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Learning Knowledge vs. Skill

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

In order to learn, you must study. In order to study, you must committing yourself to going over lectures, books, websites, other written materials, picking up the concepts and facts that are taught therein, and assembling them in your head into an integrated system that makes sense. You should emerge not with a random unconnected collection of facts, but rather with a unified understanding of how all the facts fit together in the area you are studying. You will know when you've mastered an area of study when you no longer have to rely on memorization of isolated pieces of knowledge in order to come up with correct answers, but instead are able to "see" the shape of those missing pieces in your head because the rest of the system implies them.

Study Skills. Studying is a skill you learn how to do well; it is not inborn or instinctual, but rather takes practice and commitment to get right. Effective study habits help you retain what you learn and to organize what you learn into a system of knowledge. When you know how to study properly you tend to get better grades on tests of your knowledge than you do when you don't know how to study. More importantly, you tend to understand the material you study better (more completely) when you have studied it well vs. when you have not.

Some people are born smart and think they don't need to study. While in grade school, they don't have to study as much to get good grades as the other people around them who aren't so gifted. However, this advantage only lasts so long. When the material people study becomes more complicated and advanced (as it does when you attend college or graduate school), even smart people have to learn how to study if they are to do well. It is not a good idea to rely on being smart as a strategy for learning. At some point smart is not enough, and you have to learn to study properly if you are to make progress. You might as well learn how to study properly now.

Here are some basic tips for studying properly and well:

  • Make study a priority. You only have so much energy, and if you leave study for the last thing you do you will not have energy for it. Study during your "prime time" hours, when you are still energetic enough to engage. Do not study when you are tired or fatigued.
  • Quiet your mind before you begin a period of study. Do what you can to put your other concerns and worries down for a time and allow yourself to focus exclusively on the material you need to learn
  • Schedule frequent and regular periods of study; every day if possible and roughly at the same time of day. It is better to study a little bit every day than a whole lot once per week. Studying frequently keeps material fresh in your mind and helps you to organize it. Scheduling your study period at a regular time helps you to make it a priority.
  • Make notes as you listen to lectures or read. When you are done reading, take your notes and then re-write them so that they make more sense and restate what you've learned. It is a real "pain-in-the-butt" to do this rewriting, but it truly helps you retain and organize what you are learning. The more you "process" and organize the material you're learning, the more completely you will learn it.
  • Work out the steps to any problems you need to calculate or reason through in order to solve. Most textbooks show only partial solutions to problems. If you accept what they offer you, you will have memorized the solution, but not understood why and how it works. Don't be satisfied with mere memorization. Instead, work through the steps until they make sense to you. If they don't make sense to you despite your efforts, seek the aid of a more experienced student or teacher who can help you see what you are missing.
  • Where and when you don't understand things, ask questions until you do.
  • Don't allow yourself to procrastinate. Do your homework in advance of when it is due. Start papers and other assignments in advance of when they are due, especially when they aren't due for some time.
  • If your teacher is a poor communicator, either fire your teacher and find a new one who is a better communicator, or hire some other teacher on the side to help you comprehend what you are learning.