If you are in school or at university you will surely have made the experience that there are good students and not so good ones. And there are the outstanding ones. The same goes for any field your might be working in. There are the doohs, the OK-guys and the experts. In this article we will give you some advice how to become part of the group of great and outstanding students as well as becoming leaders of the pack – experts in your field.
Mind you, this is not a guide how to become just a good boy (attaboy, anyone?) and it is definitely not a guide how to game the educational system and cheat your way through. It is about becoming genuinely good. It is about becoming a natural thought leader, a top scientist, an expert, a creative mind and to land any kind of job you want.
What is an outstanding student?
An outstanding student is a person who has a natural curiosity and sees things differently, he asks interesting questions, tries to connect things and relate them to other experiences, has many ideas, and yes, usually gets good if not the best grades in school or university.
You should not focus first on the grades, though .These are a natural consequence of the mental attitude of such a student and his inquisitive mind. If all your focus is on getting good grades then you miss the point. You don’t start with good grades and then become brilliant and outstanding. It is the other way around.
What is an expert?
An expert is a person who has a deep knowledge and experience in a particular field. He knows the fundamentals, knows what people have done before him, what the current frontiers are and what has been shown to work and what not. He is also a person who moves the field forward by his own research. He has a genuine interest to advance the field and to teach it actively to others, to popularize it and to help beginners in the field to find their way. He does not hoard the knowledge but shares it with everybody who wants to listen. He writes scientific papers, popular articles, blogs, and tells people about his field. Others in the field know him and value his insights and expertise.
The perverse logics of cramming
If you care only about the grades, you start looking for ways to game the system, in short to cheat. Examinations are part of your academic progress and by passing them you move on to higher levels of your study. Or so they say. What happens in fact is that for a very short period of time, say about a week or two you will cram everything that is wanted from you into your short-term memory only to forget it right after the exam again. Over a longer period, say several months or years at best 10-20% of what you have presumably learned still stays in your long-term memory. And so you cram with every exam until eventually you are done with your education in the best case or until you fall flat because your system of cramming has failed.
The worst kind of memory you can have is to remember that you once knew that fact, understood that algorithm or were able to perform that kind of procedure. This is as useless as elderly people reminiscing about what they once were able to do in their younger years.
There is a fundamental flaw in this kind of behavior, because all you do is trying to circumvent the whole idea of exams. Exams are necessary, unfortunately, because it gives us a way to measure the highly complex mechanism of transferring knowledge from books or a professor or teacher to your brain – that eventually should bring understanding, which in turn leads you to a higher level of skill, ability and reasoning. But, alas, this is just the theory. In practice you can never sample the understanding of students accurately enough, so all educational institutions take the easy way out using some more or less standardized tests to make sure that every student possesses at least the minimum of text book knowledge to move on to the next grade.
Again, if you focus only on grades, you will find ways to reduce the amount of cramming you have to do by preselecting only topics which have a high probability of being asked during the exam. Instead of building up your knowledge, skill and understanding to become knowledgeable and well versed in the topic you do the opposite, you just try to pass exams only to forget the little, which you have temporarily stored in your short-term memory right after the exam again.
Another drawback of this kind of learning is that it is extremely stressful, since you can never be sure that what you have crammed will be enough to pass the exams.
Wouldn’t it be nicer if there was another way that requires less time, less stress and you will be knowing everything you have learned and you will be actually understanding everything you have learned? And wouldn’t it be nice if additionally to that there would happen a change in your character and personality that came all by itself so that you became more curious, more creative, more active, more questioning and critical, so as to compare whatever comes your way with what you have learned already?
Well, there is.
And it is the natural way the brain learns and retains information.
The natural way of maintaining a perfect memory
Ask yourself: how does the brain know what is important to keep and what not? Some information can be retained easily, as for example the latest gossip, whereas some foreign words or mathematical formulae never seem to enter.
All else being equal the brain takes this information of relevance from the number of times a piece of information has occurred in a certain time interval (let’s say about half a week). The brain does not discard information immediately but step wise, as if it first wants to test if maybe the information is still relevant and important at some later point. So if you learn something on day 1 and even repeat a couple of times but then leave it at that for the brain this seems like you saw that piece of information once but then never again. So what does it do? It discards most of it after about a week or two (this corresponds to about 2-4 intervals of half a week: it sees 1-0-0-0, each time it checks if the information occurred in the last two weeks, where 1 means “Yes, I have seen it” and 0 means ”This information has not occurred”).
So for sure if after two or more weeks you have to recall what you have learned you will most likely not recall it any more.
Let’s change the repetition rhythm a bit: how about 1-1-0-0? Hmm, already better, but if there won’t be another 1 following soon, the same as in the first scenario will happen.
OK, one more time: how about 1-1-0-1? Bingo! You have refreshed the information in almost every time interval – so the brain will think “Hey I saw that piece several times now. That seems to be important.” And so it will give that piece of information a higher ranking so as not to discard it at the next occasion.
“Hey wait a moment”, I hear you say, “Of course you will keep it in your brain if you keep repeating everything twice a week. But if all I do is repeating, where’s the fun in life?” You are quite right, this would be rather pointless. Yet, the brain is smarter than that. By giving higher ratings to information that has occurred several times over different periods, those periods for the periodic cleanup get progressively longer. So, extending the intervals of half a week you might do something like that: 1-1-0-1-0-0-1-0-0-0-0-1-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-1-… As you can see you have to make sure to repeat it, but the time between repetitions gets longer and longer. Ultimately you might need to repeat this piece of knowledge only every year of even only every 5 years.
When at first the brain would give a piece of information maybe two to three days of brain shelf life after a while of seeing it repeatedly the time span will increase to weeks, and later even months or years.
And that’s really great because it means that you don’t have to repeat stuff you have learned that often at all – in fact the number of times you have to repeat it is almost negligible. But the word almost is the key difference between knowing and forgetting. By making sure that you repeat the information before the brain discards it as unimportant you can keep any information in your head indefinitely with very little additional effort. In particular if you use a software that does all the scheduling for you. Try out Flashcard Learner, you will be amazed at how well your brain will remember all the stuff you kept forgetting simply by following the gentle reminders of the software.
“But”, I hear you say, “all else equal is hardly ever the case. Some stuff enters easily in my mind and I remember it even weeks or months afterwards.”
Quite right, indeed. There are several factors that change the way we store and maintain information. For example information that has a strong emotional or social content will generally be remembered much more easily. Just think of some happy or scaring memories and you will be almost reliving them again merely by thinking about them. Also you will hardly forget what kind of relationships go on with your peers or colleagues.
These facts are a results of our evolutionary development. Emotional and social content was the most important part of our lives for the last, oh, 500000 years, so naturally we have become quite good at storing that kind of information.
Unfortunately, this is not the information you are most likely supposed to learn. In fact the information you have to learn will have hardly any social or emotional content at all. They will be simply facts: for example words of a foreign language or facts of science, engineering or technology and all the complex relations between them.
There is good news however. The basic principles for storing information are exactly the sames for emotional and non-emotional content. The only difference is the rating, i.e. brain shelf life, that the brain gives to those two. Non-emotional content is the one you should learn but your brain remains pretty unimpressed by your needs, desires or wishes to remember it. It categorically attaches a lower rating to those pieces of information.
On the other hand, the emotional content will also be forgotten in time, it just take a little longer. Do you still remember the gossip and who goes with whom from last year, left alone from last month? You see. Your impression, that you can store this stuff more easily is maybe a bit overrated.
It all boils down to the simple fact. In order to store and retain any information (be it emotional or non-emotional) you must repeat and revise it regularly. The only difference is that emotional content usually takes a bit longer to be forgotten, but it will be forgotten all the same.
The quest for becoming an “A”-student and expert
So how can you become somebody who understands how his brain works, somebody who knows more than the average student, somebody who is is more creative, more reflective and smarter than his peers – in short, how can you become an “A”-student? How can you become an expert in your field of choice?
You can have only ideas and creative breakthroughs about things you know – or better, parts you know. The more knowledge you possess the more you are able to connect these individual parts, facts and relations in unusual ways and ask interesting or even revolutionary questions and come up with mind-blowing answers.
You must know all the fundamentals of your field. And you must know them well. Only like that you can make sure that your contributions to the field are meaningful. Also, the fundamentals are what you build upon. They make sure that what you do is correct and does not violate any principle, which has been established already. Or it will help you to find out how to break them, or extend them and create a revolutionary new base for your field.
You can make valid associations only between things that are inside your head, things that you have thoroughly understood. And what else is an idea if not an association between some parts, facts or relations, which you knew already individually but haven’t seen together in a particular way?
The more things are active in your brain and the more you know and understand without having to look them up, in short, the more they are directly accessible within your brain the more you will develop the desire to associate them with other pieces of knowledge that you possess already. Although you can actively aid that process, you don’t have to. Your brain will furnish you with a lot of connections and suddenly popping up ideas of things, which have been simmering in your brain information store. And suddenly you will start wondering if this fact might relate to that one or why certain things are as they are. You will start asking questions without any conscious effort, simply out of genuine interest and curiosity. You might be asking questions like:
“Why is that?”
“How does that relate to what I know already?”
“Hmm, that’s strange…”
“I would have expected it to be different… I wonder what the assumptions were?”
It is true what they say: the more you know, the more you want to know. It is the brain, which suddenly is not satisfied only with the superficial explanations any more. It wants to know the deeper connections, the causes, the relations. It wants to know how everything is weaved together, how the world ticks. It wants to know and understand the fundamental parts. It wants to find out, to generalize, to solve the puzzle.
Logically, the more you know, and by that I mean really know and have understood, the more clarity in your thoughts will appear. What you have learned will not be just a jumble of assorted facts, hastily crammed in your short term memory to maybe pass an exam. It will be solid, fundamental knowledge which will help you to soar in your chosen field of interest, to become a domain expert and to move the field forward. To become a true master of your craft, indeed.
If you don’t have to sort through random facts, because you really understood them, then you can concentrate on the problem at hand – and in an exam situation you can easily solve the questions asked – simply because your brain has ordered the material and knows what the subject is all about. And consequently you will achieve high grades.
How do you do that in practice?
The understanding of new material does usually not come overnight (only in the most trivial cases). Especially if the material is completely new to you, and you are not familiar with the concepts presented it might take your brain several days or even weeks to wrap itself around the new knowledge.
So, start early to look at your learning material. Understanding, although initially not absolutely necessary, is the ultimate goal of your learning. Rote learning of facts without understanding is much less beneficial, even outright useless. So, always try to relate what you learn to what you know already, this will help you to associate the new material more easily.
It is however a common misunderstanding that understanding of a subject matter alone will make you know it. This is unfortunately far from it. Even if you understood everything – if you don’t repeat the pieces of knowledge regularly they will fade away.