Optimizing Learning Processes

19.09.2019 |

Episode #2 of the course How to boost your studying and test-taking skills by Valeria Shvediuk

Welcome back!

Today, we’ll discuss several easy but effective techniques to optimize common learning processes and save yourself a great deal of time and effort.


Information Perception

Within a study context, we mainly perceive information through either reading or listening.

Although reading (and broadly, vision) is by far the most common way of receiving information when learning, it’s an incredibly “low bandwidth” method of conveying data. Our thinking speed is much faster than our reading speed. We can’t feasibly read as fast as we think, as reading involves interpreting visual signals and thinking about them. Plus, reading too fast is likely to cost us comprehension. However, we can optimize this process. We can rid ourselves of our bad reading habits, the main culprits being back-skipping and rereading. We can also learn to capture more text in our range of sight and make fewer eye movements by only focusing on very few points per line (two or three “fixations” per line instead of every word). These are the basic principles of speed reading, a technique well worth investing your time in. Use it in moderation, however; if you catch yourself gliding from point to point without understanding the content, slow down.

Another reading optimization method is incremental reading: a strategy of reading multiple documents piecemeal, creating extracts from material covered in the form of flashcards, and reviewing them over a period of time to help you memorize the content (try specialized software, like SuperMemo or Anki). If you’re worried that reading on-screen won’t be as effective as reading in print, the good news is that the deep processing of information ensures that you remember it as well as if you had read it on paper [1]!

Listening is a similarly ineffective method of data transference, but this is what we’re stuck with until we invent telepathy. Fortunately, more and more universities offer recordings of its lectures (and if yours doesn’t, you can always record yourself—with permission). If you’re among the lucky ones, you can experiment with listening to the lectures at a faster speed. It might seem odd at first, but your brain will adjust quickly. Start with 1.25x or 1.5x speed, and progressively, you might be able to listen at twice the original speed. You can similarly slow it down where needed or replay difficult moments.


Information Processing and Storing

Note-taking has been shown to be least effective when we write words down verbatim and in full. Instead, switch to summarizing information, rephrasing it in your own words, and shortening or abbreviating where possible. There are several note-taking methods relying on these principles that you might want to try; one of the most popular ones is the Cornell note-taking system.

For better processing and memorization of information, replace one long study session with several shorter ones spaced out in time—it’s guaranteed to improve recall [2]. This technique is called spaced repetition, a tried-and-true way of learning something once and for all (and the same principle that incremental reading applications use).


Study Environment

The physical environment in which you study may be affecting your performance, so declutter your study space (including the walls) to eliminate distractions and opt for natural lighting, if possible. If you study best in quiet places, try white noise to camouflage any sounds you don’t want diverting your attention. Here’s one great (and free) white noise generator that even offers a speech blocker setting to mask the sound of conversations.

As a special bonus today, learn this powerful recall trick: If, during the exam, you’ve forgotten a fact, simply visualize yourself in the room or place where you first learned it and then try to “retrace your steps,” as if you were trying to find lost car keys. This works due to our context-dependent memory [3]: We memorize abstract information with internal (our mood) and external (our surroundings) contexts. Evoking the context helps “reactivate” related memories.

Daily task: Choose a YouTube video on the topic you’re studying, and watch it at 2x speed. Normal speed will seem very slow afterward!

That’s it for today. Tomorrow, we’ll look at creative ways to enhance your recall by involving your senses and using powerful memory techniques.



Recommended reading

Scientific Speed Reading: How to Read 300% Faster in 20 Minutes by Tim Ferriss

Cornell Note Taking — The Best Way to Take Notes Explained



[1] Overcoming Screen Inferiority in Learning and Calibration

[2] Spaced Repetition Promotes Efficient and Effective Learning: Policy Implications for Instruction

[3] A Comparison of Two Techniques for Reducing Context-Dependent Forgetting


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