Condensing Knowledge

Do not learn if you do not understand

Trying to learn things you do not understand may seem like an utmost nonsense. Still, an amazing proportion of students commit the offence of learning without comprehension. Very often they have no other choice! The quality of many textbooks or lecture scripts is deplorable while examination deadlines are unmovable.

If you are not a speaker of German, it is still possible to learn a history textbook in German. The book can be crammed word for word. However, the time needed for such “blind learning” is astronomical. Even more important: The value of such knowledge is negligible. If you cram a German book on history, you will still know nothing of history.

The German history book example is an extreme. However, the materials you learn may often seem well structured and you may tend to blame yourself for lack of comprehension. Soon you may pollute your learning process with a great deal of useless material that treacherously makes you believe “it will be useful some day”.  

Learn before you memorize

Before you proceed with memorizing individual facts and rules, you need to build an overall picture of the learned knowledge. Only when individual pieces fit to build a single coherent structure, will you be able to dramatically reduce the learning time. This is closely related to the problem comprehension mentioned in Rule 1: Do not learn if you do not understand. A single separated piece of your picture is like a single German word in the textbook of history.

Do not start from memorizing loosely related facts! First read a chapter in your book that puts them together (e.g. the principles of the internal combustion engine). Only then proceed with learning using individual questions and answers (e.g. What moves the pistons in the internal combustion engine?), etc.

Build upon the basics

The picture of the learned whole (as discussed in Rule 2: Learn before you memorize) does not have to be complete to the last detail. Just the opposite, the simpler the picture the better. The shorter the initial chapter of your book the better. Simple models are easier to comprehend and encompass. You can always build upon them later on.

Do not neglect the basics. Memorizing seemingly obvious things is not a waste of time! Basics may also appear volatile and the cost of memorizing easy things is little. Better err on the safe side. Remember that usually you spend 50% of your time repeating just 3-5% of the learned material [source]! Basics are usually easy to retain and take a microscopic proportion of your time. However, each memory lapse on basics can cost you dearly!

Stick to the minimum information principle

The material you learn must be formulated in as simple way as it is only possible. Simplicity does not have to imply losing information and skipping the difficult part. Simplicity is imperative due to the way the brain works. There are two main reasons for which knowledge must be simple:

  • Simple is easy
    By definition, simple material is easy to remember. This comes from the fact that its simplicity makes is easy for the brain to process it always in the same way. Imagine a labyrinth. When making a repetition of a piece of material, your brain is running through a labyrinth (you can view a neural network as a tangle of paths). While running through the labyrinth, the brain leaves a track on the walls. If it can run in only one unique way, the path is continuous and easy to follow. If there are many combinations, each run may leave a different trace that will interfere with other traces making it difficult to find the exit. The same happens on the cellular level with different synaptic connections being activated at each repetition of complex material

Use imagery

Visual cortex is that part of the brain in which visual stimuli are interpreted. It has been very well developed in the course of evolution and that is why we say one picture is worth a thousand words. Indeed if you look at the number of details kept in a picture and the easiness with which your memory can retain them, you will notice that our verbal processing power is greatly inferior as compared with the visual processing power. The same refers to memory. A graphic representation of information is usually far less volatile.

Usually it takes much less time to formulate a simple question-and-answer pair than to find or produce a neat graphic image. This is why you will probably always have to weigh up cost and profits in using graphics in your learning material. Well-employed images will greatly reduce your learning time in areas such as anatomy, geography, geometry, chemistry, history, and many more.

The power of imagery explains why the concept of Tony Buzan’s mind maps is so popular. A mind map is an abstract picture in which connections between its components reflect the logical connections between individual concepts.

Avoid enumerations & Sets

Enumerations are also an example of classic items that are hard to learn. They are still far more acceptable than sets

Combat interference

When you learn about similar things you often confuse them. For example, you may have problems distinguishing between the meanings of the words historic and historical. This will even be more visible if you memorize lots of numbers, e.g. optimum dosages of drugs in pharmacotherapy. If knowledge of one item makes it harder to remember another item, we have a case of memory interference. You can often remember an item for years with straight excellent grades until … you memorize another item that makes it nearly impossible to remember either! For example, if you learn geography and you memorize that the country located between Venezuela, Suriname and Brazil is Guyana, you are likely to easily recall this fact for years with just a couple of repetitions. However, once you add similar items asking about the location of all these countries, and French Guyana, and Colombia and more, you will suddenly notice strong memory interference and you may experience unexpected forgetting. In simple terms: you will get confused about what is what.

Interference is probably the single greatest cause of forgetting in collections of an experienced user of SuperMemo. You can never be sure when it strikes, and the only hermetic procedure against it is to detect and eliminate. In other words, in many cases it may be impossible to predict interference at the moment of formulating knowledge. Interference can also occur between remotely related items like Guyana, Guyard andGuyenne, as well as Guyana, kayman and … aspirin. It may work differently for you and for your colleague. It very hard to predict.

Still you should do your best to prevent interference before it takes its toll. This will make your learning process less stressful and mentally bearable. Here are some tips:

  • make items as unambiguous as possible
  • stick to the minimum information principle (many of the remaining rules in this text are based on avoiding interference!)
  • eliminate interference as soon as you spot it, i.e. before it becomes your obsession (e.g. as soon as you see the word inept you think “I know the meanings of inept and inapt but I will never know which is which!”)

Optimize wording

The wording of your items must be optimized to make sure that in minimum time the right bulb in your brain lights up. This will reduce error rates, increase specificity, reduce response time, and help your concentration.

Personalize and provide examples

One of the most effective ways of enhancing memories is to provide them with a link to your personal life. In the example below you will save time if you use a personal reference rather than trying to paint a picture that would aptly illustrate the question

Rely on emotional states

If you can illustrate your items with examples that are vivid or even shocking, you are likely to enhance retrieval (as long as you do not overuse same tools and fall victim of interference!). Your items may assume bizarre form; however, as long as they are produced for your private consumption, the end justifies the means. Use objects that evoke very specific and strong emotions: love, sex, war, your late relative, object of your infatuation, Linda Tripp, Nelson Mandela, etc. It is well known that emotional states can facilitate recall; however, you should make sure that you are not deprived of the said emotional clues at the moment when you need to retrieve a given memory in a real-life situation




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