Using recall, taking scheduled breaks, mixing things up...
Adopting as many of these techiques as possible will optimize your study time and improve your math memory.
- Use recall. After you read a page, look away and recall the main ideas. Highlight very little, and never highlight anything you haven’t put in your mind first by recalling. Try recalling main ideas when you are walking to class or in a different room from where you originally learned it. The ability to recall—to generate a concept on your own—is one of the key indicators of good learning.
- Chunk your problems. Chunking is understanding and practicing a particular type of solution so that the method becomes “second nature.”Practice a lot of problems so you can solve similar ones quickly and smoothly. Pretend the solution is a song and learn to play it over and over in your head, so the information combines into one smooth and easily accessible chunk.
- Test yourself. On everything. All the time. Flash cards are your friend. Chunk your problems. Chunking is understanding and practicing a solution to a problem so that it can be accessed in a flash. Once you can solve a type of problem, rehearse it. Make sure you can solve it cold—every step. Remember the song analogy—rehearse a type of solution over and over in your head to form a solid chunk that you can pull up whenever you want.
- Space your repetition. Spread out your learning in any subject a little every day, just like an athlete in training. Your brain is like a muscle—it can handle only a limited amount of exercise on one subject at a time.
- Alternate problem-solving techniques during your practice. Never practice just one problem-solving technique for too long in a study session—after a while, you’re just mimicking what you’ve already done. Mix it up and work on different types of problems. This teaches you both how and when to use a technique. Books generally are not set up this way, so you’ll need to do this on your own. When studying for a test, try one or two problems from each section of a chapter
at each study session or randomly flip through your book, pick out a problem, and see whether you can solve it cold.
- Take breaks. It is common to be unable to solve problems or figure out concepts in math or science the first time you encounter them. This is why a little study every day is much better than a lot of studying all at once. When you get frustrated
with a math or science problem, take a break so that another part of your mind can take over and work in the background. During the break do some exercise or a hobby, such as playing music.
- Use explanatory questioning and simple analogies. Whenever you are struggling with a concept, imagine that you have to explain it to someone else. Using an analogy really helps too, like saying that the flow of electricity is like the flow
of water. Don’t just think your explanation—say it out loud or write it down. The additional effort of speaking and writing allows you to plant it more deeply into your neural memory structures.
- Focus, focus, focus. Turn off all interrupting beeps and alarms on your phone and computer, and then turn on a timer for twenty-five minutes. Focus intently for the whole time and try to work as diligently as you can. When the timer goes off, give yourself
a small, fun reward. Several of these sessions over the course of a few days can be incredibly effective. Try to set up times and places where studying—and not glancing at your computer or phone—is just something you do naturally.
- Eat your frogs first. Do the hardest things as early as possible in the day, when you are fresh.
- Think Positively. When you start sagging, remind yourself that many students have accomplished the same thing. Imagine the school year is over and you are looking at your report card with a great grade on it. Make a fake report card with your desired grades and post it in your workspace. Look at that when you find your motivation lagging.
Adapted from A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra), by Barbara Oakley, Penguin, July, 2014.