Why Good Studying is Like Learning to Ride a Bike

A small child riding a bike

What happens when you learn to ride a bike?

You don’t know how to balance yet, so you crash.

Ouch!

And then what happens?

Your brain gets upset about its inability to balance, and works on figuring it out.

The same thing happens when you do retrieval practice while studying and you make mistakes or can’t remember things. It’s unpleasant, maybe even painful to fail like this, but it convinces your brain that it needs to learn the material. Sometimes learning hurts.

Why do they say that some things are “like riding a bike?”

Because they’re not easily forgotten. If you mastered bike riding as a child, you’ll be able to do it for the rest of your life even if you take a long hiatus from bike riding.

Why is bike riding so memorable?

Because you learned the hard way, through the pain of trial and error. And because you put in many repetitions after you figured it out.

Learning science or Spanish is surprisingly similar. If you study the hard way – that is, actively, with writing and recall – you’ll figure it out. And if you then engage in spaced repetition, you’ll form lasting memories.

When should you put in the work?

Not everything you learn in school demands that level of mastery or retention. If you’re just taking Biology to get a science credit – with no intention of ever using that knowledge in the future – then it’s okay to just get by on short-term memories. You can cram for each test and do well, and you can cram for the final and do fine.

Faking your way through it isn’t always bad. You’ll pass the class and move on with your life.

But for any subject you intend to use in the future, say, in college, or for any subject that’s cumulative, like math or Spanish, you need to think long-term. Study in such a way that the content becomes like riding a bike – virtually unforgettable.

How to Solve Almost Any Physics Problem

A group of students working physics problems at a chalkboard

Many students find story problems in physics (which is most problems in physics) to be overwhelming. And every time this comes up, I teach the very same method I learned from my physics teacher in high school. The way to solve almost any physics problem is a simple, step-by-step strategy for managing cognitive load.

I’ll use the following question to demonstrate the method:

Princess Toadstool stands on the edge of a 30.0 m high cliff. She throws Bowser upwards at 20.0 m/s. If Bowser falls all the way to the bottom of the cliff, find his velocity when he hits the ground.

Step 1: Draw a picture

The first thing you do is draw a little picture or diagram of the situation. The picture might include some numbers, some variables, some force arrows, maybe some stick figures – whatever makes sense. It’s not about art; it’s about getting a sense of what’s going on.

A diagram of the scenario

Step 2: List out your variables

Make a list of all the variables you know, with their numerical values and units. Some of these will not be explicitly stated. For example, an object that is dropped off a cliff has an initial velocity of 0.0 m/s and the standard downward acceleration caused by gravity.

Add all of the variables you don’t know that might be relevant to your list, but leave them blank. For the variable the question is asking you to solve for, write a question mark to indicate that it’s the goal.

Also, assign a positive and negative direction, so you can give relevant values the appropriate sign.

A list of variables and known values alongside the diagram

Step 3: Write down the relevant equations

There are probably just a handful of equations that might help you solve this particular physics problem. These will be the equations that use the same variables that are on your list. Find them in your notes and write them down. Bonus points if you have them memorized, but still write them down because it will make the next step easier.

The three kinematic equations are written next to the list of variables

Step 4: Choose an equation (or equations)

Most of the time, your list of equations will have one that works perfectly: an equation where you know all the variables except for the one you’re solving for. Sometimes, you’ll have to work through one equation to solve for a variable, such as time, and then use another equation to solve for the variable you really care about, perhaps displacement.

In our example, the third equation is the best fit.

The third equation is circled

Step 5: Write down the equation you’ve chosen

Here’s where many students go awry. They know which equation to use, so they attempt to go straight to plugging in the numbers. It is possible to do this without screwing it up, but it’s risky.

I recommend starting by writing just the generic equation with space below it to work, and then rewriting it directly underneath with numbers plugged in for the variables you know. This prevents many errors.

The correct equation is written out with numbers plugged in below.

Step 6: Crunch the numbers

At this stage, all you have left is crunching the numbers and maybe a little algebra. But still be careful and show all of your steps. When you get a final answer, make sure you include units and round to the appropriate number of sig figs.

The numbers are crunched, step by step, until a final answer of -31.4 m/s is given

Step 7: Reality-check your answer

Whatever number you get, make sure it seems reasonable for the given situation. If the question asks you how long it takes for a rock to fall from atop a cliff, and your answer is 6,742 seconds, this should signal that something has gone awry.

If that happens, no worries. You’ve laid everything out clearly on paper, so it shouldn’t be too hard to go back through and find what went wrong.

Notice how, in this problem, I put the final velocity as negative 31.4 m/s because I assigned down as negative, even though my calculator gave me a positive answer for the square root of 988.

Recap

Here’s a quick review of the seven steps:

  1. Draw a picture
  2. List out your variables
  3. Write down the relevant equations
  4. Choose an equation (or equations)
  5. Write down the equation you’ve chosen
  6. Crunch the numbers
  7. Reality check your answer

That’s it!

Now you know how to solve messy, overwhelming physics problems. The next time you’re confused by a question, check in with these steps. If you haven’t followed them, start there. Most of the time, your confusion will evaporate.

How to Read a Difficult Textbook

A student at a desk reading a textbook

Many students struggle with reading textbooks. They’re dry, and they’re dense, and when boredom mixes with confusion, many students are inclined to abandon ship. Thus, many either don’t read their textbook at all or they read them ineffectively. So let’s learn how to read a difficult textbook.

Let’s say you’re taking a biology class. (The same strategies will apply to chemistry, history, AP Human Geography, and any other class that presents difficult content in a thick, overwhelming textbook.)

Each unit comes with a 15-page chapter reading that is dense. It’s full of new vocabulary, complicated diagrams, and confusing processes. The amount of detail is overwhelming. When you read the chapter, you hear yourself mouthing the words, and you even try to take notes, but none of it sticks. You wonder if there’s something wrong with you. Every time the teacher assigns the next chapter, you groan with dread..

Someone hiding behind a pile of textbooks

Now, before you toss your textbook in the garbage (or the “recycling bin” on your laptop if it’s an ebook), let me reassure you that the problem is not you. There’s nothing wrong with you or your brain that’s making this process difficult. No, reading a dense textbook is just a very difficult task. It’s difficult because it leads to cognitive overload, which not only creates frustrating confusion – it also inhibits memory formation.1

And you’ve never been given proper guidance about how to read a textbook strategically. But, lucky for you, I’m about to deliver that guidance.

Start with a Summary

When you set out to learn any topic that has a great deal of complexity or an overwhelming amount of information, you should always start with a summary. This is critical if you want to avoid feeling swamped by a deluge of detail. Once you know the big picture, it’s far easier to manage and remember the details.2

a forest viewed from above

In many cases, your textbook will provide an introduction page that tells you what the point of the chapter is, and then at the end, it will provide a chapter summary. Read the introduction page and then skip to the end and read the chapter summary.

Whatever the main ideas are, write them down. A major theme of reading a textbook for learning is writing. You can’t expect to form an understanding or a memory from passive reading. You have to put pen to paper in order to convince your brain to care.

If no such summary is provided or if you still don’t feel like you know what the gist of it is, seek out other summaries. YouTube is probably your best resource for this. The videos are short, generally aimed at a high school audience, and often entertaining. Watch multiple videos if you have to. Don’t stop until you’ve got a basic understanding. No one should dive into taking notes on the Krebs Cycle before grasping that cellular respiration is about combining glucose and oxygen to make energy.

Make an Outline

A chapter in your textbook will not be a continuous wall of text, so your notes shouldn’t be either. Flip through the chapter and take note of the bold headings that divide the text into subsections. Write down these subsections into an outline. Leave some space between headings so you can fill in the gaps later.

In addition to making a space to store information on paper, this exercise actually creates metaphorical storage shelves in your brain.3 When you actually get down to reading, your mind will know where to put things.

Collect Vocab

The key terms section of a textbook chapter

You might think that you’re now ready to read, but you’re not. Your next task is to collect vocab.

Why? Because we’re trying to prevent being overwhelmed by managing cognitive load. If you’re reading about a complicated biological process, and every fifth word is foreign, you’re going to get lost. So go through the chapter and grab all the vocabulary before you read the actual text.

Most textbooks make this really easy – the vocab words are in bold and the definitions are nearby. Occasionally, the definitions aren’t easy to find on the page, but in those cases, you can just flip back to the glossary. Use one of the pen-and-paper techniques recommended in my article on studying vocab and verbalize as you write.

Once you have the vocab and definitions written down, the words won’t seem so foreign when you read them in context. In fact, you’ll be getting a little spaced repetition when you read them since it will be your second exposure. This will enhance your memory.

Read and Take Notes

Someone taking notes as they read at a desk

Okay, now you’re ready to read and take notes. I know, I know, the process leading up to the actual reading seems long and arduous, but trust me – it’ll make your life easier. The reading itself will go much faster, you won’t get confused nearly as often, and you’ll remember far more of what you read. So in the end, all these time-consuming strategies will actually save you time.

Oh, and remember that outline we made earlier? Yeah, we’re not actually going to use that for note-taking. But we are going to use it, so don’t throw it away. Take notes on fresh paper, writing in the heading and subheadings as you go along.

Okay, start reading, but pause often to take notes. Anytime you think they’ve tossed a big, important idea at you, pause and take a note. Your notes don’t have to just be words though. They can also be diagrams, drawings, charts, mind maps, timelines, or whatever makes sense for the content. Take up space. Leave blank spaces between ideas and notes.

Pay special attention to the images and diagrams provided in the text. These are often important, information-dense nuggets that you’ll want to make note of. Or they’re just visuals that help with memory.2

But don’t write everything down. You shouldn’t be copying the chapter word for word. This is why you started with a summary – you should have some sense of what’s important because you know the big picture. Use that to guide your note-taking. Filter out the unnecessary details. A good rule of thumb is one line of notes per paragraph of text.

Write Down Your Questions

Inevitably, there will be parts of the chapter that you find confusing, despite your diligent use of these strategies. That’s okay. That’s normal.

When it happens, write down your questions, right there in your notes, with space to write an answer later. Then, in class or in office hours with the teacher, ask your questions and write down the answers.

Recall

Okay, Now we’re ready to use that outline you made.

Sometime after reading, perhaps a day later, use that outline as a practice test. See if you can recall the main idea from each subsection of the chapter. Force yourself to write something in each blank space. Then use your notes to check your answers and write your wrongs.

Conclusion

Taken together, this method of learning from a textbook will make you a powerful student, armed with the ability to both understand and retain what you read.

See? The problem isn’t you. Reading a difficult textbook is just a matter of using proper strategies.

Notice, too, that the problem is also not with the textbook itself. Textbooks are great resources. You just have to know how to use them.

1 Cowan N. Working Memory Underpins Cognitive Development, Learning, and Education. Educ Psychol Rev. 2014;26(2):197-223. doi:10.1007/s10648-013-9246-y

2 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.

3 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.