This post is the first in a new, semi-regular series I’m calling Disruptive Thinkers. Each entry in this series will feature an interesting person with a provocative idea about college, studying, or the educational process in general.
Scott Young Doesn’t Study
Scott Young just started his second year of college. He is no stranger, however, to big ideas that get big notice. As captured in a recent Flak Magazine profile, Scott Young has transformed his eponymous blog into one of the top 50 productivity blogs on the Internet.
Earlier this year, Scott turned his keen how-to eye onto his own student life, and published a controversy-generating post titled: How to Ace Your Finals Without Studying. In this week’s Disruptive Thinkers interview, Scott explains the ideas behind this bold claim.
You famously claimed that you don’t study before exams. Is this still true? Are you still scoring all A’s?
All through high school I never studied, except possibly out of peer-pressure. In University, I still need to read the textbook or do practice work (if the class is skill-based). But if you mean pulling all-nighters before a test, then no, I don’t study. I advocate a quick skim before the test just to make sure I haven’t missed anything, but that’s like comparing a brief jog to a marathon with the kind of cramming most students do.
My last year’s GPA was a 4.2 out of a 4.5 which hovers between an A and A+.
Before we get to your strategy — Holistic Learning — let’s talk about what it replaces. How do you observe most of your classmates study?
The opposite of holistic learning is rote memorization. Pounding information into your skull with the hopes some of it might shake loose during a test. This is a shallow approach to studying that focuses only on what you immediately need to know.
What is Holistic Learning?
Holistic learning is learning through relationships. Ideas don’t sit independently, but instead are linked back together to form a web. On a narrow level this means that your physics formula relates to other formulas in physics. You understand the relationships and can move between concepts. On a broad level this means all subjects are parts of a whole. Chemistry relates to physics which relates to history which relates to literature.
What are the practical steps a student would have to take to put this in practice?
Go deeper. Don’t try to learn information through repetition, but delve into how that information relates to things you already know. This means using metaphors, visualizations, connecting ideas together and burying deeper into why, not just what.
Holistic learning is less about techniques and more about what your end result should be. Everyone will be different in there exact approach, but the end should be the same.
Let’s still try to get more specific. I’m in, say, my Ancient Asian History class. What am I writing in my notebook? When else between now and my test do look at this information? What do I do with it?
You cheat! You know I actually took an Ancient Asian History class…
First, let me point out that you’re going to use anything you can to each your result of an interconnected web. It would probably start by simply writing down the relevant information and notes. It would probably end with a quick refresher before the test.
What’s different with holistic learning is the mental activities you do in between. Where most students would record information and try to understand that information for the test a holistic learner doesn’t stop there. That person will ask themselves a few questions and the answers should result in a far better understanding:
- Do I “get” this information? (If you don’t feel in your gut that you understand something, you won’t remember it later)
- What does this information relate to in my life or other subjects? (If you can’t draw examples, applications, comparisons or links, the information won’t be remembered)
- What am I missing to understand this further? Go beyond the surface and look in-depth. Whenever I get a formula to use in a class, I break down and write the formula until I understand what each component means in words, not just symbols. I break it down until I can answer an affirmative yes to question one and two.
So if your professor starts talking about Confucius my first steps would be to simply write down the information. First I’d ask if I get this information. After that, I’d try to draw comparisons between Confucius and other world philosopher I already know of. How does his teachings compare to Socrates? Jesus? The Buddha? How does his life compare? If I met him what kind of personality would he have? I would also think back to the time period he lived in and connect him to other historical events. Finally I would ask myself whether I have enough depth to really understand him. If the answer is no, I would do a quick google/wikipedia search to pick out a fuller complement of facts.
That description was overkill. If you feel you really get the information being taught, you can probably make do with just a few of those steps. The point is to get a handle on information you haven’t completely internalized yet.
[Ed: Notice how well this type of thinking fits with a quiz-and-recall style review, in which you can lecture on big ideas however your want...]
From your perspective, what’s the biggest myth students must overcome before they can embrace this approach.
Repetition. This idea that learning involves going over a fact repeatedly. Sometimes brute force is necessary for information that has no deeper layers. But usually this isn’t the case.
I like the “Learn It Once” rule. Basically this rule states that if you only had a chance to look, read or study the material once, what would you do differently. Constant “studying” or trying to relearn information you didn’t get the first time is putting duct tape over a leaky faucet.