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What does studying look like?

Think of a time when you were debating something with a friend: perhaps before smartphones so you couldn’t just look it up. Say you were having a debate with someone about who was in Mission: Impossible. Your friend said it was Matt Damon. You were sure he was wrong, but couldn’t remember, so you just let it go. Four days later the answer pops into your head.  And it’s not just Tom Cruise’s name that pops into your head, but the full memory of where you were when you asked the question. Tom Cruise was in Mission Impossible and my friend owes me $20! You then call your friend to collect money he foolishly wagered with you.  

This is a very common human experience. Asking a question about something to have the answer come to us days later. We don’t even have to keep reminding ourselves of the question

Our subconscious mind holds the question and seeks out an answer. So when we are driving down the road and see a billboard for a Carnival Cruise, we likely don’t even realize the clue. Tom Cruise pops in our mind and several minutes later we are $20 richer! It’s like we are fishing in the open ocean. What do question marks look like? Upside down fish hooks! We bait our question mark hooks and cast them over the side of the boat. Sometimes we get an immediate bite and sometimes we have to wait awhile before we land a fish. And sometimes it helps to pull the hook in and re-bait it  (modify the question). In our tree metaphor, questions are the glue that gets the parts of the tree (roots, trunk, branches, and leaves) to stick together.  

Questioning is an essential part of effective learning. Getting creative with our questions is the key to learning.  Here are five particularly effective questions call the Five Habits of Mind. Keeping these questions in mind as you study will facilitate deeper engagement and learning.

Five Habits of Mind

There are five habits you should keep in mind…

  1.  Perspective: According to whom?
  2.  Connection: Related to what?
  3.  Evidence: How do we know?
  4. Relevance:  Why do we care?
  5. Supposition:  How might it be different?

Timing: The Wave.

Anyone who has surfed, boogie-boarded, or bodysurfed knows that you have to get moving before the wave gets to you. If you don’t, the wave just passes by as you frantically try to catch up. Rather than enjoying the ride, you become exhausted and frustrated. Getting ahead of the wave is one of the most important study habits a student can develop. The key is to get started before the teacher begins to cover new material. It takes a little bit of planning and discipline to start studying before the teacher requires it. However, students who do so ultimately get much better results with less time and frustration. unfortunately, most students begin to paddle after the wave gets to them. “Oh, I don’t have much to do, the teacher just began a new chapter.” Sound familiar?

Telling Stories: The Director

Wouldn’t it be great if we all had photographic memories? We could just look at a page of information and refer back to that image in our mind to access the information on the page. A very small percentage of the population can do just that. However, each of us have a very real photographic memory.  We just need to know how to unlock it. While there are different learning styles that emphasize the encoding of auditory and tactile information, for most of us, visual memory is the most powerful. Think back on an event that happened over five years ago.


If you don’t want to waste precious mental real estate on an open loop, the surest way to close the loop is do complete the task right now. This works great for

-tasks that are going to take two minutes or less (why spend time writing a reminder to yourself, or spend all day thinking about it, when it can be done very quickly?)

-tasks that you are dreading (the reason these tasks are so distracting is because you are anticipating how much you are going to hate doing it…do it first and you save yourself the pain of anticipating it all day long.)


Sometimes your open loop can’t be completed right now. If you need to remember to talk to a teacher during lunch tomorrow, you want to remember that tomorrow right before lunch, not now. Surest way to deal with this is to process the information so that it comes back to you when you need it. Here are some ways you can do that

-create a reminder on your phone to go off right when you need the information (so in this case, right when lunch starts)

-if you write out your scheduled every day (you should! I write mine in my memo pad!) add it to your schedule (so long as you refer to it frequently).

-put a sticky note somewhere you are sure to see it at the start of lunch (your wallet? Your locker? Your planner?)

Get creative. The point is that if your mind believes that you will be reminded of what you need to remember, it will feel safe to let go of the information.


Some open loops are just repetitive thoughts or distractions that perhaps don’t need to be acted on at all, and certainly not right now. Imagine you are working on an essay for your English class and the following thoughts occur to you.

  • I wonder what college major earns the most money?
  • I wonder if the song I’m listening to is a cover?
  • Oh I should probably go dump the trash!
  • I wonder if anyone liked my picture on Insta?
  • What should I get mom for her birthday?

The way to deal with these open loops is to compromise with your brain by writing them down (do you keep a memo pad handy?) In the most patronizing tone possible, say, “OK brain, yes, we DO absolutely need to check Instagram. And as soon as we’re done with this paper that’s the very first thing we’ll do!” Write it down, give your brain a knowing look (“See? I listened to you and valued your VERY important idea!”) and then get back to work. Then, when what you want to focus on is complete, all those important ideas will be there ready for you.

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