Are you finding it hard to recall concepts that you have read in your notes? Ever had the feeling that you definitely understood something, only to realise in the exam that you didn’t?
If these things are happening to you, it probably means you are studying wrong. (Sorry!) The most common methods used by students: summarisation, highlighting, rereading are actually some of the worst learning techniques. (Dunlosky et. al., 2013)
So it’s time to learn how to learn.
Step 1: Ask yourself, what do you want to learn?
It’s not enough to know that you intend to study economics. Economics in at the A Levels is different from economics in university; economics in Singapore is probably different from economics in the UK.
So the first step to learn anything is to get a clear idea of what you want to learn. Fortunately, this part is easy because the syllabus and assessment objectives are usually available online for you. If your teachers are especially nice, they may also break down the syllabus objectives into finer points.
For example, the H2 economics syllabus says:
“Understand that economic agents weigh the incremental benefits against incremental costs in decision-making.”
which you can then break into:
- Define incremental benefits.
- Define incremental costs.
- Use a mathematical framework to explain these concepts.
- Provide an example of such decision making in real life.
- Explain mathematically how rational decision making involves these ideas.
The clearer you can set out the learning objectives, the better it is for you.
“When objectives are unclear or not fully formulated in the teacher’s mind, both teachers and students may work hard but miss the point. The intended learning may be lost.” (Saphier et. al., The Skillful Teacher, 2008)
Here you become your own teacher. So make sure you are clear about those learning objectives.
Step 2: Gather all relevant resources.
You want to gather everything here, right now, so that there’s no excuse to surf the net or whatsapp your friends to gather more information while carrying out the later steps. The best way to maximise focus is to prepare for it.
The relevant resources for A Level economics could include:
– Your school notes.
– Short video lectures.
– Summarised notes.
– Practice questions with suggested answers (prelim and A Levels).
– Textbook (preferably digital/soft copy)
You can use more but it’s probably going to be counter-productive. There’s only that much information your brain can handle.
Step 3: Make flashcards. (Corollary: leverage technology)
If you have access to the relevant technology, this part is going to be extremely easy for you. But if not, it’s not an excuse not to do the work. Go buy yourself some writing materials and get started anyway.
Now read carefully. Do the following in a leisurely manner. Don’t stress it; don’t even bother trying to remember anything. You are a treasure hunter at this stage. Gather all the gold and put them in your vault.
So here’s what you do: with the learning objectives in mind, go through the material. When you see a concept or idea you think might be helpful to understand, stop. Come up with a question that can prompt you to apply that concept.
The question can be anything from a simple “explain” or “describe” to something more elaborate like “discuss” or “evaluate”. Some mental gymnastics may be required here but you will get better at it over time. If it’s a huge concept, chunk it up into smaller pieces.
Now write the question down on a flashcard and construct the answer to it. Feel free to quote directly from the notes or textbook at this point. If you are great with technology, I recommend Mental Case 2 for a flashcard app. It works across the iDevices and Mac and allows you to categorise your flashcards easily, upload pictures and even audio recordings as answers.
Have a notebook and a pen handy. Jot down any doubts you have, and make sure you revisit them. Aim to solve problems independently before discussing with your teacher or tutor.
Step 4: Distributed Practice (Corollary: Allow sleep to do its magic)
Now the magic starts. The two best ways to learn discovered by the research are practice testing and distributed practice. Here we make use of both: distributed practice testing. 😛
Set up one hour slots on your schedule to review your flash cards. Randomise the order. Make a genuine effort to answer the questions before looking at the answers. If you are using the app, you can use it to track which ones you answered wrongly, and these will pop up again as you go through the deck.
You can increase the effectiveness further by alternating between different subjects. Research has shown that interleaving practice works better even though it might not feel that way to students (so you just have to trust the process).
Why distributed practice works has a lot to do with sleep. Consolidation of knowledge takes place when we are in REM sleep. You will literally become smarter when you wake up.
Step 5: Attempt exam questions.
Now comes the final and I would say the most important part: attempt as many past exam questions as you can. This will help you apply what you have learnt into more advanced situations.
Here I suggest using the 5 minute QuickWrite method. This is something I have used myself and with my students and the results were remarkable.
Take a stopwatch and time yourself: 5 minutes. Look at an essay question and write an outline with points, elaboration and examples. Write just enough for your brain to register what’s going on. Then refer to the answer key and ask yourself: what went well, what went wrong and how can you do better. It’s that simple.
At this point if your flashcards are well made you will not have to refer to your notes, and if you learn anything new you can just transfer them onto new flashcards.
If you have time you can also make mind maps at this stage to further strengthen your understanding of the topics and see connections between them. I recommend using XMind (which is free) for this.
Finally, have discussions with your friends and help each other out as much as possible because collaboration is one of the best way to learn and discover new information.
The 5 Step Econoception Study Method
Try it out. Don’t listen to me; listen to the research. I can’t wait to see you reach your utmost potential.
Till next time, dream economics.