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How to actually learn something during lecture: The 5-Minute Brain Dump

Click here to download the free 5-Minute Brain Dump PDF Guide

Here’s a familiar scenario:

You wake up, groggy from a long night of working on your fluids project, which – through no fault of your own – eventually devolved into a weird drinking game based on how long each simulation run would take to converge on a solution. I digress…

You wake up groggy, roll out of bed, and grab what you hope is your Diff Eq notebook.

Thankfully you made it to the lecture hall just in time for the chalkboard scribbling to start.

You’re contently following along, nodding your head as things seem to make sense, and making sure to capture everything you can about how your professor is solving for a system of differential equations using eigenvalues (which in all honesty, doesn’t seem like he’s got a grip on himself).

Flash forward to Friday night.

You’re attempting your practice problems, and for some reason you have no clue what your notes mean. It might as well have been a robot who wrote them in almost the same exact format and jargon-like language as your textbook.

So we sigh, and start from ground zero, trying to figure out what the concepts of the unit mean by reading the textbook, and then slowly and painfully working through your homework problems.

Unfortunately, this is life for most engineering majors. But is it inevitable that we can really only choose one of three?

Photo: quickmeme.com

Or is there a better way?

What you do in lecture is inefficient

What went wrong here?

For starters, fluid mechanics + alcohol = lives destroyed.

But for real, what really went wrong is you went to class cold. Like walking up to the starting line of your 10k race straight off your afternoon nap. Guaranteed pain.

The problem is, that by walking into class without any sort of preparation, your brain is sitting idle, unreceptive to completely foreign concepts like determinants, eigenvectors, and saddle points. By the time you’re neurons come around to the idea of making new connections, class is over and the professor is telling you something you couldn’t quite hear about some sort of midterm next Tuesday.

“Lecturing is that mysterious process by means of which the contents of the note-book of the professor are transferred through the instrument of the pen to the note-book of the student without passing through the mind of either.” ~Harry Lloyd Miller

This may be true, but only because you and the professor enter into a tacit agreement: “If I write it on the board, you’ll copy it down, and then we’ll call it a day.” That doesn’t have to be the case.

Now, we all have at least one completely out of touch instructor who goes on and on about doing the “reading” before class in order to be “prepared” for the lecture.

“Really the lecture should just be a rehashing of ideas you’ve already started to work out for yourself.”

Oh really? How convenient. “Hmm… if I can just figure out a way to get the students to teach themselves… genius!” Maybe that’s why they’ve decided to call themselves “professors” or “instructors” instead of “teachers.” A conspiracy for another day…

This is not what I’m talking about here. Yes, there is a time and place for taking ownership of your own learning, not relying on professors, and using other resources – but that’s a different discussion.

For now, lecture is for learning, and what I’m talking about is taking a dump…

A brain dump that is.

Click here to download the free 5-Minute Brain Dump PDF Guide

The brain dump

Before lecture, take 5 minutes and a blank sheet of paper, and write down absolutely anything you can think of related to the topic of discussion for the day.

It doesn’t matter how idiotic you find yourself (and sometimes I even surprise myself with how idiotic that actually is). Just keep writing, drawing diagrams, or doodling about topics covered in last lecture, what you think eigenvalues are about, or really anything you can possibly think might be related to the upcoming lecture.

And if you’re super-stuck, you can always jump-start your session with a quick Google or Wikipedia search on your phone.

Photo: Wikipedia

Remember, you’re not trying to understand it at this point (and Wikipedia is usually terrible for that anyway), you’re just trying to generate a set of questions or ideas for your brain to latch onto.

What we’re not doing here is proving to ourselves that we’re geniuses and can predict what the professor is about to show us.

What we are doing is 5-fold:

1. Kick starting your mental circuits around the topic and initiating the questioning process

Think for a minute about what’s happening when you start your 5 minutes.

You’re staring at a blank sheet of paper, unsure of what to write down. So you start to ask yourself:

“What’s today about – eigenvalues and eigenvectors? Jesus who the hell knows what those are.”

“What did we cover last time? Uhhh something about systems of equations and matrices… So I guess this is going to be related to that in some way maybe.”

It may not be pretty, but it’s a start. And it gets your brain moving in the right direction.

As it turns out, generating questions for yourself (dialoguing) is one of the best ways to create engagement with new information.

Socrates figured this out 2,000+ years ago, with his innovative method of continually asking questions to tease out logical relationships and clarify thinking. (Although maybe took it a bit too far – he was so annoying to the Athenian people that they ended up murdering him…)

So this means (1) you’ll be generating questions of your own about areas of the material you don’t understand that well (rather than waiting for your professor to “give” you the right questions and answers), and (2) you might actually become curious to figure out the answer.


What you’re really doing is turning lecture into a game or puzzle.

“What the hell is an eigenvalue?”

“What does it have to do with matrices or systems of equations?”

“Is it related to matrix operations – maybe matrix operations for differential systems of equations?”

And for us technical people, if there’s a puzzle left unsolved, we’re gonna figure it out goddamnit. (Case in point: why in the hell do we spend so much time on Sudoku?)

This is a surprisingly effective motivation technique.

SIDE BENEFIT: the ultimate antidote to falling asleep during lecture.

2. Creating an anchor point for new learning

It has become increasingly apparent to researchers, that the only way we really learn, is by attaching new ideas to our “mental models” about the world we already have in our heads.

That’s why it would be virtually impossible to teach a 2nd-grader (or me actually) in any sort of technical detail about Higgs bozon particles and the battle between supersymmetry and multiverse theories of the universe: there’s just no reference point for information of that depth.

But, if you were to first teach them about matter, and atoms, and about how atoms interact, and about subatomic particles and how they interact. And thennn teach them about quantum mechanics and quarks and weird stuff that I still rack my brain over, they’d be able to do much better.

The reason this works is because of a skill-acquisition concept called chunking: organizing new information into a meaningful framework. As Dan Coyle explains in his bestseller on practice and skill development, The Talent Code:

“The goal is always the same: to break a skill into its component pieces (circuits), memorize those pieces individually, then link them together in progressively larger groupings (new, interconnected circuits).”

The more connections or “anchor points” you have available, the quicker you can “chunk” new pieces of information by attaching them to your existing mental frameworks.

A quick brain dump brings those connections to the surface of your consciousness, ready and available to attach to whatever new, unfamiliar concept is about the come flying your way.

3. Quickly (and I mean quickly) identifying exactly what you do and don’t know about a particular topic

It’s oh so easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that we know enough about something to do well on an exam.

Do you ever find yourself saying, “Oh yea, of course that makes sense” while studying, only to embarrassingly leave the first exam question blank and take the walk of shame back to your dorm?

Next time you’re not so comfortable.

Next time you actually test yourself a little and do practice problems beforehand to lessen the blow of a problem like this staring you in the face:


A hard dose of reality is the best gift you can give a student worried about their exam scores. And you can give yourself that gift in 5 minutes.

You’ll often surprise yourself with this exercise, grossly overestimating how much you know about something.

But sometimes, you’ll actually realize you know a lot more than you thought you did. The realization of, “Hey I actually understand some of this” can mean the difference between the downward spiral of “Ugh, I don’t understand any of this so I might as well not even try,” and actually gaining the confidence to tackle what you don’t know.

4. Training your MacGyver-like powers of conjuring understanding out of nothing

Think back to an exam problem that caused you to draw a complete and utter blank. Like an, “I don’t even know where to move my pencil right now,” type blank.

What’s the one thing we all do in that situation?


What if instead, you could train yourself to pull something together out of thin air?

Ask yourself: WWMD? (What Would MacGyver Do?)

Photo: memecenter.com

Well thats exactly what you’re doing with the brain dump.

You’re training yourself, multiple times per week, in each course, to reach deep into your memory and pull out any information you have in there related to the problem or concept you’re working on.

And no matter how well you know the material, how many quality hours you spend studying, there will always be those few situations where you hit that wall on a problem and have to figure out what to do to.

5. Establishing yourself as an independent learner, out there to take in new knowledge objectively and question what you’re hearing

Professors are humans. Socially inept humans, but humans nonetheless.

They make mistakes. They screw up explanations. They haven’t always thought through the best way to present new information.

So by starting each lecture off by generating your own set of questions, you’re directing your learning in a way that benefits you most. Only you know what questions you’re struggling with, and your professor is going to keep trucking down whatever road he or she started on at the beginning of the semester.

Click here to download the free 5-Minute Brain Dump PDF Guide

This practice is a great opportunity to figure out how to use the information in lecture to support your understanding (filling in the gaps with practice problems, youtube, etc.) rather than dictate it.

So set yourself a reminder on your calendar.

Set your clock forward 5 minutes.

Do whatever you need to to get yourself to lecture a little bit earlier than you’re used to.

And start taking a dump on a sheet of paper… a brain dump that is.

  • Naga Pramod February 13, 2015, 9:01 pm

    That was a great article Tom, I’ve been experiencing problems of the sort you mentioned above. Would work with the techniques you suggested. Thats a very informative articles.


    • Tom February 14, 2015, 8:02 am

      Great! Let me know how it works out for you.

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