Studying harder, or Smarter ? Maybe Both ?

Ever Studied for an exam so hard that you didn’t expect a low score, and still ended up getting one ?

What Went Wrong ?

Well, I’ll tell you what went wrong with me, at least:

  • I thought I was a slow learner, so I thought that using study hacks AND working harder on top of it was the only thing I can do to catch up to the ‘prodigies’

Do they seem right? Yeah, at first glance. They’re self-evident. But as you’ll see in a moment, there’s a HUGE flaw with this way of thinking.

See, most people assume that the brain works like “downloading files into a hard drive” — like this:

I call it the Download Speed Model of Memory.

So by assuming that memory works this way, it’s easy to think that “more of the same input” will give you “more of the same output”.

Put another way, more hard work, more hacks, more tools will yield more results.

And this is why you get two “camps” of advice

One camp assumes you only need more hard work to get more results.

  • “JuSt rEvIse yOUr NOtes aND LiSteN iN cLaSs, yOu WiLL lEArn eveRYthIng. Tireeeeed of hearing this bullshit. Professor complete one whole goddamn chapter in one hour. One whole book of anatomy (upper limb specifically) is completed in less than 2 weeks.”

Sure, sometimes the input is just lacking. But it neglects the fact that you can’t brute force your way out of every problem. Do it too much and you end up with the good ol’ “everything looks like a nail” problem.

The other assumes you only need more tools and hacks to get more results.

  • “Using pomodoro, maybe because it did not work on me. Once I have the momentum of studying the alarm will stop me and I can’t get my concentration back anymore. I want to stop already because I accomplished a little.”

People who tell you this often think that optimizing “science-based” minutiae will ‘speed up your learning’ to the maximum. As you’ve learned in a previous post, Tool-first Thinking falls under this category.

Yet, the brain works differently

You can’t just optimize a single element, put more of it, and get more results. The “weakest link in the chain” changes a lot. And to work with that, we need to get exposed to a different way of thinking.

Remember how your study system has elements that work together to achieve a goal?

I told you that because your memory has that system, too.

Your memory has a bunch of elements that work together to make sense of & remember information. (…let that sink in.)

As you’ll see, this model may be a bit complex for some, so let’s simplify it.

First, let’s give it a name: “The No BS Model of Memory.”

So what is the No BS Model of Memory?

It’s simply a more reliable model of memory that I’ve built upon the Atkinson-Shiffrin (Multistore) Model of Memory, as well as my own understanding of related concepts:

  1. Baddeley’s Working Memory Model

(Translation: I’m not an expert on memory, so I rely on experts to understand the world.)

Now, if you look at the diagram, we can start to figure out a couple of insights about memory and quickly see how the Download Speed Model falls apart:

  1. You can only encode what you can pay your full attention to. Attention plays a significant role in memory, and yet, most students don’t pay attention to attention — they “sacrifice” sleep to work longer, they don’t have a trusted place to hold their tasks, they just say yes to everything.

So effective studying — not to mention learning — is NOT about the number of hacks or “how hard you work.”

Rather, it’s about pulling the right levers every single time.

Now these are just the few MOST important things I’d like to address and obviously, there’s plenty more nuances to unpack.

But do you now see how important this is?

This model reveals how the brain learns from a cause-and-effect perspective. So it’s not anymore about “Oh, installing air filters increased students’ grades by 17%” — enough of that garbage.

It doesn’t help you create a repeatable study process at all, let alone a repeatable process that creates predictable results.

With that being said — according to this (more reliable) model — if you want to become efficient AND effective at learning, then you have to do three things in this sequence:

  1. Manage your LIMITED attention, because working memory is gravely limited

…which is to say that you have a LOT of opportunities to eliminate waste in your system.

For example, not sleeping enough will take studying even more time because you can’t pay your full attention to it.

Sleeping 7 hours and studying the same thing for 3 hours wastes more time than sleeping for 8 hours and studying for 1.5 hours.

That’s not including the fact that your impulsiveness increases when you’re sleep deprived. Imagine how much time would that waste?

And yet people tell you to “sacrifice sleep” — that’s laziness. The laziness to think about a sustainable strategy.

After all, it’s not enough to just “learn about memory” — the missing link is that you have to learn how to work with its system.

That’s the strategy.



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Dissident Hindu. Medical Student. Calisthenics Advocate. Knowledge Management Enthusiast.