Studying just involves reading the course materials, right?
Reading text on the page or screen is one part of the process. But effective studying is much more than just reading. Effective study involves building a complete mental picture of your subject – its full breadth and depth and in all its multi-hued glory. And that’s not possible without having the necessary framework or skeleton in place first.
The Thickets of Ignorance
When you first start to study any new subject or topic it is likely that you will have a sketchy understanding of that topic in your mind. You may know nothing or next to nothing about it. You may have an incomplete picture. You may have an incorrect picture.
Studying a new topic is about trying to build a more complete picture in your mind; building a more correct and deeper understanding.
And this can be extremely challenging because it is very likely that as a newcomer to the topic you won’t know what you don’t know and you won’t know which bits of what you do know are wrong. You will be in a state of blissful ignorance. Blithely unaware that you are wandering into a thicket of your own ignorance and unaware that the road-map that you have may be deeply flawed.
What I mean to say is that you are at the very front end of the four stages of learning:
Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence – you don’t know what you don’t know and you don’t even know that you don’t know it because you are unaware of the breadth and depth of the subject matter.
If you think that health and safety is just about putting a few signs up and telling people to wear hard hats (and that a hard hat is a hard hat) then this is you.
Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence – you have started to grasp the breadth and depth of the subject and have realised that you don’t know much about “it” because there is an awful lot of “it” and “it” is a bit more complicated than you had at first thought.
When you realise that health and safety is a pretty broad and diverse field and that there is a bit more to it than meets the eye and you don’t know the half of it (and that a hard hat is an industrial safety helmet and there are lots of different makes and styles to suit different circumstances) then this is you.
Stage 3 – Conscious Competence – you are getting the right answers and have started to build a good picture in your head of how it works but you still have to work at it and remind yourself of some of the workings to get it right.
When you are making good calls during risk assessments and work meetings but you need to regularly double-check your facts and understanding to make sure you are right (and that an industrial safety helmet is CE marked to BS EN 397 because you’ve just looked it up) then this is you.
Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence – you are getting the right answers and have built a good picture of how it actually works in your head and you don’t need to check or remind yourself at all because you are in the zone.
When you are making good calls and you don’t need to double-check it because you know it then this is you (and you have realised that your competence only goes so far and there’s lots of stuff that you shouldn’t go anywhere near because it’s outside your comfort zone).
It is worth reflecting that really competent people operating at stage 4 will still double-check themselves because they will be painfully aware that complacency is just a short step away and it’s easy to make mistakes. For this reason some people have argued that there should be a stage 5 to the model: unconscious incompetence.
Anyway Back to the Main Plot…
My point is that when you first start to work on a new topic you won’t have a good working knowledge of the subject matter (because it is new) and probably will have a very incomplete picture of the topic. Because you won’t understand the framework yet. You won’t have the skeleton on which all the topic detail hangs.
Studying is about building that mental framework. Understanding the skeleton.
Think of study as doing a jigsaw puzzle.
How do you do a jigsaw puzzle?
You start with the corner pieces. Then you do the edge pieces. Then you do the easy and obvious bits in the middle. And you finish with the blue sky that is poorly defined and where one piece looks just like every other piece.
No-one does a jigsaw puzzle by starting at the top left corner and then doing one puzzle piece at a time from left to right and then down to the next row and along (well, no-one except a masochist).
You are human being; not an ink-jet printer.
What I mean to say is that you have to work at it organically by doing the easy to grasp bits first. Then the slightly harder bits, etc. And you finish with the really tough stuff.
Building the Framework
So when you are studying a new topic try this approach:
Flick through the course material (e.g. the textbook) and dip in and out to get a general overview of the structure of the topic. Jot down a few notes on a single piece of paper that summarises the overall structure and key content from this quick skim.
Take a break. Go and do something else for a while. Or end this study period. Do not carry on working for longer than 40 minutes or so. Even if you feel like you are getting in the zone.
Remember what we are aiming to do here – get a general idea of what the picture is – and do the corners.
Have a look at the introductory section of the material and start reading from the beginning. When you get to something that seems a little hard or awkward then jump over that section and re-engage at the next bit that makes sense. Make very brief notes of the content that you are comfortable with. Try to keep these notes short. Capture the structure and ideas in single words or short phrases if you can. Do not re-write everything that you read.
Take a break after 40 minutes or so. Don’t study for long periods at a time as it is not productive. Concentrations, understanding and retention all drop significantly if you study for periods longer than an hour or more. And remember that time spent not studying is not necessarily time spent not studying. Your brain needs to process the information that it receives. Especially new, complex information. Even when you are not studying you may be reflecting on what you have studied. If you’ve ever woken up in the morning with the solution to a problem in your head then you will know exactly what I mean.
Continue in this style until you have looked over the whole topic. Take frequent breaks as outlined above. Do not get bogged down in the detail.
Remember what we are aiming to do here – having got the general idea of what the picture is – now it’s the edges and some of the easy centre pieces.
Go back to the start of the course material and re-read what you have already looked at. As you do this look at your summary notes. Correct any mistakes. Add vital information that you missed out first time. But do not write too much. Try to condense and summarise. Condense and summarise.
When you come to one of the more difficult subject areas, which you previously skipped over, keep reading. Step up your focus and concentration and break that topic down. Skip over the really hard parts if you have to. But try to work through it more.
Take breaks as before. Short periods of study broken up with gaps to give your brain a rest or a distraction.
Carry on through the whole topic in this way.
As you work through try to consolidate and build on the things that you know and reduce the extent of the areas that are more difficult. Hack away at those thickets of ignorance.
Remember what we are aiming to do here – having done the corners and edges – now it’s more bits in the middle and then the sky.
Do not be afraid to skip sections of material and feel free to work in an order that is different to the order in which the material is presented. It may be the case that some subject matter can only be understood properly once certain underpinning content has been studied. But if this is the case then your preliminary reading will have shown you this.
Sometimes There are Pieces Missing…
If you get this right then your framework will be in place. The skeleton will be right. And the bulk of the subject matter will be right. The right things in the right place. The picture will make sense. If there are missing pieces they will be a bits of blue sky that make little difference to the overall image.
But good enough for jazz.
….because there is always a little extra piece of depth and detail to be added. That’s one of the joys of occupational health, safety and environmental management – the realisation that there is always a little bit more to it than you thought.
Dr Jim Phelpstead BSc, PhD, CMIOSH
RRC Consultant Tutor