Sometimes it seems like colleges try to help you learn everything EXCEPT how to learn. My own college made me take classes in philosophy, art, science, sociology, even phys ed! But the one thing they never actually taught me was HOW to go about learning something.
To understand how to learn, we need to start with the basic definition of what learning is: learning is physiological changes to your brain.
With that simple definition in mind, we’ve got to be aware of how that amazing organ called the brain actually does its work. Our brains form new memories by altering the structure of dendrites, and they do this on three basic levels: your working memory, your short-term memory, and your long-term memory.
An example of this first level of memory is how you remember why you went into the kitchen (although I often find myself staring at the sink wondering why I went in there). You use the second level when you remember where you parked your car when you went to the mall (again, I’m guilty of wandering up and down the rows of cars, pressing the little unlock button over and over and hoping to hear a reassuring beep), and you use the last when you remember things like Coulomb’s Law.
So how do we encode things from one level of our brain’s memory to the next? We follow the Rule of Two: You should review information after two minutes, two hours, and two days.
For example, let’s say you’re trying to memorize a bunch of equations for electrostatics and you decide the best way to do this would be to make some flashcards. Great! Make up six or seven flashcards with the memories you want to encode (equations to memorize). Repeat those cards until you’ve got them memorized. Then put them down and go get a drink. Come back two minutes later and do them again to make sure they’re all fresh in your mind.
Once that’s done, move on to something else. Maybe it’s time to go get lunch, to hit the gym or run errands or something. Then, two hours later, pull the cards back out and review them again (that’ll get you some funny looks at the gym, but MCAT review is certainly a more productive way to spend that time on the bike that watching a rerun of Hoarders).
Now that you’ve got those equations solidly stuck in your short-term memory, you need to encode them into your long-term memory. There’s only way way for your brain to do that: go to sleep! Two days later, pull the cards back out and review them again. If you’ve got them all perfect now – congratulations, you’ve memorized your equations and you’re one step closer to getting that top MCAT score!