We all want to be that straight A student, capable of tackling any test without fear, happily handing in our perfectly answered home works. And even for those of us that are more averse to study we can spend hours highlighting relevant materials, memorising notes and posting mind maps all over our ceilings in the hopes that we might remember something we just read. But of all the things school teaches you, how to learn is not one of them. But what if there was some way that we could turn all those hours of studying into something more fruitful? What if we spend just a little time to take a look at what we’re doing when we’re studying, and try to tweak it to get better results for exactly the same amount of effort?

Well, the first thing we need to consider is what actually constitutes effective learning. At first glance, we might consider it to be something this:

Effective learning is the ability to store information quickly

This seems like a good start, it’d be great if we could remember what we’ve studying after a few reads. But there’s a problem with this idea, it doesn’t consider what the purpose of learning is. We learn things to remember them, and we remember them so that we can apply them to a variety of later contexts and situations. So effective learning might be better described as this:

Effective learning is the ability to store flexible and durable information quickly

What do we mean by this? Well durable learning means to store information that can be recalled over long periods of time, not just immediately after study. Flexible learning means this information can be recalled in a variety of situations and for a variety of purposes, not only in that  in which we learnt it. So we now have a rather robust idea of what we’re trying to achieve, and unfortunately this is where most people will fail.

Research shows that if we simply focus on memorising as quickly as possible, we sacrifice the durability and flexibility of what we’ve learnt, compromising the long term effectiveness of what we’ve learnt. What this means is that we’l end up having to go over the same materials to make up for the long term deficit. Not ideal.

It seems the best way forward then is to focus on the quality of what we’re learning, and to focus on methods that can improve this first, then from those methods try to find the fastest.

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