Columbia University

Use This Research-backed Trick to Understand Any Subject More Deeply

We all spend well over a decade in school, and while you might quickly forget the date of the battle of Gettysburg or the formula for the area of a trapezoid, you’d hope that you’d at least graduate with a good grasp of how to learn. You can always look up facts, but knowing how to study effectively will serve you well throughout life.

Sadly, the truth is you can’t rely on school to teach you the secrets of fast and efficient learning. Experts attest that the most effective techniques for mastering new concepts are frequently not taught in schools. Often teachers are simply unaware of them, or they don’t fit in with the logistical constraints of the school day.

In short, if you want to learn research-backed study methods, you’re probably going to have to teach yourself.

The latest learning hack to be backed by science

For that reason, I’m always on the lookout for new studies offering new ideas for those looking to perfect their study skills. I recently came across a good one in the form of a PsyBlog post highlighting new research out of Columbia University and recently published in Psychological Science.

What learning hack did the study endorse? Nothing more complicated than arguing with yourself.

No, not out loud like a crazy person. All you need to do to understand any subject more deeply is imagine a skeptical second party and try to fill in their lines in your head, replying to their objections and questions with facts and logic, the study found.

The researchers tested how these sort of internal arguments effected learning by giving students two different activities. All the study participants were handed the same background information on a hypothetical mayoral election, the candidates’ proposed policies, and the problems facing the fictional city. Then one group of learners was asked to write a TV spot promoting one of the candidates. The other was tasked with writing a dialogue between two TV talking heads discussing the election.

When the researchers examined the resultant assignments for factual accuracy and depth of understanding, they found students who had imagined a dialogue were head and shoulders above the rest. When tested, those students also showed a greater mastery of the material they had been given. That was true even though all the students spent exactly the same amount of time on the exercise.

Why is arguing with yourself such an efficient way to learn? “Envisioning opposing views leads to a more comprehensive examination of the issue. Moreover, it impacts how people understand knowledge — constructing opposing views leads them to regard knowledge less as fact and more as information that can be scrutinized in a framework of alternatives and evidence,” explains Julia Zavala, first author on the study.

An idea with gold-plated endorsements

While this is the first I’ve heard of scientific backing for this study technique, other non-academics have recommended something similar for decades. Being able to articulate your opponent’s’ viewpoint is one hallmark of true intelligence, after all. And Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman long ago suggested that the easiest way to master difficult material is to imagine teaching it to an 8-year-old.

That’s not exactly the same thing as dreaming up an opponent in a political debate, of course, but it draws on many of the same processes — imagining another party whose understanding of the subject is entirely different than yours, foreseeing objections or possible points of confusion, and meeting them in a clear and logical way. Plus, while it’s extremely hard to imagine someone who disagrees with the theory of relativity, it’s perfectly easy to imagine someone who doesn’t understand it, making Feynman’s formulation applicable to science, as well as social and political debates.

So next time you’re trying to master difficult material, borrow some flavor of this idea: imagine a skeptical or ignorant second party and try to make them see the subject clearly from your point of view. Research (and at least one really, really smart guy) suggest you’ll come away from the exercise with a much deeper understanding of the subject.

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