Wouldn’t it be great if you could be guaranteed success at university? What great things could you go on to do if you achieved good grades? I am going to reveal to you the real secrets to succeeding at university.
Before you read any further you need to have read my article about rule number 1. If you haven’t developed your unrestrained curiosity yet then you are not going to make the most of rule number 2.
When studying and learning it is important for your learning to make sense to you. What you read or hear needs to make sense. If something doesn’t make sense then you don’t understand it and you need to think some more, read a little more or start asking questions that might help to provide an answer to any confusion you may have.
One of the major problems that learners face is the format of the information provided to them. The preferred method of recording knowledge in the academic world is written text. The problem with written text is that it is not related in any way to how we think. Text is a string of words absorbed in a serial fashion – you pretty much have to start at the beginning and work your way through to the end. Add to that the sheer volume of text that needs to be read and you may have already started to realise that you are not going to easily remember everything that you have read.
The first thing to realise then is that this written text is simply an idea from someone else’s mind. They have had to go through a process of trying to articulate what they think. The text is NOT what they think – it is an attempt to record it.
Humans think in terms of relationships and related items. We use patterns and rules to make sense of the world around us. Experience alters the rules we use so that they closer match our reality of the world in which we live. The rules that we use are NOT written in text.
To understand something new we must relate it to what we already know. In what way is what you are reading similar to something you already know? Then, what are the factors that make it different? Thinking about your learning can you think of any examples that you have had or seen in your life, perhaps even something you have seen on television?
You are constructing your own knowledge and understanding using relationships between existing knowledge and new knowledge to do this.
Some important research on learning has suggested that for a piece of learning to be able to be used by you in the future you must ‘contextualise’ it. Contextualise simply means that the learning must be put into a context. You must, in your mind, associate it with lots of examples of where this knowledge can be used or with a particular type of situation or problem where it can be used.
Experts are able to easily recall the right knowledge to use in a particular situation because all of their knowledge is contextualised. When they think of a problem their mind suggests to them only those bits of knowledge they need to know so solve it. Imagine going in to your exam, reading a question and then your mind suggests to you instantly the knowledge you need to answer the question. That is what contextualising knowledge does for us.
What is worse is that if you don’t contextualise your knowledge then it becomes ‘lost’ and is unavailable for use when a problem occurs. This explains why the vast majority of hard working students do so poorly when it comes to their exams. It is not that they don’t have the knowledge – it is just not available to them when they need it. Do not fall into this trap – contextualise all your learning as you learn.
Do not try to remember or contextualise text. Gone should be the days when you tried to revise for an exam by ‘rehearsing’ key snippets of text that might be asked for in a question.
Instead of simply writing notes about what you have been learning use a technique more aligned with the way our minds work. There are many techniques for doing this but the use of mind maps (popularised by Tony Buzan) or spider diagrams where you create visual relationships between ideas and topics work very well.
Using a mind map or tree like chart it is possible to decompose a subject. When learning about a subject it should be possible to break that subject down in to three or four key main areas. Previous experts may have already done this for you or you may decide to make your own categories based on your own understanding. Think of these categories as big ‘chunks’.
You can take each of the big chunks that make up a subject and then break them down into smaller chunks that make up that category. Each of these smaller chunks can be broken down again into sub categories that make up that ‘chunk’. This process can be repeated until you can no longer decompose that subject any further. Finally you end up with a very comprehensive, easy to navigate map of a subject.
The map that you will have produced is more like the way your mind operates. It is easy to understand, quick and easy to read, contains the essence of everything you need to know about where a topic fits into that subject and should be reproducible (with a little practice you should be able to easily draw this structure from memory – and it should flow naturally).
Using a different coloured pen you can add notes about where this all relates to your previous knowledge. With another coloured pen you can add examples to help you contextualise each of the concepts or ideas on the map.
Once you start to use mind maps you will rarely write linear text based notes again. The learning should be in your mind and not on the paper. The paper should be there as a tool to help you remember and structure your learning. Text very rarely helps you structure your learning. In lectures listen and try to understand, don’t write down everything but rather draw out a mind map. Instantly make brief notes on it about where this new information is similar to your previous knowledge. Note down any examples given and any that you come up with yourself.
After the lecture restructure your map. Don’t be afraid to change it. Challenge yourself about the structure. Add colours, examples, contexts and then see if you can redraw this map from scratch without looking. Has this knowledge structure and understanding become part of your own mind?
These tools will help you to organise, understand and remember any subject. This will become apparent when faced with a question or a problem. You should find your mind instantly offering you the key pieces of information required to solve it.
Finally, don’t be afraid to change your maps based on new information. Sometimes you will come across a new piece of information that will radically affect your beliefs and thinking. When this happens you may have to take what you know and restructure it so that it all relates and makes sense.
There is no right map of the world. There is only your map. Your map is the way you see the world and it is unique to you.
Start doing this today. Map your learning, contextualise your learning and most of all become an expert.