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Seven Steps to Superior Learning

Originally published by Scott Young on his personal website.

Have you ever read through a book only to be left with only a vague recollection of what it was about? Have you ever spent months with a book on your shelf knowing that you should read it, but never got around to it? Have you ever caught your mind slipping while reading only to realize you haven’t absorbed any information in the past several pages?

In our busy daily lives it can be hard to find the time to properly learn the things we need to learn. Some of these things might be critical to our career or business. Some of them might be important in improving and sustaining our personal lives. Many people have just resorted to the excuse that they simply don’t have enough time to learn all these things.

But is it really a lack of time? A disproportionately high amount of Americans will never read another book after leaving high school. Most people end up spending a few hours each day watching television and celebrity magazines sell fast on the sides of supermarket checkout counters. Even reading cheesy romance or spy novels is popular over truly valuable learning.

I don’t think the real problem is a lack of time at all, but a lack of motivation. With the right motivation and inclination, everyone can devote a few minutes of their day to reading, practicing or studying something that can genuinely improve their lives. In the busiest time of my life I also read more book than I normally do. It is never about time but always about the right motivation.

Even if you have decided to invest in your own education, either as a full or part time student or even just in your own personal self-education, it can be difficult to truly get the most out of the material you are reading.

Perhaps there are courses you need to study to get a degree that you just can’t seem to focus on. Maybe you want to get better at a skill such as personal finance, owning your own business or getting in shape but your eyes drift off whenever you try to read the material. How can you improve your learning?

Photo by Twenty20.

Step One: Learn With Purpose

The first step to improve your ability to learn is that before you decide to pick up a book, go to a seminar, or head off to class, is to simply decide why you are going and exactly what you are trying to get out of it. Vagueness is the enemy of results, so without knowing exactly what your goal is with each session you are just looking for poor returns.

Before you open a book, decide what you want to get out of the book. That could be learning a new skill, getting a grounding in a particular theory or even getting new ideas. Never read a book just to read it or because you ‘have to’. The reason you have difficulty studying some material is because you don’t have a reason. Your subconscious knows this and follows through by making you procrastinate.

Deciding why you are learning something also makes it very easy to decide whether it is worthwhile to continue learning it. I’ve put down books midway through because I felt they just didn’t offer any new value, but there have been books I’ve read in the past that I should have put down but didn’t because I wasn’t clear on why I was reading them.

Try to find a reason that is directly linked to the learning itself, and not just to pass an exam. Learning something just so you can get a letter grade rings false in your subconscious and you will find it painful to study and read. In all my current courses I’ve decided why I will benefit from learning the information, and it has made it far easier to learn effectively.

Photo by Twenty20.

Step Two: Make it Fascinating

The next step to make information stick is to be genuinely interested in the material you are reading. Think about the things you truly enjoy, aren’t they also the things you found easiest to learn? When you tell yourself that something is boring, dry or uninteresting it will be very difficult to study.

Often uninteresting material is the fault of the teacher. I’ve found that even when I’ve created a genuine purpose for why I am learning something, the teacher, author or speaker is so poorly skilled at relating the information in a way that captures my attention that I find it difficult to absorb the information and stay motivated to read.

Unfortunately you can’t change this fact. Most books, speeches and classes will not hit an exceptionally high level of teaching so you need to proactively compensate for that weakness and make yourself interested in material that is likely just being poorly conveyed.

How can you make something more interesting? Start by asking better questions. Ask yourself why this book or subject is incredibly fascinating and continue waiting until the answers come to you. You might just find yourself getting engrossed in a subject you previously found painfully boring. There aren’t boring subjects, there are just subjects that are either poorly taught or you can’t find a purpose for learning them. If you compensate for a bad teacher by making yourself interested you can go a long way.

Step Three: Relate With Analogy

People relate to material through stories and analogy. Metaphors and analogies are incredibly powerful tools because they describe unknown relationships in terms of a known relationship. It is easier to understand something once it is broken down into easily understood terms.

Whenever you are presented with an abstract relationship, immediately seek to append this new information to an analogy you already understand. Creating analogies is a skill, but it is incredibly powerful for memory and retention. When I began learning programming, I had the task of trying to understand how functions work. In my own mind I related them like a pencil sharpener where you can stick in unsharpened pencils and get out sharpened versions through some concealed process inside the sharpener.

The truth is if you can’t find an analogy to describe something then you probably don’t understand it very well. Creating analogies make it very easy to retain information. Good teachers will offer up analogies, but when you are reading from a source that doesn’t do this, make your own. You are responsible for your own learning.

Think of an analogy as being like a map. Although it isn’t the same thing as the actually territory it describes, it allows you to quickly find information that can be difficult to see from the territory. Now how’s that for an analogy about analogies!

Photo by Twenty20.

Step Four: Emphasize Through Multiple Senses

I have noticed in my own life that whenever I get a chance to absorb information through more than one primary sense, I intake the information better. So if I read a book and then listen to a speech about the same topic, I often pick up details in understanding missed from only using one. Whenever I get the chance I try to read information from speakers I’ve heard and vice versa.

Now, sometimes you will find an author who only writes and there are no audio/speech/visual substitutes. In this case, you need to take it upon yourself to reinforce the ideas by using an alternative medium. You may have noticed that some of my articles are accompanied with graphics. I find that by adding the graphics to reinforce abstract information it is easier to relate to later.

Create your own drawings, record yourself talking about the ideas or create your own diagrams. Even though it can take a little more work, so long as the reasons you’ve defined in the first step are important enough you will make it work.

Step Five: Find a Student

The best way to learn something is to teach. This simple principle has to be the number one reason I’ve started this blog myself. By writing down my thoughts and ideas, they become reinforced into concrete mental patterns. If there is one way to improve your ability to learn it is to teach someone else what you are learning.

If you have a friend that is also studying similar material, this can be a great way so that you can both share and teach ideas to each other. Many blog entries I’ve written here have been based off of ideas that came out of great conversations with friends. So if you’re studying for a class or a seminar, reiterating and rephrasing the information back to a friend can be a powerful way to gain knowledge.

What if you are working on your personal development and don’t have someone who wants to learn what you do? There are many ways you can get around this (getting more friends only being one), one of the best being simply opening a blog on the subject. Another solution is to join an organization like Toastmasters where you can offer speeches on the information you’ve learned.

Photo by Twenty20.

Step Six: Follow Up With Practice

Doing is the best way to learn. Reading, listening and studying are poor ways to gather conceptual knowledge and they are horrible for gaining skills. What separates people of excellence and wisdom from those who aren’t is often the amount of practice involved. Studying Tiger’s golf swing won’t help you nearly as much as practicing your own for a thousand times.

Reading, listening and studying can get conceptual ideas, but if you want to transform them into skills you need practice. How much practice depends on the person and the field, but it is generally much longer than it takes to understand the ideas. Without practice you’re sunk.

Step Seven: Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

Once you’ve decided why you want to learn about something, become interested in it, used analogy to describe it, taken in through multiple senses and taught it to someone else, the only thing that can really slow down your learning rate is your own mental clarity. Mental clarity comes a lot through physical health.

Intuitively it is easy to understand how important health is for learning. Have you ever tried to pay attention and learn something when you were sick? How about writing a test? If your experiences are similar to mine, then sickness greatly impaired your performance. Let me offer you another thinking point, are you ill right now?

You may not have the flu or a current illness, but if your health isn’t in peak shape, learning is going to be just as difficult if you were, and since you haven’t experienced being healthy you wouldn’t know the difference. Exercising every day, eating a healthy diet and drinking plenty of water are all crucial to your mental clarity. Myself as well as many notable self-help masters such as Tony Robbins and Steve Pavlina believe strongly in a diet that avoid animal products to increase mental clarity.

Photo by Twenty20.

If you aren’t exercising regularly, you should add exercise to your daily activities. After exercising almost every day for almost half a year now I can say that when you miss even two or three days the difference in energy is palpable. I recently missed about three days of good exercise (the local gym being closed demoted me to just doing push-ups in my tiny room) and I can tell you that I already feel a huge drain of my mental resources.

Compared with where they could be I would say most people live like they have the flu. That sounds like a harsh pronouncement, but I believe it is accurate. Taking steps to increase your health can be an incredibly powerful and positive boost to your own ability to learn. Even if it is as simple as cutting down on junk food or slightly increasing exercise.

If you’ve read to this point, all these steps may seem like a lot of work to improve your ability to learn. Fortunately the steps work in a progressive order, and by deciding why you are learning something and making it important enough, the other steps will follow. I believe it is worth it because learning and education are probably the most important factor in your growth and ultimately happiness.

About the Author

Scott Young, author of Learn More, Study Less, writes about learning tactics, productivity, psychology and life philosophy. His famous learning experiments include learning a 4-year MIT computer science program in 12 months and learning 4 languages in a year. To watch his TED talks and to find out more, check out his website here.




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