping.  But the time you invest in sleep isn't wasted; it helps you stay healthy, and makes your waking time more efficient and enjoyable.  When you are tempted to “gain time” by sleeping less, consider this: 16 high-quality hours may be worth more than 19 lower-quality hours.
        If you feel overworked during semesters, you may want to try “spreading your vacations out."  Study a little during the semester break (try to find something that is relatively fun and will reduce next semester's workload), then treat yourself to mini-vacations during the semester when you really need them.  { Or you may prefer to make your semester break a complete no-study vacation and avoid a feeling of “taking your work home with you.” }
        BALANCE:  Education can be an exciting part of life.  But a full life is more than maximizing study-productivity.  The “Fully Alive” part of Section 20.4 examines attitudes toward work and play.  It encourages you to work hard, play joyfully, relax with a free mind, and avoid the extremes of workaholic or lazy bum.
 


The following sections (20.93, 20.95, and 20.96)
are supplements to Sections 20.3, 20.5, and 20.6.


 
  20.93  More about Memory

        This section contains a loose mix of information about flash cards, sensory recall, memory tricks, and memory systems.

        1.  FLASH CARDS
    If you mix problem-solving practice with reviews of the flashcards and summary at the end of each chapter in this book, it will do wonders for your “tool memory” and problem solving skill.
        MAKING AND USING FLASH CARDS:  Put a CUE on one side of a 3x5 index card, and its corresponding “ANSWER” on the other side.  Then use the card for self-testing:  look at the cue, predict the answer, turn the card over to see if it's correct.  /  Use cards for anything you want to memorize.  { For example, information from summary notes,...  Every chapter of Physics: Tools for Problem Solving has suggestions for specific cue-answer pairs. }
        The CUE is important; choose it carefully.  Try to use the same kind of cue that real problems will provide.  And “minimize” it;  the less cue you need during flash card practice, the more likely it is that information within a problem will be enough to trigger the correct response.  Here is a minimum-cue example.  The 4 basic right-triangle relationships {definitions of sine, cosine & tangent, plus the formula “aa + bb = cc"} are often used in physics to split a diagonal line, / , into its horizontal and vertical components.  For review, should you use a cue like “What are the 4 right- triangle formulas?” or “How can I split a diagonal into components?” or “ / “ ?   The last cue is best.  Why?  Because a problem won't jab you in the ribs and shout in your ear “Hey Sam!  Why don't you use one of the 4 trigonometry formulas?”;  Instead, there will be a diagonal vector, / , that needs to be split, and the sight of this must be enough to trigger your recall of the trig-formula tools.  Do you see why memorizing with a minimal “/” cue (instead of a long “give-away” cue) is better preparation for real problem-solving situations?  Almost always, the less cue you need for retrieval, the better.
        MULTIPLE CUES:  One fact may have several cues.  This makes it more likely that the cues within a problem will let you retrieve the fact from memory.  [similar to funneling]
        The ANSWER can be practiced in different ways.  You can WRITE it (and also SEE), or SAY it (and also HEAR), or REHEARSE it mentally (along with "VISUALIZING” of sight, sound, meaning,...).  Try each method and choose your favorite, or alternate them to store the knowledge in your memory using several sense-modes, thus making it easier to retrieve.
        MULTIPLE ANSWERS:  One thing can remind you of several associated items.  This is useful for real life problem-solving and creative thinking, because it gives you different “options” to choose from.  [similar to fanning]
        EDITING FLASH-CARDS:  After you've used the cards awhile, you can change the cues to make them more appropriate and minimal.  Or sort cards into piles, like well known pairs vs. those needing review, essentials vs. optionals, according to topic,...  Use paper clips or rubber bands to keep each group together.
        REVERSIBLE CARDS are useful in some situations.  For example, in learning a language you'll probably want to translate in both directions.  To learn English -> Spanish translation, use the English side of the card as cue; for Spanish -> English translation, just flip the cards over.  /  Or to learn a chemical reaction like “A + B -> C” in both directions, put “A + B -> __” on one side and “__ -> C” on the other; then alternate which side you use as cue.
        TWO COLUMN self-testing:  Put cues in one column, answers in the other, as in my end-of-chapter “flashcard” sections.  Then use the flash card method:  cover the answer column, look at the cue and predict the answer, then check by sliding the cover down one line at a time.  This format is good for some purposes, like memorizing language vocabulary in both directions.  And one page is more compact than many cards.  But flash cards are adaptable to a wider variety of situations, and cards can be shuffled to avoid using one card as a cue for the next -- as occurs, for example, when you hear a CD often, and one song reminds you of the next song.
        In any form, flashcards force you to actively search your memory to find a response to the cue, and this activity will help you remember.
 

        2.  SENSORY RECALL
        In some situations, “retrieval from memory” will improve if you MATCH THE SENSE-MODE:  During active review, did you write (and see), or say (and hear), or mentally rehearse (and sub-vocalize)?  When you want to recall, use the same sense mode.  Depending on which method you used earlier, either try to write it (and remember the way it feels and looks) to say (and hear) it, or to mentally sub-vocalize it.  /  RELIVE THE SCENE: To remember where you put the car keys, mentally review (with as much realism as possible) what you did the last time you had them.  With suitable modification, this principle can be used for academic purposes.
 

        3.  MEMORY TRICKS
    Summary notes take advantage of a subject's internal logical organization.  Now we'll look at ways to impose external organization onto any kind of material, even if it has no inherent logic of its own.  For example,
        The Great Lakes (and their spatial order) are SHE-OM: Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario; Michigan is not in the continuous west-to-east sequence of “sheo” ).
        To change clocks for daylight savings time, remember to “spring forward” and “fall back."
        “Can I draw a circle?”;  { pi = 3.1416 }
        “In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue."
        Stalactites hang from a cave's ceiling, stalagmites grow from the ground.
        For unit-circle trigonometry (it doesn't matter if you don't understand trig;  just notice how the “links” are made):  x and cosine both have “ks” sounds, but y and sine don't.  For the vector-splitting results of “adjacent = hyp cos Z” and “opposite = hyp sin Z", a & c (adjacent & cos) are early in the alphabet,  o & s (opposite & sine) are late.
        Or for music, the treble clef space-notes spell “FACE” while the line-notes are “EGBDF” (every good boy deserves favor).
        How do you set a table?  “fork knife spoon” are alphabetical;  the fork goes on the left (both have 4 letters), and knife spoon right (5 letters).
        a mental calendar:  For 1998, “411 537 526 416” gives the first Sunday of each month;  add 7, 14, 21 or 28 to get the other Sundays;  for Mon, Tues, Wed, Thurs, Fri, or Sat, just add 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6.

        Most memory tricks depend on linked pairs.  For example, the Great Lakes are first linked with “she-om”.  Later, just remember this one word, and it will remind you of the lakes' initials & location; they tag along as “free riders."
        HOW TO MAKE LINKED PAIRS: You can use INITIALS (as in she-om, the cave's c-g, or face & egbdf), COUNTING LETTERS (for 3.1416), SOUND ("ks"), POETRY (In fourteen hundred and...), ALPHABETICAL ORDER (a & c early, o & s late), or VISUAL IMAGERY (as in the action-phrases “spring forward & fall back").
        VISUAL IMAGERY is a good way to form the “mediating link” between a pair of words you want to remember.  Use your imagination to invent vivid images that will be easy to remember; make them humorous or dramatic, logical or ludicrous, use exciting action or a story line.  Make the paired words “interact” in some way; this forms a strong memory link between them.  To discover easily remembered association links (using sound, alphabetical order, initials, interactive imagery, or ...), brainstorm and edit -- first use creative freeflow imagination to get lots of ideas (without judging whether they're good ones or not) and then decide whether to use them.  After you have constructed exciting visual imagery, store it in your memory as interactive pictures.
        VISUAL LOGIC is sometimes a good organizing method.  For example, first try to memorize our 50 states in alphabetical order, then by using the map shown below. [imagine the map described below]  The map makes it easier to memorize because of chunking and location.  /  It is easier to remember 12 “chunks” than 50 individual states.  Also notice that 9 of the 12 groupings contain four states, so you know (like having a “string on your finger") that you must remember four states for most groups.  /  The map uses “visual location memory” which can be very effective.  And the U.S. map is familiar; you've seen it often, so you've already done much of the work needed to memorize its spatial organization.
 

        4.  MEMORY SYSTEMS
    If you want to recall the 26 letters of the English alphabet, you'll probably do it in order (abc...
), not randomly.  This is an example of long-chain association, the principle used in most memory systems.  A chain offers two advantages:  1) it's easy to remember things in a certain order, and  2) you can keep track of what you have and haven't done already (so you'll end up with 26 letters -- no more, no less).
        Here are short descriptions of common memory systems:
        For the CHAIN SYSTEM, link each item to the one before it, using imagery or weaving them into a story.  /  In the PEG SYSTEM, use concrete nouns associated with numbers (like bun-shoe-tree-door-hive-sticks-heaven-gate-wine-hen that rhyme with 1-10) or letters (ape-boy-cat-dog-egg,... for abcde...) and then link the first, second, third, fourth,... things you want to remember with ape, boy, cat, dog,... respectively.  /  The LOCATION SYSTEM, used long ago by Greek and Roman orators, links items with sequential locations in a building (or in an outdoor setting); when you want to remember the items, just take a mental walk and retrieve the items one by one, in the proper sequential order.
        It takes some time to learn a system, but the results (being able to remember things you previously couldn't) may be worth the time you invest.  Many readily available books describe such systems in detail.

 



 
    20.95  Active Writing
      The following discussion can help you improve your skill in writing and reading, speaking and listening.  The same organizing principles, adapted as appropriate, are used for all of these ways to communicate.  { I recommend that you take courses in writing and speaking, to help you improve these important skills! }
        Using Visual Outlines:  As an example of a writing process [in 1987 when I first wrote this], I'll describe how I write a book chapter.  First I gather ideas from my research notes, memory and imagination.  Then I edit these ideas (to narrow the topic by deciding what is essential, or is important supporting material, and omitting the rest) and structure them, logically and visually.  Some visual outline structures are funneling (when other ideas “come in” to help explain an idea, or inspire it, or...) and fanning (from one idea, other ideas “go out” (as logical and practical consequences of the idea, or ways it can be applied, or other ideas it inspires or can help explain,...) and when a funneling-and-fanning is applied to many ideas, it produces branching as with a central idea when other ideas branch from it, and other ideas branch out from these, to form a free-form circular tree.  Or there can be idea-clusters scattered around the page, with some space left between the clusters (for additions and revision).   /   Or you may prefer other structures that use some logical-visual characteristics such as those in flowcharts, hierarchies,...
        Group-and-Number:  No matter which visual form is used (I tend to think in terms of funnel-fan & branching, but use clusters for making outlines), the ideas are translated from “visually logical” outline-form to a “sequential linear” written-form.  To do this, I group the clusters and number them.  After the initial numbering I usually discover “leftover ideas", so instead of “1, 2, 3, 4, 5", after including the leftovers my numbering might end up as “1, 2, 2.5, 2.7, 3, 4, 4.5, 5”.  Then I write sentences and paragraphs, in numerical order, based on the ideas in each cluster.   /   Computer programs with "outlining” features can also be helpful.  For example, the Outline-view of Word is useful for rearranging the sequencing of a linear written-form.
        Two Translations:  In the group-and-number step, a writer translates ideas from a “visual outline” form to a “linear written” form.  As a reader, you want to translate in the reverse direction;  find the main ideas in the writing and organize them in a way that shows their relationships (flowchart, cause-effect, hierarchy, funnel-fan,...).  And this, as discussed in Section 20.3, is the main purpose of summary notes.

        Like Section 20.2's problem solving steps (orientation, planning, action, checking), writing steps (gather ideas, edit-and-structure, group-and-number, write) often overlap;  while a writer is doing one step, the other processes are also occurring.
        These steps can be repeated at different levels of detail (book, chapter, section, sub-section, paragraph, sentence), like levels of mapping (world, country, state, city, campus).  And for the steps at each level, there can be “successive approximations."  I often draw outlines in pencil, and usually write with a word processor, because this makes it easier to do revisions.
 


 
 
  20.96  Exam Tactics
    SHOULD YOU GUESS?  It depends on the point policy.  Consider three grading schemes for an ABCDE multiple choice exam:  A) If nothing is deducted for wrong answers, guessing is rewarded.   B) If correct and wrong answers are given +4 and -1 points, respectively, average-luck guessing on 10 questions will be 2 correct (+8 points) and 8 wrong (-8 points) and you'll break even.  But if you can eliminate one or more options, the guessing odds are in your favor.   C) If +1 and -1 points are given for correct and wrong answers, a 2-of-10 result will get -6 points (+2 and -8), and guessing is punished.
        MULTIPLE-CHOICE LOGIC.  A city in California is:  a) Los Angeles, b) Grizzly Flat, c) Lodi, d) San Francisco, e) all of the above.  /   Beginning with what you know about LA and SF, logic tells you that “e” is the answer, even if you've never heard of Grizzly Flat or Lodi.

This page (with Sections 20.3-20.7,...) was written in 1989.
Copyright © 1989 Craig Rusbult, all rights reserved