Learn to Learn: Six Tips for Better Knowledge

While working to build Pico, I’ve not only been trying to learn as much as I can to help us make a better product, but I’ve worked hard to maintain my personal goal of learning French and continued teaching coding classes about once a month. So the topic of how to learn effectively has been one in which I’ve had a deep interest.

I want to share with you what I’ve learned about learning.

Because a large part of achieving your professional goals is learning new skills, new techniques, new information. All of this is knowledge that you can then apply to your professional goals and your overall professional growth. And since you’re reading this blog, you’re obviously the type of person who wants to grow quickly and efficiently.

Here, then, are some tips to learn new information faster and have it stick longer:

Test Yourself

This tip is number one because it’s so important. During your schooldays, you probably thought of the test as the end-game. But you should really be testing yourself throughout the whole study process. And don’t pat yourself on the back just yet if you think flash cards will cut it.

The best way to test yourself is to create the test after you finish your notes for that chunk of information (chapter, section, etc.). This has two benefits: first, gives you an opportunity to review your notes, and second, you’ll have a better idea of what the important themes and topics of the material are by waiting until the end. Those are what should make up the bulk of your self-tests.

The type of questions you put together on your self-tests will depend largely on how you will need to recall the information. But for the most part, open-ended questions that have real-world applicability work best.

For example, if you’re learning Spanish and trying to grasp the difference between por and para, have example sentences where you have to choose between the two and also have a question where you have to explain the difference and usage scenarios.

Self-testing timing matters, too. Ideally you should take the test you created within the next day. You should then come back to it on a regular basis, spreading out the time between the better you learn the material.

Via Wikipedia

This concept is based on the forgetting curve, first hypothesized by Hermann Ebbinghaus. The gist is that your memory of information decays over time. By revisiting that information, you not only erase that memory decay but you slow down any future decay.

How do you know how often to space out your self-testing? Thankfully you don’t have to develop that schedule on your own. Enter Anki. Anki is spaced repetition software, which means that it automatically surfaces knowledge when its algorithm think you’re on the verge of forgetting. It takes a little bit of time to get set up, but once you do, it’s magic.

One last note: don’t take the easy way out. Let yourself struggle a little bit when you encounter a difficult question. Going right to the notes is self-defeating.

Study Connected Topics Together

Let’s say you want to become a web developer. You know you need some knowledge of HTML and CSS, you need to know your way around the back-end, and maybe you need to know a little bit about getting your site up on the web. The wrong way to go about learning these skills is to try to master each one before moving on to the next.

Instead, learn HTML while you’re learning CSS, while you’re learning the back-end and so on. Since these skills are connected, you’ll start to understand more effectively how they tie together. Then, when you need the information, you can say to yourself, “Oh yeah, I remember how to do this, because it’s related to this related skill that I’ve done several times.”

Take Good Notes

I take notes on every single (non-fluff) thing I read. Take that many notes and you need a good note taking set-up.

Some people swear by taking notes by hand. And there’s even been a study to suggest that hand-taken notes are more effective for memory recall than those taken by computer. Dig into the details, though, and you’ll see that the problem isn’t the medium — it’s that people on laptops tend to just copy down information verbatim. As you’ll see in one of our other tips, that’s not very useful.

Myself, I like knowing that I have my notes with me wherever I go, so I’m dedicated to taking notes digitally. I love OneNote and can’t recommend it highly enough. OneNote is on every platform you can imagine, works offline, and gives you incredible flexibility in how you create and organize your notes. You can embed files and multimedia alongside your notes, tag things as important to come back to, and arrange your notes however you like.

Not only that, but it comes with power tools like the ability to text search images, video, and audio or handwriting transcription. And if you’re an Office or Microsoft user already, it integrates well with those. But even if you’re a Mac or Linux devotee, there’s plenty to appreciate.

There are plenty of other tools if OneNote doesn’t do it for you. Evernote’s a popular choice, but also don’t discount less flashy options like email (gmail is very searchable and taggable) or even just text files.

I create two pages for every notes section I have. The main page is for the notes I’m taking whereas the secondary page is for the self-test I’ll be using later. You could do a similar thing on paper or inside Evernote with a modified version of Cornell Notes. I like to keep mine separate to resist the urge to peek at my notes while I’m testing myself.

Don’t Cram

You want to learn this information and you want to learn it quickly. Your inclination is probably to lock yourself in a room until you’ve got it all. Resist that urge, as it’s counterproductive.

You’ve heard it before, and it’s true: your brain is like a sponge. Try to overload it and the excess will just run off. Your brain needs time to process the new information and make connections, so trying to cram too much in at one time will only ensure that you’re not making good use of your time.

Move Around

Another common mistake people make when studying is doing it in only a single location, like their home office. That’s actually not a bad idea if you will only ever need that information while in your home office, but chances are that’s not the case.

The brain makes connections between what you’re learning and the environment you’re in at the time. If you have information you’ll need to recall in various situations (e.g. you’ll need to remember the difference between por and para while writing a business email, but you’ll also need to remember it while talking at a party), then change up how and where you study.

Also don’t make the mistake of thinking that there’s only one way of studying that works for you. The idea that some people are “auditory” learners while others are “visual” learners has long been debunked. Studying through a host of different means let’s your brain make connections in different ways, which will aide in recall in different situations.

Go Beyond

Finally, go beyond just taking notes. Be critical about what you’re learning and question it. If you’re reading a book on crafting user experiences that bring customers back, ask why those recommendations work. Answer how you can apply those recommendations to your website. Best case scenario you walk away not just with new knowledge, but with new ideas you can apply immediately.


Armed with these tips, you’ll be able to study more efficiently and retain more information than you could before. So just remember this checklist:

  • Test your knowledge
  • Use Anki or another spaced repetition software
  • Develop a good note taking system and stick with it
  • Change up your study environment
  • Space out your learning, interleaving related subjects
  • Go beyond the material and make connections between subjects

This post was originally posted on the Pico Blog.

(Postscript: Since posting this, I’ve been pointed in the direction of this Coursera course. I can’t speak personally to it, but the syllabus looks interesting and I’ve heard good things.)

Further Reading and Resources

http://www.roanestate.edu/pages/academic-help/study-help/selftesting/What%20is%20self-testing%20and%20why%20should%20I%20do%20it.pdf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forgetting_curve

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-candy/201201/everything-you-thought-you-knew-about-learning-is-wrong

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/health/views/07mind.html?_r=0

Photos from The Stocks

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