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During the freshman year of high school, I had decided to master pre-calculus on my own during a summer recess. So I spend 2-3 months reading each chapter and solving all odd problems (to be able to check against the answers at the back of the textbook). While I've learned the material, in retrospect, I think it wasn't the best time-efficient approach. Fast forward 15 years, past my university years and years on a job, I seemingly cannot master anything in depth; I sort of only scantly familiarize myself with a material. I only read the material or watch on-line video courses (such as Khan academy lectures, free video courses offered by leading universities, etc). I feel that I don't even know how to study or concentrate anymore. Always multitasking. Please advise on the development of effective study habits. How do you study independently these days?

Friends I am looking for the actionable steps, and not just philosophy. What and How I can arrange my study to effectively master a material.

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6 Answers

Have you ever considered learning by teaching? That is, work as a tutor, mentor, or teacher's assistant and help other people learn the material?

I know I've found that I've learned more about a topic when I try to teach someone else about it, because they often come up with questions or find problems I'd never think to consider.

You still need a foundation in the material, of course, and you're really not going to get that any other way than through time spent on it, be it reading books, working out problems, or watching/listening to lectures.

No matter how you best learn, try to avoid multitasking while doing it, and make sure to take short breaks every half hour or so. Humans actually suck at multitasking overall, and so retention goes down when we try, and our retention also wanes after focusing on a topic for a long period of time.

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Practice, repetitiveness is my solution. The more I use something, the more I learn about it. Books, tutorials, videos, etc... all give me good ideas to work with, but nothing beats actually doing it and doing it over and over again. I also learn how to integrate it with my existing toolbox/knowledge the more I use it and it becomes part of my toolbox eventually.

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The importance of practice is definitely huge, as other answers have already touched on. I'll emphasize something else: environment.

Everyone learns differently, and I don't know the specific circumstances that yield the most positive effect for you, personally, but I can tell you with confidence that where you are and what is around you when you strive to learn will make a big difference. Especially for people like you and me, who find ourselves multitasking almost accidentally, when we really want to dig in and focus.

Things that have worked for me, to help me create an environment of focus:

  • Close programs that might distract me
  • Full screen the relevant tool(s), turn off monitor(s) that have nothing useful in them
  • Listen to music, but only certain kinds (for me, it means mellow music with no vocals)

The biggest one merits some description. Go somewhere different. This doesn't necessarily have to be a literal physical move, but I find that I am able to concentrate and focus better if I make a tangible distinction between environments for different needs (work, play, study, etc). I'm still in college, and during the school year I find it much easier to dig in and get homework and coding projects done if I isolate myself from distractions, put myself in a place that feels like a place for getting work done, and make the thing I want to do the best option for using my time. I accomplished a similar goal a while ago when I had a job that required a lot of travel - I got a lot of books read because I took books with me and nothing else, leaving me with the choice between reading the book or twiddling my thumbs.

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I'm no expert on studying myself, but I'm half way through 'Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware' by Andy Hunt, and find it very interesting. It's a book on how the brain works and how you can use this knowledge to learn better/faster. And it's all written in the context of programmers.

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A great book. I wish it was available on kindle =) –  Fedor Aug 3 '11 at 13:38
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It is available as mobi from PragProg. They will also deliver it to your kindle. –  Vegar Aug 8 '11 at 7:05
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You say that wasnt the best approach but It may be for you. We all learn in different manners. And one thing that consistantly pays off is practice. You mastered precalc because you practiced it. You did problems over and over until you understood why it worked and what did not work. This is true for just about everything. Spending time learning and mastering a skill is all about practice. It may not be fun but if that is what you truely want then you sacrifice to get yourself to your goal. There is no quick and easy way to master anything.

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Ditto on the importance of practice. One thing you can do to make practice more fun is by working on a project. Build something that you are excited about, then you will keep doing it.

A word about multitasking: DON'T. Keep your focus and work on the task at hand until it is done. Then move on the next task. If you are interrupted by something or something you think of, write it down and revisit it later.

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