Did you ever try to iron a shirt with a cold iron? Could you get that shirt ironed without the heat? Sure, but it would take for-freakin-ever! Ironing a nice fold into a shirt is oh-so-much faster when you’ve got HEAT.
Trying to learn stuff by going over it again and again is about as effective as ironing with a cold iron. You can do it, but it’s sloooooow and it’s a LOT of work. Getting memories ironed into your brain is much easier if you know how to Bring The Heat!The mental equivalent of heat is elaboration. Elaboration means taking the information and working with it somehow. Notice how the word has labor built right into it; e-labor-ation. For example, instead of reviewing the word turbid and it’s definition over and over I can elaborate by writing some sentences that use the word and then use the word in conversation with a friend. That’s how to bring the mental heat! Research shows that elaboration is way mo’ bettuh than just reviewing it over and over again.
Ways you can elaborate…
- Ask yourself questions about what you are learning. Where have I heard this before? What does it remind me of? Is this true? How will this be tested?
- Turn verbal information into visual information by drawing a picture, chart or diagram.
- Turn visual information into verbal information by describing what you see.
- Relate the information to something you already know. That Mussolini character reminds me a lot of my hockey coach. (All of these are integrated directly into my note taking system as discussed on the free study skills video and in my ebook).
- Act it out. For example, put on a play about cellular mitosis using tube socks in the starring roles. (I suggest you shut and lock your door before doing this since it tends to cause roommates to give you funny looks and hide their socks.)
- Set it to music. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher used this to great effect, teaching her students a song to help them recall the spelling of every color they learned (the downside is that my daughter now hums under her breath when asked to spell “yellow.”) I’ve had friends who used this method to memorize extremely complex processes, though, so don’t discount it.
Here’s how I use this process of elaboration to really learn complex texts…
First, I pause frequently to review what I’ve just read. I rarely read even a single paragraph without stopping to ask myself questions such as, “Why did the author say this? What’s her point? Is this true? Did she support her claim thoroughly? Is talking to myself a sign of incipient mental breakdown?”
Second, I write key points in my notes, making sure to illustrate, summarize, emphasize, connect with other concepts, etc. I also make sure to write in my reactions and questions. You should be familiar with this from my ebook.
Third, I stop every few paragraphs to mentally review everything I’ve read so far. For example, after the third paragraph in my text book, I’ll stop and try to recall my notes for the reading from start to finish. I’ll do that again after the sixth paragraph, after the ninth paragraph, etc. By the end of the chapter, I should be able to mentally reconstruct the entire reading, complete with my diagrams, questions, and reactions. If I can’t, I go back right then and review.
This obviously is not a fast process, however, I’ve found that I recall it so much better this way that it requires MUCH less review later on, ultimately saving me time. Mnemonics, or memory tricks, make this process much faster. I talk a lot about mnemonics in my blog posts and in my ebook. Think of mnemonics as the steam in that hot iron.
A couple of things to keep in mind; don’t use this process on your readings unless you really need to. If the text isn’t going to be tested (and you’re absolutely certain of that) consider not reading it at all. If there will only be a few general questions on the test over this reading, consider skimming the passage, perhaps reading the intro paragraph and the conclusion, looking at topic heads, and looking at charts or graphs.
If you’re just going over your notes over and over, or reviewing those flash cards over and over, or reading those texts over and over, you, my friend are using a cold iron. Heat that iron up by elaborating on what you’re trying to learn.
Updated from January 2009 post.
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