Study Skills 5

These lessons present you with three key study skills which are all you should need to be a top student and an excellent learner. This lesson brings me to the third and final skill. So far we have seen the importance of Recognition and Repetition.

I spent three lessons explaining the significance of Recognition, or Paying Attention. Last lesson I taught on the importance of good old Repetition, and especially Learning by Rote. Now we come to the power-tool that really builds your mental muscle for memory of important things.

All In The Mind

Memory happens in the mind. So I like to imagine what is happening, to help me appreciate the process I am going through.

For my mind to store any information at all it must first be conscious of that information. Paying attention causes us to take note. Mindless reading or daydreaming in class fogs up our mind and it does not get to enter the information effectively. So “Recognition” is vital to ensure that the information is properly inserted and stored in the brain.

However, the information entered can easily be lost among all the other bits being entered. So we need to beef up the size and importance of that information, and this is done by various forms of repetition, including connecting the information with other things stored in the brain. Eventually the piece of information has gained such significance that it is easy to find among all the other things stored in your brain.

Digging A Trench

Your problem is that all information ends up thrown to the back of the mental store-room and it can take quite some fossicking around to find the bits that have been lost. So, a very powerful skill is to dig a trench from the front of your brain, where you want to use the information, directly to the shelf where the information is held.

This process of creating a direct link to the information is achieved by Recall. What we want to achieve is instant recall of important information. The way we achieve that is by doing the very thing we want to achieve – Recalling the information.

Each time you fossick around in the back of your brain searching for the name, date, fact, or other information requested at the front of your brain, you are strengthening the link from front to back. If you give up and don’t even try to remember, just going back to your reference book, your brain does not develop a clear link from front to back and the searching muscle stays weak.

Imagine that every time you reach to the back of your mind for the answer you need, you are digging a deeper trench line directly to the information. Eventually you will have immediate and direct access to the information you seek.

Recall is a Form of Repetition

Recall is a process of repeating the information. Every time you recall a fact you have repeated it in your brain and increased its signal strength in your mental arena. So recall is not only a key skill on its own, but a double skill, in that it does the job of Repetition as well.

If you develop a good Recall program for important information, you will not need to devote as much time to repetition, since that is what you are effectively doing anyway.

Rote and Recall

My primary school teachers not only had our class chanting the various facts which we were to memorise by repetition, but they would also give us spot tests. They would tell us to close our eyes, or turn to the back, so we could not see the answers on the board. We would then be asked to recall something that we had been memorising.

“How many yards in a mile?” “What is Six times Nine?”

As our young brains scrambled to find the answer we were engaging in recall. So our teachers used Rote and Recall, in combination, to plant certain facts into our minds. I can readily repeat those facts almost fifty years later.

Quiz Yourself

Set yourself several questions and ask yourself for the answer several times each day. Have a friend quiz you. Recall information as you sit at a red light or nod off to sleep.

Make your brain fish around for the answer. Each time you ask the same question the answer should come a little quicker than before. And each time you recall the information the trench to the back of your brain is dug deeper and works faster.

Don’t go easy on yourself. The harder you push your brain the sharper it will perform for you. If you go soft on your brain it will happily go easy on itself. Treat your recall quiz routine as a mental gymnasium, to get your brain pumping and fully fit for your study needs.

Spot Test

Do spot tests on your knowledge. Use different times of the day and ask different types of questions. When you get certain answers right every time change that question for a new one. The things you keep getting wrong are areas you can work on.

If you keep getting something wrong then go back and work on the size and shape of the information. See if you can link it to something else, explain it in a new way, summarise it into a distilled form, or find a funny connection. All of that helps to build up the signal in your brain, to make that item easier to find next time you go looking.

Discipline Required

Some of you are thinking, “There’s no way I can do that”, because you just don’t have the personal discipline to do it or even remember to do it.

Well, you do need discipline. So, you can ask others to help by phoning you with quiz questions, or the like. And you can build up your discipline over time. If it took you all year to get your brain sharpened it’s still worth it. So plan to make progress all the time until you have built up your skill to keep at it and move to the next level.

Three Important R’s

And there you have my three key Study Skills. They are Recognition, Repetition and Recall.

If you can sharpen your use of all three you will find yourself cruising where once you were really struggling. Your faculties were designed to do all this with ease. It’s only hard because you have allowed you mental muscles to atrophy.

I suggest you read and re-read all five lessons. Make your own notes on them. Summarise them. Teach them to your kid sister. Look for new ways to apply them.

And, above all, use them. Start today. Get yourself into gear to go where you are designed to go. Soon you’ll be cruising past others who were way out ahead.

To see the other posts in this series click the links below….

Study Skills 4

The first three lessons in this series were devoted to Recognising things, by paying attention. Before moving on, I reiterate that your ability to pay attention is the most powerful tool you bring to your study and learning career.

Yet there is more that can be built upon that foundation and so I come now to the second key study skill, which is the good old faithful, “Repetition”.

Say it Again, Sam

There are various statistics touted around at times about how little we take in from seeing, hearing, reading and so on. While the figures vary the fact is the same. We are not good at absorbing things. So repetition is important right from the start.

Haven’t you noticed that something suddenly became significant to you the third of fourth time you read it? Or you suddenly noticed something in a text you had read and re-read many times.

That’s why going over your notes, re-reading a text, reviewing the subject, having a discussion with a tutorial group, and so on, prove to be so important in our learning and study program.

Big Blob

My emphasis on Repetition, however, goes beyond the need to make sure we have Recognition. While hearing it all one more time will help people catch on to something, I am interested in the repetition process as a means of creating a Big Blob.

Look at it this way. Your brain is being bombarded with gazillions of bits of information all the time. If you are studying then you are pumping information and facts into your brain as fast as you can. So, all the bits of information are competing with each other for significance in your memory banks.

If a piece of information is important, then you need to give it higher significance in your huge bucket of data. You want that tiny blip of information to become a Big Blip!

When you repeat something, over and over again, you build upon that tiny blip and expand it into a large enough piece of information to be readily accessed. See it like a tiny drop of blue paint on the ground. If you keep dripping extra tiny drips on top of the first one, you eventually get a big blue blob. What was initially un-noticeable has become very obvious.

That’s what you want to happen inside your brain.

Learned by Rote

When I was a child (OK it was aeons ago!) we learned our multiplication tables and other facts by rote. We chanted them, song-like, over and over again. “Two threes are six! Two fours are eight! Two fives are ten!” And so on it went.

The teacher wrote down the side of the blackboard a list of key facts, such as the speed of light, speed of sound, number of ounces in a pound and number of yards in a mile. Multiple times each day she asked us to stop what we were doing and to read the facts in unison.

This is what is called “Rote Learning”. It fell into disrepute some years later, even though it had been a proven method for a long time. Discovery learning became the buzz for a few decades, and other experimental methods. Academic standards dropped away, reading levels fell, spelling skills crumbled and people needed calculators to do simple maths. But that’s another story.

What I want you to realise is that Repetition Works! When you drill yourself with information, repeating it multiple times, in various settings, at various times of the day, you build up the mental signal of that information, making it a more permanent and significant element in your memory and understanding.

Same Girl, New Dress

While raw rote is a proven and powerful way to get the information in, there is also much to be said for dressing up the information in a new way.

Rather than hammering in the information in its one shape and size, you can repeat it into the memory in a new packaging. It’s the same information, but by modifying it in some way it finds a larger place in the memory banks.

As the simplest of examples, “two three’s is the same as three two’s”. At a more meaningful level, we can help our memory of the name of Julius Caesar’s killer, Brutus, by linking it to Caesar’s question, “Et tu Brute?” (Even you Brutus?)

Adding detail to a fact builds the size of the information in your memory banks. For example: Captain Cook discovered Australia. We can expand that fact with his first name and other information. He is Captain James Cook, who sailed in a ship named the Endeavour. He was killed in Hawaii.

And you can even add some nonsense to help if you like, such as the silly school-yard song some Aussie children would sing. “Captain Cook chased a chook all around Australia. He jumped a fence and tore his pants and landed in Tasmania.” I think I hear you say, “That’s not much help to me”, and you may be right.


While the repetition I just suggested involved repeating the information by expanding it, another way to repeat something is by distilling it. In this process you summarise and reduce the information to a very potent capsule, rather than a barrow load of verbiage.

The Walk Through the Bible program links a key word with each book of the Bible and then links the key words together in a set of physical movements. Thus the list of Bible books and their content is summarised in short routine. This is an example of distilling a great deal of information into a much smaller capsule.

Mnemonics and acronyms also achieve the same result. I learned “Harry ClAgNaK” to remember elements with a valency of 1. ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit’ gave me the names of notes on the treble clef lines. The acronym HOMES is a mnemonic aid to remember the names of the North American Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. And the planets in order from the Sun are remembered by: “My Very Elderly Mother Just Sat Under the North Pole”.

I distil the essential elements of faith, from Hebrews 11:6, down to two words, “Can” and “Will”. If you believe God Can do it, and that He Will do it for you, you have released your faith into action.


Connecting one piece of information with others also repeats the information, in a new context. This is similar to what happens when we expand the initial piece of information, but actually involves tying one piece of information to another significant piece.

The key points made by Jesus in the famous Sermon on the Mount, could be linked to the relevant laws which Moses received in Mount Sinai. The Mosaic Law was given new light by the Law of Christ, and both were presented on a mountain. Linking those two separate and significant events allows each one to support the other in our memory and understanding.

Some of the memory tricks that are promoted include linking important facts or things to remember to some pre-determined set of references. For example, the old “One, Two, Buckle my Shoe” poem leads to a list of items which points can be linked to in numeric order: Bun, Shoe, Tree, Door, Hive, Sticks, Heaven, Gate, Pine, Hen.

Again and Again and Again

I don’t mean to prompt you to be too clever. The Study Skill key is Repetition, plain and simple. Good old “Rote” is as good as you need to get, to drill yourself and pump that info in, over and over again, until it sticks and won’t fall out.

Start with Recognition, then get working on Repetition. Once you have those two working well, you are a strong student and a good learner.

To see the other posts in this series click the links below….

Study Skills 2

I have begun to unpack for you three vitally important keys to strong study and learning skills. These key areas, which will be unfolded in this series, can be broken down and elaborated on, as I began to do in lesson one and continue here. But my main aim is to put these three keys clearly into your mind and to get you started in using them.

Pay Attention

The first key involves your ability to pay attention. If you can be attentive to what is going on around you, what people are saying, and even to what is distracting you, you will gain control of yourself and your mental faculties. With that attentive approach you will be able to focus, absorb, investigate and explore the things you are studying or need to learn.

However, most people operate with their brain out of gear. Being inattentive becomes a habit and a lifestyle. So, this may not be as easy a lesson to learn as you think.

Test Your Attention

I asked my son to close his eyes and tell me what he had seen in our yard when he looked out the window that morning. I had seen him gazing into the yard, particularly watching our cat. My son described the yard, but from memory of the yard, not from having paid attention. Even though he was looking into the yard he was not seeing it.

He described some things which were not visible through the window he had been looking from, but he knew they were in the yard. However, he failed to mention a piece of furniture which is moved around our yard and which happened to be clearly in view where he had been looking. When I told him to check what he had missed he was surprised that he could not recall it when it had been very clearly visible.

That showed that he was not paying attention, but just mindlessly scanning the yard. A spy or policeman would be trained to be very attentive to certain things, even if just scanning a yard.

This also shows what I said earlier, that we don’t really use our brains, we have then in neutral much of the time.

So, test yourself. Think of some room in your house or office where you have recently been. Then see how well you can describe its current state. Then go and see how well you did. You may be surprised.


I call this Key “Recognition”. It is the process of recognising what is there, as part of your normal routine, as you turn your brain back on, remove the clutter and get on with attending to the matters of life and learning which are around you.

Pay attention. If you don’t understand something then you don’t ‘recognise’ it, so ask questions. If you are looking mindlessly, or half-listening, then you won’t fully ‘recognise’ what is being said. If you have distracting thoughts and emotions then they will abduct your attention, so you cannot ‘recognise’ the face of what you are supposed to attend to.

Be There

Other expressions I have heard from people who promote this kind of attentiveness includes the saying, “Where ever you are, Be There!”

Another person called this process, “Practicing Presence”. It is the process of being attentive to your self, your surroundings, the things people are saying, the intent behind their words, the thoughts, feelings and reactions within you, the facts and information you need to note, and so on.

Explore the Turf

Since the key is Recognition, and foreign places, names, language and experiences are harder to pin down, you are wise to explore the turf, learn the lingo, become familiar with the surroundings, get used to the funny sounds, tastes and sensations, until you can ‘recognise’ what is going on and better lock in your attention to the key issues at hand.

Multi-Sensory Engagement

Educators know that we have multiple sensory doorways. Employing more of them enhances the learning process. So make a habit of Recognising things in multiple ways.

For example, when you come across a new name, of a person or place, say the name out loud, write it in upper case, then in lower case, listen to someone else say it, repeat it with a fake foreign accent, and so on. These diverse experiences with the piece of knowledge open a variety of sensory gateways into your consciousness, subconscious and memory.

Cranial Engagement

Along with the multi-sensory engagement, I like to use Cranial Engagement for key information. This involves you applying your mental capacities to the piece of information.

One way to do this is to create a slogan about the topic. Alternatively you could create a mnemonic code or acronym. I like to create my own definitions, instead of using the ones given me by others. I also like to listen to someone and then summarise what they have told me in one or two succinct sentences which package what they have told me better than they could have packaged it themself.

The process of applying mental energy to the topic deepens the brain’s ‘recognition’ of the information at hand.

Apply the Brain

Let me play with some facts with you to show how cranial engagement might work. I have summarised here some excerpts from my many Church History posts. The story of Robert Moffat is most stirring.

One of the famous missionaries to Africa was Dr David Livingstone, who, as a young English medical student, was prompted to give up his potential wealth and fame in London, by hearing missionary pioneer Robert Moffat make a famous statement, “I have seen in the morning sun the smoke of 1000 villages where no missionary has ever been”. Livingstone went to South Africa, married Moffat’s daughter, Mary, and became so devoted to reaching Africa that he became lost to the outside world. American reporter Henry Morton Stanley found Livingstone and followed in his footsteps. It is to Stanley that we owe the well-known line, “Dr Livingstone, I presume”.

We could summarise that by saying: “Moffat moved Morton with a Living Stone”. Or: RM drew DL to SA to marry M and meet HMS. Or: Moffat’s smoke drew England’s doctor who drew America’s reporter.

Recognition is the Foundation

This kind of mental activity accentuates ‘Recognition’ of the material at hand. It doesn’t guarantee we will remember or learn the content. That is for the next two keys. But it provides the solid foundation upon which sound learning can be established.

If you cannot pay attention then you are lost from the start. If you are skilled at being attentive your ability to study and learn is already on track for success.

To see the first post in this series click the link below….

Study Skills 1

We all need to learn things at times. Students, employees, actors, business people and Bible readers all need to learn and memorise things at times. While there are various memory tricks which can be used, I will help you here with some really sound wisdom to help you study and learn whatever you need to. The study skills I share with you are quite universally applicable and don’t need you to apply gimmicks to advance your studies.

Three Simple Keys

As I reflect on my own study career and my ability to learn and retain important information, in school, work, as a professional presenter and preacher, and so on, I come back to three simple keys which I teach to my own children.

I recently reviewed these three simple keys with my youngest son, as he addressed himself to some new study challenges. That has prompted me to put them in text for other students, parents and families to benefit from. I trust you find this series of articles helpful.

Pay Attention

When I started secondary schooling my older brother, Lawrence, one year ahead of me, told me something really important that helped me cruise through my high school years. He told me that if I paid close attention in class, and did not let my mind wander, but hung off everything the teacher told me, I would not need to do much review or study at home.

A teacher had told Lawrence that the homework and home-study which teachers required their students to do, at least in the early years of High School, were simply to make up for the fact that the students weren’t paying attention to or properly understanding what the teacher was explaining in class. If students became disciplined at paying attention they could save themselves much home study time.

Ask Questions

Further to paying attention Lawrence’s teacher told him to ask questions. The key is to be attentive to and understand the information being taught. If, while paying attention, you cannot understand what is being explained, then ask the teacher to go over it again, or clarify the thing that does not click for you.

Many students shy away from asking questions, as it signals their ignorance to other students who might understand perfectly well. No one wants to look stupid if they can help it. So, in order to gain clarification we may have to push past our pride. Or even approach the teacher during class break time, to get an explanation when others are not aware what you are doing.

However it is done, be sure you understand and take cognition of what has to be absorbed.

Engage the Brain

A poster I recall for years ago advised, “Please engage brain before engaging jaw!” That advice is not as funny as it might first sound. Many people operate at a level of semi-mindlessness. They don’t switch off altogether, but they try to operate their brain on ‘idle’ instead of ‘full speed’.

Our attention can be fuzzy and our thoughts distracted while we are doing other things. We adjust to this minimal level of concentration and can cruise through our day with little mental discipline and focus. So I am serious when I challenge you to engage the Brain.

Make a point of paying attention. Discipline yourself to be able to do so.

Take Out the Garbage

Some years ago I attended a conference where home-schooling fathers met to discuss their various challenges. Two teachers addressed the conference, reflecting on a course which they had run just before the conference for a group of male high-school age students.

The men, from an engineering background, taught a large group of young men about electrical and mechanical motor systems and who they operate and can be repaired. These men normally taught their subject to tertiary level students in a technical college.

The instructors had glowing reports of their experience teaching the high-school age home-schoolers. The course which they normally took a year to teach at Tech, was able to be taught in just 2 weeks. And what really impressed the teachers was that the young men asked intelligent questions which no other students had ever asked before. The young students were paying such attention and gaining such understanding that they not only covered the material in record time, they also understood it at a deeper level.

Obviously the advantage of being home-schooled was a factor in this, but the teachers pointed to another important issue. The young men were completely uncluttered from garbage. They did not have music playing in their ears, messaging going on to their friends, smutty thoughts going through their minds, competitive ego issues at play in the class, and so on. They had taken out the garbage from their lives, which normal class environments are full of.

The fathers of these young students had protected them from becoming garbage bins, and had trained their sons to keep their hearts and minds clean and clear. While each child would have been at a different level on this issue, the overwhelming reality was that the students were able to process work at an exceptional rate.

That points to the fact that most of us could be much better students and speed ahead of those around us, if only we could learn to pay attention with a life that is free from distractions.

Monster Distractions

In my late teens I became friends with a young man named Tony. Tony had performed poorly at school, yet I realised he was quite intelligent. In the areas which took his interest, including history and nature, he could tell me all sorts of things about events, people, migratory patterns of various birds and so on.

I later discovered why Tony had done poorly at school. As a lad he had been taken into a hospital room to see his mum before she died. The woman was desperately ill and looked close to death. Tony ran out of the room screaming, “My mummy’s going to die!” The trauma and torment of that experience totally swamped just about everything else in his life, including his studies.

Tony’s mother had a vision of Jesus walking into her hospital room a few days after Tony’s visit. She was totally and miraculously restored to health. The home returned to normal, but Tony never recovered. A monster distraction had so impacted his emotions and mind that it disabled his class-room performance from then on.

Tony’s private reading and personal study was strong and effective, but he failed in the schooling system and struggled with the stigma of being unintelligent.

So, it is possible to be hit by monster distractions which totally derail your ability to pay attention. If you have experienced that then I encourage you to get sound Christian help and pastoral care to become free, through the power of Jesus.

Pay Attention to Paying Attention

There’s more I need to say about this foundational key to study and learning. Meanwhile, I want you to pay attention to paying attention. Take note of how easily you switch off, get distracted, or operate without your brain in gear.

In the next instalment I’ll give you more insight into the whole process of being attentive, so you can get your learning and study off to a strong start.

I Believe in Home Schooling

As I write this my wife is sitting at the dining table with my daughter working over some math questions. Not only are mother and daughter working together on the project, but mother is learning from her daughter – Hmmmmm.

It has been our delight to have each of our seven children taught at home, for at least part of their school experience. We have used a variety of programs and found that they all work in different ways. We have changed our focus over the years, worked through a variety of attitudes and ideas and found many benefits of learning and teaching in the home environment.

Home educating has been popularised, neglected, revamped and revitalised in various circles in the past two decades or so. Christian schooling has also been through various phases and iterations. From our perspective we have a great affection for teaching and learning within the home. We love the process, love the amazing academic results and love the lifestyle benefits which both children and parents get to enjoy.

Our two youngest children, both being home schooled for their entire academic life, at least until tertiary studies, are significantly ahead in measurable academic terms. They have achieved this with much less time investment than their peers are putting in within the formal schooling context. They have also had time and opportunity to meet amazing people, work on amazing projects, explore their talents and learn many domestic processes that make them increasingly valuable to our home life.

Both children love to cook and especially to experiment with recipes and ideas. They both love reading as well and have devoured fiction and non-fiction works alike. They enjoy making home-movies, writing plays, playing sport, learning new things, playing with lego, designing board games and so on. It is an absolute joy to have them as a vital part of our lives and to be a vital part of theirs.

If you are looking for a home-school advocate, you can count me in. We have met many families who employ one of the many home-schooling methods and we have been continually impressed with what we see. I encourage parents to give prayerful thought to the possibility of enriching their own lives and those of their children by bringing the education back into the home.