www.thoughtfulstudent.com

Welcome. This site will present tutorials on Web development, computer programming, and music theory. Future additions will include pages on math, science, and languages, in a format that will emphasize PSAT, SAT, ACT, CLEP, and AP preparation.

I have some general advice about learning and studying, presented on this page. It is simple, but important.


 


Writing is the most powerful tool we have.

Keep paper and pens with you constantly, and make a habit of using them.
(I have nothing against computers. I'll come back to them in a minute.)

The first thing that makes writing so important is that both short-term and long-term memory are too poor to depend on, even if your own memory is very good by comparison to that of other people. Write down your questions, ideas, thoughts, plans, or wishes when they occur to you. Otherwise, most of them will swiftly vanish. The ones that stick with you will only return once in a while, and you may never get around to acting on them.

Notice that I listed several things to write down, and not just "ideas" or "thoughts." Some of you might think that you never get any ideas. But questions are actually more important than answers, because they always come first. And clear, finished ideas always begin as foggy, incomplete notions. Arriving at a good idea usually involves considering -- and rejecting, modifying, or rearranging -- numerous weak or incorrect ideas.

I included "wishes", because wishes are often the mothers of invention, especially if you already have some notion about how to make them happen. "Complaints" are the same thing as wishes, if you put them in a positive form. For example, if you are interested in computer programming: every wish or complaint you have while you are using existing software is an idea for your own programs. Write them down, and you are much more likely to keep them in mind. A solution or close alternative might be immediately obvious to you. If not, one is likely to come together for you as you continue to study -- and the problem itself might guide the direction of your study.

If you happen to be interested in writing any kind of fiction, poetry, or song lyrics, the wildest (or most mundane) wishes or "what if" questions that pop into your head can potentially be great ideas.




A second reason that writing is crucial is that we can really only think about one thing at a time. When it seems as though you are thinking about more than one thing at a time, you are really jumping back and forth between things, or doing one thing by reflex while you think about another.

Writing puts ideas in a concrete form, which we can rearrange in whatever way we please. That can help us see relationships that we may never see by using thought alone. Writing helps us organize and reorganize large sets of related ideas that we cannot even begin to keep in mind all at once.


Now, back to the subject of taking notes on computers. Paper and computers both have strengths and weaknesses, which still balance fairly evenly (though computers are gaining every year). This is not a matter of "paper versus computers." You should use both.

The main weakness of computers is that they are not always immediately at hand and ready. The problem with that is, you are likely to forget things if you wait even a few moments to write them down. When you write on paper, you have an immediate hard copy. And paper still makes it easier to sketch any sort of diagram that you wish.

Write on a computer if you happen to have one in front of you, and especially if you are in the middle of reading an electronic book of any kind. I suggest using one big text file at a time, rather than trying to juggle many files in several different folders.

It also seems obvious that writing by hand is necessary when we are learning -- and practicing -- anything that requires written symbols. The physical act of writing plays the largest part in learning a set of symbols. The simple reason is that learning to write them forces us to examine them much more closely than most of us are inclined to when someone just says "compare these and remember them all."

That is especially true of foreign alphabets, mathematical symbols, and music notation. However, there are exceptions. Writing computer code by hand is beneficial, but not essential. Computer code, however, is keyboard oriented to start with.


If you have never made a habit of keeping paper at hand constantly, you will quickly realize the benefits once you start.

If you have a lot of interests, and if you read a lot, you are quickly going to have a lot of notes. Use loose-leaf notebook paper. Put the date at the top of every page. When you fill a page, store it in a large three-ring binder. (Stand the binder on its open end, so that the pages are hanging, and they will stay flatter, rather than curling against the rings.)

If you have more ideas and interests than you can possibly find time for, I sympathize. All I can suggest is that learning how to make efficient use of your time, and how to set goals and reach them, is also going to involve constant writing. It is yet another subject to study, often called "time management."


 


Read as many books as you reasonably can.

Do not depend entirely on any individual book, regardless of the subject.
No author knows everything, and authors' abilities to explain a subject vary widely.

Do not stop with the books that happen to be on the shelves at your library, or the nearest bookstores. Both are determined largely by chance, rather than careful selection by people with great interest in each subject. You want to find the very best.

However, while every subject has its great books, there is no case in which a single book or set of books can be called complete, or above all others. Every subject can be organized in different ways. Every subject can be approached from different angles. Every subject has many fields of specialization.

Few books are near perfect, but many are good. And even a book that is quite bad may contain one or two very good ideas or bits of information that you do not find anywhere else.

For those reasons, if you ask an expert what to read, they are not likely to respond quickly with a list of titles, and may have to think for a while before they name one. Even books that are classics in a field cannot usually be recommended without reservations, especially to a beginner.

Experts in any subject read many different books, take various ideas from each, and continually refine and reorganize those ideas in their own way, or ways. You should too.

Take written notes as you read. Writing encourages you to think. Highlighting or underlining only messes up a book. Use pages separate from your general notes, and clearly label them with the title, author, and (your own) page number. When you quote an author or paraphrase them closely, use quotation marks, and the page number from the book. If you don't do that, it will often be difficult later to distinguish your own ideas from theirs.

Often, the most useful part of a book is its bibliography. A bibliography may list important books that you have never heard of. Even weak books sometimes have good bibliographies. Write down titles and authors that sound promising, especially any that seem to be mentioned often.

Biographies can be very informative, in addition to being interesting or inspiring. Sometimes they include entire chapters about the schooling, ideas, working methods, practice habits, or teaching methods of the person in question. They may mention specific books that the person regarded as valuable.


 

Use your local library, and its website.

Your local library probably participates in an interlibrary loan program. That means that your local library can borrow books from other libraries.

I can go to my library's website, search a database that covers 378 libraries, and place a hold on almost any non-reference book. When it becomes available (usually quite quickly), it is mailed to my local library. I can also search the Statewide Illinois Library Catalog, give a title and author to my librarian, and have them request the book for me. When I am looking for a particular book, I am rarely disappointed.

(However, textbooks and technical manuals are not usually obtained by libraries immediately. For those, I recommend visiting the Web sites of particular publishers. Some of them have on-line libraries of their publications, accessible for a reasonable fee, or low-priced electronic editions. Quite a few new or recent technical books have on-line versions available for free: see my Links page.)

Your library's website may also provide access to one or more commercial databases that store articles from newspapers and magazines -- decades of them, covering every topic and hobby.

Libraries also have CDs, DVDs, and other media. (Not just documentaries, but everything under the sun, including rock albums and concert films.)

When a book contains more information than you can possibly take from it in two or three weeks, copy it, in one way or another. In some cases, it may be worthwhile to type some or all of a book as you read it. If you do not have a scanner, a digital camera also works well. Position the book under a good lamp, so you have enough light. You usually need rather large clips of some sort to hold the book open. (My own method is to use a guitar capo on the right side of the book, hold the left pages with my hand, and snap the picture with my right. A stand designed to hold a book open would make it a lot easier.) For books of average width and height, you can get perfectly readable images of two pages at once, and even zoom them to much larger than actual size.


 


Keep a dictionary at hand constantly.

A dictionary is useful in everday life, not just when you are reading or writing. A dictionary often provides quick answers to common questions. (They are not as thorough or all-encompassing as Wikipedia or Google. But they are often the easiest place to look first.) Most dictionaries include usage notes that provide concise, unbiased answers to questions about grammar: for example, try looking up "split infinitive," "preposition," "plural," or "possessive."

A dictionary is a fairly thorough list of every idea known to mankind. It can be useful to check how dictionaries define important terms that belong to a particular subject that you are studying. The definitions will sometimes be more informative than those presented in the books you've read. And the words used in the definitions may introduce you to concepts or important people that you have not yet discovered.

Words are the main tools we use to think. The more precisely you use words, the clearer your own thoughts are likely to be.

Words are the main tools we use to communicate. The more precisely you use words, the quicker and more certainly your audience will understand what you are trying to say. Be aware that words can be misused, abused, and misunderstood. That will make you less likely to jump to conclusions about what others say. And it will make you quicker to notice when you need to clarify your own statements by revising them, or by repeating them in another form.

I recommend "The American Heritage College Dictionary," or "The Oxford American Dictionary." Whatever dictionary you use, try to find one that includes pronunciations, usage notes, and etymologies (word histories). The history of a word can help explain its meaning, and distinguish it from similar words.

An unabridged dictionary would be nice to have, for cases when you know a word exists but your regular dictionary does not include it. But I would not suggest using one as your main dictionary, because they include much more information than you generally need.

Dictionaries for specific fields can also be useful for finding terms that are not included in regular dictionaries. But you should be careful about using such a dictionary or encyclopedia as the center point of your study. Keep in mind that they usually include concepts from different eras, different cultures, and different schools of thought. Do not think that all the ideas presented fit together as one system.