Your Study Skills Suck: Part 1 - Focus is Overrated

(This is part 1 of our multi-part series based on the book How We Learn: the Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why it Happens.  We strongly recommend reading the entire book.)

You think you know how to study.  You're pre-med, after all, and you've managed to get good grades so far.  You're pretty good at school, and you like it (or even if you don't, you're a masochist).  You've followed the advice you've been given from parents and teachers over the years, and you do well through using your intelligence and sheer force of will.

But unless you're also a slacker (or a cutting-edge social science researcher), your study skills are inefficient.  Or so says Benedict Carey, a science reporter from the New York Times, whose new book, How We Learn, debunks several common myths about how best to learn.  It turns out that slackers - by finding as many shortcuts for mastering material in the least amount of time - have discovered more efficient ways to study.  And social scientists are starting to back up these slacker approaches with research showing that these slackers just might be on to something.

We're going to tackle several of the biggest myths about how to study in the coming weeks, but for today, let's focus on the best way to solve difficult problems.

Stop me if you've heard this one:

You're given six pencils.  Your job is to create 4 equilateral triangles (each side and each angle is equal).  All 4 triangles have to be the same size, and the sides of each triangle have to be one pencil long.

For better visuals, here are your six pencils:

Take a second and try to solve this one.  If you happen to have 6 pencils or pens, all the better.

Give up?  Many people will after a few minutes.  The answer is at the bottom of this post, but here's what I want you to do:  wait to look up the answer to this question until tomorrow.  I think the answer will hit you over the next 24 hours.

How's that possible?  Well, the usual advice as it comes to studying is often wrong:

Concentrate.  Focus.  Pay attention.

Wrong!  Problems like the triangle problem above are Insight Problems, which require a shift in perspective to solve.  You can't get that perspective shift by concentrating.  Instead, that shift is best provided by a break in our studies, something that clears our head and allows us to get a handle on the problem.  These breaks can include:

  • Going for a jog
  • Meditating
  • Taking a nap
  • Even *gasp* playing video games

It's this shift in perspective that is so crucial to finding the solution.  My brother in law peddles in insight problems every day.  He's an actuary, someone who solves complicated math problems all day for a living (what fun!).  He says that the solutions for most of his problems come after he has set up the initial problem (reviewed the excel document, understood the nature of what's so complicated about it, and given it time to stew).  The solution often comes at the water cooler, while reading ESPN, or on the commute home.  So, take it from a professional problem-solver: the solution does not come from just working harder or concentrating more.

The next time you're up against a tough problem in the lab, stuck on an OChem solution, or even flummoxed by a spat with a roommate, give your brain some time to ruminate.  Become a slacker for a few minutes and put off that tough problem.  The right solution often just requires a fresh perspective.


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