How do you learn?


There is no one right way to learn. We all learn differently.

But it is a good idea to spend some time thinking about what works, or does not work, for you. The idea is to study more effectively … maybe not faster, but at least you’ll get the most out of your time.

First begin by asking what you need to know. Physics is a large subject and you will need to study concepts; mathematical theories; problem solving; and observing, modeling and predicting physical phenomena. Few of us are equally good at all these activities and they may require different ways of studying them.

When we learn something we can normally carry it around with us in one of two ways.

The first is simply to learn that one thing, e.g., objects fall in such a way that there velocity downward changes 9.8 m/second each second. This understanding is actually quite good (albeit incomplete) and if that is what I do then I will be fine. Whenever a problem, or situation, about falling bodies comes up I will trot out my single thing and I will soon be able to say something marvelous about the problem. And this will go on for one situation after another. Until I suddenly find myself on Mars and I drop an apple. Then I find that my one thing that I know is a lie. Partly because I did not learn the whole thing, i.e., objects (in a vacuum, near Earth’s surface) fall in such a way that there velocity downward changes 9.8 m/second each second. But mostly my mistake was letting my single piece of understanding stand alone.

What I should have done was to try and fit that one thing with other things I know in order to have a more complete, and hence more honest, understanding. Then I would have noticed that feathers fall differently than bowling balls (that takes care of the vacuum part) and the moon doesn’t seem to fall at all. Actually it does. And that takes care of the ‘near Earth’s surface’ part. But now I should have learned my lesson and I will try and tie my new understanding to other things I know.

Why does the apple fall differently on Earth than on Mars? Is the apple different? Or is there something about the planets? Is there something about Earth and Mars that causes the apple to change the way it falls? …

Most people are pretty good about learning things. But they stop shy of testing and expanding their understanding by fitting the things they know with other things they know. Stopping too soon is usually not good. In physics, stopping too soon is bad.

So once you have learned something you must keep working with it and fit it into things you already know. That process should make what you learn set solidly in your mind and more available when you need it (on Mars or during a test of a more mundane sort).

But how do you learn that one thing?

"Learning style" is a term which normally refers to the collective set of behaviors and characteristics which are associated with learning.

How do you take in ideas?

Do you understand things after reading them? Or do you study the pictures and diagrams in the book for to make sense? Maybe you talk things through with your friends, over and over again, until it falls into place? What about when you’re rewriting your notes? Or do you have to wait for lab in order to move things around before it comes together.

These 4 modalities visual, aural (talking/listening), reading/writing, and kinesthetic are some of the common ways to describe a learning style. Click here to take a Learning Style Inventory (UNDER CONSTRUCTION: Not yet) to better understand your own style a little better.

People who learn best by writing can benefit from rewriting their notes, combining the ideas from lecture, the book and their study groups. But don't just rewrite the same notes, work with them in different ways. Maybe as a letter to a friend explaining centripetal acceleration, or a children's book on forces, or keeping a journal for your physics class.

Those who learn by speaking should read their notes aloud, lecture to your goldfish, talk out the idea with a friend, imagine a debate about the pros and cons of setting up problems a particular way. Again don't just rework your same words but cast them differently.

Visual learners should rework their notes in concept maps, come up with visual mages for concepts and problem solving, use sketches for problem and theories. A friend of mind made his students come up with graphical icons to represent key concepts in computer science.

Kinesthetic learners will need to act out physical situations as best as they can. Coming up with imaginary experiments and situations which tie the theories, concepts, and problems to a more physical interpretation would be good.

Once you have a pattern of activity that helps you take the material in, practice presenting the material in other ways. If you prefer writing, work on a kinesthetic presentation. If you like talking about things, try making a sketch.

The more ways you engage the material you are learning the more quickly and effectively you can use it. But remember that the way you are evaluated is by tests. Writing out your understanding is vital for your grades.

The goal is to learn what you need to learn no matter what are the learning conditions.

The study skills Web sites listed on the main study page has more material on learning styles and using them while studying.

Do you learn best alone or studying in a group? Do you need to study alone before working with a group? Or do you prefer your solo time after group work? Or do your needs change with the topic? There are some people who work best alone. And there are a few others who can only learn in groups. But most of us prefer a mix of activities. Find the balance that works for you. You should check the page on working in groups for more insight.

There are other ways to characterize your learning style. In groups are you competitive or collaborative? Are you independent in class, sure of what you know and can do? Are you more dependent, and need direction and assurance before committing? Do you learn the math first and then the physics? Do you need to do a lot of problems before the theory make sense? Or do you prefer getting the big picture and focussing on the details later?

At this simple level you can think of physics as being composed of concepts, problems and theories. For most people most of the time the most effective procedure is to first learn concepts, then how to apply these concepts to solving problems, and finally summarizing both concepts and problems into an encompassing theory. But other people prefer jumping into problems early before they have fully learned the concepts and using the problems to fill out their understanding. And still others prefer to start with the theory and work down to specific problems and simple concepts.

The important thing is to find out what works best, where you are strong and then find strategies to take advantage of your strengths. But also so that you can work on your weaknesses.

Making it your own

The time has come. You have read the textbook, listened to the lecture, and made appropriate notes. You must now take this material and bring it into yourself, make it a part of how you view the world, i.e., you must now work with it until you understand it.

If you only study the material until you recognize ideas you have studied, you have not even begun. If you can work through problems with a little help from your friends, you have made a good start. If you can work through all the material you have studied on your own then you are almost there. If you can take what you have learned and apply it to new situations which go beyond what you have studied then you are well on your way.

I often tell my students that if they can do everything we do in class perfectly, then that is good for about a 70 per cent on a test. The remaining 30 per cent will be new things, things we have not studied, things which will force them to go beyond what they know.

Just spending hours reading and doing homework is not enough. You must learn to view the world in a critical and discerning manner. And weaving each topic as you learn it into part of a complete and comprehensive picture of the universes is tricky and for that you need practice, lots of it.

A useful exercise to begin this habit of critical inquiry is to ask four questions of the new ideas which you are studying.

1. Is this a concept? a way of solving problems? a more general, abstract theory? What question does this new idea answer?

Learning concepts, problems and theories will require slightly different mind sets, slightly difernt approaches. Be aware of what you are doing and why you are doing it.

2. Why am I being asked this now? How does this fit in with what we studied yesterday, or will study tomorrow? How does this fit into the course?

Remember that you are trying to weave this new idea into what you already know.

3. What do I understand of this new idea?

Usually when you are trying to learn a new idea it is not completely new. Part of it is familiar or similar to something we know.

4. What do I not understand of this new idea?

The crux of the matter. Most people start here and stop here. But for you this is just another step. What will you be able to do, be able to know when you have learned this thing?

But learning something, even learning it well is not enough. Indeed you are only half way there.

There is no part of science which is known definitely. All of science is under constant review and re-examination. It is this critical, reflective, perpetual checking that is the hallmark of an experienced scientist.

Though you think you have learned this new idea well, check it ... check your understanding ... check its applicability ... check its validity.

1. Do you actually understand this new idea?

Too often we make the mistake of being able to recognize a combination of words, diagrams, and numbers and accept that as understanding. But is it? Many people are satisfied with a superficial understanding that they can repeat without looking too deeply. Pause a while and consider this new idea. Do you understand it completely? Can you explain it to someone else? Can you explain it in different ways?

2. Do you actually see how this new idea fits in?

Be brutally honest with yourself. How does your new understanding fit in with what you knew before? What can you now do? Why did you have to learn this now?

3. Does this new idea fit into the puzzle completely and to the point?

We wanted to learn this new idea for a reason. Look at this reason and your new idea. Is there any part that you left out? Or does your new idea go too far -- addressing things that you are not ready to look at?

4. What questions does the new idea generate?

The best answers always generate more questions.

Back to INTRODUCTORY PHYSICS:A Learner's Guide

Last updated 8/27/2002.