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This might not be the best place for this question, but I don't know where else to turn. I'm a 32 year guy currently doing a bachelors in biochemistry. I'm definitely doing a masters after this, and maybe a phd.

My problem is that I am an insanely slow reader, and learner. I can easily spend an hour on 1-2 pages of something complex like physical chemistry, statistics or biochemistry. With the steady rise in difficulty and curriculum, I can't see how I am going to get by, considering I already spend 75 hours a week of active studying/labs/reports etc. (don't get my wrong, this is my life, and I do love it!).

Slow reading speed is an issue, but I believe the problem mostly comes down to processing what is being said. I need to go super slow to understand. The problem is also compounded by the fact that I am a perfectionist, with a very strong urge to "get it right", and "cover everything". It should be noted that the problem is also present during lectures, so it's not quite the written word that seems to be the main problem.

Questions I ask my self are: Am I being too meticulous? Do my peers actually understand the stuff faster than me, or do they simply accept failing to understand, and then move on? Should I be doing the same? Is my reading technique wrong? Am I just not intelligent enough for this?

Does anyone have any tips on how to tackle this problem? Can anyone relate, and if so, what helped you?

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  • To give you another perspective: If you really want to try to get a PhD later, this way of working might actually be very beneficial for you, as you will be able to dive deep into a specific topic! For the time being, especially during your bachelor studies, it may, however, be helpful from my experience to at least sometimes accept failing to understand, trying to take away the bottom line, and moving on. The deeper understanding of some topics will inevitably come through application and experience - and, of course, future studies.
    – pbaer
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 11:32
  • @pbaer Thanks. Yes, this is also in line with what I am thinking. It's no doubt that I know a lot of details my peers do not. The challenge lies in balancing the "need to know" and "good to know" when I'm first going through a text
    – Quantonium
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 12:04
  • The "75 hours per week" might be the central problem here: it doesn't leave much time for organizing to have a healthy diet, nor for getting enough sleep, and either can dramatically impair your cognitive function. Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 16:20
  • @DanielHatton This is true in most cases, but I don't think it's true in my case. I focus a lot on eating healthy, make all my food from scratch, exercise daily, and sleep (almost) all I need. I just don't do anything else than work besides that. Thanks for the input though.
    – Quantonium
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 5:08

3 Answers 3

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I think the situation you describe is common.

From my perspective, I think there is a diminishing return of comprehension in the sense that (generally speaking), the percentage increase in understanding from 0%-75% can typically be down fairly quickly, the next 10-20% takes longer, and it's that final 5% than can take years or a lifetime.

Having worked in industry for close to 10 years and now pursuing a PhD, I try to balance the executive mindset ('get me the main idea as fast as possible') and the specialized researcher mindset ('understand it enough to discover something new') depending on the purpose of my reading. If it's to complete a mandatory task/assignment I don't find interesting, I'm 'executive reading'. If it's to improve my thesis or for something I'm going to publish, I'm 'researcher reading'. I have no doubt you'll learn this balance with experience.

Finally, I'd close with a joke that I think highlights how slowly one must process information can vary by application:

A mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer are riding a train through Scotland. The engineer looks out the window, sees a black sheep, and exclaims, "Hey! They've got black sheep in Scotland!" The physicist looks out the window and corrects the engineer, "Strictly speaking, all we know is that there's at least one black sheep in Scotland." The mathematician looks out the window and corrects the physicist, " Strictly speaking, all we know is that is that at least one side of one sheep is black in Scotland." (Source)

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  • Haha, good joke! I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on the matter. I definitely think you're right in that I need to (and will, now that I'm aware of it) develop the skill of choosing when to put effort into truly understand something, and when not to.
    – Quantonium
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 14:55
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Perhaps you are putting too much focus on reading. But, especially, too much focus on learning something from a single reading. Reading is fairly passive. The goal is to make the learning more "active". In particular, a single reading provides no reinforcement of what is read, leading at best to shallow learning.

So, working over a paper in the way you suggest seems to be a way to achieve some reinforcement, but by looking through a microscope. You have something like the blind wise men encountering an elephant problem.

There are a couple of ways to attack this. The first is to do multiple readings with different objectives each time. The first is mostly just a skim to get to the author's main results or claims. Then several re-readings go deeper, filling in what you pick up on earlier readings. It helps, in multiple ways, if you take notes on each reading, especially noting questions that you have and things that aren't yet apparent. Subsequent readings try to answer some of those questions, though they may also generate more questions.

The second way is to try to apply what you have read in some way. Textbook learning comes with exercises that are intended to reinforce the learning and you don't have that available, but you can discuss a paper with a colleague or two and try to explain it to them.

Note that all of these suggestions are reinforcement mechanisms, and reinforcement is essential to learning. The second one also provides the opportunity to get feedback, another essential element.

And I recognize that this may not reduce the required time. Its focus is on effectiveness, not false notions of efficiency. Some things are hard.

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  • I think what you're saying is right. I often find that understanding develops in all areas throughout the semester, rather than being 100% fully formed the day I read about a certain concept. What you say about rereading is, I think, a good idea if done correctly. Rereading can give a false impression of mastery, simply by recognition instead of actually recalling the information. However, the way you describe it sounds like a good idea. Essentially, get the "big picture"/"lay of the land" by skimming/pre-reading, and then go for the details, trying to iron out your misunderstandings.
    – Quantonium
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 14:43
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I had a similar problem while studying and gave myself a really hard time about it until I realized a few things. First, the way you read is very important. I’m also a slow reader so I try to draw out as much information from the text without actually reading it. I would just read the first sentences in each chapter to get the context and write down all words marked with bold letters. Then I would try to understand the definition of these. Not completely understand them, but enough to join them with the context. Before I learnt this technique I would postpone this until the end of the semester. However, it is very important to have a clear idea of the terms that are used as early as possible.

Second, I would try to read more into the context and try to link things together.

Third, I would look at the questions asked in that weeks assignment and see if I had an idea of wether I knew the answer or knew where I could find it.

Fourth, if I felt the need to to read the text multiple times I would rather try to do something else to let it process in the back of my mind. Before that I would write down what I had gotten from the text by now, so that I would have something to look back on later.

I could add things to this list, but in general I would say to try to not overwhelm yourself with information. If you are slow at processing the information you could get easily lost in the text and miss the most important information. Reading the text from a to z may be interesting, but it takes a long time and you should practice ways to extract the most important information first. If your interested you can dive deeper into some topics of your choice.

I also want to say that study technique is very individual and comparing yourself to your peers is a bit unreasonable. I think that as long as you feel like the hours you put in are worth your time, that’s what matters. I you feel like it takes away time from other things you’d rather be doing, then you should explore other options.

You may be right that some of your peers are not learning the subject properly. This is at least my experience. I think that our urge to read thoroughly is the best in the end in terms of learning outcome. Also I find that reading the first chapters of a book well makes it easier to understand later chapters inthe book. However, if you don’t learn how to also use some short-cuts, this technique ends up becomming very exhausting and can lead to burnout. The best is therefore a bit of both.

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  • I appreciate you sharing your experience. What you say most definitely resonates with what I feel about my own learning, and how I intend to proceed further. I think especially the "linking" aspect is crucial. Up until now, all I've focused on is trying to get the details, but not seeing the big picture. Arguably, both are important, but the first step should obviously be the big picture, as you say.
    – Quantonium
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 5:39
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    Glad I could help! I’m also happy to see that I’m not the only one «suffering» from this, although I think it’s something most people experience to some degree. I also realized that I simply did not have the time or energy to continue the same way as before. I only had a few hours every week to get through the material if I didn’t want to fall behind and something had to change. Try to stay a bit ahead of the schedule even though you feel like it compromises your learning outcome. I think they expect less of you than you realize.
    – Unknown
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 6:00

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