Studying Like A Pro, pt. 3: The Science of Learning

Chapter 3: How Learning Happens in Your Brain

The Human Mind: A Novelty-Seeking Machine

Ask the average high school or college student how they plan on studying for tomorrow’s test. A large percentage will say “Oh, yeah... Umm I’m going to re-read the textbook and make sure I understand everything.” Sound familiar?

The problem with “re-reading” or “going over notes” is that they don’t engage enough of your brain and body. It’s like training to be a professional basketball player by only doing bicep curls. What kind of success rate is that going to get you?

Here’s a good trick: your memory’s worst enemy is the number one. For example, having only one source on a topic, only reading an important passage once, studying a vocab word only one time, and so on. Your brain truly learns when it has repeated contact with the information to be remembered, in more than just one way.

Why would this be true? Why does the brain respond so much to variety? Can’t it just recognize when something is important to you?

In complex human societies where our survival depends on managing subtle social situations, your perception has to constantly be active. New social information is everywhere: a slight pupil dilation, a change in body position, a threatening hint in someone’s tone of voice. We’re masters at perceiving social cues, which involve thousands of diverse signals zipping around, all the time, from person to person. So, we’re wired to keep up with the news—our brain naturally wants to keep up with the ever-changing social dynamics in our environment. The reason this is important for learning how to study is because old information is never as important to our brain as new information.

That’s why, if you want to really learn something, repetition is only half the battle. The other half is variation—for instance, asking new questions: How was this idea discovered? What does it connect to that I already know? Who might disagree with it? How would I represent it in a 4-panel cartoon? What if its opposite were true?

Neurons That Fire Together, Wire Together

In the brain, “learning” means that a series of neurons—the brain cells involved in the task we’re learning—develop more efficient connections. If we wanted to drive from New York to Chicago, the learning process would be like cranking up the velocity and clearing out traffic; the path becomes smoother, quicker and easier. Through the magic of biochemistry, your neurons become quicker and more efficient at linking up and sparking a lightning-fast chain reaction. That chain reaction is what we’re going for: learning!

Let’s think about running to our enchanted treehouse. What we’re looking for, by studying, are quicker and easier ways of getting to the treehouse and back. We want some ninja-status tools for clearing away the grass, and maybe some rocket boots to make the trip zippier. Now, re-reading your chemistry textbook before an exam is not a bad thing at all. In fact, it provides your brain with a key element of learning – repetition – which helps strengthen connections. But the problem is, if you only rely on repetition using the same method (e.g. reading a book), you’re missing the whole other half of the equation – variation. To really speed up the pathway between you and the knowledge you need, variation is a must.

The Study Senses

This is where the study senses come in. Using your study senses is all about giving your brain the variety it needs to learn something in depth.

Here’s the rule of thumb: If you really want to learn something, make sure you engage all the study senses in as many ways as possible. This is how your brain will remember that a concept is really crucial. The number one mistake students make when studying is only using one or two of their study senses.

Study Senses Exercise: Think about your favorite study strategy. (For most students, their go-to method is re-reading a textbook.) Now, ask yourself: how many study senses does this method engage? And how could I improve my habits to include ALL the study senses? In the example of re-reading a textbook, the only sense involved is the eyes. Ears, mouth, and hands are left out of the picture—this is why simply re-reading is never enough to get you the understanding you need!

The Feynman Technique

One awesome technique for taking an active approach to studying is called the Feynman Technique. This exercise involves picking a topic and trying to explain it as completely as possible. Here’s a great video on how to try out the Feynman Technique.

Andrew Delman