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A minimalist’s approach to effective learning

 Zier Zhou, 4th year Life Sciences student

Minimalism isn’t just limited to the world of modern art and interior design. It’s a lifestyle that can be exercised in many aspects of our busy lives. As university students, our days are spent hurrying from libraries to lecture halls, consuming as much knowledge we possibly can. Here are some techniques related to time management, note-taking, and concentration to keep us steady on our feet as we embark on our winter semester.

Making time

I used to think that how long I’d spend studying would positively correlate to the grades I’d receive, but I now realize that time is not necessarily the determining factor in academic success. I’ve found it helpful to change the way I think about time and let go of the idea that I don’t have enough or need more of it. This requires setting priorities straight by accepting the fact that energy is limited and creating realistic goals that are within reach.

For those who’ve taken chemistry, you’re probably familiar with the ideal gas law where gas expands to fit the volume allotted. Similarly, Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. This idea was especially relevant when I had long gaps of time between my exams in the spring. It didn’t exactly matter whether I had four or five days leading up to my pharmacology final, because I would still study on every day I was given and end up cramming the most information on the last one.

Understanding this law encourages you to be aware of the time we spend on various tasks and construct a reasonable schedule so that you don’t act against your efforts by adding excessive stress and complexity to your work. It’s worthwhile to use your newfound time to get involved outside of academics and engage in extra-curricular activities that spark your interest. Challenge yourself by staying occupied so that you can’t afford to procrastinate, which would only leave you with a longer list of things to do for tomorrow.

Taking notes

There’s a constant debate on whether it’s better to type notes on your laptop or write them down using pen and paper. After observing others around me and trying both methods myself, I’ve decided that there are many points for and against each, and the decision ultimately depends on the individual. Since I’d rather avoid carrying bulky binders and scattered papers everywhere, I like to type my lecture notes on OneNote, which organizes my notebooks and allows me to easily switch from one to another in two clicks of a button.

When it comes to reviewing notes, repetition is key. I usually go over the material in multiple ways, whether that’s reading out loud or highlighting important concepts, at least three times before a test. Sometimes I write them by hand because it takes longer, which means I’d spend more time thinking about the ideas I’m putting down. But instead of replicating the same words, condense your original notes so that they include only the most significant information. Use bullet points and abbreviations whenever possible to make your notes concise and simple to read. Make mnemonics or creative connections to your own life, which can also help immensely for memorization-heavy topics.

Keep in mind that taking a minimalistic approach is certainly not about learning as little as possible. It’s about spending less effort on trivial tasks and instead concentrating on taking notes from the most important resources, often provided or emphasized by your professor. Charts, diagrams, and mind maps are great way for summarizing course material. That being said, it’s not always enough to solely grasp the main ideas, particularly if you’re aiming for the highest marks. Be curious about the complete story as well as careful in covering its details.

Finding focus

The first step to finding focus is staying organized. It’s incredibly useful to keep a planner that contains your monthly calendars and daily to-do lists for sticking to some sort of routine. That way, you won’t have to repeatedly wonder about what to do next. Before you begin studying, clear your workspace from any clutter and disconnect from any distractions, including your phone and any social media networks. Also avoid multitasking, which has been consistently demonstrated to lower our productivity and quality of work as we switch back and forth between tasks.

It’s no secret that the learning process becomes much easier and more enjoyable when we’re interested in the subject, so try to approach every course with an optimistic attitude. For instance, anatomy was not my favourite course during third year. I found that a large part of the course consisted of rote memorization, and the lab exams were also quite challenging. However, I convinced myself that it would be cool to understand the human skeletal structure and trace its network of blood vessels. Reminding myself of the reasons I was studying in the first place helped motivate me to keep going.

At the same time, you don’t need (or want) to work non-stop. It’s best to break down your large goals into smaller ones, not only so that they appear to be less daunting but because it’s more effective. The Pomodoro technique enhances concentration by recognizing that our attention spans are short and cleverly using this limit to our advantage. Spend the breaks in between your study sessions however you like, whether it’s making a cup of coffee or taking a walk in the woods. If you’re feeling adventurous, experiment with meditation and yoga, as these activities are also known to widely improve one’s focus.

Final note

From my perspective, taking a minimalistic approach to learning means being mindful of how we control our time, apply our methods, and gather our focus while we work. This allows us to channel our energy into the work that will yield optimal results and realize greater freedom in pursuing other meaningful activities in life besides studying. Good luck!