Truths About Learning You Probably Don’t Know

And how you can apply it to your learning habit

Jonathan Cesario


I had a great time reading this book called How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey. This article contains things mostly from the book but not limited to and by all means, won’t make you an expert in learning.

I really regret not reading this or any other subjects that involve learning when I was in high school or university. As far as I know, most educational institutions don’t really teach us how to learn in the first place although learning is one of the main jobs that we had to do when we were at that age. And the truth is, we would still need to learn every now and then to always keep up with the ever-changing world.

I give you the TL;DR version right away and I also add some ideas that you can apply to your learning at the end of this article.


  • Forgetting helps filter and focus. It filters unnecessary information and focuses on the most important thing at a time. Also once you remember after forgetting, it will increase the retrieval strength of that particular memory. So don’t beat yourself up when forgetting something, it’s just a natural thing that is supposed to happen when learning.
  • Learning with various conditions in different environments will make a lot of cues that can later be reinstated to help memory retrieval and enriches the skill.
  • Utilize the spacing effect by breaking up study time. Review the material one or two days after initial study; then a week later; then about a month later. Avoid cramming as much as possible.
  • Test yourself. Use the 1/3 of your time memorizing and 2/3 reciting from memory. Teach someone or at least explain things to yourself. Remembering after forgetting from the test will increase the retrieval strength as mentioned above.
  • Use a chunking technique to remember new things. Associate it with a meaningful connection so that it can be your cue when retrieving it. Use the magic number 7±2.
  • Rest 5–20 minutes if stuck. Or better yet, interrupt yourself. Your mind will subconsciously try to find a way and continually think about it while resting.
  • Do interleaving: mixing related but distinct material during the study. It won’t only help to see the distinctions but also achieve a clearer grasp of each one individually.
  • Use the Perceptual Learning Module to build instinct: testing yourself with lots of multiple choices and look for the solution right after answering each question.
  • Sleep improves retention and comprehension. Cramming without sleeping at all is really, really bad. Napping also contributes to learning, although not as much as sleeping.
Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

Retention and Memory

There is this habit that usually people know and believe which we should study with the same quiet environment we are already familiar with in order to concentrate and start the learning. Actually, any study environment, like music, is better than nothing.

The environment can help the reinstatement with the cue. The more varied the environment, the more it enriches the skills being rehearsed and making them more accessible for a longer period of time. It will make what you know independent from just one particular environment. Try different places, a different genre of background music, or another time of day when studying. There will be more various things that can become cues when retrieving something from memory if you vary the environment.

Jost Law: “if the two associations are of equals strength but of different age, a new repetition has a greater value for the older one”. Studying a new concept over and over again right after you learn it doesn’t deepen the memory much but studying it an hour later, or a day later, does.

Don’t do cramming, it’s bad for your retention. It’s like over-stuffing a suitcase: the contents hold for a while, then everything falls out. Maybe it can be a last resort if we are in a pickle but don’t make it a habit, you won’t remember anything after the test or after an interview.

Instead, utilize the spacing effect by breaking up your study time. Piotr Wozniak’s experiment showed that it’s best to review the material one or two days after initial study; then a week later; then about a month later. Spaced study also adds contextual cues, the thing that we just mentioned above. It will be embedded in more than one context. After all, what’s the point in learning something if we just forget it the next week?

Fluency: a belief that because the things are easy to remember right now, they’ll remain that way tomorrow and we assume we don’t need further study.

Fluency is bad and most of us probably have experienced it. Feeling all confident only to bomb a test or an interview. To avoid fluency, test yourself. Use 1/3 of your time memorizing it and the remaining 2/3 reciting from memory. Testing itself is studying, of a different and powerful kind. When we successfully retrieve a fact, we restore it in a different way than we did before. Storage level spikes and the memory has new and different connections. Answering increases overall retention.

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

— Albert Einstein

A technique that you can use is pretesting, which is taking a test before you know anything and then learn the right answer afterward. The act of guessing engaged your mind in a different and more demanding way than straight memorization did. Another great technique is called self-examination, i.e. pretending you’re an expert and explain it out loud after studying. In other words, teach someone with the new knowledge or at least explain it to yourself.

Remembering a lot of new things can be very hard if we don’t have any strategies. Use the chunking technique to ease the learning. Basically, we break down the things that we want to remember into a couple of groups or chunks, preferably around 7±2 items. Use these chunks to build the next group and fix new ideas in your mind.

It will also help with recalling other information as a cue. Associate it with visual, mnemonics, analogy, metaphor, and/or familiar concepts as Sherlock Holmes likes to call it the memory palace. Visualize a familiar place and store the new information somewhere particular, so that later it can be your cue to remember it. Make a meaningful connection between those new things.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Problem Solving

Sometimes when we are learning something hard or just trying to get insights, we get stuck. And because we are persistent, we never give up and just try it again, again, and again at all costs. Well, don’t. You see, there are these stages that can trigger our brain to finally get the solution or insight that we are craving for.

  • Preparation: the amount of time a person spends wrestling about something until you’ve exhausted all ideas, i.e. stuck.
  • Incubation: when you deliberately put aside the problem, the brain will try to reorganize the new with past information subconsciously.
  • Illumination: the aha moment, the moment when the solution appears all at once.
  • Verification: check whether the solution, indeed, works.

Rest if you get stuck, like 5 to 20 minutes. We want that illumination! Don’t beat yourself up. It’s part of the learning. Distraction, if used properly, isn’t a hindrance, it’s a valuable weapon.

Zeigarnik effect: the act of starting work on an assignment often gives that job the psychological weight of a goal; if it gets interrupted (the one that you do to yourself), the lifespan in memory will get extended and will be pushed to the top of your mental to-do list.

Creative leaps often come during downtime that follows a period of immersion in a story or topic. Having a goal foremost in mind tunes our perceptions to fulfilling it that will cause a heightened perceptual readiness to register environmental cues. For example, a thirsty person will remember anything drink-related more than other things unconsciously in a waiting room.

Try percolation, which means interrupting yourself with a tuned scavenging mind that follows. Use procrastination to your favor. Break every now and then, you deserve it. Do it little by little, achieve the short term goal. Again, rest if you get stuck.

Another surprising thing about problem-solving is an interleaving, mixing related but distinct material during the study is better than the focus one. What I mean is you study one thing at a time, then move on to the next if you feel confident with the previous one. Interleaving won’t only help to see the distinctions but also to achieve a clearer grasp of each one individually. Varied practice is more effective, it helps us match the problem types with the appropriate strategies, not just blatantly use the solution we’re currently studying. We will get the context and know when we should incorporate something at a particular condition.

Photo by Gregory Pappas on Unsplash

Use Subconscious to Our Favor

Have you ever noticed a soccer player like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo gets out of an unbelievably hard situation in a split of a second? Like they don’t need to think about it, the body just flows naturally. Sometimes, we want that instinct, not only in soccer particularly, but in general, especially the things that become our main job. There is this technique called Perceptual Learning Module (PLM), designed to focus on improving the instinct. It’s not that complex really, it’s just answering multiple choices and getting the correct solution right after answering, only with lots of questions and in a short period of time when answering each question.

Besides instinct, this technique will enable automatic and self-correcting without actually thinking too much or deliberately trying to learn about it. It’s like learning without thinking. PLM is already implemented in a couple of industries, for example like pilot training with simulation. They will get asked rapidly with multiple choice what to do if a certain situation occurs and get the answer feedback right away.

“Happiness consists in getting enough sleep. Just that, nothing more.”

— Robert A. Heinlein

Another subconscious part that we can rely on to aid our learning is sleeping. The one thing that most humans do every day. It can improve retention and comprehension around 10–30%. Sleep also amplifies other learning techniques like spacing effect and loosen fixedness. There are five phases in sleeping and each phase contributes differently to learning. To put it simply, the first half of your sleep will aid retention, whilst the last half will help motor skills and creative thinking. If you’re going to burn the candle, it helps to know which end to burn on (sleep late or waking up early). Also, napping 1 to 1,5 hours can help our learning subconsciously.

Ideas to Apply for Your Learning

  • Don’t wait for the most ideal environment or condition to learn because it turns out variation can help you retain the new information. Learn anytime and anywhere you want.
  • Pace yourself when learning, don’t go for straight for hours without a break. Don’t forget to review it later (one day, a week, a month later) to retain it in memory. Interrupt and distract yourself, use procrastination to your favor. Learning doesn’t have to be exhausting.
  • Use and practice your new knowledge right away or at least try to explain it, whether to yourself or better yet to someone else. You will know then whether you really understand it or just feels like it.
  • If you’re trying to learn a new complex concept, review all the subjects related and try to get the gist from each one of them so you get the helicopter view before deep diving into one specific subject. For example, do mind mapping. This approach will help you connect the dots between each thing and get the context of the bigger picture.
  • Sleep is your superpower. Do sleep well and get enough sleep. Tips for better sleep: regularity, i.e. go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time; keep the room temperature cool — around 18°C. Remember that sleeping is irreplaceable, it’s your non-negotiable biological necessity.

Closing Thoughts

Having this new knowledge for me is quite enlightening and makes me realize that learning doesn’t have to be what we’ve been told it does. In fact, concentration might be achieved by including breaks, diversions, procrastination, random thoughts in the process, and even sleeping. Our study and practice time needs to orient itself around those, not the other way around.