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The world’s knowledge is doubling every 18 months1. It takes a lot of effort to stay up-to-date in your field of expertise, let alone learning new information. To stay ahead of the curve, you must learn how to learn faster. The first step is understanding that there are actually two types of knowledge: declarative knowledge, and procedural knowledge.

Declarative knowledge involves facts and rules. It’s memorizing something and recalling it when you need it. Procedural knowledge is concerned with how to do something. It involves hands-on skills such as tying your shoelace or riding a bicycle. Declarative knowledge is easy to write down and straightforward to teach. In contrast, procedural knowledge is hard to write down and difficult to teach. It’s best taught by demonstration, and best learned through practice. After you’ve mastered a procedural skill, you do it without thinking. In contrast, you have to stop and think to remember declarative knowledge.

The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.
-Alvin Toffler

Learning Style
For declarative knowledge, some people are visual learners and some people are verbal learners. Visualizers learn better with visual materials such as pictures, videos, images, and diagrams. Verbalizers learn better with verbal materials such as words, text, and reading.

In a study from the University of New Mexico, students in a German language course were tested to see if they were visualizers or verbalizers2. Next, the students were randomly split into two groups to learn a German story. One version of the story contained hyperlinks to English text translations. A second version of the story contained hyperlinks to pictures and video. Results showed that visualizers achieved higher scores on vocabulary and reading comprehension tests if they had studied with pictures and video. In contrast, verbalizers performed better with text translations. Are you a visualizer or a verbalizer? By recognizing your learning style, you can optimize your study habits to learn faster.

Patterns and Relationships
Like memory, learning is easier when you can link new information to things you already know. Researchers from the University of Colorado asked volunteers to learn new facts about a group of people3. One group of volunteers was pre-trained with five facts per person. A second group was pre-trained with one fact per person. Volunteers who were pre-trained with five facts learned the new facts faster, and remembered more of what they learned. They were able to make more links between the new facts and ones they already knew.

How do experts solve problems faster than amateurs? It’s by recognizing patterns based on problems they’ve solved before. In a study from the University of Limburg, Dutch researchers observed how medical students and veteran doctors diagnosed a case of pancreatitis4. Participants were asked to think out loud as they figured out the diagnosis. Statements were classified as “biomedical” if they related to systems such as tissues, organs, and body functions, or causes such as viruses, bacteria, and cancers. Statements were classified as “clinical” if they related to signs and symptoms of disease, or how the disease could be managed. Medical students used biomedical statements 47 percent of the time, compared to 14 percent for veteran doctors. By using biomedical statements, the students were attempting to explain the case from first principles. It was a slow approach. In contrast, doctors quickly arrived at the proper diagnosis and treatment by recognizing patterns in the clinical signs and symptoms.

Whether you’re a student or an expert, it’s easier to learn something when you understand the big picture. It provides a framework for linking together individual facts. It’s like working on a jigsaw puzzle and knowing that the final scene is supposed to be the Taj Mahal. That’s why this book takes the goal of self improvement and breaks it down into five sections. In turn, these sections are broken down into individual chapters. This structure helps you see how everything fits together.

An expert is someone who through practice and repeated exposure can recognize patterns that are more subtle than can be recognized by a nonexpert.
-Jeff Hawkins, On Intelligence

The more words you know, the more ways you have to express new ideas, or understand old ones. When you encounter a new word, look it up right away and try using it in a sentence.
  • Look up definitions and listen to pronunciations at: http://dictionary.reference.com/
  • Pop quiz: what are the definitions and pronunciations of “eschatology” and “quixotic?”

Learning by Doing
Mozart didn’t learn how to play the piano by reading books and writing essays. That’s because procedural knowledge is best learned by doing. On average, you remember 10 percent of what you read, 20 percent of what you hear, 30 percent of what you see, 50 percent of what you hear and see, and 80 percent of what you say and do5.

In a study from the University of Georgia, students in an American history course were divided into two groups to learn about relationships between English, French, Spanish, Native American, and African cultures in the 1800s6. In the first group, students attended lectures and took notes. In the second group, students role-played the different cultures, and debated motives, points of view, and strategic considerations. Results showed that the role-playing students were three times more likely to participate in class. On the final exam, their performance was better by nearly a whole letter grade.

See one, do one, teach one.
-Medical school saying

When golfer Tiger Woods was 13, his father introduced him to psychologist Jay Brunza. To take Tiger’s game to the next level, Brunza coached him on mental techniques such as relaxation, focus, and visualization7. Tiger went on to become the youngest player to win 50 tournaments on the PGA Tour. Explaining Tiger’s success, Brunza said, “It’s all mental discipline and Tiger worked hard to master it at an early age and absorb it into his technical excellence.” Tiger and other elite athletes have long used visualization to improve their athletic performance. In their minds, they visualize themselves performing the desired action flawlessly, with as much feeling and detail as possible.

At Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, researchers recruited volunteers to practice a five-finger piano exercise8. One group practiced for 2 hours a day for 5 days. A second group followed the same practice schedule, but visualized the finger movements without actually moving their fingers. A third group combined practice with visualization. After 5 days, practicers and visualizers performed about the same. Neuroimaging studies showed similar changes in the brains of both groups. Overall, the best performances were given by the third group, where physical practice was combined with mental visualization.

The mind is everything; what you think, you become.

Sleep and Learning
How important is sleep for learning? In a study from Harvard Medical School, subjects practiced a visual discrimination task for 7 days9. The largest improvement in performance occurred after 1 night of sleep. Maximum performance occurred after 2 or 3 nights of sleep. On the other hand, there was no improvement at all if subjects were deprived of sleep for 30 hours after practicing. Bottom line: pulling an all-nighter is a waste of time when you’re learning something new.

Use It or Lose It
Regular practice improves learning like lifting weights builds stronger muscles. At the University of Regensburg, German researchers taught volunteers to juggle three balls over a period of 3 months10. Brain scans were conducted at three time points: (1) in the beginning when volunteers had no experience, (2) when they could juggle for at least 60 seconds, and (3) after 3 months of no juggling.

At the second brain scan, certain areas of grey matter had significantly expanded in size. But it shrank back after 3 months of no juggling. To stay at the top of your game, you have to stay in practice.

Power Studying
Studying is boring. How can you learn more with less effort? Try the “1Q/5R” approach11.
  1. Record: take good notes. Capture important facts and big ideas.
  2. Question: write down questions in the margins using the information from your notes.
  3. Recite: say each idea and fact out loud, in your own words. Students who recite are able to retain 80% of the material when tested 2 weeks later. Students who do not recite retain only 20%.
  4. Reflect: think about what you’ve learned. What are the principles? How can they be applied? How does it fit with what you already know?
  5. Review: once a day, recite your notes and quiz yourself with your questions. Frequent, fast reviews are better than all-day study sessions.
  6. Recapitulate: at the bottom of your notes, write a brief summary of each page. At the end of each section, write a brief summary of the main facts and ideas.

  1. Kapp KM, McKeague C. (2002). Blended learning for compliance training success. EduNeering, Inc.
  2. Leutner D, Plass JL. (1998). Measuring learning styles with questionnaires versus direct observation of preferential choice behavior in authentic learning situations: the Visualizer/Verbalizer Behavior Observation Scale (VV-BOS). Computers in Human Behavior. 14(4):543–557.
  3. Van Overschelde JP, Healy AF. (2001). Learning of nondomain facts in high- and low-knowledge domains. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 27(5):1160–1171.
  4. Boshuizen HPA, Schmidt HG. (1992). On the role of biomedical knowledge in clinical reasoning by experts, intermediates and novices. Cognitive Science. 16:153–184.
  5. Garity J. (1999). Creating a professional presentation: a template for success. Journal of Intravenous Nursing. 22(2):81–86.
  6. McCarthy JP, Anderson L. (2000). Active learning techniques versus traditional teaching styles: two experiments from history and political science. Innovative Higher Education. 24(4):279–294.
  7. Seitz N. (2000). Behind Tiger's mental toughness. Golf Digest. October.
  8. Pascual-Leone A. (2001). The brain that plays music and is changed by it. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 930:315–329.
  9. Stickgold R, James L, Hobson JA. (2000). Visual discrimination learning requires sleep after training. Nature Neuroscience. 3(12):1237–1238.
  10. Draganski B et al. (2004). Changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature. 427:311–312.
  11. Pauk W. (1989). How to study in college. 4th edition. Houghton Mifflin.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D.
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