Always, always, always concentrate on the edge of your understanding
Don’t: Spend too much time on questions that are either too easy or too hard.
Do: Make sure you concentrate as much time as possible on achievable challenges.
This is number one. Master this and you are guaranteed to improve. I’ve seen dramatic improvements in my students when they apply this with discipline.
If you have ever seen me you will know that I’m no body builder, but I’ve been told that if you work out on weights to build up muscle mass you need to push on the weights until you can push no more: all the benefit comes at the very end where the muscles are forced to reform and re-grow bigger.
It’s the same with learning: all the benefit is gained by pushing out beyond the boundaries of your current understanding. The difference is that it doesn’t have to be at the end of a study workout. If you are smart you will constantly monitor how you are studying to make sure you are neither working on material you find easy, nor material that is beyond you.
It is tempting to work away happily on questions or material that you feel confident with but that approach is not doing you much good: you are not being stretched. I sometimes see the opposite problem: students out of their depth and drowning with material that is beyond them. That only saps confidence with little prospect of improvement. You want to be on the boundary between these two places: one step further and you are out of your depth, one step back and you are in comfortable shallows. You’ll be surprised at how quickly problems that you thought were out of your depth start to seem shallow.
And if you feel totally overwhelmed by a subject pick a part that looks the easiest and choose little baby steps to get started. It can be anything: memorising the main ideas, trying to understand or repeat a worked solution, or the simplest questions you can find. Celebrate these baby steps, because in truth, for a subject you are overwhelmed by they are the biggest steps of all.
For maths and science my approach was to work through a list of questions. I’d skip any questions that looked comfortable for me, maybe just thinking them through quickly. I’d continue until I found a question that I wasn’t so sure about and then concentrate on it. The easier questions I’d leave and use them later to work on speed and accuracy.
How about you? What have you found useful to keep your learning momentum going? Or do you find it difficult? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.