Studying and Holistic Learning

Like my article on speed reading, it seems that my article on holistic learning has brought a fair bit of confusion and controversy even for a large amount of coverage. Given the immense amount of feedback I received about this post I think it is only fair that I go into a little more depth to answer some of the comments based on the ideas I present in the article and to respond to some of the criticisms.

For those of you who missed my article How to Ace Your Finals Without Studying, the basic point is that you should learn holistically by continually interlinking ideas and information so that pieces of knowledge are individual units but part of a greater whole. Instead of just learning each formula or historical figure as another data point, you consciously relate this point to anything that strikes similarities. I related this idea of holistic learning to the notion of a web, in which each idea is linked to hundreds of others.

What Exactly is Holistic Learning?

This concept of holistic learning came to me by trying to note the differences that people like myself who study little and learn fast have between people who are otherwise really hardworking and study a lot but can’t seem to learn rapidly. I’m certainly not unique by any standard. I mentioned that I was the second highest graded graduating student from my high-school class.

One of my best friends was in first. Talking with him also reveals that he doesn’t study a whole lot and learns rapidly. I’m sure many of my readers learn a lot faster than myself, and there are people who blow me away with how fast they can learn. Holistic learning is my attempt to point out the major difference in strategy that until now has been a gift at birth that others can’t replicate.

The point of my article wasn’t to boast. Anyone who is good at school can tell you from an early age they start to downplay their abilities when talking with others to fit in, in a way that those who excel in social skills or athletics almost never do. I gave examples of my success so that I could demonstrate a new model for learning that might help others replicate my results. I firmly believe that most talents simply don’t apply if you can really figure out the other persons strategy for success.

If you talk to anyone that really understands a subject, they have a very densely interlinked web in that area. People who really understand a particular field don’t just see equations, dates and concepts, they see how they work together into an intricate whole. The point of my article was to explain what is happening differently in people who really “get” a subject and those that struggle hard just to remember all the formulas.

Almost everyone here is a genius, at least at basic arithmetic. Most of us simply “get” how to add and subtract numbers from one to ten. If I asked you what seven minus four is, you wouldn’t have to go back to your hands and start counting down fingers, the answer three would be immediate. The reason basic arithmetic is so easy for you is simply because it is so densely interwoven into your web of knowledge.

People who learn really easily seem to have a gift, but what they are really doing whether they consciously realize it, is fitting each piece of info into frameworks for things they already understand. They have practiced using visualizations, metaphors and kinesthetic learning aids so deeply that they find it easy to relate new information to a different subject. This explanation of intelligence as a talent is a little hard to utilize, but the concept of linking up information is usable.

Is learning holistically something that can help you on your exams next week? No. It is a skill that takes a lot of time to practice. A few of you criticized me because holistic learning isn’t a quick solution which perhaps the somewhat exaggerated title of my post led you to believe. Unfortunately I don’t offer any quick solutions. I’ve written frequently that I don’t believe in revolutionary change. If you expected quick answers you aren’t going to find them here.

The Purpose of Studying

What about studying? My article suggests that you should do away with studying entirely. I believe the real situation is that you should do away with how most people study. Most people study by cramming information into their brain and hoping it will stick. Reviewing material so you can more effectively interlink it into your web is a smart idea.

If your spending hours reviewing a subject then you simply don’t “get” it. This isn’t a crime, and without a better strategy, studying hard is the best tool you have available to pass your exams. What I suggest is that you focus your energy on using the various tools I suggested in the article to link up each idea to your web. I do this pretty much automatically so extensive studying has become unnecessary, but for people who want to learn this skill, it is more important to change the way you study than to eliminate it immediately.

I still believe studying is valuable as a pretest. I usually do a quick review of all my notes before a test, not to cram or learn the information but to ensure that every idea I come across seems intuitive and obvious — heavily interlinked in my web. If it isn’t, then I hastily try to insert it. But a lot of people come across tons of ideas that aren’t interlinked well, but by this time they are screwed. Studying is like a warm-up jog not the extensive training session before a marathon.

I built this website on the fundamental idea that we can improve ourselves. I also believe that you can accomplish a lot more than you believe if you are given the right strategy or concept. Holistic learning is my attempt to explain what the difference is between those who immediately understand and those who struggle. I also tried to add some suggestions for how you might be able to incorporate this strategy for learning into your own life. Holistic learning isn’t about passing exams, but being able to learn anything. A skill that is also needed by people outside the classroom.

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  • bereket

    thank you

  • Carolyn Anderson

    Thanks for this article. I was wondering what advice you may have for intrusive thoughts while studying. I frequently experience an onslaught of negative thoughts when I am studying something really difficult (currently to become certified as a public accountant). I think it’s a reflection of fear-based thinking and I’ve been trying to turn that around but it seems almost uncontrollable at times. Thanks.

  • mike4ty4

    Yes, but should you be _easily able_ to see connections with, say, history and science, as opposed to being only able to _easily_ see connections within each field?

  • mike4ty4

    There is far more than just the educational system that downplays abilities. I can vouch because I myself had _zero_ exposure to the formal educational system for the entire first 24 of nearly 26 years of my life. I was either schooled at home or studied things myself. Yet I still got into that trap, because of other things such as inherent factors (I hated praise), things other people on the Internet said that damaged self esteem, parents who did not know how to properly raise a child of the type I am, etc. There’s far more than just the “educational system” that’s the problem, and the problem is that the answer to this problem requires personal responsibility being taken to change our cultural attitudes that we both use on our children and what we say to others. Like never insulting others is a good thing to start with, especially anonymously over the Internet. You have absolutely NO IDEA who is on the other end of that line unless they’ve posted a lot about themselves, and even then, only if you can verify that.

    Culture matters, in fact I think it can matter even more than the educational system in some cases. Look at how many East Asian students attend the very same defective-educational-system schools yet come out on top. The secret? It’s not the school, and it’s probably not special “racial genetics” either (although I’ve heard that argued). It’s what’s at the home. It’s culture. If we created a culture of education, then the educational system would actually follow suit, since everyone would be demanding it. The broken education system would be mended into a kick-ass education system. The reason we have a broken education system is we have a broken culture.

  • mike4ty4

    The $6m question: how did you manage to figure all this out FOR YOURSELF instead of having someone dictate it to you through some blogsite? I am of the mind that unless you can generate these insights yourself, you aren’t capable of really learning to the extent you need to for some big goal.


    im curious. have you never had to study hard in college for you engineering degree? cos i dunno if i know someone like that in our school, everyone seems to either be super disciplined to be an excellent student or be semi-lazy and be an average student