With all that we have going on in our lives, it can feel inefficient sometimes — or wildly unfeasible — to take the time to think about and reflect on how we're learning what it is we're learning. But in fact it's extremely impactful to learn to monitor your own thinking processes. Granted, it isn't necessary (or even advisable) to do this all the time, but by noticing how it feels to pay attention (try the ideas below!) or what goes on in your head when you think about something, you can proactively avoid distractions, learn your best, and set yourself up for successful study sessions. And with all that we have going on in our lives (all the commitments, obligations, desires, needs, etc.), who wouldn't want that?!

Look through the following list: are you already doing some of these things? What are you learning? Are there some that you're interested in trying? When can you start? See what speaks to you, and discover all the cool information processing parts of yourself that you have to learn about (and learn from):

  • Try to pay attention to only a few things at a time. What does this do to you ability to focus? How does this impact the amount you're able to take away and work with?
  • Practice directing your attention. Ignore things that you don't want to pay attention to, and attend to those things that you do want to pay attention to. Sometimes not paying attention to irrelevant events and information is more important than paying attention to relevant information, but this kind of approach takes practice.
  • If you find it necessary to deal with several new pieces of information at one time:
    • try to combine them into a smaller number of items; you can often do this by "chunking" — that is, by grouping similar pieces of information together while you study them
    • use notes, pictures, or diagrams to help you keep the information actively available in your mind
  • Be as active as you can be in the learning process. Doing so will cause you to automatically find more ways to connect the new information with what you already know. The following are some good ways to become active while you learn:
    • Underline selectively while you study
    • Draw diagrams while you study
    • Outline important ideas while you study
    • Ask yourself questions before you read part of a textbook, and then see if you can answer them after reading that part of the book
    • Look for ways to apply what you are studying in one class to issues in another class or to problems outside the school setting
    • Study with a friend: explain your ideas to your friend and listen to your friend's ideas; tell one another what you think is right or wrong about the summaries or applications
  • Remember that all the ideas in the previous list can backfire. For example, if you underline too much, you may stop thinking about what you are doing. If you study with a friend, you may let the friend do all the thinking. When applying these strategies, remember that it is crucial that you become an active thinker.
  • Check in with yourself and your understanding: try to make sure you understand the information clearly and correctly before you practice it. (Otherwise, you may have to unlearn the wrong information before you can learn the correct information.) Some good ways to make sure you understand are to ask yourself questions, to summarize information for a friend and see if the friend agrees with you, and to ask the teacher questions.
  • Practice until you can't get it wrong. Once you think you have learned something, practice it even a little longer than you think necessary to master it.
  • Solidify the basics. Find out what skills/information/concepts are basic — that is, what will be important to help you understand later information. Practice these until they become "second nature" to you.
  • As you're learning, be sure to separate and make time for individual ideas/etc. that may be very similar. You don't want to confuse these initially. Later, when you have a better understanding of their similarities and differences, you can start to interleave your practice, studying them in combination with each other and using that time to compare/contrast/connect/etc.
  • Work to differentiate. When you learn something new that resembles something you already know, focus your attention briefly on both the aspects that are similar and the aspects that are different. Be sure you can tell them apart.

Originally drawn from education.calumet.purdue.edu/vockell/edpsybook/.