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How to Learn New Content

Do you know where to start when learning a new topic? Usually, we’re encouraged to develop our exam technique, revision skills and academic writing ability, but the first steps to knowledge building are overlooked. However, knowing how to learn can improve our ability to study efficiently and make revision or assignment preparation easier. In this article, we’ll look at how to approach new learning material for the first time.

How is the Information Organised?

Before diving into your new material, examine how the information is organised. This is a useful way to scope your subject. It will prepare you to understand how core concepts are connected. For readings, you can start by examining headings, key terms, diagrams and the layout of the information. You can do a similar skim through of your lecture slides. If this topic is part of a wider syllabus for university or school, it’s a good idea to also skim over the content for the overall module to see how information connects later on. It might sound simple to skim over headings and key terms but you’re already forming the framework for the information you’ll be learning. For more in-depth examples, check out this post.

Develop a Broad Understanding

Ask yourself, what are the broad topics that you should know for this subject? What stands out in the readings or lecture notes? For now, don’t worry about the finer details and try to understand those core concepts. You can do this by relating the information to things you have previously learned, or by finding an alternative source of information. One textbook might be easier to understand than another. Alternatively, YouTube videos can provide a visual explanation and podcasts can provide some real-world context. Be creative, you don’t have to stick to your core readings, as long as you can come back and later understand the topics. You’re also already revising information by searching for alternative formats to consume, and hearing the information presented in different ways rather than re-reading.

Learning the Details

Let’s look at two ways to break down the finer details: Active Recall and the Feynman Technique. You might have heard about active recall as a method for revision but it can also be useful when learning new information. Instead of reading large chunks of text, you can use active recall to check your understanding after reading a smaller section. This will prevent you from passively reading something you’re struggling to grasp. You can simply explain what you have read outloud to yourself, or in writing. Alternatively, you can use a mind map and make use of any review questions offered in textbooks.

The Feynman Technique focuses on simplifying a topic so that you can explain it to a child. You should approach the subject with a child-like curiosity and ask yourself ‘why?’ until you reach the simplistic components of the topic. For example, why is X treatment used to treat anxiety? You would need to know how anxiety forms, which consists of physical and emotional components. Then, how the treatment is addressing those components. You can see how you will quickly start breaking down the subject and identifying gaps in your knowledge by asking ‘why?’. If you can explain the topic to someone who has no understanding of it, like a child, you’re on the right track. You can learn more here, and check out some of the evidence behind these tips in this article.

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