How We Learn
5 (not so shocking) tips on how to understand theory
Learning — Something we have all done in our past, and something we’ll all do in our future. To be fair, you’re probably learning something right now, you just don’t think of it as “learning”.
I’ve always been a practical learner — I understand things a lot better when I’m actually doing them. Theoretical things just never make sense to me straight away; it takes time for my brain to appreciate what is going on. You could say I have to imagine the theoretical as practical events in my mind before they stick.
This was a big struggling point for me during my time at University — doing a degree in Computer Science and struggling with theoretical is not a good combination.
As most of my degree was exam based in the final year, I decided to use the Practical part, my dissertation, to research learning methodologies and try to create something useful for people who also struggle with theoretical learning, the kind of learning required when doing revision for exams, for example.
In a vain attempt to try and help people in similar situations, my dissertation was to create an online learning environment that used specific learning techniques to help people understand the theory during revision sessions.
So, here are my top 5 tips for understanding theory, based on my research during my dissertation.
1: Get personal with the subject
Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
— Benjamin Franklin
One of the best methods I used to understand the theory behind things was to try and make my own interpretation of the situation, something personal to me. If I could get a basic understanding of theory, and put it in to a situation or context that my brain could relate to, I could then begin to elaborate on the theory and build on the principals. Most of these concepts would involve things that interested me (football, sports, music etc.). It sounds stupid, but if you can replace the complications with scenarios you are familiar with, it’s no longer completely alien.
2: Write it down
I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught. — Winston Churchill
Sometimes sitting in a lecture was the biggest inconvenience to my mind-set. Either I didn’t appreciate what I was being told at the time, or I simply didn’t understand the lecturer (database lectures at 5pm on a Friday or 9am on a Monday were just never going to go down well!). It’s not that I didn’t want to learn, but more so that I didn’t want to be taught, or didn’t get on with the lecturers style of teaching.
I didn’t just skip lectures though (ok, I did sometimes, but bare with me…). I used to use a method of note taking that made it easy for me to write down key points that I could later elaborate on, and ultimately revise from.
This method is known as the “Cornell method” of note taking, and was the basis for the system I created for my dissertation.
Basically, this method required only one thing….a piece of A4 paper with a line drawn down the left hand side, about 1 inch in, from top to bottom.
In this left column, you add key words, the key points from the lecture for example. You’d then use the right hand side of the page to elaborate on these, either during the lecture if you could, or in your own time at a later date.
From these notes, you could then revise, by simply covering up the right hand side of the page and brainstorming everything you know about the key point that you wrote in the left hand margin. You could then check that you covered all points by revealing the right hand side of the page again.
This method saved my degree. You can read all about The Cornell Method here.
3 : Surround yourself
Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.
— Thomas Huxley
My University room in my final year was a wash of yellow post-it notes during exam periods. They literally were everywhere (I have a picture somewhere, I’ll see if I can dig it out).
My aim was to surround myself with snippets of information about everything I’d covered during specific modules. The theory being, if I could read a post-it note about something whilst brushing my teeth, or getting dressed, or eating, subconsciously it might sink in. A small piece of information about every subject covered would be enough to help me through an exam, at least, I wouldn’t have been lost if the question was out of the blue compared to the sample papers.
4 : Ask questions
Any fool can know. The point is to understand.
― Albert Einstein
If you know enough to ask a question, you’re on the right track to understanding. It’s all too easy to give up, to say “I don’t understand” and draw a line under it. If you can go out of your way to ask a question to someone who can help, you’re well on the way to understanding. Having the courage and understanding to even ask the question is the biggest step.
Getting the answer and understanding that too is just a win all round. Put yourself in that situation during lectures, ask the questions, even if you think “That’s a dumb question, everyone else will know that and I’ll look stupid for asking”…… I can promise that there’s a room full of people who are too scared to ask. They’ll appreciate your courage.
5 : Take time out
Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer.
— William S. Burroughs
Have a break! You’ll never understand something if you stare at the same notes or books for hours on end. Get up, go for a walk, pop to the pub with your friends (that worked for me). Discuss things out of the confines of your study environment. Just talking about something else is sometimes all your brain needs for that little spark to ignite. The time spent relaxing and switching off can sometimes be your most productive periods.