Learning in your downtimeLearning is a difficult task. Whether in the classroom or alone, it requires us to open our minds in ways we might not be used to. Worse, many schools haven’t taught how to learn, only what to learn.

So let’s begin by looking at…

The “Hows” and “Whats” of Learning

In the Medieval Era, there were three forms of education:

  1. The Trivium
  2. The Quadrivium.
  3. Philosophy and Theology

The Trivium was taught first and gave children the tools needed to learn. These included the study of language, the art of rhetoric, and the uses of logic.

The Quadrivium included subjects like mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy. Using the tools of the Trivium, the Quadrivium could be learned with ease.

In turn, the tools of both prepared students to understand and construct philosophic and theological arguments.

By analyzing arguments, one could find where logic was lacking or soundness was missing. One could build off of old material easily, construct new ideas, or complete thoughts of others that were only haphazardly defined. They could correct problems in language and use different forms of rhetoric to better present ideas that might be poorly articulated elsewhere.

In short, only when one had learned how to learn with the tools of the Trivium could one learn the specific “whats” of the Quadrivium and ever hope to understand philosophy and theology, let alone teach themselves anything.

This is Not the Way It Is Done Anymore…

Today, while the Quadrivium has grown to include many more forms of science beyond astronomy as well as social studies, history, and numerous other subjects, the Trivium has been largely neglected. In most schools, children are asked to memorize facts, figures, statistics, dates, and mathematical formulas, but they are not taught the intricacies of language, rhetoric, and logic.

To learn best in our downtime requires, however, that we must know how to learn. Luckily, there are many emerging theories and ideas about how human beings learn best, even without the formal training of the Trivium.

Beyond the Trivium: Three New Ways of Learning in Your Downtime

Most of us don’t have time to learn how to learn. We need to focus on that online course, complete that proposal for work, feed the kids, clean the house, let out the dog, go grocery shopping, stop by the bank, or any number of other tasks.

Luckily, there are a few scientifically proven solutions that can help you learn better. So say goodbye to the Trivium and the ways of highlighting and memorization. It’s time to move into the twenty-first century with these three tools:

  1. Distributed Practice

Imagine that you want to paint a picture. You buy a canvas and some paint, lay the canvas on the ground, and dump the paint on top. Some of it lands on the canvas in gooey clumps but a lot is going to flow over the edges.

This is what happens when you “cram” information in before an exam. By trying to force as much information into our minds in the shortest amount of time possible, we’re only going to end up with a mess.

Now imagine you pick up a paintbrush, select the rights colors, and carefully paint over the canvas. Sure, you won’t finish your painting in fifteen seconds. In fact, it might take several days or weeks. But in the end you’ll have a much more beautiful painting.

Distributed practice works the same way. We study material over a long-period of time in bits and spurts. You’ve probably heard from at least one of your teachers that you should study everyday if you want to retain anything. Well, they were right.

“Cramming” may lock information away in your short-term memory but without distributed practice, it will not remain within your long-term memory. So, instead of cramming for six hours the night before an exam, study for thirty minutes each night. In this way, you’ll spend less time studying overall, relieve stress, and learn much more.

  1. Test Yourself After Learning

By taking tests, we are able to recall information we have learned. And this makes it easier to keep that information in our long-term memory.

Now if you’re learning in your downtime, you may be wondering: How in the world am I supposed to test myself? Where do I find these magical tests without a classroom and a teacher?

The answer is simple: use the internet. If you’re trying to learn trigonometry, Google “Tests on trigonometry” and you’ll have a myriad of sources pop up.

Whatever you’re studying, always remember that there are free sources available all over the internet. And sometimes it just takes a few clicks on the keyboard to find them.

  1. Don’t Just Summarize: Analyze

Summarizing what you’ve read to yourself may help you remember specific details but it won’t help you to truly understand the material. Understanding only develops through analysis.

This means that you must ask yourself deep questions about what you’re learning and sometimes use that Google search bar to find more information on what you’re learning. Instead of simply asking what happened, ask why and how. And always remember that when you cannot find the answers in what you’re currently reading you have nearly all of the information you need on your Smartphone.

For example, if I were to offer a summary of World War II, I might say that it began in 1939 and ended in 1945 and that the German Nazis, Japanese, and Italians were the aggressors. I could also state that America entered into the war only after they were attacked at Pearl Harbor.

But these are just facts, figures, and dates. Knowing these things doesn’t mean I’ve really learned anything. To gain insights from the war, I need to ask why and how it happened. I may even need to go beyond my textbook.

Through such analysis, I come to understand that the failure of the Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I and punished Germany led to a desire for vengeance that enabled Hitler to rise to power. In short, when I analyze the history beyond the history I am learning, I come to understand more.

Look beyond the text, analyze the details, ask deep questions, and create your own opinions. This is the best way to learn in your downtime as it ensures that you will both learn the material and how to build from it to create your own unique perspectives and ideas.

And isn’t this the goal of education?