The Science Of Self Study
A psychology experiment, carried out at a girls school in NYC, offers evidence that there is a clear strategy to optimize self-study.
For the experiment, students were divided into three groups, each taught to play darts using a different approach. Group 1 was encouraged to learn through performance, by practicing aiming for the center of the board. Group 2 used a learning method that involved first focusing on understanding and mastering the skills needed to become darts experts, then practicing aiming and hitting the bullseye. Finally, group 3 was encouraged to do their best without any guidance.
Can you guess which group was most proficient at darts by the end of the experiment? Group 2, who used a learning method motivated by mastering skills rather than simply performance, not only performed better at the game but also showed a better understanding of the game and enjoyed it more. And, unlike Groups 1 and 3, Group 2 can use their strategy to master almost any other skill.
The dart experiment demonstrates that learning isn’t just an end goal, but a process. In other words, how you learn is often more important than what you learn. Across fields and subjects, using a learning method improves learning outcomes in self-study.
Here are six self-study tips to help you use the learning process to master new fields on your own.
In other words, how you learn is often more important than what you learn. Across fields and subjects, using a learning method improves learning outcomes in self-study.
Make Learning Active
Keep in mind that learning isn’t just about mastering a set of skills; you also need to understand the scope and framework of the field. After learning the basics, try honing your self study by delving deeper into your field of study and understanding how the experts think. Educational psychologist Linda Elder suggests that learners, “think of learning as figuring out parts of an organized and intelligible system.”
Have Clear Goals
At the same time, your learning goals shouldn’t be so limiting or unambitious that you stifle your ability to develop. Don’t be afraid to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Look at the innovators and influencers in the field and reflect on how and why they excel. Use this to set targets that challenge you to continually improve your skills and expand the boundaries of your knowledge. This is all key to effective self study.
Don’t be afraid to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Look at the innovators and influencers in the field and reflect on how and why they excel.
The key to good practice is that it needs to include some struggle. Practice that allows you to retain and transfer skills should be difficult. In fact, the struggle is helpful for self study and learning.
So make learning a little harder by mixing up your practice or adding lots of quizzes or just even pushing yourself to make mistakes. Calling these “desirable difficulties, cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork argues: “Increase frequency of errors and so on but they are desirable in the sense that they foster the very goals of instruction which is a long term retention and transfer of knowledge to new situations.” In other words, practice makes perfect—but only when it’s tough.
Practice that allows you to retain and transfer skills should be difficult. In fact, the struggle is helpful for self study and learning.
Apply Your Skills
If you want to expand your baking skills, for instance, try adapting or developing your own recipes. Or use your basic programming knowledge to build an operating system. As you extend your expertise, continue asking yourself explanatory questions to deepen your understanding. And don’t stop celebrating each milestone!
Look For Connections
As you engage in this elaboration process, you will build on what you know and deepen your understanding of the field, which are all great for self study.
Reflect on Your Learning
Think of cramming for a big exam. It might help you remember information in the short term, but you’re unlikely to remember what you studied in 2-3 weeks’ time. If expertise is your goal, make reflection a regular part of your learning process.
In the end, self-study is a challenging and rewarding endeavor. The strategies outlined here demonstrate that the learning process doesn’t “end” with expertise. As you become an expert in a field, it’s important to rethink what it means to understand.
We should constantly be asking ourselves about what we know and how we think. Approach learning with a fresh perspective or with feedback from people with different backgrounds. And never stop seeking out new things to learn.
If expertise is your goal, make reflection a regular part of your learning process.