The Finer Things
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The Finer Things

You Can Learn Anything in Seven Steps

Reading lots of books isn’t one of the steps

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Maybe this is you -

You want to tackle a new project — say, building a deck — but you don’t know the first thing about carpentry or construction. You’ve got a steep learning curve.

Or this is you -

You haven’t studied all semester long and now it’s time for the final. You have one week to study. What do you do?

Or perhaps this is you -

You majored in English and realize lucrative job-opportunities are scarce. You decide to “learn computers” but don’t know where to begin.

Or maybe you just like learning -

You’re the type of person who decides one day that you want to know everything about world history. Or you decide that the anatomy of ducks is for you. Or you want to identify every tree you see.

Whether you are working on a personal project, taking a class, expanding your job opportunities, or just want to learn something new, you need to learn how to learn. It’s what we call metalearning in education.

Educators know that the more students can take over their own learning skills — create learning goals, find sources, engage with the material and evaluate themselves — the more likely the students will learn and the easier the teacher’s job becomes.

I believe that anyone can learn any skill given the necessary time, resources, and willpower. Sure, some people learn faster than others, and good for them. However, for the average individual (like me), we just have to do the work. And the work itself can bring joy.

You can find tons of learning theories: the zone of proximal development, multiple intelligences, the conditions of learning, retention loss, etcetera, etcetera. Leave that to the teachers (or make it a learning goal if you’d like). Instead, I have filtered all the theories into seven general steps to learning anything.

Can you learn anything in seven steps? Sure. Do they require time and determination? You bet. Can you do this? Absolutely.

The Seven-Steps to Learn Anything

1. Determine your manageable learning goals.

Give yourself a learning goal. Let’s say you want to learn computer programming. Your goal may look something like this:

I want to learn computer programming.

However, this goal, which beats having no goal, lacks juice. If you really want a strong goal that you might actually achieve, you need to run your learning goal through the SMART gauntlet.

Infographic vector created by katemangostar —

First, make your goal Specific. “I want to learn computer programming” makes for a broad goal with no clearly defined accomplishment. Instead, you might say, “I want to program in Java.”

However, you may not know enough about computer programming to even know what you want to learn. Your first learning goal should be, “I want to identify the top ten computer languages and know when and how they are used.” Much better.

Next, make your goal Measurable. How do you know you have accomplished your goal? What measurable feat have you accomplished allowing you to say, “I finished my goal”? Even a more specific goal such as “I want to program in Java” leaves something to be desired. How do I know I am “programming in Java”? Let’s try “I want to finish the 17 projects in the Udemy Java course.” Measurable!

Make sure your goal is Attainable. If you tell yourself, “I want to learn all the computer programming ever,” you probably won’t finish your goal. Some computer languages barely exist anymore. Even a broad understanding of most used languages requires years of learning. Instead, choose something that seems doable.

You’re more likely to attain a learning goal if you already have some background knowledge about it. A computer programmer will more likely learn a new programming language than an English teacher. Therefore, I recommend making easy goals if you are breaching a new field of study. For example, the English teacher should probably start with some free introductory computer courses before committing to a $1,000 programming class.

Next, make your goal Relevant. Sometimes people choose goals without knowing exactly why. Why do you want to learn computer programming? To get a new job? To develop a web service? To hack into the FBI mainframe (not recommended)? Each of these questions would affect what kind of language you should learn and your needed level of expertise. A goal without a “why” won’t likely inspire you enough to accomplish it.

Finally, make your goal Time-Bound. When do you plan to finish your goal. Even a good specific goal like finishing 17 Java projects may mean little if you do not establish when you plan to meet that goal.

Perfect SMART goal:

I want to finish the 17 projects in the Udemy Java course by the end of the year.

Other SMART goals:

Determine the top twenty places to visit in New York City and briefly describe their history.

By Sunday, determine the list of materials, tools and skills I will need to build a deck.

Identify the location and describe the function of each major organ in a duck by 9 o’clock this evening.

The last one may seem irrelevant (and thus, not a SMART goal) unless you get excited about ducks. Passion makes something relevant.

Notice I make goals large and small. Sometimes, you need to take larger goals (“finish 17 projects”) and break them down into smaller goals (“finish the first of 17 projects in 7 days”). Smaller goals make for more attainable goals. Finish Level 1 before you move on to Level 2. Millions of gamers can’t be wrong.

One last note about goals: You are allowed to change them. If you find out while learning Java that you may need to start with some HTML, then feel free to change your goal.

2. Dedicate yourself in a way that works for you.

So much of self-help lacks validity because every person is different. What worked great for one person may not work for another.

You may not have the time or energy to read 100 books a year, or learn French overnight, or find 1,000 close, personal friends in a week. You may not want to paint your walls blue because that makes for the “ideal learning environment.” You may hate the idea of reading a dry textbook without music even if studies show music can be a distraction for learning.

Instead, you need to determine what works for you.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this learning goal a priority or something to do in my spare time?
  • When do I need to learn it?
  • When can I learn it? When is the best time of day for me to learn?
  • How much time do I have? How much time am I willing to give?
  • Do I learn better in large chunks (three hour learning binge sessions) or in several small chucks (10-minute learning snacks)?
  • What will help me to remain motivated to learn?
  • What are the best learning conditions for me?

You may not know the answers to all these questions. You may decide that your original intention to read current events three hours a day doesn’t work. A half hour may seem more appropriate and achievable. Feel free to experiment and adjust.

However, do come up with a plan for learning, and write it down. Here’s my plan:

I will spend 30 minutes reading current events, 30 minutes reading Shakespeare, and 30 minutes writing for Medium every day after teaching.

You might write, “I will practice guitar for 4 hours on Saturday and Sunday,” or “I will test myself every Friday on that week’s learning.” Come up with some habits that work for you.

By the way, a detailed plan for learning is more important than the goal as far as actually achieving something. If someone tells me they will read a presidential biography 30 minutes every day during lunch I will more likely believe them than if they tell me they want to read the biography of Abraham Lincoln by the end of the month.

Determine the when, where, what and how before you more fully commit.

3. Find the learning material.

You don’t know something that you want to know. You’re not going to learn it by staring at the wall.

You need learning materials. While we associate better learning materials with higher costs, it isn’t necessarily so. With a little grit and determination, you can make the best out of the material you have. Here are some general guidelines for finding material.

  • Open your mind about where to find information. Books, such as textbooks and reference books, obviously help, as do newspapers and magazines. However, try web pages, apps, YouTube channels, local experts, and online classes. Want to learn more math? Try Khan Academy or MIT Open Courseware. Want to learn some basic drawing techniques? Look up “drawing classes” on YouTube.
  • Make sure you find legitimate sources. Sure, you can find a lot of great stuff on the internet, but you can find a lot of junk. Make sure you’re learning from the best. A conspiracy website written by your cousin-in-law won’t likely fill you in on the most important headlines of the day. Does the material have respected names attached to it, like Harvard, So-and-So Ph.D, or the Wall Street Journal? Usually better (but not always). Knowing the good from the bad requires a certain skill too. Make it a learning goal.
  • Keep in mind your learning style. I prefer printed items over screens. Books serve me better overall. Your mileage may vary.

Once you find the right material, which may take ten minutes or several months, you will want to incorporate them into your goals and plans. For example, you may decide that you want to finish a book you found by a certain date as one of your learning goals, and that you will read 30 pages a day to meet that goal.

4. Engage with the material.

How many times have you read a book and forgotten most of what you learned? Reading, although more active than watching television, remains a mostly passive passtime. I will trust the learning of someone who has truly engaged in one book over someone who has read a dozen books cover-to-cover any day.

So skip the “20 books you must read if you want to succeed” lists. Instead buy Ray Dalio’s Principles and truly engage with the book. Then you can move on to another success book.

The more you engage with the material, the more you will learn. Etch that statement into your mind.

The more you engage with the material, the more you will learn.

Engagement can look like many things. Take notes, teach what you learn, repeat concepts in your own words, discuss your learning with others, take on projects that incorporate what you learn. All these methods will help you learn the material at a deep level, and you will less likely forget it.

You may read an article about how to write a thoughtful essay. That helps. But then you need to write a thoughtful essay. Try your best. And then try again. And then try again.

Experiment. What if you start the essay with a question? What if you delete the first paragraph? What if you use a thesaurus? These may not work out, but at least you engaged with the material.

Use action words with your learning: teach, write, rewrite, answer, argue, use, experiment, list, take apart, put together, compare, digest, test, implement, discuss, connect, question, repeat, recall, react, and so on.

Engagement takes time and mental energy. It’s hard. It’s the meat and guts of learning. However, you could read a hundred books on a single subject, or you could play in the fields of that subject. I will bet on the latter.

Make engagement part of your learning plan. Say, “I will rewrite the subheadings in this book as questions that I will answer out loud after I finish reading.” Or “I will imitate an artist after looking at their paintings.” Or “I will repeat a French phrase one hundred times.”

Also, be aware that engagement can look shallow or deep.

Shallow engagement may include learning basic facts, such as learning dates and names. When was the Stock Market Crash and who was President?

Deep engagement usually includes using prior knowledge in new ways, such as arguing about the causes of the Great Depression.

Both types of engagement have value. Usually, you need a shallow level of engagement before you can reach a deep level of engagement.

As the captain always says, “Engage.”

5. Test yourself often.

How do you know when you have achieved a certain level of learning? You can guess, but sometimes we over- or underestimate how much we have learned. You must test yourself to know for sure.

You can test yourself in many ways besides the traditional question-and-answer format. Don’t get me wrong, asking yourself questions, using flash cards, taking online quizzes, — these all have merit and provide powerful feedback for your learning. However, you can try other methods based on your learning project.

Here are some examples:

  • If you are learning a foreign language, talk with a native speaker. Scary, but a surefire way to know how well you are doing.
  • If you are learning carpentry, try building a chair and test out its endurance — also scary, as your project may end up in the trash heap and your butt may end up bruised, if you aren’t careful.
  • If you are studying current events about China, try a good online discussion forum made up of other knowledgeable people on this topic. How well do you follow along? How well do you provide meaningful input for the group?
  • If you want to pass a test, try creating your own test in the same format as the actual test.
  • If you want to learn HTML, how much do you need to look up before completing a basic site?
  • If you want to type faster, give yourself regular speed tests.

Only your imagination limits the number of methods for testing yourself. Try a few. Stick with those that give you valuable feedback.

Make testing part of your learning plan.

6. Revisit material.

Look at the chart of retention.

The effect of flipped learning on academic performance as an innovative method for overcoming Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve — Scientific Figure on ResearchGate.

Whenever you learn something, you forget most of it a few days later. However, if you use “spaced learning” and review a day later, then a couple days after that, and then a week later, you will retain what you learn.

Many times, your learning builds on past knowledge, so you naturally revisit the material. However, not always.

For example, if you are learning about the senses, you may have learned all about the functioning of the eye and have moved on to the ear. You will need to return to the parts of the eye from time to time to retain that information.

Use spaced learning. I like to review something one day after, then two days after that, then a week, then a couple weeks, then a month. I essentially double the amount of time between each review. I find myself relearning the material often, yet I retain it longer.

Make review a part of your learning plan.

7. Use it or lose it.

Even if you follow all the steps above, you will eventually lose your knowledge or skills if you don’t continue to use them. If you think to yourself, I will learn commonly used Chinese phrases in a month, but then never use those phrases in conversation, you will likely forget them. You will waste your valuable learning time.

Before beginning a learning project, ask yourself if you will use your learning in the future.

After your learning project, ask yourself how you will use your learning in the future.

Putting It All Together

Let me give you an example.

I want to learn more about the fashion industry. I know little to nothing about fashion other than the single-color dress shirts and slacks I wear to work. Learning about fashion represents a whole new world for me.

First, I create a goal. Since I know little about fashion, I must first decide why I want to learn about the fashion industry. I figure out that I want to use my knowledge to write better contemporary fiction. Therefore, my goal looks like this:

“By the end of the month, I want to list and describe from memory the ten most common fabrics, ten patterns, and twenty styles used in fashion.”

At this point, I don’t know if my goals seem too ambitious, too simple or even relevant. I’ll know more as I study. But now that I have my initial SMART goal, I’ll create a plan.

The second step determines when, where, what and how. Here’s my initial plan:

  • I plan to study fashion in my work room for 30 minutes in the morning per day.
  • As I study, I plan to visit fabric stores and high end fashion shops on weekends to get a more visceral understanding of what I’m learning.
  • As I learn more, I will plan ahead to determine which shops I will visit.
  • I also plan to describe a new fictional character’s clothes every week using my new fashion knowledge. This ties in nicely with my “why.”

Next, I must gather the materials. For this project, I will probably not buy any books unless I find something like Fashion for Dummies. I will probably Google websites and scour YouTube for my studies.

But just as I was writing this, I found the book Fashion for Dummies! I will order it and use that as a basis for my learning. I may even adjust my goals after receiving it and looking over its table of contents.

Now, I will engage with the material. I may turn my goals into questions and write down the answers as I find them. As I said in my plan, I will visit shops and write about fashion for fictional characters. Whether I use the book, or a website, or a video, I will use my findings to help answer my questions, write my characters, and determine my next steps.

After engaging with the material, I test myself. I can answer my goal questions without looking at the answers, I can try to determine a type of fabric in the fabric store without looking at the label, and I can observe how comfortable I feel while writing about fashion.

I must revisit my learning. I decide that every day, I will review the previous day’s work, and review again at the end of every week. I will test myself at the end of the month and determine what I need to revisit.

After I accomplish my goal, I may want to commit to reading the rest of the Fashion for Dummies book, or I may want to study a little fashion history and learn about what people wore in other generations. Mostly, I don’t want to stop learning so that when I create a character in my fiction, I can easily describe what they wear.

I hope this helps you reach your next learning goal. Be sure to share in the comments what has helped you reach your learning goals and what may be missing in this article.

Happy learning!




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Christopher Willson

Christopher Willson

I write about living life to the fullest through arts, culture, mind, and spirit.

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