Savvy Student”s Study Skills: Learning

| TBS Staff

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The Savvy Student's Guide to Study Skills—Chapter Eight

Pop Quiz Time

Let's start with a little exercise. You've just finished reading the chapter on Memory, right? Great! Write down five major ideas you learned from reading that chapter.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

Oh—but there's no doing this.

What you've just experienced is the Number One problem in education today. Students memorize all kinds of things—they learn all kinds of vocabulary, figure out how to work math equations, remember the names of all the Brontë sisters—but when it comes to remembering things, or applying them in the real world, well, that's a problem. Most of the people in this video undoubtedly took American Government at some point in their school careers, but they don't remember any of it—and it's not like that information doesn't come in handy.

At this point, some of you may now be remembering a Henry Ford quote from the chapter on Memory, where he has been quoted as saying that if a fact is in a book, it doesn't need to be in your head. That's great—except you should also remember that the chapter also said you still have to remember what book that fact is written in. More important, you'll also need to be able to figure out if that “fact” is true—and that requires learning.

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The Challenge of Learning

There's no question that it's hard to learn how to learn. Many people have pointed to the big role testing plays in our education system, where students answer questions based on facts they've memorized, including someone who has a pretty big say about what schools teach. If your grade is based on a test, and a test is only based on what you memorize, you're going to memorize.

Other reasons make it hard to learn. As this video shows, an incredible percentage of student say the only reason they get good grades is to get into college. If grades matter more than the ideas discussed in class, students will never learn how to use those ideas—and that's one big way college is different from high school. That means more students may be getting admitted to college, but not nearly as many are finishing college, because they don't have the skills to learn.

But this is about way more than just learning in the classroom. Very well meaning parents, who want to make sure their children are safe, happy, and successful, will sometimes do anything and everything for their kids, even if that keeps their child from learning about life. In some ways, this lack of learning is the most dangerous of all; it's probably OK if you're 25 and don't remember every step of mitosis, but not having a handle on these is going to make for a long, unhappy, and unproductive life.

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Learning as a Process

We've talked about the tools needed for effective memory, but how exactly do you put them together to make sure learning occurs? These three theories of learning talk about how people think we learn—more important, these are some of the theories teachers learn when they are learning how to teach. Chances are you've run across at least one teacher that really likes one of these theories more than the others. You can generally tell because:

Constructionist Teachers

Constructionist teachers like to keep students at the center of the discovery of learning. Rather than stand at the front of the room and tell you the facts, they set up activities where you can experience the facts. This kind of direct discovery can help students make deep connections between ideas, but it can also take a lot of time, cost a lot of money, and sometimes lead to students having holes in their knowledge base, if what they know is based exclusively on what they've experienced.

Behaviorist Teachers

Behaviorist teachers rely on rewards for good behavior to encourage learning. Based on the way animals are trained to do tricks, this approach to learning has been criticized recently for its emphasis on outcome (good grades) rather than understanding (deep learning). On the other hand, if teachers and schools are being evaluated by the grades students get on tests, it's easy to understand why teachers might rely on this approach.

Cognitive Teachers

Cognitive teachers are all over the findings of neuroscience, which show how the brain works. This can be helpful in understanding things like short-term and long-term memory, but this field has few answers so far in areas like feelings and activity-based learning. This can be a challenge if students are being asked to do some of the higher end of Bloom's Taxonomy that calls for the use of judgement.

It's important to respect the way your teacher runs their classroom, in part because showing respect is a vital life skill, and in part because, well, they have a lot of say over the grade you earn. But what do you do if you run across a teacher whose style just isn't working for you, or one whose style doesn't really show you how to use the ideas they're teaching in meaningful ways?

That's where you come in. The best way to make sure you're learning is to develop a routine of your own that requires you to use ideas, compare them to one another, connect them in ways that make sense to you and to the world, and to try them out to see if they make sense. That's what David Kolb suggested as a theory of learning in 1984, and a quick look at the many attempts to define learning shows they include most of Kolb's ideas, if not all of them.

What should your routine look like? That depends on a number of factors, but generally, you should consider this:

Understanding the Idea

Tutor Rob Winkworth says you can't have an opinion about something until you know what it is—and understanding an idea is more than memorizing its definition. Your goal here is to get a good idea of the idea itself—if it's a baseball bat, what does it do, what's it made of, how does it work, what has it looked like in the past. Reading, writing, listening and speaking will come in handy, of course—but in this case, it's going to help way more if you just pick the thing up and use it yourself, and watch other put it to use, both for this, and for this.

That's why this step of learning has to have some flexibility. If you're learning about baseball bats, you need to try them out; if you're learning about splitting atoms, that's going to be harder to experience firsthand. What you're learning will affect how you learn about it, and so will your attitude. If you think sports aren't your thing, you might miss out on a lot of concepts about baseball bats, simply because you're not paying attention. When you build your first step in understanding an idea, you need to think about how to learn about the idea, how to keep your interest high in learning about the idea, and the energy level you have as you're learning the idea.

As an exercise, here's a list of everyday items. Pick three; how would you go about understanding them, and why would those approaches be different?

Evaluating the Idea

Now that you've developed a basic understanding of the idea, what do you think of it? How does it apply to your life? How is it important to the world? What other ideas does it remind you of?

It might seem a little early to be developing an opinion about something, since all you've done so far is study the idea by yourself. But answering questions like these helps you use the idea you've just studied, which deepens your understanding of the idea, and increases the chances you'll remember it well after the test is over. Chances are, there's one special meal you ate that you still remember, even if it's been years since you ate it. Part of the reason you remember it is because you loved it. That's evaluation.

Checking Your Understanding of the Idea with Others

Since evaluation includes holding an opinion or having some kind of judgement, it's important to give your evaluation a test drive before you can conclude your evaluation is sound. This is a big challenge in our society today, where someone reads something on social media and immediately assumes it's true, or they hear a "fact” in a political ad that may be true all by itself, but has a very different meaning when it's considered in a larger context.

It's easy to skip this step and just hope your first ideas are right, but you risk missing out on other learning opportunities, you might end up with bad grades, or you might end up looking silly in front of those you most hope to impress.

Taking your idea for a test drive may be as simple as talking with a friend (“So, that new Fast and Furious movie- what'd ya think?”), or using a new set of references to test what you know about the idea (like using these instead of this—or better yet, this). Checking your assumptions leads to deeper learning for a number of reasons. You're using the ideas more, you're understanding more of what they are (and aren't), and you're giving them more meaning in your life. These are all keys in the learning process.

Applying the Ideas in New Ways

Once you've gone through the second layer of understanding an idea, you can think about using the idea by taking it to a higher level. Once you understand how a song sounds, you can use improvisation to keep key parts of the song and add some creative new ones—or you can use your humor to make a satire of the piece. Understanding how something works to solve a problem could lead you to take the basic ideas and come up with a better solution. Even your research on baseball bats can lead you to new levels of thinking and productivity.

This takes us to the higher end of Bloom's Taxonomy, where your basic understanding of an idea is pretty strong, and you're now looking to understand more about the subtle parts of the idea. A mix of three elements is needed to make this work, in addition to your understanding of the original idea: a thorough understanding of at least one other idea to compare, contrast, and mix with the original idea; creativity, to combine the two ideas in a new way; and evaluation of the new application of the ideas, to determine its value to you and the world. Entrepreneurs, inventors, and deep thinkers everywhere do this kind of applied learning all the time, and thanks to Kolb, we now know we can all do this kind of learning.

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A Final Word about the Tools of Learning

We've spent a lot of time talking about some of the key tools of learning—reading, writing, speaking, and listening. But because learning is so much more than just memorizing, and because learning is so important in an age where the number of ideas is growing at an incredible rate, it's worth highlighting a few other learning skills we've talked about in other places as well.


Assimilation is where we take in new ideas. That may seem pretty basic, but there are lots of things that can get in the way of taking in new ideas—not just factors like reading and writing, but who tells us the idea, where we learn about the new idea, if we're tired when we hear the idea, and more. This is where student skills and Emotional Intelligence come together in very important ways, since you have to want to learn new ideas, in addition to having the ability to learn new ideas.


Accommodation involves taking an idea you know well and changing it to let in new concepts of that idea. If this is your idea of a baseball bat, it might take a while to wrap your brain around the idea that this too is a baseball bat. Accommodation is a key skill in understanding the way others see an idea, and it can be pretty hard to do, especially if the idea includes a good amount of opinion, like who's the best rapper, or this question, which seems to really bring out the worst in some people.


Converging is taking a number of different ideas or opinions and creating a single conclusion. This is a big part of the development of theories, so it's used a great deal in science classes and math classes. It's sometimes used in English and History classes as well, but that more often leads to…


Diverging of thinking, which is where you develop a number of different conclusions, based on the ideas or opinions you've been working with. Creating art is a great example of divergent thought, but this also occurs in more academic areas, including explanations of literature, or even explanations behind historic events.

The real challenge—and fun—with these last two tools is that they make it hard to decide if we ever really know everything about a particular idea. For example, in an effort of converging thought, scientists devoted years trying to decide if light behaved like a wave, or if it behaved like a particle. Most scientists are now willing to settle for a diverging answer that suggests light behaves a little like both—but is that really the answer, or do we just not know enough about light to reach a conclusive, converging answer?

Critical Thinking

Finally, critical thinking is a key component to learning. You've seen this cartoon in a previous chapter, but it's really important to drive this point home—if you take a complicated idea at face value, you're going to run into trouble. This is especially true with the easy access we have to information on the Internet. Using the same approach that's taken with advertising and political campaigns, a blogger may take one fact and reach a conclusion they claim is also fact, when it's actually more of their interpretation of that situation.

It's wonderful to have all of these opinions to consider, but if we don't take the time to sort out fact from opinion, it will be difficult for us to make a strong decision about some important parts of our lives. There are many ways to think about critical thinking, but this process has three simple steps to use when it's time to make sure you're working on a foundation of fact, not fiction:

Stop and Think

Most bad decisions are made in a hurry, thanks to business people who are trying to sell us something we probably don't really need, or “friends” who are trying to get us to do something we really shouldn't be doing. This doesn't happen much in the classroom, but no matter where you are, if you think you don't have time to make a good decision, you're automatically making a bad decision. Do whatever you need to do to find a clear place to think.

Apply the RED Process

Now that you have the chance to think, you get to do a little bit of brain surgery, using these simple steps:

Recognize Assumptions

Sure, this article seems to be based entirely on facts, but a close reading will show a lot of half-facts, or even opinion. Write down just the facts, and see what their argument boils down to.

Evaluate Information

Now that you see just the facts, how does the argument stand up? Could there be more to these facts than the author is suggesting? These questions may not be easy to answer, since you aren't just dealing with their assumptions—you're dealing with yours, too.

Draw Conclusions

It's even more important to keep your assumptions out of any conclusions you come up with, once you've looked at the facts involved in any situation. You're certainly entitled to develop an opinion on an issue that involves more than fact—for example, you couldn't really disagree if a review of the facts concluded global warming exists, but you could certainly use the facts to develop an opinion on what to do about it.

Plan of Action

Now that you've had the chance to consider the big ideas behind the idea, what will you do with your results? Share them with others? Keep them to yourself to share some other time? Use them to make some changes in your life? Taking the time to see through an idea creates a strong foundation for response and action, steps that in turn can change your world, and the worlds of others.

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Study Skills

Many of the topics we've already discussed are ways to make sure you make the most out of the time you spend learning about yourself and the world around you, both in and out of the classroom. From note taking to note copying to the making of note cards to walking around your study area reading your key study points out loud, study skills can certainly help you commit new ideas to memory, for both a long and short period of time. Combined with the learning techniques we've talked about here, especially critical thinking, these study skills can make sure you aren't just doing enough to pass this week's test; they'll allow you to learn new ideas with greater speed and depth, and apply them with ease to a greater range of ideas you not only know, but know well.

The study skills we've discussed throughout this book play an important role in the development of any student, but experience shows there are a number of study skills used by savvy students that allow them to make even more out of their time and their teachers. Not every one of these study skills apply to every learning situation, but they're broad enough to use at least one of them every time you need to deepen your understanding of an idea you're working with—and that is the whole purpose of studying.


One of the themes we've seen across a number of our study skills discussions is the importance of developing some kind of plan. From Stephen Covey's approach of taking time to plan each week to Patrick O'Brien's version of planning out an entire semester, planning reminds us of the importance of both the big picture and the details, since they rely on one another if we're going to learn.

In deciding your approach to planning, it's important to keep a few things in mind. If you love to plan, you want to make sure you spend part of your planning time evaluating the success of last week's plan before making this week's plan. Some students love planning so much, they get a reputation for being the master of keeping things tidy, but when it comes to actually doing the work they've planned, they don't quite live up to their own expectations.

Some planners also run the risk of sticking to their plans at all cost, when a sudden change might call for re-thinking the plan, or an unexpected opportunity for creativity might come up. It might sound a little strange that you should plan to be flexible, but just remember that the goal of the plan is to live a better life, not to live a perfect plan. Leave room to go with the flow.

On the other hand, if you're afraid that planning will suck the fun and creativity out of your life, it might be time to face your fear. Not everyone who plans lives their life out of a planner, so if something else works for you, use that—but be careful not to leave your plans to chance, since that's the number one way things that need to get done, don't get done. These ideas might make planning more appealing to you. Give them a test drive, and see what you think.


I was really lucky to have one of my grandmothers in my life for a long time, since she lived to be almost 101. As one of her many birthdays was coming up, my parents were planning on taking her to one of her favorite restaurants. My mother was wondering whether she should bake a cake to celebrate, or if the restaurant offered a birthday cake for special occasions.

It might not seem like a big deal, but we got the information in a very direct way—I called the restaurant and asked. Strange as it might seem, this option didn't occur to my mother, but once she knew the restaurant would be happy to provide a birthday cake, she was really relieved.

This might not seem like a major Homer moment to you—but how many times does that happen in someone's life every day? We think we're having an early breakfast with a friend before school at 7 AM, when they think we're having a late dinner with them after school at 7 PM, all because they said “see you at the restaurant at 7”. The professor didn't mention if he wanted you to use MLA or APA style for the research paper that's half of the final grade in the class, so we guess. You aren't sure which color uniform your team is wearing tonight, but the white one is in your bag, so you hope you're right. Oops.

When asking college professors for advice to pass on to high school students, one issue comes up more often than all others: make use of the professor's office hours. College is very different from high school, and each college prof does things differently. Making sure you understand what they're looking for is mostly up to you, and the best time to do that is during office hours, when the only reason they are there is to answer your questions. Sure, you'll want to prepare your questions in advance—but don't leave them unasked. In high school, college, and life, too many learning opportunities are wasted that way. If you don't know, ask.

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Follow Up Communication

Closely related to asking questions, another important study skill is confirming the information you think you already know. A key part of challenging assumptions, this skill is especially helpful when instructions are spoken, and not written down.

The real beauty of this study skill is that it is fast, easy to use, and requires almost no preparation. If the teacher announces a change in the date for the quiz at the start of the class, you write it in your planner right away. When you're walking past the teacher at the end of class, you follow up by saying “So Mrs. Jones, the quiz is now Thursday, not Wednesday?” Yes, Mrs. Jones may give you that teacher look, but come on—how mad can she be that you want to get it right?

The same approach can be taken when confirming meetings with friends (“Oh, you meant you wanted to meet for dinner at 7 at night? My bad!”) or confirming professional appointments by email. By double checking, you're showing you care about the information, and you're giving yourself a basis of information that you can build on with confidence.

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Rough Drafts

Another valuable resource that's wasted, by both high school and college students, is the use of the rough draft. The idea is pretty simple. If a paper is due on, say, the 25th, you turn the paper in a week ahead of time, on the 18th. Your teacher reads the paper, tells you what grade you would get on the paper, and offers suggestions for improvement. It's now up to you to either make those changes for a better grade, or keep the paper as it is and earn the grade you've already earned.

Use of the rough draft should be a no-brainer, but it isn't. On the one hand, if you knew, right now, that the paper that's due a week from now was going to get a C, would you find time in the coming week to fix it? You bet—who doesn't want a better grade, if it's that easy to get one?

On the other hand, how many students kind of count on the pressure of a “real” deadline to get their work done—a kind of pressure that doesn't exist when you “pretend” the paper is due a week earlier, but you know it really isn't? Combined with the fact that most teachers don't openly encourage the submission of rough drafts (if you write them twice, they have to read them twice), it's easy to understand why few students take this extra step.

Then again, you're reading all of this because you don't want to be like most students. Try out writing a rough draft of a paper with one teacher, and make sure you ask them ahead of time if they'll actually read it. They may say no, or they may offer to go over it with you in person—you never know unless you ask. Once you see what you learn from a rough draft, you'll be sure to use it with papers you need clarification on—and that leads to more learning.


I've had the good fortune of working with a lot of wonderful parents in my career, but one of the best stories of great parenting I've ever heard is about a parent I never met. Her son was one of those very rare students who had an incredible gift for math at a very early age. This student was so good at math, he was attending college math classes at a major university by age 13.

One of the great things about college students is that they tend to be very open to students who are different from them, so it came as no surprise that a few older college students welcomed this bright student into their study group. One day after class, a member of the study group called the 13 year-old's house with a question about the homework in their college math class (this was before cell phones). The mom's response? “I'm sorry, he can't talk right now. He's busy flying his kite.”

We've talked about the importance of self-care as students, and it's just as important to find the time to just let everything go and see what ideas might come our way. In addition to studying with a purpose, exercising with a purpose, and socializing with a purpose, we have to make sure we build in time, and build an attitude that leaves us open to whatever. We need to use good judgement to sort out good moments of wonder from bad moments of wonder, but the ideas that show up can lead to all kinds of things, as long as we're willing to let them in.

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