- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

How to Become a Holistic Learner

Over a year ago, I wrote an article [1] 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 [2] 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 [1].  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 [3]. Check it out!