Scott H Young

How to Become a Holistic Learner


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Over a year ago, I wrote an article about how I have managed to ace high-school and university exams with very little studying.  The article became one of the most popular articles on the website, and I’ve since written two e-books continuing the core idea: holistic learning.

Since writing the initial article, and the two follow-up books, I’ve received a lot of reader questions.  I’d like to answer some of the main ones here, including the most common question I get asked, “How do I become a holistic learner?”

Question #1: “It’s been a year since you wrote How to Ace Your Finals Without Studying, do you still write exams without studying?”

No, I don’t write exams without some “studying”.  Although I have done this successfully in the past, it can be a bit of a gamble.  With absolutely no review period, you no longer have a backup in case you missed something the first time.  I wouldn’t want to skydive without the backup parachute, and I try to avoid going into important exams without some confirmation I haven’t missed anything.

For most of my exams I have a short test run of typical questions or concepts to make sure that I understand everything.  I’ll also nail down concepts that are harder to learn holistically and need a bit of memorization.  For some exams, I’ve also taken practice exams as an extra step to make sure I wasn’t tricked into overconfidence.

Although this sounds like a pretty typical studying routine, I’d like to point out what I don’t do:

  1. Learn things before the exam.  Holistic learning is about understanding ideas at a deeper level.  I’m definitely not learning ideas for the first time when I sit down to study.  Studying should be strictly review.
  2. All-night (or even all-day) cramming.  My last term in university had five fairly difficult exams stuck into a one week period.  During this week I did all my regular activities and had a fairly relaxed review period.
  3. Repeat the same concepts.  One or two reviews should be enough to know something for an exam.  If you need to do review questions of the same concepts several times, your learning could probably be more efficient.

Learn More, Study Less isn’t about eliminating studying entirely.  But it’s about becoming far more efficient in your studying habits and the way you learn, so that you don’t need to repeat the same ideas over and over again.

Question #2: “Can I use holistic learning with subject X or Y?”

Holistic learning isn’t a technique.  It’s a broader strategy of how to approach learning, and a philosophy of how to learn the most with the least amount of strain.  While I can’t guarantee that this philosophy will work best for every subject, almost every learning task I’ve encountered fits well within this perspective.

Since holistic learning isn’t a technique, you need to find techniques that help you learn holistically.  I wrote about nearly a dozen of these in Learn More, Study Less, but they are just a starting point.  If you have a holistic learning perspective, it isn’t hard to come up with studying tricks that make sense.

So the simple answer to the question is, yes, holistic learning will work with subject X.  You might have to change your techniques to match the type of information and your learning style, but the overall strategy should be the same: make links between ideas to remember them.

Question #3: “How do I become a holistic learner?”

I didn’t answer this question in my initial article.  I spent a lot of time describing what holistic learning is, but not as much time describing how to do it.  I’ve had many people read my article on the subject, but still aren’t sure how to apply it.  Much of Learn More, Study Less is devoted to answering this question, but I’d like to offer a simple answer.

You already are a holistic learner.  You automatically learn by connecting ideas.  This isn’t something foreign to you, it’s something you’re doing all the time.  Holistic learning is about taking that natural habit of making connections between ideas to the next level.  If you’re aware of how you are making connections, you can do more of it.

Think back to a subject you were really interested in.  A class where you couldn’t be distracted and were completely engaged in what was being said.  Find a specific time and try to imagine it.  Now ask yourself what you were doing?  Were you:

A) Writing down what was said, word for word.
B) Thinking of applications for the ideas, finding gaps in your knowledge that these new concepts filled or asking yourself about how these ideas fit together.

Obviously, if you really enjoy the class and the subject, the ideas come together.  You find connections with your other interests and you ask deeper questions about the topic instead of just copying it into your notes to be memorized later.  You were learning holistically.

This applies when you’re reading a book.  If I’m reading a great book, I’m making tons of connections between the material in the book and my life and interests.  I often need to stop reading because my own train of thought is breaking away from the page and I’m having trouble reading and thinking at the same time.

I don’t think holistic learning and enthusiasm for learning are the same thing, but they are definitely related.  If you’re very interested in a topic, that tends to create the overflowing of connections you need to learn holistically.  Similarly, if you’re learning with many connections, what you learn becomes more interesting.  It’s a positive cycle where holistic learning and engagement strengthen each other.

So, how do you use this?

People have asked me, “What should I make connections for when I’m learning calculus?”  These people don’t get it.  Holistic learning isn’t about forcing connections, it’s about finding connections.  It needs to be like playing in a sandbox, building something creative.  Don’t worry about whether the connections make sense or are the “best” connections to make.  Focus on exploring ideas and see what they connect to.

This works on subjects you find incredibly boring too.  As part of my degree in commerce, I’ve taken classes is accounting (my major is entrepreneurship).  I hate accounting.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t use that creative enthusiasm to my advantage.  Whenever I encountered an idea, I started with the attitude that there were many different connections, I just had to look for them.  Sometimes the connections weren’t helpful, sometimes they were.  But building those connections helped me remember something I would have otherwise forgotten.

Holistic learning is as much an attitude as it is a method.  When you learn a new idea, begin with the perspective that there are an infinite amount of applications, metaphors or descriptions that can fit with this idea and everything else you know.  When you start with that attitude, you’re more open to the first few connections that fall into your mind.

Be childish again.  Kids make bizarre drawings all the time, that connect things they know together.  I think the emphasis on being mature and conforming to the group has stifled that original intelligence.  My notebooks aren’t filled just with exact copies of slideshow presentations, I add drawings and diagrams to help me bridge ideas.

In the start of my book, I wrote about how most people try to learn like a computer accepts data.  Transmit the input and store it in your brain.  Unfortunately, people aren’t robots.  Instead, make ideas vivid, messy and exciting.  Learn like a kid again.

This topic has since become the subject of my book on getting effective study skills. Check it out!


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28 Responses to “How to Become a Holistic Learner”

  1. Charles says:

    Great article, and great books. I was taking the GMAT and the TOEFL exam a few months ago, but unfortunately I didn’t do well in spite of the books and the techniques. This is not their fault though. There is an exception to the efficiency of this technique: Fibromyalgic and ADHD people may not benefit from these techniques due to inherent concentration and brain fog problems. Hopefully others can benefit from the holistic learning technique.

    More info:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attention-deficit_hyperactivity_disorder
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fibromyalgia

  2. Kali says:

    Charles,

    I haven’t read the articles but that sounds ridiculous!

    Kali

  3. Aaron Rowe says:

    “I have managed to ace high-school and university exams *without very little* studying.”

    So, with a lot of studying then? Me Too!

    :)

  4. Kakalina says:

    This sounds a lot like how I adapted to my language studies after I started studying a fourth language (I am proficient in English, French, and ASL, and started studying Spanish last year). Instead of having the words and grammar organized in my head by language, I restructured my thought process to think in terms of word categories. So nder hello, you would see “hello”, “bonjour” “salut” “hola”, the sign for hi, etc. It makes it a lot easier to remember the correct phrasing than if I was thinking in terms of the language. The downside is that you might get mixed up and start signing instead of speaking spanish, but that’s pretty easy to rectify! I remember one school day where I was just consistenly responding in the wrong language–which was somewhat irritating for my teachers, but rather amusing for me and my classmates. ;)

  5. Scott Young says:

    Kakalina,

    You’re proving an interesting theory of mine. Recently, a reader asked about how to learn languages holistically. Aside from a small bit of French, I’m currently monolingual, so I didn’t have an answer. But every time I think there is a limit to where holistic strategies don’t apply, someone offers me a counter example. Great stuff!

    Aaron,

    I must have wanted to edit “without” to “with very little” and made a mistake. Whoops!

    -Scott

  6. David says:

    I second Kakalina’s thoughts on how language learning using holistic learning is possible . I study classical languages and whenever I have to memorize paradigms or principal parts of verbs I simply spend about 15 minutes exploring for similarities between verbs/paradigms I already know and the verbs/paradigms I’m learning. Once I found a verb that differed only by a single sound from another verb that I already knew. Also I have found verbs with irregular paradigms that differ only switch letters, have closely related endings, or differ by 1-2 letters. This has made it 10 times easier to remember everything, which I’ve had to do often as everyday in my class we had a quiz over many different verbs/paradigms.

  7. As a teacher, I see a lot of students who don’t know how to study. Your use of the term “holistic learning” is a new label on what has been known about learning for years. Unfortunately, students tend to stick with what they know: cramming.

    What’s worse is that many teachers feed into this. Too many teachers create a class in which students are more successful with cramming. Then the teachers wonder later why the students don’t remember the material…

  8. Scott Young says:

    Waski,

    Agreed. Holistic learning definitely isn’t an original idea, but unfortunately it’s not the common wisdom offered for how to learn.

    -Scott

  9. Doug says:

    Hey, Scott. When I read my textbooks with an attempted holistic approach, I tend to make connections from one single idea to another single idea.

    For example. When learning about the process of how solid substances expand when they are heated, I compare this process to another process which is quite similar; how one’s stomach expands over time when you eat too much (yes, it’s a somewhat oversimplified description of how you become overweight, but…=D). And very well, this really helps me and speeds up my understanding of the subject.

    From what I’ve read, I suppose you learn information in a similar way? You might even connect this one idea of how substances expand to even more ideas? Or…? :)

    I just wanna know if you think I can take this to the next level to get an even deeper understanding of things?

  10. Doug says:

    Absolutely love your blog by the way!

  11. Scott Young says:

    Doug,

    I’d say my process is fairly similar. I don’t usually seek out a specific number of connections, I just try to find as many as I can. Especially when linking complex ideas to things I’m more familiar with.

    -Scott

  12. Martin says:

    Cool article!

    I believe what you’re saying is true – the holistic approach is way better than rote memorization.

    Personally, I guess I’ve used too much rote learning during my school years.

    Scott, if one is new to holistic learning, like me, and not used to making connections to any larger extent, do you think that one’s ability to make these connections will improve over time, so that one can make more connections more rapidly. I’m asking because right now, when I attempt to make connections between ideas while reading, I usually have to scribble down my thoughts on paper – brainstorm – which of course takes time (but surely gives you a deeper understanding of the subject).

    Thank you and keep up the blogging – I love your website!

  13. Scott Young says:

    Martin,

    From the interactions I’ve had with other people using the book, this seems to be the best route. Starting by writing down your connections in pictures, diagrams or short notes is the best way to get started since it gets you thinking about ideas. As you get more used to it, the connections will happen more easily.

    -Scott

  14. melodiq_121 says:

    I have a question for you, Scott:
    What techniques (diagraming, metaphor, visceralizing, etc.) do you personally use the most? I really like using metaphors but I sometimes find it hard to use them for certain informations, like right now when I’m learning about the opinions of different environmental philosophies. Maybe flow-based note-taking is better for that kind of information?

  15. Scott Young says:

    melodiq

    It really depends on the type of information I’m learning. Some subjects I prefer more metaphors, others more diagrams. I often use more diagrams/visceralization for science courses and more metaphors for arts courses. But there is no strict rule, do what works for you.

    -Scott

  16. chuck says:

    I’m guessing with this kind of method, your probably not satisfied with the prof’s lecture, you’d have to read and self teach the subject. I say this because profs will never go deeply into any topic especially in technical courses, where you need to nail down the concepts before attempting to apply them by doing questions.

  17. Scott Young says:

    Chuck,

    Even a great lecturer will still leave gaps. The whole point of holistic learning is that you are doing the work of creating the metaphors and building the connections. Having a few handed to you directly helps, but it isn’t a substitute for really thinking through the entire scope of the concept and how it fits with what you already know.

    I’d say learning holistically is less about more studying and more thinking about what you’ve learned.

    -Scott

  18. Andreas says:

    Oh my god. Holistic learning just did wonders for me. Last year, when I wasn’t yet familiar with the holistic approach, I studied for an ecology test by attempting to memorize everything in my biology book. I wrote down sentence after sentence, with little understanding of the concepts. Although I studied for almost a week, I barely passed the test.

    A few weeks ago, I had another ecology test for this new course I’m taking, called Environmental Systems & Societies. This time, I used holistic learning techniques. I didn’t even read through the textbook more than once and studied for two days, and guess the result? I got a 7 on a scale from 1-7. Quite a story, huh? :)

  19. Dan says:

    Ok, I typed a huge para telling you how I just turned 20, and how Im frustrated that I cant remember things from last term, and it makes me feel im not getting much out of college besides a degree (not sure i like my feild of study either so :P).

    Im also frustrated that besides studying for tests and doing HW im not very productive. What i mean is when Im on breaks I lounge around, and just do chores, maybe work part time if im up to it (unless its summer, than I work full time). Im not really contributing to my future on my free time, but you have motivated me to make goals, and self improve myself (as an early new year resolution my new goal is to start making goals tommaro.)

    Thanks,
    Dan

    P.S. My gosh you read alot of books, I read a few books a year (5 at max). I think Im going to start reading alot more, and play less video games.

  20. Dan says:

    Oh forgot to tell you I lost the big speach because I pressed the back button on my keyboard, sorry, my mind kind of wandered. Im guess im just excited. I feel like im far behind you, but in reality im only a few years behind, and in the big picture, a few years in small. Thanks for the insperation ( and sorry for the spelling, I usually use word to spell check, but its not working, tommaro Im also going to call best buy to get them to take a look, I have been putting that off too long.)

    Dan

  21. Scott Young says:

    Dan,

    Self-improvement doesn’t need to be boring. If you get a goal that excites you working on projects can be fun, even if it means you have less “free” time.

    Good luck!

    -Scott

  22. ArianneG says:

    Thinking on it, what I do when playing word games in foreign languages such as French, Latin or German online, or even just figuring out the meaning of a word in English is rather much like your concept of holistic learning–I took my command of English and the little knowledge I had of several words in foreign languages and used them to figure out what those foreign words meant. I just went back in my memory and tried to see where the words were similar to each other, or if I could trace similar cognates/roots in related languages. In psychology I tie what I learn in lectures to my general reading linked with similiar subjects.

    Not sure if that’s what you meant, but I think it comes close.

  23. Laura says:

    Hey scott Im loving the blog, and im always really interested in learning in different ways because after 5 hours of reading and re-reading andeven making notes it just doesnt stick!

    So ive tried your E-book and its really good, but is it possible to give us some examples you have used?

    My connections tend to be abit tedious in relation to the subject. For example history- i remembered a lot of people in a revival meeting with vote slips falling into their eyes- slightly violent? this (if it wasnt obvious!) concerned the working class voting revival.

    Now i was just wandering how to link ideas logically instead of completely random ideas which would be hard to relate to the whole subject.

    If you have already answered this question im very sorry,

    Thankyou, Laura

  24. Scott Young says:

    Laura,

    I’ve got a lot of examples in my book Learn More, Study Less. However, I think you’re making a mistake if you try to make it too systematic. It’s supposed to be a spontaneous process of connecting ideas. Don’t dismiss connection just because they don’t fit your predefined construct or you’re missing the point.

    -Scott

  25. brij says:

    scott great blog. kudos!

    wondering if u can write an article about preparing for multiple choice questions and on takin a test.

    awaiting ur insights. thanks much.

  26. brij says:

    ” I don’t usually seek out a specific number of connections, I just try to find as many as I can. Especially when linking complex ideas to things I’m more familiar” – Scott

    how many do u use n why so many n not just one? thanks.

  27. Colorthewind says:

    First, I would like to thank you for introducing the best study technique I have ever known. Learn More Study Less is like a guide to me when I have trouble in the learning process. Anyway, I have a question. How would you study Taxonomy? I study Pharmacognosy and we have a huge number of medicinal plants and their classification. I made a map for all the medicinal plants we have to learn this semester, arranged them into phylum, class, ..etc and used highlighters giving each type a color. Phylum, orange. Order, blue. Family, pink and so on. Also if an order is divided into 3 families I compare them and point out the diff between them.
    Also, I would like to add an effective way of learning which is remembering the material when you don’t have to. Like sometimes I have 15 min before a lecture with nothing to do. I try to remember the main points of what I had studied previously. This definitely makes it easier to retain the information when needed later.

  28. Sunny says:

    First of all even though I am only in high school, I love to read you blog and utilize many of the techniques. Although I have read your 2 articles about holistic learning and your book, I still do not exactly understand it. Specifically, how to connect certain ideas to other ideas and how this helps. I think I already implement a holistic approach to learning a little because I do not study except for a 5-10 minute review before tests, while others study frantically for weeks on end. I also feel that I have learned the information becuase I can recall later even if not very recent. But I don’t know what exactly I am doing because I do not have a specific approach. Sometimes I connect ideas of a certain subject to other ideas in the same subject, but that is all I consciously do. In addition to this, however we also have small homework assignments for classes, usually based on memorization, rather than helping to learn. I also took and am taking multiple college classes while in high school and am faced with a similar success. Usually in these classes, grades are based on solely tests, sometimes quizzes, and occasionally a term paper. Basically, I do not understand how to approaching learning in a holistic way by implementing certain techniques. Thanks

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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