The first time I felt like a failure was my first year in secondary school. Topping a class of 15 pupils in primary school didn’t prepare me for a class of over 200 students. BODMAS didn’t fully prepare me for algebra. I wasn’t prepared for introductory technology or business studies. It was all so strange. I scaled through primary school on raw talent and confidence, nothing more. I passed all entrance examinations and won a scholarship to study at my alma mater secondary school (Go Magis!!).
I remember walking into my first class, eyes pointed at the floor, hugging my enormous bag and afraid to say a word to the people I would share the next 6 years with, yet confident and enthusiastic that I would excel in school. I had no clue what I was doing. That’s what growing up with my very driven mother was like. You knew you had to be top of the class. You didn’t know why, it was just how it was meant to be. She planted that desire for excellence in me long before I could spell the word. So I skipped along, listened in class, wrote my notes and waited for exams. I recall looking at my books, days to my first term examinations and not knowing what to do with them. I flipped the pages because i had seen my aunt do that when she had an upcoming exam. That term, I looked at my score report with disappointed eyes, tears running down my cheeks, ashamed to go home. I had done less than was expected of me. The fact that I didn’t fail and in fact, came 6th position in a class of 50 did nothing to assuage the feelings that washed over me. I felt inadequate, confused and overwhelmed.
I wish I could say that was the last time I felt that way. It is a feeling I have had to encounter severally in medical school. No, not when looking at my score but every day as I studied. The scope was enormous, time was sparse and expectations were high. I tackled this feeling constantly as I studied and in fact, was very wary when I felt too confident about an exam. To combat this, I evolved through several study techniques and cycles of changing routines. I learned nightlife wasn’t for me, learned to read patiently with speed (lol, my colleagues understand), learned to ask for help consistently, learned to take frequent breaks when reading for long hours, learned not to read when my blood sugar was low. Suffice to say, I learned, unlearned and relearned. Talent and IQ seem to play very little roles when it comes to attaining true mastery.
Legend has it that Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist scored 125, a slightly above average score, on his IQ test in high school. However, when he talks about his compulsion to tear down important papers and mathematical concepts until he could understand everything from the bottom up, we find a hint of what it takes to rise from modest intelligence to mastery. It is what experts would call ‘deliberate practice’.
Hard work is important and so is smart work. ‘The instructor wasn’t good enough’ ‘I didn’t have the resources I needed’ ‘I’m not as good as so-and-so’ or ‘maybe I’m actually not cut out for this’ are easy ways to shirk responsibility. People fail to reach their full potential in academics and career building for many different reasons.
Sometimes, we study very hard and still fall short because of wrong study techniques, anxiety or poor test taking skills. Sometimes we don’t study long enough, with the right tools or the right intention. Oftentimes, our approach is a random, adopted subconsciously, and low-yielding.
I say we demolish our current methods and force ourselves into new patterns, successful patterns. Don’t do the same thing over again expecting a different result. Change your strategy. In this piece, I share three techniques that have made it to my ‘ways to master material’ list for students and professionals. These methods are great, not just for their effectiveness but for their ability to apply to different fields, cut across different kinds of learners, and aid in short term and long term retention.
This is when you generate an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true. In other words, don’t just read, process. Allow your mind to mull over new information. Always ask yourself – ‘Why?’ ‘Why does it make sense that..?’ ‘Why is this true? Give your mind a chance to absorb not just the words, but the implication of the words. When I hear something really new, I have found it useful to get up and walk around a little while processing the new information. Find the necessary information to answer those questions.
As you gain more understanding, start to build connections with prior existing knowledge. Ask ‘What does this remind me of?’ ‘Why does it remind me of it?’ ‘What are the similarities or differences?’ Search your mind. Think broadly. Strengthen those connections/intersections between subjects. You may need to briefly or deeply scan supplementary reading material. I think of this as letting your mind take you on a journey to explore the contents, significance and application of the subject of study. Aim for precision, application and mastery.
This is connecting the dots, thinking in a sequence, composing a story about the subject. It is explaining a subject or concept in its basest of terms. If you can teach it to a baby, you’re golden. You can do this alone, as the caption suggests, or with a friend/group of friends. It works best when you do the explaining while studying or immediately after.
Also, whenever you come across related information, take a few seconds to re-explain the concept in your mind. This makes for an easier recall and application.
This could be past questions, online or offline quizzes, flashcards or even question and answer themed interactions with study partners. Students generally view tests as an undesired activity and will opt to take as few tests as possible.
However, practice testing forces you to recall target information and related information. Then it changes how you relate to that information during subsequent restudy opportunities, making for more effective recall. Testing challenges you, forces you to recall information, tests your understanding in myriad ways. It allows you to be more confident in the real exam because you’ve experienced testing on the material. You can simulate and perfect test taking skills like question interpretation, revision and time management. And all this without the high-stakes that the real test entails.
Practice testing is particularly effective when it involves retrieval of information, when it is done multiple times rather than once and when it is done at progressively longer intervals than when done in close succession. A suggested interval would be: test comprehension immediately, a day after, 3-5days after, 10-14 days after, a month after and so on. This is called spaced repetition, a technique I will discuss in detail in a subsequent article. It subsequently takes you less time to recall that information.
• Don’t use a single method. Make sure to use several techniques to learn the same material. For example, you could read a text, then watch teaching videos and solve questions afterwards
• Maximize your time. People think they have to study 10 hours and within that time, they’ve replied all their messages, downloaded a new game, cooked a meal in their head and even dozed off. Pick manageable hours and focus within that period. Personally, I can’t do more than 4 hours at a time without noticing a decrease in my speed and effectiveness. So I take as many breaks as I need and make sure I am reading when I say I am reading.
• Study without distractions as much as you can. Short breaks are encouraged. Use this time to rest your head or meditate on your work.
Growing in my ability and capacity to learn is a passion of mine, so I’ll like to hear your thoughts in the comment section below. What methods have proven most effective for you?