Study skills
By Gregory Mitchell - Copyright © 2003
Chapter 2 - Barriers to Learning
The purpose of study is to understand something and to be able to apply what one has learned. Before you can start studying something you must recognize that there is something you don't know. You must be able to see that there is a gap in your knowledge that you wish to fill. Get a feel for what it is that you don't know and what you plan to do about it. So now you intend to learn the subject: you want and desire to learn. Your own desire to learn the subject is what allows you to make your own choices as you progress through the subject. Don't study for anybody else's sake, study for you. These points need to be maintained throughout one's study. However simple they are, they are the foundation on which your progress is based.

Evaluating the relative importance of individual data is essential when studying. Assigning a uniform importance to all data is not workable and will not lead to understanding and application. It is advisable when studying to continuously evaluate the importance of what you study. What does each datum really mean to the subject, how central is it, what class of datum is it? We can divide any subject into elements of varying importance:

  1. Basic principles:
    The underlying essentials of the subject. The basic principles. These must be known and fully understood.

  2. Methods of application:
    What one must be able to do in the subject: the actions, skills, activities, and methods involved. These must be learned and mastered.

  3. Explanations:
    Discussion of why the basic principles of the subject are true and a description of how the activities function, is necessary in order to fully understand the subject.

  4. Examples:
    Examples illustrate what is being taught and give a fuller understanding.

  5. Opinions:
    The writer might offer many and various opinions on the subject and even on unrelated subjects. These might be interesting, but aren't necessarily important compared to the basic principles and activities.

  6. Supplementary:
    Study materials might include a biography, glossary, index and other references that function as study aids but are not the content itself.

There is a drastic difference in importance between basic principles and opinions about unrelated subjects. However, they might be in the same print in the text and they might not be given different emphasis. It is normally up to you to place the emphasis where it is due.

Outside of the basic principles and methods of application, information is there to help you understand the subject better while you are studying it. As long as you understand those parts when you study them, 100% retention of them is not necessary.

But the basic principles and methods of application have to be understood and mastered 100%. You have to know and retain these things fully. If you don't know them you can't apply the material.

The following can make study difficult:

  1. Obscure word-meanings,
  2. Unfamiliarity with the subject,
  3. Insufficient opportunity to apply the ideas.
  4. Missing information or too steep a learning curve.
Let's look at each of these in more detail...
  1. Defining word-meanings
    The first and most important barrier is the misunderstood word. If in studying you go past a word you don't fully understand, if you notice it or not, your attention will sub-consciously stick to that word and subsequent parts of the text will blank out on you. You are likely to not notice what you are reading right after that point. Your memory of what you have studied will have holes in it and you will have a feeling of emptiness concerning the subject.

    Suppose that you had a book that wasn’t written in English, but in a language you didn't know. Naturally, you couldn’t study it - unless you learned the words of the new language. But what about English? You know English, of course, but nevertheless suppose you read that in a certain course, the theory was interdigitated with practical examples. The word ‘interdigitate’ means: ‘to put the fingers of one hand between the fingers of the other’, as you might do when clasping the hands together. So, when the theory and the practical examples are interdigitated, you get a part of the theory, then a practical example, then more theory, followed by a practical example, and so on.  That’s what you would expect if you read that the theory and practical examples were interdigitated.

    Suppose you started to study something and there was a word, such as ‘interdigitate’, that you didn’t understand. How would you feel? Would you feel bored? Would you feel that this is a difficult subject? Would you feel sleepy and fed-up? It is likely that you would and that after a few such words you’d quit your studies in this subject.

    Therefore, when studying this course or any other subject in which you wish to be successful, be very sure that you can define all the words that are used. Look up the word in a good dictionary and make sure you can define it clearly. Then use the word in several sentences, until you feel you really can understand and use the word without hesitation.

    A misunderstood word is not necessarily obvious. The words you clearly know that you don't understand are not the most damaging. Much more insidious are the words you have an imperfect understanding of. You might have the wrong definition, a partial definition, an uncertain understanding, or whatever. Simple words are particularly dangerous. Very often one has never bothered to fully understand them or takes them for granted and they can wreck havoc on one's understanding of a subject.

    If you think the subject is difficult, or you feel bored or tired and your mind is wandering, or if you have read several pages and cannot remember the content, immediately look for the word that you have passed by and which you cannot define - there will be one. Look the word up in a dictionary and use it in some sentences of your own, until you are familiar with it.

    If you continuously go past misunderstood words the symptoms will compound. You will not only feel blank and washed-out, you will start disliking the subject. It is not really fun anymore, it bores you or upsets you. If you continue any further you will start complaining and blaming the subject or others for your trouble. And eventually you will leave, you will drop the subject and not want to come back to it. If you are forced to keep studying you might develop ways of memorizing the material and even pass tests. But, you are no longer with it, and you won't be able to apply it.

  2. Familiarizing yourself with the subject
    A student may be able to give a simple definition of the word in question but still feel the meaning is an abstraction, and unable to relate the concept to real world situations. To help concretize your understanding of a word you will need to consult an Encyclopedia. A good encyclopedia will help you to obtain more reality than a dictionary offers and to become familiar with practical applications.

    Suppose you are meeting a friend somewhere and you don’t know how to get there. You are unfamiliar with this part of the city. You ask a policeman. He says, “Go down this road, take the third right and then take the second left. The place you want is on the right, about half way down that road.” Now you have some data, but it isn’t your data. You are not familiar with the route, nor even sure that the directions are correct. Perhaps the policeman made a mistake. You feel uncertain, wondering if you are going to be late.

    You go down the road and take the third turning on the right, just before a cinema. You go down that road and take the second turning on the left, just after a big pub. About half way down this road, on the right hand side, is the place you want and there is your friend waiting for you. It took you ten minutes.

    Now you don’t just have the data, you have used it and you know it’s correct. You are informed. It’s your information; you own it. You are no longer uncertain and can now say that you are familiar with the route. You know how to get to that place and you could give directions (information) in your own words, for example:

    “You go down this road and turn right just before the cinema. Then turn left, just after the big pub. The place is about half way down the road on the right. It takes about ten minutes.”

    Of course, you don’t know how to get there from a different direction, but you are familiar with your route.

    In study, too, it is necessary to become familiar with the subject, so you could explain it in your own words. Defining the words is the first step, and then to obtain a wider understanding through the use of an encyclopedia or through other kinds of appropriate background reading and research. 

    To aid in your comprehension of the material it helps to paraphrase and restate passages in your own words, to explain and summarize what you feel is significant.

  3. Applying the data
    The next step is to be able to demonstrate the information, using demonstration items. When you demonstrate an idea, you let parts of the idea be represented by physical objects, such as paper-clips, a mug, or pens, etc. Using these items, you can show to another person your understanding of the subject and think about the subject yourself, especially how one item relates to another, without becoming too introspective and doing it all in your head.

    To take a very simple example; in order to demonstrate “the man rode the horse,” you could say, “this pen is the horse” and “this paper clip is the man,” putting the paper clip on the pen and moving them around. So use demonstration items to help yourself to understand ideas from the course and apply the information to real life.

    The student learns to apply the data by demonstrations, thinking of examples, doing practical exercises and by being tested on his understanding. Having done this, the student can feel confident about using the data in everyday life.

    Other means to balance the significance of the written materials with real-world substance are to watch videos on the subject; to make drawings, diagrams and models; and to either watch demonstrations of the methods of application of the subject or preferably to have the chance to directly put them into action through practical exercises.

    If there is insufficient opportunity to apply the ideas taught in the course in exercises that simulate real world situations, this causes an imbalance: a frustration that “it’s all significance but no practice.” 

    Data need to be evaluated. Just because some text book tells you something doesn't mean that you should accept it. It might still be blatantly false, it might have nothing to do with you, or you might need to adjust the datum for your own use.

    Evaluating how data apply to you is also an excellent tool for increased understanding. If you look at how each piece of information relates to your situation you have a realistic way of grasping it. You can fit it into your frame of reference as you go along.

    Today, education is biased toward thought instead of action. The idea of action in relation to many subjects may be quite foreign to many students. Formal education frequently allows students to mouth words and descriptions which mean nothing to them. The student can recite or write the answers in the correct words, then the teacher assumes that the pupil knows all there is to know about the subject. On the surface this appears to be a form of education, but in terms of Mind Development it is not. Here, we are not concerned with the mere recapitulation of facts, students are expected to USE facts.

    Modern education neglects drills. Mostly it consists of grasping something in a stumbling sort of way. This becomes the foundation of the next thing to be learned, and the process continues resulting in little practical ability at the end of the course. The concept of ‘overlearning’ has been lost. Instead this is replaced with ‘oversignificance,’ an endless sequence of intellectual information that because it has not been put into practice is very soon forgotten.

    To learn to sing, play an instrument, learn a new language or think with a trained mind, and to do this with above average ability, requires hundreds of hours of practice, much of which is in the form of repeated exercises or drills. This requirement for drills cannot be bypassed if you wish to gain positive gains in ability. 

    In the army, considerable time is spent taking your gun to pieces and putting it back together again, and similar types of activity. Likewise in singing there is practice, practice, practice. When a behavior or skill is overlearned it tends to become automatic, furthermore it cannot be disrupted in stressful situations. The gunner will be able to repair his gun in the stress of battle and the singer will not be put off her stroke by anything that happens among the audience. 

    New habits require new connections in the brain and this requires work in the form of practical exercises. The exercises rely on the principle of overlearning for their force.

    The human mind consists of layers of programs (a special kind of habit), all of which have been overlearned until they are automatic. An aspect of Mind Development consists of adding additional layers of programming and programs of greater effectiveness. To become automatic and to operate naturally and appropriately, these programs must be overlearned, and this is done by practicing an exercise until competence is easy and no longer requires conscious effort. 

    Similarly, if new skills are not exercised in everyday life, but instead the old habits are reverted to, the skills will be forgotten and lost. Whatever you are studying, look for ways that you can apply the ideas in your life and then do just that, try them out and see what works best for you. This will also serve to expose any misunderstandings you have about the meaning of the materials - if a principle doesn’t apply and work for you in the real world then either the principle isn’t applicable and is therefore itself at fault or you have not fully grasped the principle and so are not able to apply it as intended. With well-researched materials it will normally be the latter, so then you go back and revise your understanding.

  4. Filling in the gaps
    With a well designed course you move ahead one step at a time. Indeed, you can accomplish anything if you can lay out the steps from where you are to where you want to go and then follow the steps one by one. When you study something on the correct gradient, each step is designed to include a little bit more than the step before it. It will require you to understand, know and be able to apply the preceding steps and therefore it demands more of you. If you follow all the steps you will end up with the level of skill and accomplishment you want.

    It is impossible to succeed in studying a subject if the course has missing information in a step, or one or more missing steps, or in general, too steep a learning curve. The solution here is to communicate with the tutor, to obtain the missing information or to request intermediate steps that explain more simply and clearly how to achieve a practical outcome. If this kind of communication is not possible, then one needs to obtain further materials on the subject by other authors, that provide the missing information and explanations.

    Often, however, it is not so much the study materials that are at fault as that a chronic condition has arisen in which there have been many misunderstood words. These leave a significant blank in the understanding of the student, so that further information in a later stage of the course then seems incomprehensible, and the student is likely to feel alienated from the course and critical of it. Eventually this may lead to the point where the student leaves the course (or is expelled) and he or she may be reluctant to ever attempt to study the same subject again.

    In a traditional system of education, the child has to stay in school as a legal requirement. The above effects are likely to occur, but because the students cannot withdraw from the course they instead withdraw their interest and attention. They will in essence set up a sub-personality, capable of receiving and remembering words and giving them back on demand. Frequently, formal schooling teaches a student how to be there without actually attending to what is being taught. When a student is operating on a sub-personality in this way, he may be a quick student who can learn the verbal content of a course quite rapidly and be able to pass examinations, but this information will soon be forgotten and he will be unable to apply any of it in his everyday life.

    The key to testing a student’s understanding is through demonstration, either through small representative objects on the desk, with drawings and diagrams, with modeling, or using the actual objects under discussion. Any verbal glibness will disappear and a real level of understanding will take place. Why is this so? Students who have gone through their educational career by memorizing words, are still able to sustain an attitude that the subject does not really have anything to do with them. This is a stance that many people have taken in relation to arts subjects, history, religious knowledge and literature. The student is not there in a complete sense, he is playing a tape recording of what he has heard. However, the moment you say: “demonstrate that,” his playback mechanism is overridden. A student actually has to be there in order to manipulate objects in order to illustrate his understanding of a principle.

    If you study something at too steep a gradient you will be hit by confusion and overwhelm. In a state of confusion you need to grab hold of something that is certain and fixed, and from there to reorient yourself. So, if your studies bog down, go back to the point where you were doing well, clear up your understanding (defining misunderstood words with the help of dictionary and encyclopedia and testing your understanding of principles by demonstration) and if possible recognize where you went off the tracks before, and then start off again from that point.

    Any subject can seem confusing at first. But as you build up a structure of clearly understood information it will become less and less confusing. In studying you are building up a structure of accepted realities about the subject. As that structure expands, you will become more and more able to handle confusions in the subject.

How to study a Mind Development course
It should be noted that left-brain dominant student will tend to approach a course in a linear mode. He will start with the first item and work on it, then go on to the second, and so on, until he reaches the end. In contrast a right-brained approach is cyclic: the student will sample the course at various entry points; he may even start at the end and work backward, and he will do a little bit of this and a bit of that, working through the course several times. There is a lot to be said for a cyclic approach if all the materials are eventually covered, but not if material is missed out, because a well-designed course is hierarchic in structure, one skill facilitating the next one. With this in mind I would suggest to you the following:

  1. Firstly, you should read through the material like a novel, to get a general overview and see what’s coming. As you do this it is important that unfamiliar words are looked up in a dictionary, in order to gain a full understanding of the theory and what is expected.

  2. Then you should start work on the course. Ideally, because the course is hierarchic in nature, you should begin with the first item, and continue in the given sequence. A plateau of performance should be reached on each item before moving on to the next. That is, reach a level of competence that you’re satisfied with and then move on (to return later on the next run through the materials).

Irrespective of his or her IQ, a student tends to have a specific level of competence. This is a level of cognitive function at which he or she feels capable and complete. We tend to be successful in avoiding situations that could cause us to operate above this level. In fact we learn to be so good at this that we are seldom made to feel thick or stupid. However, Mind Development will only work if you are continually pushed beyond your level of competence. Frequently this will make you feel stupid. This feeling of stupidity is the result of a barrier. This is indeed your feedback as to the existence of the barrier and with this awareness you are in a position to understand and deal with it. By diligently practicing the appropriate exercise you will finally pass through this barrier and move on to a higher level of competence. Further work will push you to the limit of this new level, and so on.

Unless a student has done at least 75 hours work on a course they cannot be said to have done it. Some students may require 150 hours to reach a good end point, that is sufficient to be able to apply the skills in their everyday life with unconscious competence. You are attempting to change the bad habits of a lifetime and these habits cannot be changed in a day.

Work in the purely mental dimension may appear to produce sudden results; work at this level is directed toward getting a student to change his mind. Once a student has let go of a fixed viewpoint, he has changed his mind, and if the correct fixed viewpoint has been discovered the mental block would dissolve away. It can happen suddenly because all the student has to do is change his/her mind. Working on the level of mind will handle attitudes, emotions, and unwanted sensations and pains. It can improve certain types of memory, particularly long-term memory of personal experience. Forgotten skills and even languages can be recovered. But these are rapidly lost unless an educational stage is applied, as soon as possible after the release. Otherwise much behavior will remain unchanged, as behavior is given force by habit. These are the limitations of all therapies which work solely at the level of mind and ignore the dimension of behavior. Unless this further dimension is addressed, case gain will be subjective only.

The brain is the servant of the mind. Pathology has shown cases where an individual has lost the ability to read and write through an injury to the left hemisphere of the brain, but has been able to regain this ability by training other parts of the brain to take over this function.

This fact is important. The mind can influence the brain, and the brain is only a tool of the mind - its most important tool but only a tool nonetheless. We can improve the tool and enhance its function.

By and large, therapies operating at the level of mind produce effects at that level. To produce change at the level of brain (behavior and performance change) requires appropriate exercises and practical drills. And the amount of change is directly proportional to the frequency, intensity and duration with which these techniques are applied. “The only way out is the way through.” 

GOLDEN RULE: When studying a Mind Development course, and indeed, whenever reading passages that you want to understand and make use of, make sure never to pass by a word or concept that you do not understand. If you do pass by a misunderstood word or concept, the rest of the text will probably become incomprehensible, and you will feel distracted and bored. If it's worth reading at all, then you owe it to yourself to define any word you're not sure of, or find the misunderstood word in the concept that is unclear and sort that out before going further. If your studies bog down, go back to where you were doing well, clear up your understanding and start off again from that point.

When you want to learn something (or you need to learn it), nothing much happens until you do something - some practice, repetition perhaps, and learning from your mistakes. Of course the given exercises are of primary importance. Also you can summarize information, explain it to someone else (and to yourself!), test yourself on what you remember, apply it to solve problems, etc. It’s then important to digest and make sense of what you’ve done, to deepen your learning. This is reinforced when you get feedback: other people’s reactions, praise, or criticism. The feedback helps to clarify what you still need to learn, how best to go about some further practice, and so on.

Most important of all, it is essential to apply what you have learned in your daily life, and to continue doing so until it has become an installed habit. It is said to require typically 21 such applications to install a new habit. Without this process - which applies to all that you learn including insights from your personal development - new information is ephemeral and makes little difference to your behavior and success in the long term. But with conscious and focused application of what you learn, anything is achievable in your life!


1. Introduction
2. Barriers to Learning
3. Setting Objectives
4. Reading Techniques
5. Key Word Noting
6. More on Note-Taking
7. Associative Networks
8. Asking Questions & Listening
9. Thinking Clearly
10. Word Definitions
11. Defeating the Decay of Memories
12. Physical Learning
13. Sight, Sound, Action...
14. The Decision to Fail
15. What's Next?


Copyright © 2004 Gregory Mitchell - Published by Trans4mind

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