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Learning Pace
 

Constant practice is the best way to form a good knowledge of your subject. Like regular exercise keeps your body fit, regular study keeps your learning healthy! Clearly, you memorize something easier and remember it better if you revise often. Therefore, try to practice as frequently as possible.

Ideally you should study everyday. If you are not a full time student, the sessions can be short enough to fit into the schedule of your other activities. If time is tight, you could organize a long or more intense session once or twice a week and shorter ones for revision every other day. Follow the 'a little and often' method. [more ...] Frequency is more important than duration here: five 30-minute sessions a week are better than one four-hour session every fortnight.

If the session is very long or your study is very intense, you may plan breaks during the sessions as well as between them. Sometimes it may also be beneficial to take a longer break and let your knowledge 'settle down.' This is true especially if you are stuck over a difficult point. Sometimes you may fail for trying too hard. What you learn needs to sink in and this may mean that you need to give your brain some rest. Go out, go walking, go away for the weekend. Relax, and think of something else. Be refreshed when you go back to the subject of your studies. Try to look at it with different eyes maybe. If you have learned the rest of the material well, you should be able to recall it easily after the break and the new approach can help you get over the stumbling block.

A well-thought schedule is crucial, but it can be flexible. If you are extremely busy, you should still make room for regular, intensive sessions. You need some quiet time to concentrate and learn new information. Be in the right environment, and have everything you need for a thorough practice. Then you can take advantage of odd times when you are alone for a while to revise what you studied in the longer sessions. You should try to use occasional short breaks to review some of the material. To be able to do this, you need to have some learning material at hand wherever you are. You may use a book, but also create your own, more manageable material. Take notes, design mind maps, or make flashcards to carry with you during the day. [more ...] Use this 'spare time practice' as often as you can (e.g. during an interval at work or between classes, waiting for the bus, commuting home on the train, warming up dinner in the oven, etc.) This kind of practice should not be the main way you study. It is very flexible, however, and convenient if you are able to study in noisy and crowded places or can concentrate quickly in unexpected pauses. If you use it frequently enough, this method can be effective to keep the information fresh in your mind.

Regular practice should include frequent testing. You need to test yourself to check how you are learning. Are you building an active knowledge of the subject or are falling in the 'recognition' trap?

 

Active and Passive Knowledge

As explained previously in the Guide, 'recognition' and 'recall' are two important ideas relating to the learning process. [more ...]

You can recognize information you came across before in your studies, although this does not mean that you assimilated it. You may be 'tricked' into believing that you learned the information when in fact you are simply recognizing it. If you can recall information, instead, you are able to remember it without being given clues. This is information you truly learned: you understood it, memorized it, and can use it whenever necessary.

We can call the recognition process 'passive knowledge' and the recall memory 'active knowledge.' When you have a passive knowledge, you can recognize information, but you cannot remember it without help. If you can remember spontaneously, almost without thinking, you have an active knowledge. You can then say that you have learned: the information has become second nature to you.

 

Testing your knowledge allows you to see if you are learning in the right way. Tests are 'easy' when you can recall and have an active knowledge of what you studied. Because you understood the subject matter and practiced it thoroughly, you memorized it and can reproduce it correctly when you are asked to. If you struggle to recall facts, ideas, or words, you do not have an active knowledge of them: you can recognize them, but did not learn them. Perhaps you did not grasp their meaning, or maybe you did not practice enough.

Think of tests as a way to practice too. You have to revise for an exam, but you are also reviewing during the exam. You are practicing one more time what you studied by thinking about the material, manipulating the information, or generating new ideas about it. For this reason, you should set up tests yourself, without waiting for the official exams of the school calendar or the final assessment of the course you are taking. Because tests force you to use your active knowledge, they are an excellent way to practice and reinforce your understanding of the subject matter.

The frequency of the tests helps you keep your progress under control. You should check how well you learned each bit of information before moving on to the next. Tests that are too far apart fail to detect possible problems. If you follow a gradual approach, you need to learn one 'chunk' after another. If you do not learn one well and do not test yourself, you will move on and fail to notice until the next test. If you evaluate your performance more frequently, instead, you ensure your progress is steady and built on good foundations.

If you do not pass a test, the message is that you need to practice more or better. Failing a test is a helpful sign. Usually, the reason for failing is evident and you can do something about it. You can try a more active approach; study more; revise more often; or practice in a more effective way. It is important that you don't take failure as a generalized negative report on yourself, but as a useful reminder that your learning method needs improving.

 

Conclusions

The more often you practice, the better. There are other commitments in life and you should not obsess over studying, of course. Make room for breaks, and be flexible, but keep a good rhythm. A regular pace is important.

Work to build a solid knowledge of your subject. An active knowledge is the result of a good learning method. Constant practice helps you lay the right foundations, progress faster, and be more confident.

Include tests in your learning schedule. The frequency of tests should reflect that of your studies. Regular tests ensure that you revise often and understand where you need to improve.

 


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