Length: 3000 words (pretty long)
Purpose: making you aware of best practices (and worst = school) for studying
Style: a recount of my actual (and random) study methods in high school, with a distilled summary of recommended study ‘tools’ toward the end
How do you expect pupils to remember the lesson if you just knock them senseless with homework, instead of first and foremost provide techniques for learning?
Executive summary: The first thing formal school should teach you is how to learn, but that never happens.
This article lists a few study techniques that I wish I knew about as a teenager, and are still highly useful for acquiring new skills within investing, sports or whatever you can think of…
…including: Motion/BDNF, Deep Work, Grit/Consistency, Sound Wall, Hyperthermic therapy, Spaced repetition, Word definitions, Novelty, Overreaching, Curiosity/Application, Gamification, Failing (deliberate practice)
I was the worst kind of pupil in middle school; troubled, the youngest and smallest in class, bullied, fighting, divorced parents, a recently drowned big brother, good at math and English contemptuous of everything else.
When grades were introduced in 7th grade, I changed pretty radically (“soooo, you’re going to judge me, are you? Let’s do all the things that you wanna do” –Slinky Scene) and immediately moved to #1 in my school, but I was nevertheless no more than the cleanest dirty shirt.
“Do you know how exceptional this is?”
“Yes…” (I didn’t, but thought I would look stupid if I said ‘no’)
In the summer between 9th grade and high school, I happened to take an IQ test that kind of surprised both the supervisor and myself. That gave me some extra confidence going forward; from then on I ‘knew’* I should and could be able to learn anything better than other people.
However, more importantly, during the 10 minutes I waited to get started, I browsed a simple book about study techniques.
I took away one single lesson that I have stuck to since then: If you loose track of what you’re reading go back and look for a word or a sentence you actually didn’t fully understand. Look up every word you can’t define and make sure you can before moving forward.
That’s how you start building a truly solid knowledge base. I think that single idea is what changed me from a very good pupil in 9th grade to a superior one in high school.
“You can’t build a skyscraper on sand”
-a high school teacher of mine to a friend
Not only does the word habit help you in keeping focused, making sure your knowledge is well founded and make you learn more words per se. It aids in and accustoms you to identifying what you don’t understand and enables you to ask the right questions. (so you can Google it)
*Today I know better than to subscribe any value to an IQ test, but back then it helped raise my level of self-confidence.
How to focus in less than optimal environments
In high school (10th-12th grade), I early on realized the benefits of focusing for longer stretches of time (as opposed to distracted and chopped up studying and reading). I also soon realized that listening to familiar music helped drown out any distractions, without breaking my focus by providing new ones.
I discovered the Sound Wall Technique when I started noticing that certain favorite songs “disappeared”, and had to be restarted, unless I actively paid attention. The songs became more or less invisible. That actually began as a problem of sorts, when I actively wanted to enjoy them. I soon understood, however, there was a valuable potential in the kind of immersion that playing ‘invisible songs’ on high volume provided.
The music I listened to btw was almost exclusively Sisters Of Mercy.
I had a cassette player with slots for two 90-minute cassettes, that could be set for endless repeat of all of the 180 minutes available. And I did, both when studying and otherwise. Gothic messages like the following were hammered into my subconscious a million times (3 years x 1000 hours/year x 3600 seconds/hour =>10 million seconds of goth)
Pain looks great on other people; that’s what they’re for
Because the world is cruel, and promises are broken
-No wonder I’m a little ‘dark’
Luckily, I later learned to like Britney Spears just as much. I still prefer SOM to Britney when going deep though.
Deep Work and Grit
Of course, I had no idea I was practising Deep Work behind my Sound Wall.
I didn’t even have a concept of good or bad study techniques. Just as everybody else I got my homework handed to me and was told to learn it until then next time, but not how to learn it, except answering the questions in the reading material and keep repeating until it stuck…
It’s just that I was actually a bit pressed for time. I only had about 2 hours a day to study, and I had to make that count for more than what everybody else did. Hence, I had to be effective.
-Yes. Pressed for time.
Yes, in high school.
This is why; I was a ninja:
All through high school, I had ninjutsu (ninja) practice for two hours per session several times a week, and I often ran there and back (almost 10 kilometers, or 6 miles). I also spent a few hours a day in the school gym to beef up from my ridiculous 54kg on a 183 cm frame (119 lbs /6’0″). In addition I liked playing tennis as often as I could, playing computer games & coding every day, as well as tinkering with electronics.
Finally, as I still do to this day, I liked keeping my evening schedule open for fun with friends, or just sneaking around the neighborhood in ninja gear (that I don’t do anymore, though).
To make my days work with that schedule, I set aside exactly 2 hours every single day, from Monday to Sunday, of intensely focused studying. Sometimes a little more on the weekends (4h rather than 2h, if an important scheduled test or suspected unscheduled test was coming up next week).
Over the months and years that consistency (grit, if you will) accumulated to much more than most of my class mates. Intuitively I understood Anders Ericsson’s ideas about the value of practicing more than others. Unfortunately nobody told me it should be deliberate and smart practice, outside my comfort zone (even if some of that too came naturally).
As an added bonus from keeping busy, I just didn’t have the time to procrastinate, and I knew I wanted my evenings as free as possible, so I always made sure to finish my 2 hours of Deep Work as soon as I got home from school or the gym. In thus very early on found out the joy and benefits of regularly finishing projects well before any deadline.
It seems I had stumbled upon the idea of consistently adding a set amount per day of time spent on whatever was important (exactly how the Prio One rule works, and how authors typically stay productive).
I knew most of my fellow students postponed doing their homework to the last moment in the day. Or, worse, didn’t even study every day but waited until there was a scheduled test. By going for 2 hours every single day, I kept pulling ahead of the pack.
Scheduled tests were one thing; by putting in 10s of hours shortly ahead of those, certain gifted students performed well on known tests (neurotic students even pretended to come down with a cold, to take a few days off, to study for the major scheduled tests).
However, my school had plenty of unscheduled tests, that were allowed (wtf?) to include whatever we had studied during the last four weeks. Since I wanted to ace every test, I kept repeating the last four weeks on a trailing basis (every day), while also reading one week ahead all the time (see next paragraph).
I read ahead (starting in 7th grade, i.e., 2-3 years before high school), since I figured it wouldn’t entail any extra work, while making me prepared in the classroom (prepared for sneaky questions by the teachers to keep students on their toes; and prepared for paying extra attention to whatever I might have struggled with during preparation), not to mention the extra repetition it meant.
The constant repetition, before and after the actual allotted teacher time, meant that whatever I learned eventually stuck forever (“neurons that fire together [often enough] wire together”, as brain scientists say).
What if teachers taught good study techniques early on, would that be something you could be interested in?
Wouldn’t it have been great, if teachers told students from the beginning that a certain schedule of repetition is more effective than other, when it comes to rote learning (foreign words, grammar rules, historical events etc)? Instead of having the students figure out the most effective ways of studying by trial and error?
In French and English, I “invented” the equivalent of flash cards, where I programmed my Spectrum to show words in English or French to translate into Swedish or vice versa, in a random order and random direction. The idea was to avoid going over the same list in the same direction over and over again (which otherwise risks conditioning one word to the word before, instead of having multiple contextual associations in the brain).
Thus, by chance, and by the luck of having a computer and knowing some simple coding, I introduced novelty, surprise, spaced repetition, redundant storage/contextual association, grit and curiosity (the struggle with staying a week ahead and having to understand the material beforehand, without the guidance of a teacher) – all of which have subsequently been shown to be some of the best practices for learning there is.
Brain research and motion
Don’t forget my physical regimen either; the constant running, biking (4km to school), ninja training, tennis, bodybuilding. If there is one place to start with a kid that’s struggling in school, it’s usually with getting him or her physically active.
Modern brain research (tip: listen to all 127 hour-long episodes of Dr Ginger Campbell’s Brain Science Podcasts) shows brains evolved thinking in order to analyze motion. Daily physical activity increases the BDNF “learning hormone” that increases brain plasticity, both during and after the activity. In addition, a more fit body, including one that oxygenates efficiently, can focus for longer periods of time.
By pure chance, I can in retrospect check almost all scientifically proven boxes of study techniques. Almost…
Oh, if only I had enjoyed fish more back in the day, not to mention eaten less corn flakes, ketchup and drunk less coca cola. Perhaps compensating for the nutritional offside, I only tried alcohol once in high school before graduation (and it was in the last semester as a senior, when I turned 18).
Further, I probably should have found other people like me to study with.
The lone wolf approach was good for improving, but a few fellow four-eyes would probably have added an extra dimension (as it did for the group of illiterate 3rd world kids that learned genetics by themselves).
There was only one subject in which I took advantage of the group effect, philosophy, and there I achieved a perfect score on exactly everything.
These days, thanks to the internet, you can collaborate on anything with like-minded people, from open source programming with Linux to Samir Madani‘s OOTT oil analysis Twitter project.
I remember one final trick I applied; taking saunas regularly:
My family liked hot saunas, so I took a lot of those, including rolling in the snow in between (saunas are good for so many things I won’t bother to go through them; however there is a link in last week’s post you should read, if you’re interested in some serious self improvement).
I took saunas for pleasure, for pain (competing against myself or others), for when I had a fever (perhaps not fully advisable, but felt very good when shaking from cold).
My hyperthermic stroke of genius was to add “studying in the sauna” to the list of uses: I brought my math, physics or chemistry books into the sauna, and forced myself to complete one more question, one more chapter, one more test (when going over tests from earlier years ahead of a larger examination) before being allowed out of the torturously hot sauna.
In a way my sauna math sessions amounted to going outside my comfort zone (as recommended by Anders Ericsson), albeit probably not in the most effective manner conceivable for math and physics… To be honest, I tended to focus more on being extremely comfortable with whatever we were supposed to know, as opposed to actually overreaching into areas I didn’t know.
Some ten years later, in 1998, I learned straight from the horse’s mouth, that the world’s foremost cross-country skier, for several years during the period 1984-1991, had simultaneously applied a similar tactic of seeking out the worst possible environment for training.
Just as Gunde Svan revelled in seeing rain, wind or other kinds of bad cross-country skiing weather on the morning of a competition, I knew I would always stay cool and focused with plenty of time to spare for checks, re-checks, triangulations (alternative solutions) and verifications. I was used to solving three full tests in a hot sauna in less time than I would get for just one test in an air conditioned and tempered room.
Moreover, I actually applied my knowledge, which is considered the final nail in the coffin for ignorance or poor memory:
I liked and needed to use formulas when coding, e.g., for natural jumping or breaking movements in a game. I liked reading books in English, and all my necessary computer literature was in English. Even if I didn’t care much for French, I made sure to read a few books in French to secure highest grade there too (a very natural conclusion after seeing how easy English became already after just reading “It” by Stephen King).
A similar approach is called immersion, e.g., going abroad to study a foreign language. Some schools currently experiment with local immersion emulation techniques.
So, that’s my specific high school experience of studying, but let’s summarize the general points and principles.
What’s wrong with school is that:
- it doesn’t teach you how to learn (based on plasticity research), it only tells you what you should learn and then crudely tests and scores you on certain flat and dead facts that are easy to gauge
- it doesn’t explicitly tell you to look up words you can’t define
- it kills creativity, curiosity and questioning, by teaching only ‘the one truth’ in a machine like manner
- it turns natural grit into hate of certain subjects, since temporary failure is treated as being ‘wrong, period’.
- it focuses on rote learning, instead of research methods and searching, experimenting
- the focus on forcing the same pace on everybody, kills enthusiasm in some, while ruining the potential in others as the latter have to move forward before building an adequately solid base
- there is no sense of solving real and relevant problems, only abstract or ridiculous mathematical “problems”
- it doesn’t inspire you to create, to seek out and solve problems, to help, to be an entrepreneur, to enjoy the process of being curious and to apply all your faculties in making the world better (just your vicinity or earth in its entirety), forwarding the fields of the big 5 technologies to solve the Big 5 challenges. Instead the focus is on making robots out of the students, to fit as workers in shrinking companies in a society that will look very differently once they are done with school
- Among the worst of all, school makes you believe certain truths are set in stone, thus discouraging you from questioning. That is one of the reasons behind our economies being run by Keynesian madmen, since other theories have been discredited in favor of Keynes’ misinformed and misunderstood (mere) hypotheses.
Other tricks for learning would be gamification, as well as learning as a child. Children learn to walk, to speak etc. by an extreme application of broad perspective, trial and error, and fun. They simply play themselves to master a set of very difficult tasks. Grown-ups could just about replicate that, if we just dared failing more.
Older children gladly spend 100s or 1000s of hours to master computer games (while yet other groups of 3rd world children can learn biochemistry and genetics, in a foreign language, with no particular guidance, and just a computer [which was something they had never seen before] connected to the internet).
What school and parents should do is apply all the things I’ve mentioned in this article, including learning based on:
- Deep Work
- Sound Wall
- Hyperthermic therapy
- Spaced repetition
- Defining words
- Overreaching (deliberate practice and temporary failure)
- Not procrastinating (just do it right away)
Share these important lessons on how to learn
Apply: The reason I wrote this article is to encourage you to apply the above principles in your own life when acquiring interesting skills, or necessary knowledge for your line of work, investing, sport or other endeavors.
Dare: Not least I want you to see that the reason you’re sometimes discouraged to learn new things, is less because it’s hard, and more likely because school taught you that learning is boring and failing is bad.
Encourage: I also want to encourage you to forward this knowledge to younger people, perhaps your own children, and to authorities like teachers (who probably know this), and more importantly to the teachers’ bosses and relevant politicians.