I found this Quora discussion very informative.

2. Develop the ability to become an active reader. Don't just passively read material you are given. But pose questions, develop hypotheses and actively test them as you read through the material. I think this is what another poster referred to when he advised that you should develop a "mental model" of whatever concept they are teaching you. Having a mental model will give you the intuition and ability to answer a wider range of questions than would be otherwise possible if you lacked such a mental model.

Where do you get this model? You creatively develop one as you are reading to try to explain the facts as they are presented to you. Sometimes you have to guess the model based on scarce evidence. Sometimes it is handed to you. If your model is a good one it should at least be able to explain what you are reading.

Having a model also tells you what to look for to disprove it -- so you can be hypersensitive for this disconfirming evidence. In fact, while you are reading you should be making predictions (in the form of one or more scenarios of where the narrative could lead) and carefully checking if the narrative is going there. You should also be making predictions and seeking contradictions to these predictions -- so you can quickly find out if your model is wrong.

Sometimes you may have two or more different models that can explain the evidence, so you task will be to quickly formulate questions that can prove one model while disconfirming the others. I suggest focusing on raising questions that could confirm/disprove the mostly likely one while disproving the others (think: differential diagnoses in medicine).

But once you have such a model that (i) explains the evidence and (ii) passes all the disconfirming tests you can throw at it then you have something you can interpolate and extrapolate from to answer far more than was initially explained to you.

Such models also makes retention easier because you only need to remember the model as opposed to the endless array of facts it explains. Of course, your model could be wrong, but that is why you actively test it as you are reading, and adjust it as necessary. Think of this process as the scientific method being applied by you, to try to discover the truth as best you can..

Sometimes you will still be left with contradictions. I often found speaking to the professor after class was an efficient way of resolving them.

The author lists 8 other criteria, but this one had the biggest "light bulb" moment for me.

It was interesting to me because I intuitively would use this technique while listening/taking notes during lectures. But I never actually made a conscious decision to apply this consistently in all of my classes; it would only happen in classes I was interested in.


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I try to do this; but what I've found is that, when trying to self-study difficult material, I often get wedged early on with bits that I just can't understand or match against my model. Perhaps that's a sign that I should start simpler, but often it's not clear what the simpler thing I should start with is.

(Some friends and I once did a reading group of Griffiths' /Introduction to Elementary Particles/. We were, IIRC, a mixture of CS/Math/Physics, but no graduate-level physics, which is I think who the text is targeted at. We learned a lot, but also failed to grok a lot. It wasn't really clear what simpler thing we should step back to.)

This is a book for undergraduates, and it's a good thing that you didn't grok much. It's kind of like an intro chemistry book. If you really want to understand chemistry you need quantum mechanics, but it's a bad idea to start (most) chemistry students off with Schrodinger's equation. If you want to grok particle physics you need QFT, which is among the most difficult subjects. If a non-QFT person tells you that they read Griffiths' particles book and understood it all then they don't know what it means to understand something.

Some excellent advice there. I'm surprised spaced repetition isn't mentioned although that's more a question of when to study rather than how to study. I also liked point 2 - Its incredibly useful in biology which is composed of processes. Envisioning the biological process taking place is much easier than memorizing each step.

I would add that mindset is important. The goal in studying is to learn something - to end your studying session knowing more than you did before. Hence my general strategy is to try to figure out what I don't quite understand and then if I can't figure it out then I seek help. If I come across something that doesn't make complete sense, I will pause and ask myself : "so how does this work?"

If you're not challenging yourself, then you're not studying. Skimming over notes while nodding your head isn't studying. Looking over problem set answers and nodding when you understand and thinking "I would have never come up with that" when you don't understand is not studying. Selectively looking over things you already understand isn't studying.

Having said all of that, there seems to be an implicit assumption that top students do well because of how they study. I have no doubt that good studying habits help, but intelligence is also very important: From my experience good studying has raised my grades by 2/3 on average (for example from a B to a A-). Copying the studying habits of the best MIT student will not get you the same grades - that is an unrealistic expectation.