How to Learn Slippery Concepts

a slippery, wet frog

Some ideas are just plain slippery. Like a wet frog, they’re hard to grasp and even harder to hold onto.

In other words, some of the things you try to learn will be difficult to understand and difficult to remember. They’re more likely to “slip” from your mind.

Classic examples of slippery concepts include: dividing fractions, properly using semicolons, completing the square, indirect object pronouns, naming ionic compounds, irregular preterite conjugations, the French Revolution, the steps of mitosis, and long division.

The things that are slippery for you might be different than the things that are slippery for another student, but the strategies for making them less slippery are the same.

How to Make Slippery Concepts Stick

The first thing you must do is write.

If all you’re doing is looking at the concept or listening to the teacher explain it, you’re not doing enough. That’s like trying to grab a greased-up grapefruit with just your thumb and pinky finger – it’s going to slip out of your grasp. You should use your whole hand. Heck, you can even use two hands.

So take notes, not in order to have a reference to look at later, but because making written product leads to greater understanding and memory.

a student taking notes

The second strategy is to hook the slippery concept onto something familiar. Connect it to something you already know. Draw an analogy between the idea and a related or similar idea. This helps the concept make more sense, which is essential because confusing things are harder to remember.

Now, it’s not necessarily your job to come up with these connections. If your teacher doesn’t provide them, look to other resources. Educational YouTube videos, like Crash Course, often do a great job relating new concepts to old concepts or explaining things via metaphor. Tutors and good textbooks do this too.

The third strategy is to use a memory trick or pneumonic device to make the slippery concept easier to grasp. Songs like the preterite irregulars song affix the slippery concept to a catchy tune, making it easier to remember. Acronyms like PMAT (the steps of mitosis: prophase, metaphase, anaphase, telophase) give you something firm to grab onto. For learning biology, no one does this better than The Amoeba Sisters.

More, More, More

I often describe learning as “walking the mastery path,” and explain the phenomenon of forgetting by pointing out that the mastery path is a muddy slope:

For a slippery concept, the slope is steeper and muddier. Making it to the “I get it!” milestone takes more focus, and forgetting happens more quickly if you don’t revisit the idea soon.

If you already have good study practices that work for you, the answer is to simply do more. To get far enough up the hill that you won’t slip back down requires more repetitions, done more frequently. If you can normally create a long-term memory of a concept with three extra repetitions in a week, try doubling that for slippery concepts. If you can normally wait 24 hours before needing to rescue the memory from being lost, try revisiting the idea within six hours. Test yourself early and often.

There’s Nothing Wrong With You

When something is difficult to understand or remember, it doesn’t mean you’re not smart enough to learn it. It just happens to be a slippery concept for you. If the strategies that usually work for you aren’t working, try different ones. If the amount of studying that usually works for you isn’t working, do more.

With the right resources and enough effort you truly can learn anything.

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