Study Strategies #3 – Build a Schema

When you first start out in any new field of study, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of content you need to learn.  Everything seems important and complex; you don’t know where to start or what to focus on.  At this stage, an effective strategy is to start building a schema – a system or pattern of organizing information into categories and relationships.  In any mature field of study, you have one thing that is guaranteed: all knowledge gets built upon some sort of bedrock facts, and many complex systems are born from smaller, simpler systems.  All education is structured around this core approach.

Think back to when you started your formal schooling.  You learn math by first:

  • learning the names and symbols for numbers;
  • then learning the cardinal order of numbers;
  • then learning how to sum groups pairs of numbers;
  • then learning how to sum multiple groups of numbers (multiplication);
  • etc.

You can find a similar pattern with almost any subject you have been exposed to.  We sometimes forget this pattern of organization because we take for granted how long it took to ingrain these concepts into our thinking.

Textbooks (at least, at an introductory level) are also organized in this pattern, and by recognizing this, you can use it to build a mental representation of the information.  Textbooks start with defining concepts before moving on to grouping these concepts into meaningful, larger systems, then showing you how to apply these concepts in meaningful ways.  Recognizing this pattern allows you to digest new content much easier than memorizing facts randomly.  The long term benefit of organizing these schemas is you can:

  1. easily assimilate new ideas and facts;
  2. learn and retain more facts
  3. allow cross-domain pollination of ideas to create new insights and assimilate new applications of information

The important thing to remember is to build schemas that make sense to you.  Your instructor or textbook will suggest a way of grasping the concept, but it’s up to you to determine how best to organize your mental models to ensure information is available in your memory when you attempt to recall it.  Employing useful tools such as mnemonic devices, word associations, imagery, auditory cues, etc. can help your mind encode data into useful chunks for storage.  In a future post, I’ll come back to these tools and explore how I’ve applied them in my own studies.  The important lesson for today is to recognize that any body of knowledge has an inherent structure to it.  Once you recognize that structure, you can break big, scary ideas down and tackle each part separately.


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