Study tips: Making connections when learning

Finance processes all have many applications and multiple interactions – so studying them in isolation can give a skewed view of how they all interact.

Looking at things synoptically – a “bird’s eye view” can be a good way of thinking of it – can help you apply knowledge and understanding to unfamiliar situations.

So how best to make connections – and what are the tips from the experts?

Apply the information to a real-life situation

“Interdisciplinary study can help students to make connections between ideas and concepts from across a range of subjects,’ says Teresa Folkes, Associate Director, Professional Development at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

“Sometimes,” Folkes says, “connections between your topics are clear. But if it’s not, consider applying the information to a real-life situation.”

Using information in this way “can help you to visualise the links between subject matters, as it’s rare that a situation would only require thinking from a certain area of knowledge.”

When learning as a professional, Folkes adds, “it’s also important to remember that knowledge is not necessarily about knowing everything, but knowing who knows what.” To maximise this, Folkes suggests “building your knowledge network through other professionals who have expertise that can help you.”

Learn from your mistakes

Jenny Hulme, a journalist who co-writes books with academic educationalists, takes up this point. “Make the most of your tutor before you start to write. You can learn about what went well – or not – with the last assessment, and make sure you don’t repeat the same mistakes.”

If your challenge is to make connections between disparate subjects, there are two things you can do.

First is to put this directly to your tutor and ask them what kind of connections need to be made and how you would go about doing it.

The second “is to make sure you have a really good brief. Without that, you are always second-guessing. If you know what it is that you’re supposed to be looking for, it’s much easier to find it.”

To write well, you need to have that really good brief. “By building up a good relationship with your tutor – having the confidence to ask questions, saying if you don’t understand something, and feeling enabled to speak in your own voice – you are a good part of the way there.”

For Hulme, the best way to discover connections between things is to look for impacts, instead of feeling that you are passively researching a subject.

“Students can feel inhibited when they’re writing assessments. This sense of inhibition can transmit to your learning, and infect it with self-doubt. If you see the lecturer as someone who will tell you if you’re right or wrong, you will be going down the wrong path. Instead, have a discussion with them about impacts. What impacts on something else? How has this particular subject affected another? Be dynamic with your learning.”

Extracting insights

Making connections is thus a dynamic process. “You can’t just look at the data and expect the information to tell you what you want,” says Justin O’Brien, Co-Director for Student Experience at Royal Holloway, University of London.

“We tend to develop working hypotheses and look to prove or disprove an association between a small number of variables as a first step. Of course, often the question and to be honest the answer are already known.  The data analysis is to validate a preconception.”

This means that “critical time should be spent flushing out what is expected and the format of the ideal answer.” O’Brien’s advice “is not just to rely on looking at the numbers. Useful insight can be gained without necessarily doing deep analysis, but from sharp, wider contextual analysis.”

O’Brien points out that many of humanity’s greatest advances have come from making connections where none were expected.

“The inspiration supposedly for uncovering the structure of DNA came from jumping over a fence on the way home,” he says. “However – I think this was a dressed-up story that hid months of painstaking lab-based research.”

Knowing how to handle data is also important. “If you’re going to extract data, you’ve got to have a question in the first place,” says Dan Kelsall, Founder at Vonkel, a digital recruitment app.

“So work out what question it is that you’re trying to answer.”

If you look at a question, Kelsall says, “you need the ability to see which bits of the data answer the question.” Training your brain to have this ‘birds-eye view’ of the information in front of you is not straightforward, but can become second nature once you’re in the rhythm of it.

“90% of the data in front of you might not be relevant. Always have that question you’re trying to answer in the forefront of your mind,” Kelsall says. “How will that data get me there? If it doesn’t answer your question, it isn’t relevant.”

Additional techniques

Finally, create emotional connections between the areas you’re looking at. “As humans, we are programmed to recognise familiar situations from a young age – our brains automatically detect this,” says Teresa Folkes.

“Unfamiliar situations can confuse us and disrupt our thinking if not approached in the correct way. Creating an emotional connection with the people or project that you’re working on can help to focus your mind onto what matters in the situation, and where you can play your part.”

In an unfamiliar situation, Folkes argues, “it’s important to look at the things that are familiar and seek connections, rather than seeing the situation as entirely new.”

Beyond your studies, “this is a great professional skill to have – building a resilience to adversity, especially if you find yourself thrown into new and unfamiliar environments.”

Making connections – top tips

  • Look for the familiar in order to make connections. How does one area link to another? If different elements have a natural fit, this gives you clues.
  • Be open to seeing proof of the unexpected. “Often looking for outliers and exceptions and trying to understand why they are so – beyond the validity of the data – is important,” says Justin O’Brien.
  • Use exercise and mindfulness. Keeping the body as active as the mind is vital when studying. The brain needs oxygen to work at full capacity and spot connections when they emerge.

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Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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