10 Proven Ways to More Effective Learning
I’m one of those people you might hate. Sorry.
I always seemed to learn quickly and be carefree when others were cramming last minute for exams. Younger me could be a little too smug about this. (Sorry.)
What people didn’t see was that I had put in the hours, effectively, way before. I did what worked for me and it did me well.
It wasn’t until years later when I did the fourth “Best Online Course of All-Time” that I realized I’d been fortunate. The name of this online course? Learning How To Learn. I’m not affiliated at all but you’d be crazy to not at least check it out.
The course experts recommend these top 10 tips backed by neuroscience and psychology. I have included my personal experience from using these tips too!
#1. Recall, don’t just read.
What is a greater sign you understand something?
- You can read it and it doesn’t seem hard.
- You can recall the information without the source in front of you.
I think we all know the answer to this. Recalling information is proven to be more effective than reading alone.
Yet it’s still common for people to watch online videos or read books without ever explaining in their own words. We do this because it feels easier for our brains but it’s superficial as it’s ineffective in creating new neural pathways.
I’ve been down the rabbit hole of watching YouTube videos on a topic and telling myself I’m being productive and not procrastinating. Usually, a few days later I couldn’t tell you anything I learned from the videos.
Whenever I learn something new I always try to paraphrase the information in my own words. This worked at university and I find is even more important in the world of work.
Some training sessions can be the whole class listening to one person talking as if our brain just absorbs it and stores in long term memory. I counter this by asking the instructor to confirm my description of what they just explained. This forces my brain to work harder and be active.
#2. Test yourself constantly.
I reframe tests in my mind as opportunities to learn. I don’t expect perfection of myself and get a sick kick out of the challenge.
Being wrong is uncomfortable and it’s why our mind redirects us to more pleasurable activities like passive reading. I know people who wouldn’t test themselves until near the end because what was the point if they were going to get most problems wrong?
This belief is limiting and means you can’t figure out weaknesses until much later.
The most successful language learners put themselves in positions to fail by not speaking their native tongue. They fail a lot but overcoming their fear opens them up to faster growth. Ultralearner Scott Young learned Mandarin, Spanish, Korean and Brazilian in one year using this method!
If you perceive increased adrenaline as excitement rather than fear, you can kick off this feedback loop. It’s better to know exactly where your progress is than speculate.
#3. Group concepts together into chunks.
When learning something new, you have lots of individual pieces of information you need to remember. You might need prompts to remember what each step of a 5-step process is.
Over time, to speed up learning you need to move the test up one level. Now recall all 5 steps simply from the name. After this recall all the related processes. I remember people having hundreds of flashcards with them outside the exam hall at university! They had not been able to chunk effectively.
Aim to reduce the prompts to the lowest level. Initially, I would try to recall everything I remember about a topic then check the textbook to see what I missed. By the time the exam rolled around, I could recall the main points of an entire module onto one sheet of paper. In the week of an exam, I would be able to write down everything I knew about a topic just from the name of the topic.
This isn’t easy but focusing on this as a clear goal and starting early makes it instinctive.
#4. Space your repetition.
When you’ve crammed in the past how much do you remember a week later?
There are two types of learning; to tick a box or to know the information.
If you want the information to be useful to you in the future then you must repeat the information regularly.
Think of your memory as a location in the middle of thick rainforest. If you get there on one day and spend a whole day there, you’ve only forced your way through the difficult journey once. When you keep going there for a short time every day, the overgrowth is slowly cleared. Eventually, you need to go there less and less to maintain your path.
To do this you must start learning well in advance of when you want the information.
There’s a trend for people to want to read hundreds of books a year. Don’t. It’s a waste of your time unless you have remarkable memory abilities.
You can’t read a book and say you know the subject matter if two weeks later you can’t recall anything about it. It’s a much better idea to read fewer books and refresh yourself on what you learned frequently.
I would rather know the lessons of 10 books a year than barely even the titles of 200.
#5. Rotate different types of problems.
If you always use the same way to check you know something then you just become good in a single way.
When learning a language if you test yourself by only doing flashcards do you know the language?
To develop real competence in an area you need to be able to take on different challenges.
It’s why many people find the leap from learning a skill to applying it so difficult. They gain overconfidence in a small subset of problems that doesn’t reflect reality.
Another important tip is to randomly find a problem in a topic you haven’t covered for a while. It’s easy to solve issues when you are doing similar problems one after the other.
#6. Take breaks!
Some consider it dirty to boast about ability but boasting about hard work isn’t the same. Countless “successful” people talk about how they worked harder than everyone else to get where they were.
Reading those stories can make me feel inadequate but these people are still human too. It’s easy with hindsight to glorify effort when really they took breaks and slacked off some times as well!
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” — Albert Einstein
When you feel you aren’t being productive anymore take a break! Go for a walk and get some fresh air.
When we aren’t actively focussed on a topic, in the background our brain is still processing. The diffused mode of the brain can unlock connections when given them to think. After returning from a walk and looking at the subject again, I had a new lease on life.
#7. Teach others what you know.
This is by far my most effective technique. Starting earlier than most meant I am often in a position to help others learn the material.
When I learn something I love using it and teaching it to others. Whether it’s sliding it into conversation with friends or using it as inspiration in my writing.
Sometimes I struggle to explain a fascinating concept and am frustrated. This gives me the motivation to go back and refresh my memory on it!
I like relating what I’ve learned to other areas. If you know cars inside out then you can relate new concepts in other areas to parts or functions of a car. The greater the variety of areas you are knowledgeable in, the easier this is.
When explaining to others, they will ask questions you never thought of and expose holes in your understanding. We can fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect of believing we are more competent than we are if we don’t get other viewpoints!
This is the most obvious but still so many people don’t do it.
I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro technique. It is a 25-minute period of intense work without any distractions followed by a period of rest. Don’t try to multitask while learning because we suck at it.
I rarely do excessively long hours. Instead of working at 30% for 12 hours, I could work at 90% for 6 hours and get more done! This gave me time for more breaks to rest up.
I can learn like this because of a simple reward system. If I work hard then I can watch a movie or have more time for exercise and friends.
I had friends who would lock themselves up all day and night and “study” for 16 hours a day. Most of this time was spent staring at the wall. As they had decided they were going to work this long then they had lax productivity targets.
#9. Eat your frogs first.
Eating frogs doesn’t sound like much fun. Frogs are the important things we need to do but are non-urgent. This can mean they are always pushed back over urgent but unimportant items!
I have an unconventional way of learning. I tend to study at the beginning and end of the day. This means the middle of the day is mine.
Instead of a daunting 8-hour learning session, I have two split sessions and know I have a big break in the middle.
I do the hardest stuff at the beginning of the day when most people are asleep and not much is going on. I am well rested and most motivated. My evening sessions will be more for big picture ideas and recall.
Our brains are like muscles. Anyone who goes to the gym knows you don’t do the most difficult exercise at the end when your body is exhausted.
A short amount of time to warm up the brain may work but pushing a tired brain to exhaustion will probably result in sleep, not growth!
#10. Visualize success.
96% of people drop out of online courses. These people start believing they could finish and gain something from the course.
Maybe they thought the course would be less time-consuming. So while they wanted to know the information, they didn’t put in the effort to achieve it.
When I was competing as part of the National Karate Squad, there was a huge emphasis on visualization. Don’t imagine what you could do with your new abilities, imagine how you will feel with these abilities.
Imagine yourself using whatever you are learning. If you are learning Mandarin for business, imagine the elation of closing a deal in Mandarin. If you are learning how to bake, imagine the joy of seeing a child’s face light up after eating your cake.
The stronger the positive emotions in your mind, the more motivated you will be to learn.
I never doubt I will be able to learn a new area. This self-belief matters more than anything else. If you don’t believe you can master a skill then no tip or trick will get you to where you want to be.
Here we have been through 10 ways to learn more effectively. These ideas originate from teaching expert Barbara Oakley and I have used them with great results in my own life.
- Recall, don’t just read— Reading material feels easier but doesn’t create the deeper neural pathways of recall.
- Test yourself constantly — Tests allow us to know where our knowledge is lacking and where to focus our attention.
- Group concepts into chunks — At the start, a topic is difficult because we need to recall each piece of information. Aim to create links between items to make recall faster.
- Space your repetition — Learn over some time to allow your brain to digest the information and create efficient neural pathways.
- Rotate different types of problems — Practice using what you’ve learned in a variety of ways to see if you have memorized or if you understand.
- Teach others what you know — Being able to teach others shows you have a strong understanding. It can expose what you don’t know too!
- Take breaks! — Your brain is like a muscle, it needs time to recover before going again.
- Focus — Try the Pomodoro technique to have intense bursts of learning followed by restful periods.
- Eat your frogs — Do the hardest items first in the day when your brain is at it’s freshest.
- Visualize success — If you don’t believe in yourself, nothing else matters. You must be able to imagine the way you will feel when you can put what you’ve learned into practice.
Thank you for reading and have a wonderful day!