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Learn More by Studying Less: Learning by Association, Metaphor, Analogies

Updated on August 6, 2013
Girl studying
Girl studying | Source

Don't you have to work really hard to get good grades?

Not necessarily. In this Hub I'll show that learning effectively, in shorter time slots, is the most effective method for getting good grades.

My reasoning is largely influenced by the theories of Cal Newport at Study Hacks and Scott Young, whose work I'll sum up and add to here. Cal believes that free time is critical to success, while Scott boasts that he rarely needs more than half an hour to study for an exam.

Both of these learning gurus suggest similar ways of studying efficiently in a short time, and both emphasise the importance of association, metaphor, and analogy.

What is required to learn things well in little time?

In this post I will explain how useful the following can be in learning:

  • Association
  • Explaining aloud
  • Metaphors
  • Analogies

However, it's important to stress the following guidelines now (they'll help you, I promise):

  1. Learn it first time round. It may work for some people, but try not to leave the techniques I outline below until the morning of the exam. The people who leave everything until the last moment generally learn concepts the first time round, or lose their chances of exceptional grades. As soon as you are given information to learn, start doing the techniques I outline in this article. This will save you so much time in the long-term, particularly if you spend a minute or so revisiting the information occasionally before the exam.
  2. Memorisation is not your friend. Only memorise when it is absolutely necessary. Too many students use it as their main tool of learning, and use excessive time and effort in the process. Medical students and legal scholars may require more memorisation use, but it's still best to consider learning information properly.
  3. Find out what works for you. This may entail thinking about concepts in a visual, colourful way. Alternatively, you may like to explain what you're learning out loud. You may even use expressive dance for your studying purposes. I won't judge this, I promise. Think about what's got you your best results in the past, and try to recreate the techniques used (except perhaps if it involved last-minute cramming).


Learning through association

Our brains work by linking ideas together. Memories trigger other memories, and facts trigger other facts, no matter how different they may at first seem. Memorisation, or rote learning, is a very difficult way for our brains to store information. Instead, we want to make as many connections between ideas as possible, and therefore maximise our chances of recalling it (be it in an exam or three years later).

When learning a new idea, ask yourself the following:

  1. How does this information relate to the other things I've been studying on the course?
  2. How does it relate to what I've learnt on other courses?
  3. How does it relate to things I've seen on TV, observed in real life, or read in books?

When doing this, by all means think outside the box - this can be the most effective way to learn something. For instance, if I were studying Alexandre Dumas's great novel The Count of Monte Cristo, I could think about the TV show Revenge and the similar themes both entail.

One of the most useful ways to learn through association is to make a mind-map of the course you are studying. Put down on paper everything you remember, and draw links between as many aspects as you can. These links can exist for any reason whatsoever, no matter how obscure.

Consider a relaxing, distraction-free study area for minimal distraction.
Consider a relaxing, distraction-free study area for minimal distraction. | Source

Be able to teach it

Being able to teach something, or explain it to somebody else in basic terms, indicates that you have learned the material. Choose a concept that you've been studying, and try to explain it to yourself or another person in the most simple way you can.

Explain how the idea progresses, and ideally associate it with other information you're learning or have learned. This will allow you to really get a feel for the information, and will show you the gaps in your knowledge that need covering.

Use metaphors

This may seem childish, but using metaphors works, particularly when you're grappling with really complex material. Take a concept you're struggling with, and ask yourself: what is this like? Think in terms of images, objects, people, feelings, and colours. Does the word, idea or fact compare to something more familiar that is already in your mind?

If you're learning languages, Memrise is a great online learning platform that encourages the creation of metaphors. Read my Hub about it here.


Use analogies

This is another way to get your head around complex facts and concepts, and it also demands as much originality as you can muster. To analogise something, you need to think, "this is like when..." and apply any comparison that comes to mind (within reason, I must add).

It's fine to use the end of Series 5 in Desperate Housewives as an example. You just need to explain why the two concepts are similar, and understand how the concept you're learning actually works. Once again, try to create your analogies out loud.


Linking ideas together helps you learn more efficiently, and it is a faster process than memorisation. Revisit the links that you make little and often, and you'll be sure to remember what you need for an exam. Learning by association can also lead to the most original essay or exam answers - therefore, try it for yourself!

Does learning by association help you?

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