The Art of Learning

I must make a confession. I am a quote junkie. Here is my current favorite by Richard P. Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist.  “Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”

For me this is the first time I’ve studied in three years. The grandiloquent mountain ranges of Nepal and glistening white beaches of Bali are now a memory and my reality is verb inflections and IPA transcripts. Transitioning into student life hasn’t been all sleek and smooth. It has felt similar to re-learning snowboarding every winter. My sedentary triceps burn and ache from continuously having to push myself back up, I have an impressive array of multicolored and shaped bruises and I can’t sit without howling in pain. Yet I’m beaming because nothing beats the joy of getting down that terrifying hill of ice in one piece.

In the past two months I’ve been re-learning learning. Feynman’s quote is a like a bright neon sign, reminding me of a few essential things. Firstly, I would be more at home trying to haggle a good price for a tuk-tuk ride in India or navigate the tapered, muddy streets of Kathmandu that I am sitting in a lecture hall. Travelling is familiar and I know how to do it. Studying is unfamiliar and remarkably more terrifying than any subway system in the world. Plunging into anything unfamiliar takes courage, but when it’s something you are passionate about, it’s worth the risk and effort. Secondly, anything can be done in an original way. Studying is now my main occupation, and I want to do it in a way that looks and feels like me.

After almost two months in, and many agonizing slope falls later I’ve compiled a list of five study tips that have been tested a proven to be of aid. They might not be extremely original, undisciplined or irreverent, but they stem from my personal experience of re-learning the art of passionately studying what interests me the most.



Number 1: Explain the concept you learn to someone else. The key word here is active learning. Reading with a highlighter in hand certainly brightens up your course books, but it doesn’t help in remembering information. In order to remember, you need to actively think about, organize and connect new information to existing knowledge, which is most efficiently done through vocalization. Teaching what you’ve learned helps in comprehensively understanding the new information and once you’ve internalized a concept, you will remember it.

Number 2: Find a specific study space that’s aesthetically pleasing to you, a space you enjoy being in. Aesthetics is branching out into new territories such as neuroaesthetics, which examines the neural side of art contemplation and creation. This recent development has opened fascinating new dimensions to the discipline of aesthetics and among other things aims to explain neurological processes involved in experiencing beauty. One thing collectively acknowledged as a fact by a whole host of different fields, from psychologists to architects, is that beauty has a real way of affecting how we feel. An aesthetically pleasing space relates to your impression of enjoyment and can thus act like a sort of kick-starter for studying. Having a place you love being in lowers the threshold and helps getting the ball rolling when procrastination feels like an easy and comfortable fallback option. In addition, it’s easier to be effective in a quiet, distraction-free space you’ve mentally reserved for studying.

Number 3: Take breaks. Just like any other kind of work, there is only so much your brain can handle before overheating. Taking a break gives you time to absorb and reflect. So grab a beer and listen to MIKA’s Relax, Take it Easy, go for a walk, eat marshmallows with chopsticks, spit in a cup, basically do whatever relaxes you. Taking a break instead of forcibly plowing through seems counterproductive, but it’s quite the opposite.

Number 4: Divide large areas of information into smaller compartments and space studying out over a longer period of time. It’s common knowledge that if anything is to be absorbed, it needs to be committed to long-term memory. Short-term memory should be reserved for every day trivialities. Cramming bucket loads of new information in at the last minute is committing it to short-term memory, which is like owning a mansion but choosing to stuff everything in the downstairs cleaning cupboard. Giving yourself enough time to study eliminates the stress and helps you focus. Once you’ve cut the gigantic mountain of new information into bite-sided nuggets, it’s not nearly as intimidating.

Number 5: Make use of age-old mnemonic devices for remembering facts, dates and names. I recently read a fascinating article in The New York Times by Joshue Foer, author of “Moonwalking with Einstein; The Art and Science of Remembering Everything”, on contemporary memory training. At the World Championship level it’s a notable showcase of talents, like with any other sport. It’s the best of the best, wearing soundproof earmuffs, memorizing card decks in under five minutes. Albeit an unbeatable party trick, I don’t have any ambition to be a memory athlete, but the techniques used are in fact extremely effective and attainable for any person with normal cognitive abilities.

The cornerstone technique is called the memory palace, where relevant information is associated with a physical space in the mind. You choose a place you know well, a familiar jogging route perhaps, and place information along the way in the form of memorable images. Studies have be conducted with results showing that memory competitors brains are not structurally any different from a person’s with normal cognitive abilities. The noticeable difference in f.M.R.I scans was found in the area of the brain involved in spatial memory, which was being actively used by the tested memory athletes.  I could for example envision all the famous Romantic poets and place them in birth order along my evening walk route. All I have to do to remember the order is to walk the route in my imagination. The aim, again, is to commit information to long-term memory, where it won’t be easily forgotten.

Getting good grades is only a tributary element of learning well, and since learning will never cease, it’s a good long-term investment to get damn good at it now. I’ve made a personal manifesto which states that these university years will not be the image of me face-planting and rolling down a giant, petrifying ice slope, one foot dangling from a snowboard and nostrils full of slush over and over again. Instead it is time to make these years my own, undisciplined, irreverently original and passionately creative.


Student Alzheimer's

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