Deep Processing: The Most Impactful Study Technique

Deep Processing for Smarter Studying
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What makes a genius?

Throughout our years of experience, we’ve noticed that students often think that the key to being a smarter studier is a specific technique or particular strategy that they can use.

However this is far from the case.

We’re going to talk about the highest impact, highest yield, most important thing you can be doing to increase your studying efficiency.

💭 I remember coaching a student a couple of years ago who had an abysmal studying routine. Her system was a complete mess. Her revision timing, notetaking, study system congruency; everything was far below optimum.

Now, when we see a studying system like this, we typically expect the academic grades to be low to medium at best.

But here’s the kicker.

She was actually one of the top scholars in her entire country. In fact, for one of her subjects, she literally came first 😮

Girl sleeping because she's too smart.
“Being a genius is so boring…”

We see this pattern again and again. High achievers with horrible studying systems. So how do they do it? How do these people, using a studying system that limits them at 30% of their potential, achieve higher than 99% of other students?

Well as the title of this article would suggest, it’s because of something that we call deep processing.

What is deep processing?

To explain what deep processing is and how you can achieve it yourself, let me start by painting a picture of what deep processing is not.

❌ Someone who does not have deep processing would study like this. If someone gives them a red block, the learn that this is a red block. If they are given a yellow block, then they learn that this is a yellow block.

Much of the learning is done by rote. They receive a new piece of information and they take it for what it is.

✅ Someone with deep processing would look at that red block and ask themselves the questions “Why is this block red?”, “What use does this block have?”, “How is this red block different or similar to anything else that I have learnt?”. When they receive the yellow block they ask themselves “How is this related to the red block?”, “In what ways are the yellow and red blocks similar or different?”

They’re trying to discover a pattern, simplification, or underlying logic that binds these pieces of information together.

We’re better at finding patterns when you look for them.

How does deep processing help?

By turning information into logic, they are able to reduce the amount that they need to learn by rote.

🖐 Like a hand is a natural extension of our arm, B becomes a natural extension of A. And just like how we don’t have to memorise that our hand comes from our arm, they no longer have to memorise that B comes after A. It just makes sense.

By reducing the amount we need to memorise, we reduce the cognitive load. Our brain can focus on understanding more information at greater depth, rather than just trying to hammer in information through brute force.

We start to use our brains the way they were meant to be used; to find patterns, shortcuts, and solve problems. When we frame our learning to be a problem to be solved, or actively look for patterns and shortcuts, we activate a part of our brain that evolved to learn with exceptional efficiency. Efficiency means less energy and input for higher output and return.

👀 The ability to look at information as a window through which we can see underlying logic is deep processing. And this underlying logic is commonly referred to as a concept.

How can we do more of it?

When we design our studying techniques and studying systems, we need to maximise the deep processing opportunities and reduce sheer rote learning. A first step is to ask yourself those questions we mentioned above as you learn:

  1. How does this fit in?
  2. Why is it this way?
  3. How does it relate to what I’ve already learned?
  4. So what – why does it matter?

Active learning techniques such as teaching others/imaginary students and creating mindmaps also feature more deep processing opportunities.

It feels more challenging. And that’s a good thing. Research shows that cognitive stress is necessary for effective learning. If you’re falling asleep studying, you’re not learning!

Peacefully ineffective.

In addition, learning is naturally recursive.

That means that something at the end of the chapter might help us remember something at the beginning of the chapter. Our brain will create connections back and forth between the information that we have already learned. It will create hypotheses on information that we have yet to learn. This confusing and sometimes chaotic process is true learning.

When we learn to embrace this form of recursive, connection-focused, concept-oriented learning, we unlock our ability to learn at a dramatically higher level. So much so in fact, that those with a naturally higher level of the processing (usually because of various factors and their childhood and upbringing) can afford to have horrible studying systems and still achieve academically very highly!

Fortunately, when we know how to tap into this method of thinking, we can access a similar level of studying prowess.

💡 A large portion of active learning is to increase the amount of deep processing that we apply while reducing the easier, default methods of passive learning.

To further your understanding of this, be sure to check out this five-part video series, which does an excellent job of exploring deep processing in greater depth. It also talks about some other aspects of studying that are critically important, such as meta-cognition!

What do you think? Do you have any techniques that help you with deep processing?
We’d love to hear your comments or experiences.

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About the author
Justin Sung
Justin Sung
Justin is a medical doctor, University of Auckland graduate, published research author, certified teacher, and founder of JTT. He has assisted thousands of students into healthcare careers since 2011, making him New Zealand's individually most experienced medical entry expert. He regularly works with schools and organisations to help students and professionals learn more effectively.

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