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I need to get some advice on overcoming mental passivity. I have never had efficient study skills before (always managed to be average or above average by cramming), and now that I'm at a top 10 university, I feel the whiplash of having such awful study habits. I fell into a depression last year which really affected my cognitive abilities (to say the least, my confidence) and now I'm just really struggling. When I'm reading a textbook, I'm not asking myself questions or trying to figure out what something means. I feel like I'm just blank, passive and not curious. I also feel that this has slowed down my comprehension and it now takes me nearly a whole day just to read 10 or so pages. I'm trying to reverse all this by trying to envision what it would feel like to be an active thinker, to mentally exert myself but I'm finding that difficult. I thought perhaps if any of you active thinkers out there could give me a description of your mental processes when thinking/actively studying and perhaps some pointers, I would so appreciate it you can hardly imagine!

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The answers on this question may be very useful for you: productivity.stackexchange.com/questions/1206/… –  Rory Alsop Apr 21 '13 at 22:04
did that question help? I am tempted to close this one as a duplicate if that one had what you need. –  Rory Alsop Apr 22 '13 at 10:31
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5 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

It's wrong to think about people as "passive" or "active" thinkers. We're both, only at different times (for example, i'm really passive when i've just woken up, but active after a class). The point is to move from a passive state to an active one, which is a pretty hard process.

I'd advise you to build up a varied study patern: go to classes, read the books, work with others, do the exercises and review your work. If you do this, you'll soon find that some things keep you more active/interested then others.

The thing that help me specifically is working with other people. Just working on an assignment or talking about a subject with someone else can be really clarifying:

  • You have to explain your ideas to them, prompting you to think them over again.
  • they tell you their ideas, giving you fresh input.
  • if you're doing exercises together, you can help each other when stuck.

Regardless if this also works for you, you need to build up a varied study pattern, and sooner or later you'll find a rhythm that works for you.

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Thanks, that sounds extremely helpful! –  munevvar Apr 24 '13 at 2:50
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I don't think it's about your mind being active or passive, but more about knowing how to read a book. Adler's How to Read a Book could be a good start for you. And since the question asks for some practical tips, I am going to share some here as well. Granted I wouldn't call myself an active reader, but I do embrace interactive reading, which to me is a more concrete way of being active.

Also, in your question you didn't mention what kind of books you were reading. If you do let us know, we may be able to give more well-tailored answers. I read mostly non-fiction, technical books, so take my tips accordingly.

  1. Never start reading a non-leisure book immediately from page 1 and on. Before you read any work, it's crucial that you communicate with the authors. The best ways are to i) read the reviews of the book written both by critics and general readers and ii) read the foreword and introduction of a book. When reading these, try to distill a one-sentence summary on what this book is about. Pay attention to those parts like "This book is for people who..." and "This book assumes the knowledge of..." Try your best to size up the authors by getting a good clue on their communication strategies.

  2. Digest the table of contents. After getting the general topography of the book. Then go on and spend some time with the table of contents. Look at how topics are broken down into part, then part into chapter, then chapter into section, then section into sub-section. Your first draft of reading notes (or first mental understanding) will mirror heavily the structure of the table of content, so you can use this chance to set up some "empty mental folder directories" in you mind. Also, notice the repeated section titles: is there always a motivational example? Do the chapter always end with a chapter summary or exercise?

  3. If you will be using the book for a while and will likely read most of it along the semester, then start quickly flip through the book. Spend around 3-5 seconds to browse each page. Don't linger, just let your attention go to things that attract it: title, subtitle, illustration, color, format, photos, etc. No any digestion needed, just flip, flip, flip, cover to cover. If you are just reading a chapter or a part of a book, then you can narrow down the number pages to flip through. The whole exercise is just to develop a familiarity to the work, so that each time you flip a page, it would not be a surprise for you. As you read more and more about the same field of study, this part alone can inform you if a certain chapter is worth reading.

  4. Now, let's start reading a chapter. For most academic books, the authors often use the first paragraph of a chapter to describe the structure of the chapter. For instance: "In section 2.1 we provide a motivational example on why interactive reading is an attractive solution. Then in section 2.2 we present a survey of common interactive reading techniques. Section 2.3... etc." Read that as a road map of what to expect. Flip through the chapter so that you know where the sections are.

  5. Then, read the chapter summary first, which is usually at the back of the chapter. They often contain a short summary of each section, which will help hinting you where the authors are saying. Then, read the exercises or questions, they often provide the reasons of why you would need to know the contents.

  6. The trick of interactive reading is holding a writing utensil when you read. For starters, just practice by marking each paragraph with some evaluation. I use ◎ at the start of a paragraph to denote a very important paragraph. Following that, I use circle to mark relatively important paragraphs; triangle for paragraphs that provide supplementary information that can be ignored in the revision; and a cross for paragraphs that are either old information or got beaten to death. Don't worry if your marking is right or wrong. This is your book, you can paint graffiti in it if you want.

  7. As you get more comfortable with the technique (like after using it in a couple books), you can expand your interactive repertoire by enriching your markings. Read this excerpt of Adler's for inspiration.

Once you have done these steps, you have learned the structure and main points of the book. And if you have done the marking systematically, you have also made an easy reference. I would want to go deeper by talking about keeping a reading notes, but that's highly individualized and perhaps not suitable for this question, unless you only read books from library, which we should not mark.

Some other strayed tips I think may be useful:

  • Take a critical thinking course or read up on the art of reasoning. Being an "active thinker" has a lot to do with being critical, constantly checking the integrity of the arguments.
  • I don't like highlighters, and I minimize the use of it to materials that are absolutely crucial. For i) most highlighters bleed through the paper, ii) the habit provide another deterrent to read, because we may tend to put off reading when the highlighter's ink is used up or we forgot to bring a highlighter.
  • Instead of highlighters, I use color pencils or pencil highlighters (also called bible highlighter), which do not bleed and are much less wasteful.
  • I use a large index card as book mark so that I can write notes on it.
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You're advice is very insightful! I actually have Alder's book (I will admit I am guilty of owning books I have not gone through...) and now you've got me motivated to trying it again as I notice a lot of what you advise is similar to what is stated in the book. Thanks again! –  munevvar Apr 24 '13 at 2:55
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Try gamification. Take some friends and start a studying competition. If you're competitive, that might do the trick.

Personally, when up against really boring/hard stuff, I try to write a study guide/summary of it. It makes what you achieve more tangible, which is valuable. It also makes you reflect on what you understand/don't understand, which lets you formulate questions you can pose to your teacher (or an online community such as this).

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In high school, I used to write summaries for my history class, and come to think of it, always found them useful in remembering the information. Guess I need to try that again. Thanks! –  munevvar Apr 24 '13 at 2:56
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It may be a possibility that the field you are in is out of your interest. Studying from books is not everyone's cup of tea.

  • I think you need to get into a field where you are automatically forced to think.


  • Pursue a field in which you are truly interested in and which does not require cramming books.

For the first point an example would be programming.
For languages like awk, perl, C etc. you just can NOT do anything by cramming. It is simply not possible.
The books will teach you the syntax (which you'll have to cram anyway and will take a day or two), and give a few demonstration examples. That's all. Then there will be a whole sea of problems (questions) which you will yourself have to find a programming solution to.
The solutions to these problems would be sought on the computer. You will SEE your solutions running. I think that will give you great motivation to use your brain further.

For the second point an example would be to pursue a carrier in subjects like Photography, Drawing/Painting where you actually don't have books to cram from.

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There isn't really one "answer" to your question.

I have one suggestion - I just get the sense it may apply particularly - make sure you're getting enough physical exercise. Whatever you enjoy. Preferably with other people, but solo is okay too.

I've found in life very little motivates me as much as this - it increases your level of competitiveness, and helps you "think better"

One other thought - to answer what you asked about "thinking about thinking" - try reading some material by Ed De Bono - e.g. Six Thinking Hats, Serious Creativity and others.

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