Study tips and self-guided learning techniques by praxis

What do your moods, behaviours, motivation, memories, and emotions have in common?

These are processed in the same brain region called the limbic system! The word limbic means on the border, here describing the border of the cerebral cortex; the characteristically ‘iconic’ portion of the brain.

Part of the limbic system which is specifically important for learning and memory is called the hippocampus.

On the topic of learning and memory…

I took two gap years after matric. By the time I began my undergraduate degree (after being situated in the role of an active worker and a passive student) I had completely lost touch with how I preferred to consume knowledge. If I travelled back in time (and I absolutely can time-travel, of course. I simply choose not to), I would begin by prompting my younger self with three reflective questions:

  • What kind of learner am I?

I now know that I learn best through a multi-modal approach – combining note taking; watching videos; listening to lectures; reading books; drawing images; touching structures; practicing techniques; using colourful pens… Understanding the mode in which you best absorb specific information is a very important first step.

  • Where do my interests lie?

Interest-based learning is a tactic that appreciates how easily our minds take in information that feels relevant to us, and relatable to our lives. Studying is about more than simply remembering information for a test. It’s about gaining understanding and feeling excited about what you can learn! Curiosity and intrigue will encourage you to get through your coursework effortlessly.

  • How do I want to engage with what I learn?

Perhaps it’s a consequence of studying the microscopic world of proteins and ion exchange and cellular interaction, but keeping the bigger picture in mind can be a flaw in my learning process. I combat this using mind-maps. The brain often harnesses association and imagery to improve memory retention and recall. By drawing a mind-map, I connect specific concepts to areas on an A3 page and can emphasize this with drawings or bold mnemonics that remind me of the central theme.

The RSVP to active learnership promises a perpetual feast on an intellectual snack platter; a byte-size buffet of your selection.

However, if the intention is not only to absorb and regurgitate knowledge, but to take a bite; taste it; experience the textures… flavours… and say “I don’t like this” or “Oooh, yummy, I would eat that again”, then the takeaway tips to all students everywhere are these:

  1. Become that ‘first row’ student.

Dissolve the idea that you need to maintain a coolness factor by not participating in your own acquisition of knowledge. There is no shame in asking questions. It’s cool to pay attention.

2. Learn by both listening and teaching.

Good learning techniques start with acute listening skills. By explaining to someone what you have learned, and allowing them the chance to ask questions, you will see knowledge gaps in your description or think about how you could better understand the information you are sharing. Do not harbour knowledge for yourself.

3. Think critically about the source of your information.

There are both implicit and explicit bias in every bit of knowledge you gain and share. Are you learning about the history of South Africa through a book written by a privileged, older man with high socio-economic status? Are you being told that homosexuality is a sin by a theology lecturer? Are you checking multiple sources before you decide “Yes! This is objectively true!”?

4. Have a plan and plan to take breaks!

Consistency is my key to maximizing memorability and motivation, while avoiding overwhelm and burnout. Detailing a study plan helps me hold myself accountable to realistic daily targets. My plan often includes studying across topics, like a study trifle, so that I can keep my interest up and my “information-saturation” down. I cannot emphasize enough how necessary it is to plan for rest, too.

5. Repeat steps one to four.

Repetition helps to consolidate short term memory to long term memory.

Since you’ve come to the end of this blog, I wonder if you could teach someone else the answers to these questions:

  • What is the role of the hippocampus?
  • Where in the brain is it situated?
  • What do your moods, behaviours, motivation, memories and emotions have in common?

Academics as Architects: How to Build a House

I used to dream of becoming an architect. Quite literally. I would conceive of geometric buildings which defied all natural laws and then wake up to sketch my creations. My earliest memories of drawing hotels and other-worldly homesteads is around the time when I was eight years old. I liked structure; shadows; lines; shapes. I think more than anything, I liked playing with the concept of home.

I moved around plenty in my early youth. Sometimes this left me longing for the spatial stability of that “This is the home I grew up in” narrative which so many of my friends told. Now, I feel most comfortable in the newness of exploration, and houses unbuilt, and places where I haven’t lived yet. This comes with realizing that the only home we ever truly have is our body: the physical form that takes up space, moves us through the structures which we inhabit, and into the professional or interpersonal positions we occupy.

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki writes this short but expansive stanza in his essay called “In Praise of Shadows”:

“In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house.”

The parasol here is what I see as casting a foundation. Postgraduates may do this alone, or maybe the groundwork was laid with a supportive family, or by a privileged secondary education. The pale light of the shadow is the determination to see a project through.

Many tertiary students attend a university far from home. The postgraduate experience has reminded me how we can quickly spend more time in the university than we do in our houses. As a postgraduate, you finish a degree in at least two years but sometimes up to five (or seven if you stick around for a postdoc). There’s an intimacy and proximity in pursuing postgraduate studies together, not the least because we spend a wealth of time in the same space.

Ultimately, we are all building one another’s houses. Stay with me on this:

Imagine for a moment your life as a dream; a plan… You are the architect. You have an idea of which stairs need to lead where, the type of windows you want to gaze through at the world, and which areas in your life you’d prefer to keep private. As I have engaged in my higher degrees, I encounter peers, professors, groundskeepers, cleaning staff, administrators or undergraduate students who actively build me up or (hopefully, unintentionally) break bits of my house down. This allows me to understand myself better through my strengths and points of weakness; areas where I need to put in work; humility to ask for help when I need it.

Research groups are to the postgraduate experience what architecture firms are to the industry of construction. They have a particular niche; a style of design they like to follow; shared interest in brainstorming new projects. Still, opportunities to collaborate across research groups or even across research institutions can build the strongest houses.

Over time, just as in construction, each academic scholar gathers the knowledge of how to build from the ground up. Their expertise is shaped with experience and through making mistakes. So, my unsolicited but honest advice for anyone laying the foundation for a postgraduate degree or path in academia is this:

  • Know enough about the type of house you want to build that your vision is clear.
  • Work with people who have skills where you have space to learn.
  • Accommodate using new materials or adjusting your planned budget and timeline.
  • Remember that things will likely go wrong, and you may need to return to the drawing board.
  • Keep building your house, and one another’s, one brick at a time.

Somewhere between a childhood dream and placement on the waiting list for the Bachelor of Architectural Studies, a natural human process occurred: I changed my mind. I had experienced compromised health for some years, and my problem-solving side nudged me into a pursuit of understanding the human body. I’m still fascinated by structure; shadows; lines; shapes. Biology is the architecture of deities, and even architects look to the natural world for sustainable solutions. In following my own advice, I embrace both the biologist and the architect within – ever ready to return to the drawing board again.