Some 50 years ago my son came to me for help. He was preparing for his A-level history examination. But his mind was so cluttered with facts that he feared he could never compress them into an examination answer. So I taught him how to use a brain chart. Nowadays he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquities, so I can safely say that it worked.
Brain charts, originally popularised by the author Tony Buzan, are very simple. You can use them for a subject you are studying, or perhaps a talk you are planning to give, or maybe just to explore an idea. So grab yourself a sheet of paper and a pencil, but do not write your subject at the top. Instead, write it in the centre and put a box around it. Then invite your mind to identify the main elements of interest and connect them to the subject with a line. Don’t try to do this in order of importance, just flash them in as they appear in your mind. You will of course be able to put in further main elements whenever they occur to you.
Then start, focusing at random, looking at one of the main elements, and begin to add sub-elements to it. And of course you can use sub-elements, and sub- sub-elements, as you wish. Do this speedily around your chart and don’t get stuck in detail. Time enough for that when your chart is sufficiently full. You will then be able to see all the major factors and you are in a position to get down to work.
Typically, a chart for this column gives me pointers to enough matter to write a book. Yet I only have 800 words, but I am now in a position to choose the right 800 words.
The same psychology is present in the best way to read a non-fiction book. We are accustomed with books to begin at the beginning and read through to the end. And this is usually appropriate for, say, a novel – but a non-fiction book requires a different treatment.
Start by reading the dust cover, front and back – with particular attention to any summary, and the authority of the writer. Read the writer’s introduction, glance through his footnotes and notice his bibliography. Then flip through the book, carefully noting any introduction to or summary of chapters, and get a real feel for how the overall subject is being tackled. Look at any visuals. If it is a fairly recent book, it’s worth looking for reviews on the internet, and Wikipedia may tell you more about the writer.
The value of approaching non-fiction this way lies in the fact that our understanding and our memory is much greater if we have an overall picture of the issue addressed – rather than discovering it page by page. In some instance, of course, you might decide that you shouldn’t bother to read the book at all. At least you will have saved a few otherwise wasted hours. But, more importantly, it means that you can understand what is being said from the very beginning, and in turn are more likely to remember the key issues. Documentaries on television are the same: if you know something about the subject you will understand and remember far more than the viewer with a tabula rasa.
Some time ago I received a letter from a university teacher. It referred to this column. The comment was: “It is the single most useful piece of advice I have seen on how to learn.” So perhaps in this period of A-level examinations, it may be worth repeating.
Then, I was writing about the process of revision. I discussed the difference between short-term and long-term memory. We use our short-term memory continuously but it has a problem: new information replaces this knowledge unless we have already transferred the important elements into our long-term memory. There are various ways of doing this but the first, and necessary, way is to give the long-term memory time. So the first rule is to study for no more than about 15 minutes, and then take a five-minute break. The information now has time to enter the long-term memory. Then, move on to the next 15 minutes.
Later, on the same day, we must revise what we have grasped. A fellow scholar asking you questions is an excellent way. In an interesting experiment, it was established that groups that revised their new learning on the same day remembered the information six times better than groups that had left revision to the following day. Indeed, the first groups remembered more information months later than the other groups remembered on the following day.
I am not a teacher, but I have taught such methodologies as an industrial trainer. I am now wondering how much time is devoted in schools to teaching scholars the tricks of the trade. May they all end up with FRSA after their names.