I’ve always been an extremely curious person. Industry, competence and knowledge are some of my top values and things I appreciate in life. I love reading, I love talking to smart people and I’d like to know everything. If I could somehow upload Google into my head, I’d be the happiest person alive.
But I’ve always been an extremely bad learner. I never really knew how to study efficiently; with a big exception in primary school, when my grandma was consistently tutoring me and making sure that I was really learning and mastering the study material. But when I became a rebellious teenager and entered high school, I unfortunately ditched all the good learning habits.
In high school and college, I was a typical bad student. I always studied at the last minute, if I even studied at all. I never took my own notes or did any self-testing, and cramming was the way I learned. I also always preferred to read a few paragraphs of theory over and over again rather than to do any kind of exercises, think about what I was learning, try to recall key facts or apply the theory into practice.
I always loved reading books, but I was a very passive and unfocused learner. Ironically, the older I was, the more passive learner I became, even if the rebellious teenage years ended long ago. At some point, I even went from passively reading books to only skimming hundreds of articles in my RSS reader (Feedly) every day – remembering and learning nothing. What an awful learning strategy.
Not to mention that my lifestyle was terrible for any kind of real learning and studying – from not getting enough sleep to being involved in too many projects and submitting to all different types of distractions (TV, mobile phone, social networks, meetings etc.) that were more interesting than taking focused time to learn and study.
For years, I was doing the opposite of what good learning habits are (as we’ll see in this blog post). Well, I don’t want to be completely unfair to myself. I still learned a lot in the past decade and always appreciated knowledge and deep debates.
I learned many things from various smart people, I invested enough time to learn complex and demanding topics, like term-sheets used in VC investing, intellectual property rights management, lean startup practices, and so on. But that’s very far from what I could’ve mastered by today if I were a more proactive learner and if I knew the good learning practices.
If you don’t know how to study and learn, you won’t get anywhere in life
There’s no doubt anymore that today, lifelong learning is mandatory if you want to achieve anything worthwhile in your professional life. In the creative society, creativity, knowledge and information are what matters most when it comes to working and creating value.
Not to mention all the benefits that knowledge has in your personal life – being a more interesting person, better communicator, managing your brain better, and so on. It’s sad that we all go to school for somewhere between 8 and 15 years and the one thing we do learn is to hate studying, tests and reading books. And in the end, we don’t even remember most of the things we were learning for all those years. But that doesn’t matter.
Informal education is becoming as important as formal education. Real learning in today’s times begins after you finish formal education. If you want to be successful today, you have to know how to study and how to use your brain properly, especially after you finish school; because real learning and studying never end.
That doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from knowing good learning practices if you are still a student. Knowing all these “how to study” gems can really help you become an A student while spending less time studying. It’s always about hard work and smart work. Student or not, keep reading.
Since I became aware of the importance of lifelong learning and that there is a big difference between being a smart student following good learning practices and an average poor learner who only skims articles online, it was time to make a big change in my life. Therefore, I decided somewhere at the end of the previous year, to do a big turnaround regarding my learning and studying habits.
I decided to get myself back to where I was in primary school – being a smart proactive learner, who consistently learned new chunks of knowledge every day with the goal of slowly and persistently mastering the selected topic; first by understanding the basics and then by going into detail and considering different possible applications of new knowledge.
I made a strong commitment to myself to become the best at mastering “how to study” and “how the brain works”, and then shine as an efficient student for a lifetime. As the tipping point of the learning turnaround (going from a poor learner to a smart lifelong learner), I decided to write a blog post on proactive and efficient learning, outlining everything I learned until now about the best approaches to learning and studying.
The reason for that is very simple. I want to help you with the best tips, tricks and recommendations on how to study and learn efficiently; so you can grow fond of learning again and shine as bright as possible in life.
I could say that this blog post is a collection of all the best learning practices and basic rules that I follow today when it comes to learning. I have no doubt that this blog post will help you become a better learner too – an outstanding learner. One thing I realized is that when you get fond of learning and you know how to study efficiently, a whole new world opens to you and with it access to a completely new level of power.
Power comes from possessing new competences (including knowledge) and thus having an opportunity to become a better version of yourself and create real value for other people who then greatly appreciate your work. And in the end, studying and learning is a very fun thing to do, especially when you apply knowledge into practice and you can see the fruits of your hard studying labor in improvements of all different life areas.
Let’s study efficiently and shine bright together.
1. Unplug yourself, have a strong why and build yourself a geek environment
For almost a year now, I’ve been living without a mobile phone, without a car and with very limited social connections (and social networks use). These were the three big changes that helped me unplug myself from the crazy world of constant distractions and make room in my life for real learning. After dozens of meetings, checking your mobile phone 100 times and messaging all day, you are left with zero energy for learning. That’s the cold hard fact.
Now you don’t have to make such radical moves, but you do have to somehow make more room in your life so that you have an hour or two every day to learn while your brain is still fresh. By following good time management practices, you can easily achieve that.
But if you don’t unplug yourself at least a little bit from the crazy world of constant distractions, you have zero chance of learning anything that’s more demanding than skimming superficial internet articles. Which doesn’t count as learning.
There is only one way to gather the motivation and discipline necessary to unplug yourself. You must have a strong why. Without a strong and powerful answer to why do you want to learn, you will never make the required changes in your schedule. The best why is having a thirst for a specific subject, something you wanted to master since you were young. Something you always dreamed to master.
Nevertheless, there are all kinds of other motives that can drive you to study, from making more money to being smarter or studying together with your kids to help them. If you can’t find any other reason, study to teach others and make the world a better place. That can also give you a motive to learn the right way. Before you do anything else, find yourself a strong and powerful why and write it down.
The next step is to build yourself a motivational environment. Nobody can succeed alone. Nobody can succeed in a shitty environment. So build yourself a really geeky environment that will encourage you to study regularly.
Here are a few ideas how to build yourself geeky environment:
- Put books of the selected topic you want to study everywhere – on your night shelf, in the toilet, on your working desk, on the kitchen counter.
- Install new apps on your phone related to the subject and delete others.
- Hang some motivational posters.
- Put new shortcuts on your desktop.
- Add reminders to your calendar that it’s time to study.
- Go to meetups and meet new geek friends you can learn from.
2. Timeboxing distributed practice with zero distractions
No matter how many tips and tricks you master regarding learning, there is one hard unavoidable truth – it takes effort and time to learn any difficult topics. The road to real learning is consistency.
Learning small chunks of knowledge day by day and regularly revising, recalling and practicing them in new ways. That’s how you add new chunks to your current knowledge. You create new neural brain synapses by repetition and repeated use.
That means only one thing. You have to schedule regular time for studying and learning, and when you are learning you have to be focused without any distractions. You have to make sure there are zero distractions. The method that can help you with that is called timeboxing.
Timeboxing means that you preschedule time in your calendar for a specific activity. When the time comes, you just start doing what you planed. In our case studying. You don’t think about it, you don’t procrastinate or go check for food in the fridge, you sit down and start doing the planned task.
Every day, timebox time in your schedule for studying and deliberate practice. Timebox time for going out of your mental comfort zone and for learning and practicing things that are beyond your current abilities. To keep consistency with studying, you have to fall into a specific learning schedule, into a new rhythm.
Timeboxing will help you start a new habit, but then it will soon become a routine, something you can’t live without. There are many ways how and when you can schedule learning time:
- Right after you wake up
- One hour before you start working (and you can study in peace in the office)
- When you come home from work
- Before sleep, on weekends etc.
2.1. Spaced repetition and distributed practice
Cramming is one of the worst ways to learn. Cramming means that you learn for a long period of time usually at the last moment (one day before an exam) and then you never study the same material again (if you pass the test).
If you study something for a longer period of time, and then take a longer break or even never revise the study material again, you forget much more than if you space the learning time throughout a few days.
The formula for successful learning is to study, take a short break, study again, take a short break, and so on. It’s called spaced repetition or distributed practice and it’s the opposite of cramming.
It’s better to study 1 hour for 5 days in a row than 5 hours in one day.
It’s true that when you study for a larger block of time you can go through a lot of material at once, and it may seem like you get yourself to a high level of knowledge and understanding, but your comprehension quickly deteriorates after that. Spaced repetition is the way to store new knowledge chunks in your long-term memory.
So the question is: how much should you space out the practice? If you space your repetitions too soon you waste time and if you do it too late you have to relearn everything. There are two answers to that question. The first one is to space out repetitions a little bit more than you want to.
The second one is to space learning at least 20 % of the time you want to remember something. If you want to remember something for a week, you need to repeat it in 12 – 24 hour learning blocks apart, if you want to remember something for a year, you have to space repetitions on a monthly basis.
2.2. Taking regular breaks
There is no efficient studying without taking regular breaks. Your attention span gets to about 30 % after 45 minutes of studying. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it gets 90 % refreshed after a short break, even one of 5 – 10 minutes. That means it makes sense to study for an hour or so, and then take a break and come back to studying afterwards.
Using the Pomodoro technique to properly mix study time and breaks might be one good approach to employ. Pomodoro is a 25-minute interval when you work focused without distractions. You write down what you want to learn, start the timer and focus exclusively on learning. Then you take a 3 – 5 minute break and go back to a new interval study. After four pomodoros, you take a longer 15 – 30minute break.
Doing some easy exercises (a few yoga poses, stretches, a short walk, a few squats) before you start studying or during breaks can help a lot in refreshing your brain and restarting your attention span. It’s also important to reward yourself with a small treat after every successfully completed studying block. Additionally, there are many different exercises you can do to train your attention span.
Last but not least, it also makes sense to mind the general biological clock and your individual biological rhythm for when to timebox the study time. The general biological clock states that you are most actively prepared to study at 10 A.M., but you have to also consider your personal internal clock – the circadian rhythm.
3. Mixing different learning styles
There are several different learning styles with strategies and theories behind them. Most learning styles are highly criticized by psychologists and have little scientific proof, but it’s still good to know them and be aware of them, with the goal of applying them into your personal learning strategy.
It’s completely okay to have a preferred learning style based on what works best for you (some people may have one dominating learning style and others don’t), nevertheless you want to mix learning styles at least a little bit.
You don’t want to keep your learning monotonous. But what you absolutely don’t want to do is to use learning styles as an excuse for not learning at all; for example, if you are a kinesthetic learner and you can’t find the material that would support that kind of learning for a specific topic, you decide to not go for any other source.
The learning styles we know are:
- Active / Reflective
- Concrete Experience / Abstract Conceptualization
- Sensing / Intuitive
- Sequential / Global
- Visual / Auditory / Read-Write / Kinesthetic
3.1. Active and reflective learners
If you are an active learner, you tend to understand new information best by doing something with it actively, like getting engaged in a discussion, explaining it to others or applying knowledge into practice. Active learners usually prefer to study and learn in groups rather than in isolation. As an interesting fact, that means we also know social and solitary learning styles.
There are two types of active learners, the ones who like to have “hands-on” experience in practical doing (physical therapists) or “hands-on” experience with applying theory (engineers). Learners who want to have “hands-on” experience in practical doing and prefer using their body, hands and senses are also called physical or kinesthetic learners. Kinesthetic learners are good with gestures, body movements, object manipulation and positioning.
Reflective learners tend to think about the material first and process it internally, before doing anything else with their new knowledge. They think it through in their mind and especially learn by analysis. Everyone is sometimes an active and sometimes a reflective learner, depending on the situation, but striving for the balance between both learning strategies is the best combination.
Much like there are two types of active learners, there are also two types of reflective learners – the ones who are strong in practical use of knowledge, like in discussions (social workers), and the ones who like to reflect on abstract conceptualizations to create theories (philosophers).
|Practice||Physical Therapist (kinesthetic)||Engineer|
3.2. Sensing and intuitive learners
Sensing learners are oriented more on facts, memorization and using familiar concepts. They pay attention to detail, have no issues with memorizing facts and following known steps to solve a known set of problems. They are more practical learners.
Intuitive learners are more focused on discovering new possibilities, relationships among ideas, new creative applications and understanding, but they often don’t pay attention to detail and can make small mistakes quickly. They are more creative learners. Again, you have to learn to use both learning ways and balance them properly.
3.3. Sequential and global learners
Sequential learners need a straight learning path, where they acquire knowledge step by step and where each knowledge chunk is a logical successor to the previous one. When sequential learners are solving a problem, they usually follow logical steps to find the solution.
Global learners, on the other hand, learn best by learning randomly without having the big picture. They just somehow “get it”, but often can’t explain the details. That enables them to solve more complex problems quickly and connect pieces of knowledge in novel ways.
3.4. Visual and verbal learners
Visual learners learn best based on visual materials like pictures, diagrams, flow charts, presentations, films and demonstrations. They rely most on their visual perception and visual memory; they learn through seeing.
Verbal learners learn best from written and spoken words. Verbal learners learn the most by listening to lectures, discussions, reading etc. Verbal learners search for explanations with words.
Learners who prefer the spoken word, sound and music are called auditory types and learners who prefer the written word are called reading & writing types.
As mentioned, learning styles have not been scientifically proven and are heavily criticized. But one thing that has been proven as beneficial is to mix different learning styles and with experimenting build a strategy that works for you as an individual. A good learning practice is mixing different learning styles. A few obvious and logical examples are:
- Understand the theory, connect it to your current knowledge, but also think about practical applications. With your own practical experience, try to build new theories and abstractions, even if it’s only a mental exercise. Act and reflect on the new knowledge.
- Have a very strict learning plan, understand the semantic tree, do chunking, but then also do interleaved practicing. Mix the sequential and global learning principle.
- Go to the best sources, and use different types of learning material (text, audio, video, discussion etc.). Try to engage as many senses as possible in your learning.
- Use the focused (sensing – recall, revision etc.) and diffused (intuitive – take a break, connect things in a new way etc.) mode of thinking to unlock your full learning, thinking and creative potential. But note that you can’t use both types of thinking at once. Well, that’s exactly our next subject.
4. Using two ways of thinking and learning to become a superlearner
We know two ways of thinking, divergent (lateral) and converged. That means we also know two ways of learning – the focused and diffused way.
The focused mode of learning is when you are concentrating hard on memorizing something, and the diffuse mode is happening behind the scenes.
The diffuse mode helps you think broadly, keep the big picture in mind and go from one new idea to another, without getting stuck in the old knowledge and way of thinking. When you take a break, your brain still works on connecting things, solving problems and building a context. That’s when you also get creative ideas.
The most important fact about the two ways of thinking is that you can’t use both of them at the same time. For effective learning, you have to constantly switch between focused mode and diffused mode. You have to learn to use both types of thinking to be an effective learner. You have to learn very focused for a period of time, and then take a break (remember the Pomodoro technique).
The first step in efficient learning is to timebox time for focused learning, deliberate practice, repetition and recall. Then you need to take a break and change your focus to something new. In the background, your brain still works and processes what you’ve learned in the focused session. It uses the diffused mode to process knowledge that leads to better conceptual understanding.
You can also use both ways of thinking when you’re solving problems. Focused thinking can be used for sequential reasoning, where you try to find a solution with deliberate small steps. The second way based on diffused thinking is a holistic intuitive approach, where you try to creatively connect unseen patterns.
Remember the sensing and intuitive learning style? Yes, those are also two ways of solving problems. For complex and demanding processes, the holistic approach often works better, because you are trying to connect things that haven’t yet been connected, you’re producing new unfamiliar ideas.
In practice, that means you have to deliberately practice and learn without any distractions for a certain period of time, and then stop and do something completely new (take a walk, cook yourself a meal etc.). I get into the diffusion way of thinking by doing physical exercise.
That’s why I do intervals of deliberate practice and physical exercise. You can find many examples of how people get new creative ideas or do quantum leaps in understanding subjects while the diffuse mode is active during rest time. It can be after a walk, a short nap or cooking a meal.
5. Being a proactive reader and learning formulas
Reading is one of the most popular methods of learning. That’s why we must absolutely discuss how to read when you’re learning new things. You want to be a proactive learner and you want to be a proactive reader.
Being a proactive reader doesn’t only mean that you consciously decide on when, what and how to study and learn (instead of clicking on random articles on social networks), but also that you are actively present and focused when you are learning and you “torture” your brain to understand and memorize things.
You have to comprehend what you’re learning and you have to practice recall after you read something. (Pro)active reading is about interacting with the text. You think while you read, you ask yourself questions, do elaborative interrogation and use techniques like self-explanation (later in this blog post, it’s described what these techniques are and why they’re important).
Adjusting reading speeds to the complexity of the study material, studying in perfect peace without distractions and being in a good mood and fully alert all help with reading comprehension. There are two formulas that can be extremely helpful when discussing what being a proactive reader means – the SQ3R, TLR and OK4R formulas.
5.1. The SQ3R and OK4R reading formulas
Let’s first look at the SQ3R or SQRRR formula of active reading. Here are the steps how to read properly:
- Survey – Skim the text, analyze the structure of the text (table of contents), look at graphs and grasp the general ideas of what the author considers important.
- Questions – Note all the different questions that are addressed in the study material, especially in titles, subtitles, and emphasized text.
- Read – Read the study material and keep the corresponding questions in mind, so you’ll be really focused on the material.
- Recite – Recall, recite and answer the questions with your own words. Quiz yourself and test yourself to see which parts of the material you’ve mastered and which not yet.
- Review – Review the material for the questions you struggled with. Recite everything once more. Timebox spaced repetitions for reviews.
And the OK4R acronym stands for the following reading process (quite similar to the one above):
- Overview – Get an overview of the semantic structure, go through the introduction, table of contents, headings, subheadings, summaries and diagrams. Get a general idea of what the study material is about.
- Key Ideas – Go through the key ideas of the study material. They are most often in the beginning of each paragraph or emphasized in any other way – like bolded text, bullet points, pictures and graphs. Outline the key ideas of the text.
- Read – Read the study material while keeping the key ideas in mind.
- Recall – Close the study material and try to recall as much as possible, especially the main points of the text. Write down all the key points that you remember.
- Reflect – Reflect on the new learned knowledge by thinking of practical examples, how the new knowledge is connected to what you already know, new creative applications etc.
- Review – Review the study material sometime in the nearby future to refresh your memory. Do spaced repetitions and study harder the parts you have forgotten.
5.2. TLR – The learning formula
The learning formula (TLR) is a very general process of how you learn and acquire knowledge. It has three steps that start with learning something new, then actively processing the knowledge and finally applying it as soon as possible. The learning updates in your brain are done based on the following formula:
Learning = Download + Process + Apply (Knowledge chunks)
Downloading knowledge means getting new information about something – how things can be done in a better way, how something works or functions, how to operate a machine etc. You get a new piece of information that you didn’t have before or is different from your current knowledge.
Processing knowledge means reflecting on new information, connecting it to what you already know, analyzing and deciding what you’ll start doing and stop doing based on the new information, talking to other people and engaging in discussions, sleeping it over, and so on. If you have the big picture in mind, the semantic tree, you can more easily process knowledge and connect new chunks to the old ones.
Applying knowledge means putting it to use. It means starting to interact differently with your environment. Becoming a better version of yourself, in action. Practically, it means that you put a new skill you’ve acquired to use, you stop procrastinating, undertake a new adventure, make better decisions, deepen your relationships, and so on.
Here are a few examples of how you can “download” knowledge:
- Listening to lectures
- Listening to audio books or podcasts
- Watching educational videos
- Watching demonstrations
Here are a few examples of how you can “process” knowledge:
- Doing self-reflection
- Talking about a new piece of information with other people and your mentors
- Doing research
- Planning and doing scenario-based thinking or a cost-benefit analysis
- Group discussions
- Teaching others
- Doing a mind-map, summarizing, structuring etc.
And a few examples of how you can “apply” knowledge into practice:
- Having real-life experience
- Changing your behavior and how you do things
- Being in the search mode – trying, experimenting, gathering feedback from your environment
- Teaching others after getting real‑life experience – for example, by starting to write a blog
The best way to learn new things is to combine different methods listed above and to go through the whole learning process. First you download knowledge in one way or another, then you process it, which means you think about it, internalize it, think of possible applications, add your own ideas and prepare a plan and, of course, then you apply it by doing something new or doing things differently in your life.
You really learn only when you’re doing something new or in a new way. In the rest of the blog post, we will talk especially about how to recall, process and apply new knowledge.
5.3. Mixing all the different approaches to not get bored
If you are bored while you’re learning, it means that you’re doing something wrong. The best thing that can help with boredom is to study the topic from different sources and mixing knowledge acquirement in different ways.
You can use textbooks, online courses, practical exercises, talking to smart people etc. Nevertheless, I learned a few important facts when gathering learning resources and using different materials to learn from:
- Absolutely mix different learning styles as we’ve talked about. It makes learning fun.
- Go straight to the best resources. Otherwise you’ll drown in information.
- Mix different types of the best resources of knowledge. I read, do online courses and do exercises.
- Strictly limit the number of resources so you don’t feel overwhelmed. Select the few core ones you really go through deeply, and only quickly skim the other ones to see if there’s something interesting to add.
- Watch out that you don’t revise the same simple stuff along many different resources. That’s what often prevented me from progressing. Deliberate practice is the key, you have to go a little bit outside the comfort zone and not practice the same things you already know.
6. The semantic tree and structuring a learning plan
Here is a quote from Elon Musk on how he learns: “It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.”
A semantic tree can help you see the big picture and provides the main branches onto which you can stick the knowledge chunks.
The semantic tree enables you to:
- See the bigger picture, the structure of a specific body of knowledge
- Easily see the most important elements of the topic
- Sense the relation among the elements
- Prioritize learning elements
- Prepare a solid learning plan, which also includes interleaving (more about that soon)
If you want to understand advanced ideas and techniques, you first have to master the basics. You first need the context, the whole picture, then you have to make sure that you master basic chunks of knowledge on which you can build mastery level skills. Nevertheless, keep in mind that you have to practice a little bit out of the comfort zone and you have to mix different types of exercises.
Based on the big picture and the semantic tree, you can also build yourself a learning roadmap that you follow. One of the best ways to build semantic trees are mind maps. As you probably know, mind maps are diagrams that visually structure, present, organize and connect key concepts and ideas. Mind maps are also a great tool for brainstorming. So let’s look at a few core principles of mind-mapping.
6.1. Creating mind maps
Mind maps were developed by Tony Buzan and are an easy technique to use for building semantic trees and remembering key facts more easily. Mind maps help you not only to learn the dots (or chunks as we’ll learn), but to connect the dots in the right way.
On a well prepared mind map you can quickly grasp the key concepts and see the connection between them, you see the big picture and individual chunks of information and you can easily break topics down into smaller chunks to connect them in new ways or prepare a step-by-step learning plan for yourself.
The most popular mind-mapping software applications (among 40+ options that you have) are:
- Mindjet MindManager (that’s the one I use)
- MindNode (iOS)
There are many already created mind maps that can help you see the semantic tree of different topics. The most popular sites with collections of mind maps are:
- Maps for That
- Google MindMapping Community
- TopicScape Mind maps Directory
7. The chunking strategy
Learning about chunks was one big epiphany for me. Chunks are small units of knowledge that go logically together and that you can easily practice, revise and remember. You break something complex into units or chunks, and then memorize it. A chunk becomes chunked into your memory as new brain structure.
By chunking you break larger pieces of knowledge that you want to learn into small chunks and then follow a process of learning to make them a permanent part of your brain structure (repetition, recall etc.). Scientifically, a chunk represents a network of neurons that fires together when you think a specific thought.
For learning a new chunk, you use the focused way of thinking (not the diffused one). There must be no distractions and interruptions. You need to focus your undivided attention to the new chunk. While you do that, you first try to understand the key ideas that the knowledge chunk consists of.
Then comes the context: you try to understand the context. With context you try to integrate related and unrelated problems, challenges and uses of knowledge. If understanding the key ideas is about the how, the context is about when to use the new acquired knowledge in practice.
When you understand the key ideas together with the context really well, it means that you can do it yourself – apply it, solve a test or a problem or do an exercise. Repetition and practice help form new neural networks that lead to understanding the key ideas and being able to recall something, and the context helps fit the chunk into the bigger picture. Everything we’ve talked about.
The idea of chunking is to:
- Slice and dice a big topic into manageable pieces
- Keep the whole picture in mind (context) with a semantic tree, while you learn chunk by chunk
- Connect a new acquired chunk to all previously learned chunks
- Practice a chunk of knowledge with different types of exercises
- Join small chunks together into bigger chunks
- Build fundamentals and then upgrade knowledge base step by step
- Think immediately how each chunk can be applied to practice
- Mix and connect knowledge chunks in new ways
New knowledge of chunks need to be properly managed. There are several ways how to do that.
|The keyword mnemonic||Low|
|Imagery use for text learning||Low|
|Practice testing and recall||High|
Source: Psychological Science in the Public Interest
8. Processing chunks and connecting them with existing knowledge
Now let’s talk more about processing a new chunk of knowledge. You always link information based on what you already know. You have to connect new chunks with existing chunks. You have to somehow explain to yourself how a new chunk is related to your existing knowledge.
You can do that most easily by making associations, thinking of synonyms, building mental images, using imagination in different ways, finding examples, and building direct connections between chunks. While doing these things, you can also recall knowledge more easily. Let’s say a word or two about each of these techniques.
8.1. Do elaborative interrogation – explain why
With elaborative interrogation, you try to state the facts with your own words, saying why a new piece of information is true, why x equals y. The method pushes you to directly apply your current knowledge to better process new information. You drive your brain into connecting the dots.
This technique might have limitations if you are new to the subject, but it does help a lot with comprehension, processing a knowledge chunk and even memorization when you pass the basics. And when you progress in knowledge, you can quickly find this technique extremely useful.
8.2. Use self-explanation – how is the new related to the known
With this technique you simply ask yourself how a new knowledge chunk relates to whatever you already know. In the next step, you try to use your own words to describe why a specific problem is solved as it is and what are the steps for coming to the solution. With self‑explanation you explain (to yourself) how you process new information during learning.
A good similar exercise is trying to explain the new thing that you’ve learned to somebody who doesn’t know the subject, as if you tried to teach them. Of course you have to use your own words, examples and style etc.
When you’re explaining the new knowledge chunk to yourself or others, you can help yourself with questions like:
- How do I understand it and why do I understand it like that?
- What is the main idea?
- What is this knowledge about?
- Why would somebody be interested in that topic?
- What did the person who came up with the knowledge try to achieve?
- Where is this theory applied?
- How would I explain a new knowledge chunk to a 7-year‑old kid?
8.3. Mnemonics and analogies
Your brain works based on associations. Your brain loves to see and make new patterns and connections. So associations may help you with learning. It’s called mnemonics and using analogies.
Mnemonics and analogies are ways to see two things similarly in your unique mind. You link a new piece of information through associations with something already familiar to you that usually stands out (keywords, analogies, stories, imagery).
More visual representation usually helps to retain more easily and then recall better. It also helps with comprehension and understanding why something is as it is (oh, I see, it’s used the same way as it is at …). Stories and models can be used in the same way. Nevertheless, many studies have shown that mnemonic techniques help mostly with short-term recall. Thus you have to test it for yourself to see if they’re giving you any long-term results.
An example of a popular mnemonic technique is the peg system, where you link numbers to nouns. If there is a rhyme involved in the link, the technique works even better. There are three different types of peg-word systems: the rhyming one, the major one and the PAO (person-action-object) system.
8.4. Visualizing learning material (imagery for text learning)
One learning technique you can employ is to imagine images as you read through the text or when you listen to a lecture. Imagery representation can help you remember things more easily, but you can also better understand how things work by having a visual practical example in mind.
This technique is less effective with longer texts, and it can also be hard to visualize while you read the text. Although you should try these technique, especially if you’re a visual learner.
A very popular visualization technique is the method of loci or the mind palace technique, which is a system of visualizing key information as specific points and places in a known physical location.
9. Practice until challenge turns to boredom
In test-driven development, there is a rule of thumb to “test code until fear turns to boredom”. You can use the same exact principle when you’re learning a new block of knowledge – practice until fear turns to boredom. Practice a new skill or block of knowledge until fear turns to the first sign of boredom.
When there isn’t a single drop of fear anymore that you might make a mistake, and when every exercise and revision turn into boredom, then you can be sure that you’re mastering the knowledge. Then it’s time to move to the next knowledge chunk. No fear and boredom, these are the signals that you’re a master at something.
But don’t waste time practicing what you already know. The first mini sign that you’re bored means it’s time to move on. Remember, boredom is a sign that you’re doing something wrong, it may be that you are practicing something that isn’t a challenge anymore. If we want to underline why practice is so important, we have to say a few words about how our memory works.
9.1. Three types of memory
We know three types of memories – sensory memory, long-term memory, and short-term memory or working memory. Sensory memory is based on your five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch). It lasts only for a few seconds and you can store around 12 bits of information at once. Sensory memory and short-term memory are connected by attention.
You concentrate only on a few elements in your environment, and exclude all the other elements. What you pay attention to gets transferred from sensory memory into working memory. You can store around 4 bits of information in the short-term memory (some sources claim 7 bits).
Things from your working memory fade in about 30 – 60 seconds or even less. You have to make a learning effort to transfer things from your working memory into the long-term memory (revision, repetition, practicing recall).
You free your working memory by being relaxed, having no distractions and avoiding multi-tasking. And luckily your long-term memory is like a big warehouse where you can store almost everything you want if you put the effort in.
Only with repetition and recall do you get things from short-term memory into long-term memory. If you want to store a chunk into the long-term memory, you have to deeply process it through focused and meaningful learning and thinking (connecting new chunks with existing ones as we’ve talked about).
When a knowledge chunk is in the long-term memory, you can recall it when you need it (if you refresh your knowledge often enough). Practice and repetition create a new neural pattern. The basic idea of learning is to get a knowledge chunk into the long-term memory.
- Sensory memory: What you pay attention to (learning without distractions is paying attention to what you’re trying to learn, for example)
- Working memory: Everything you’re thinking at the moment
- Long-term memory: Limitless capacity and almost permanent (revision is needed from time to time)
Here’s some very good news. When you bring something from the long-term memory into the working memory (by bringing something to mind), it occupies less working memory slots than it did initially when you were trying to memorize it. It gets kind of compact and that enables you to play with more ideas at once and connect knowledge in new ways. The more you know, the more creative and smart you can be.
Smooth physical repetition creates muscle memory, and smooth mental repetition creates knowledge chunks so you don’t have to relearn or re-explain pieces of information to yourself. You just know it and can intuitively do it; you know it from memory.
One more thing regarding your working memory. You want to free your working memory (mental bandwidth) of trivial things, to have space for real learning. You can use to-do lists, reminders and checklists for that. Mark Zuckerberg wears the same design of clothes every day, so as to not use any working memory for those kinds of decisions. He uses all the memory he has to grow his business.
9.2. Recall – the mother of learning
The poor learning strategy is to read the material again and again, hoping that you will remember something. The superior learning strategy is to make recall your best friend. The best way to build new neural connections is by reading something and then trying to recall it.
The recall strategy means that you look away from what you’re reading or watching, and recall or repeat the main ideas in your head or aloud. After you read or listen to study material, you close the source, look away and try to squeeze as much as possible from your brain.
- What is the last thing you remember?
- What is the most interesting thing that you remember?
- What is the best example of use for the new knowledge chunk?
- Is there anything that you remember?
- How are things connected?
When you repeat an idea and it comes from within you, you remember it much better. It’s been scientifically proven that recall works much more effectively than rereading. It’s harder to do that than to just reread the text, but that’s also probably why it works.
It’s also beneficial to try to recall chunks of knowledge in different places. Using standard places can create subtle and unconscious connections with what you’re learning and is helping you with recall. Then when you change a place it’s harder to recall the material.
9.3. Self-testing – retrieval of key concepts and a clear sign what to practice more
I know we all hate tests. School taught us all to hate tests. All the stress and fear connected with them. Well, I decided to unlearn test hating and start to love tests. Especially self-testing, because there is no pressure and you can always cheat a little bit. Just kidding. But self-testing is extremely important in learning.
It’s scientifically proven that you are boosting your long-term memory with self-testing. Solving a test really is one of the most efficient methods of practicing and seeing how much you’ve learned. There are many ways how you can test yourself.
You can prepare a creative test for yourself, you can find and solve a pre-prepared test, you can also ask somebody else to put your knowledge to the test. One of the best ways to test yourself is by using flashcards.
9.4. Use Flashcards
Flashcards are one of the best techniques for self-testing and revision. They are visual clues on cards with short summaries. They help you focus on the key point of the study material. You can very easily prepare flashcards for yourself that you constantly go through.
I think you know how to use flashcards. On one side of a card you write a question, on the other the answer, you prepare several such cards, mix them, pick one and answer the question out of your head. Then you compare your answer to the answer on the back of the flashcard.
You can make physical cards or you can use Anki or Memrise, which are two great applications that can help you prepare digital Flashcards. Memrise also offers pre-collections of flashcards on different topics made by other people.
9.5. Summaries, taking notes and rewriting things in your own words
Let’s start with the bad news. Highlighting, rereading and summarization are considered less effective learning techniques. Highlighting usually gives a fake feeling of progress and learning. As we’ve discussed, it’s been scientifically proven that recall puts rereading to shame when it comes to learning.
And if you want to learn effectively by paraphrasing and writing summaries, you have to know how to do it correctly, otherwise the technique is not so efficient.
Therefore, here are the general directions for how to take notes and write summaries of learning material, since this is still one of the most popular ways to learn:
- Don’t transcribe notes, write them in your own words.
- Writing by hand creates new brain synapses faster than typing.
- Before you go through your notes, take a blank piece of paper and try to recall as much as possible.
- Try to do a few exercises or write down all the facts you remember, before you revise your notes.
- I think you got the message: Recall first, recall first and recall first.
- Review your notes as soon as you make them, do it the same day and then on a regular basis.
- Connect your notes with previously acquired knowledge.
You can make your notes as outlines, charts, sentence summaries or mind maps. One of the very popular note taking methodologies is the Cornell Note Taking System. As I mentioned, the best way to take notes is by hand, but you can also use many software tools like Evernote, OneNote, or Google Keep.
10. Interleaved practice – doing different types of learning in the same session
Repetition and revision are the keys to memorizing things. But if you practice the same thing over and over again in the exact same way, you are overlearning or starting to only mimic what you did the last time, and you don’t really learn. Repeating something that you already know and have mastered well is not really learning new things.
Learning something in the same way again and again is also not an efficient learning strategy.
That’s where interleaving comes into play. Interleaving your learning means that you practice and use knowledge chunks with different concepts, approaches and techniques in the same learning session. If interleaving is done correctly, you also often switch between different parts of the subject.
Rather than building chunks into structured blocks, subjects and themes, it’s better to add variety to the learning and spend small learning blocks of time on a variety of subjects and learning problems. That might seem very counterintuitive, but it works much better when it comes to learning.
- Blocked practice – you practice one thing over and over again
- Interleaved practice – you mix your practice
A good example is practicing sports. In badminton, there are three types of strokes you can do. Blocked practice would mean practicing one stroke over the training period. Interleaved practice would mean mixing the practice of all three strokes in one session. Taking the same number of trials into repetition, interleaved practice gives better long-term learning results.
Interleaving builds flexibility and creativity, it teaches you when to use specific knowledge chunks and encourages you to apply acquired chunks in new ways. That’s why you have to use acquired knowledge to solve different types of problems or test yourself in different ways. But don’t go too far with interleaving and make your studying a messy and unfocused exercise.
- Test yourself in different ways – quizzes, open questions, flashcards, random exercises etc.
- Upgrade your knowledge – solve a harder exercise, solve a problem a little bit differently etc.
- Mix different learning styles – global and sequential, for example
- Brainstorm your own ideas – think about how you could come up with a different solution
- Learning transfer – Think about where and how you could apply knowledge outside the domain
It’s not that different in the gym. To build muscle you have to consistently train every day. By doing one more repetition than you can barely do, you go out of the comfort zone. But to progress faster you also have to mix exercises a little bit after a few weeks. Consistency, tree, chunks, recall, interleaving.
11. Forming a knowledge mastermind group
You can never succeed alone in life, you need a strong support team and people who believe in you. You do need your peace, quiet and alone time in order to be focused and study and recall new chunks, but there is a point where having a support group becomes very beneficial. I call this forming a knowledge mastermind group.
For whatever subject you want to master, it’s extremely helpful to be part of a community that wants to learn the same thing as you or that already mastered what you want to master. It can be an online or offline community or study group. The main benefits of forming a teaching mastermind group are:
- Discussing, finding arguments and counterarguments, brainstorming, explaining and teaching. These are all great ways to process knowledge and some of the best ways to learn besides recall and revision.
- Others can more easily see blind spots in your knowledge and give you feedback on what to practice more. They can also direct you to the best resources.
- You can always learn so much from people who are better than you. One talk with an expert can save you weeks of learning and hard work on your own.
- If you spend time with ambitious people you will be more motivated.
An alternative to forming a mastermind group is getting a mentor or a tutor who already mastered what you want to master.
12. Validated learning – the grandmother of learning
Validated learning is a concept that comes from the lean startup theory and is often used in business. Nevertheless, it can be an extremely useful concept when it comes to learning. Validated learning in personal life is a process of acquiring a new chunk of knowledge, immediately putting it into practice and then measuring the results to validate the effects – if there is any value for you or not.
The idea is to put knowledge into practice immediately to see what kind of real benefits it can provide for you. It’s not only about seeing if you can or know how to do something, but to measure if there are any benefits to knowing it. You don’t want to waste your working and long-term memory.
Repetition is the mother of learning. Experience is its grandmother.
The process or the personal validated learning loop consists of three steps:
- Acquiring knowledge chunks
- Immediate implementation
- Validated learning based on metrics
As we’ve said, chunks are small units of knowledge that logically go together and that you can easily practice, revise and remember. You break larger pieces of knowledge you want to learn into small chunks. When you acquire a new chuck of knowledge, you want to put it to the test as quickly as possible. You do that with immediate implementation by conducting experiments.
It’s not as complicated as it may sound, but you put new knowledge to the test by conducting controllable experiments. You try a new behavior, a way to look at things or you put knowledge into practice and then observe and measure the results. You gather internal and external feedback – from your boss, coworkers, friends, your body or mind. You see how the new upgraded you functions in the environment.
In the last step, you have to measure whether applying knowledge makes sense and if it works for you as a unique individual. The point is: if you want to do validated learning, you have to measure where applying new knowledge is leading you. Based on that, you decide whether to pivot or not.
You measure your feedback based on different metrics. If metrics lead you into the right direction, knowledge has value for you, if not, it’s nothing but a waste. That means you have to focus your attention and learning onto something new.
13. Learning transfer – the best way to innovate
You want to make the most out of your learning. On the one hand, that means applying the most efficient learning techniques we talked about, and on the other you also want to capture as much value as possible out of your new knowledge. That means putting knowledge into practice, brainstorming new ideas, and connecting knowledge chunks in new yet unseen ways.
Learning transfer is one of the best ways how you can squeeze additional value out of your new knowledge. Learning transfer is taking what you learn in one context and applying it to another. It can be taking a kernel of what you read in a book and applying it in practice in a new way or it can also be taking what you learn in one industry and applying it to another.
While you learn you should constantly ask yourself: Where else could I use this knowledge, what are other possible applications?
We know near transfer, in which knowledge is used in a similar situation, and far transfer, where knowledge is used in a completely new way or industry. Achieving far transfer is harder, but it has much bigger potential if successful. You should always brainstorm potential near and far transfers of your new knowledge chunks.
A lack of confidence is one of the most frequent reasons why people don’t think about new ideas and knowledge transfer. Don’t be one of those people. Use the search mode as a conscious decision to experiment with crazy new ideas, even if they fail and you’re completely wrong. Experiment, build prototypes, play, and have fun with new knowledge and ideas.
14. Following a healthy lifestyle for better learning
The point of learning is to bring your brain to its full potential. Besides learning there are a few other ways and ideas how to do that. Here are the main ones:
- Constantly try new things, regularly challenge yourself, travel, talk to new people, never get bored.
- Do a creative task every day – make art, brainstorm ideas, write and play with new concepts, prototype.
- You can also do brain teasers, games and different puzzles. Hell, from time to time, play a challenging video game.
- With good time management, make sure you work in the creative flow as much as possible every day.
But as a basis for all these things, the strong foundation on which you can play, learn and create is following a healthy lifestyle. Healthy brain can only reside in a healthy body. So the last thing you can do to become a superlearner is to take good care of your health.
Let’s look at a few crucial things you can do to keep your brain healthy and working well.
14.1. Get enough sleep
The most important advice when it comes to learning and a healthy lifestyle is getting enough sleep. Not only are brain toxins washed away during sleep, your brain also rehearses more complex knowledge chunks to make neural connections stronger.
Going through material right before sleep or before you take a nap increases the chances of dreaming about it and consequently increases the ability to understand what you’ve learned throughout the day. Sleep helps you consolidate learning and get new knowledge into the long-term memory.
In the first two hours of sleep, you consolidate new information in the short-term memory, then from the second to around the sixth hour of sleep your brain moves memories from the short-term memory into the long-term memory, and in the last two hours the brain actively rehearses materials. That’s why you need to get eight hours of sleep.
After the sixth hour of sleep, the learning magic in your brain happens.
14.2. Properly maintain your brain
Exercise and a healthy diet is one of the best things you can do for your brain. Exercise helps brain neurons to survive. Here are a few basic rules to follow when it comes to properly maintaining your brain:
- Regularly exercise
- Drink plenty of water, which will properly refresh your brain.
- A healthy diet means a healthier brain – eat a lot of veggies (especially green ones), have moderate fruit consumption, and eat complex carbs, a high amount of healthy fats, low amounts of sugar and low amounts of unhealthy fats and alcohol.
- Add brain foods to your diet – EFAs, blueberries, broccoli, seeds, nuts, avocado etc.
- Protect your brain at all cost – wear a helmet etc.
14.3. You can’t study under severe negative emotions
When you’re in a severe negative emotional state or under severe pressure and stress, your brain isn’t functioning as it should. It somehow loses the ability to make new neural connections and grasp new concepts and ideas.
Keep your margins high enough, take regular breaks and stretch during the breaks. Reduce the amount of stress and anxiety you face in life.
15. The action steps and the best resources to go to if you want to know more
I hope you found many ideas in this blog post on how to study and improve your learning abilities.
To summarize, you must be clear on why you want to learn something, you gain the knowledge best through spaced repetition and recall, you have to minimize stress, avoid distractions and interruptions, preserve health, get enough sleep, and unplug yourself from the fast-food society.
The number one resource to go to if you want to learn more is the free online course Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. I completed this course and it was also a great resource for this blog post.
Now come the action steps. Remember, you’ve learned nothing if you don’t apply knowledge into practice. Here are my commitments for improving my learning habits:
- This site will not only be my blog, but also a centralized learning tool, where I publish different summaries, notes and interesting things I learn. I also put together resources in terms of blog posts I can always return to. This will be more for me, won’t be proofread, but I’m sure many people can benefit from it.
- I built myself a big semantic tree-map of what I want to learn in the next three years.
- I prepared a learning queue for myself, a learning plan with the best mixed type of resources.
- I limited the number of resources & learning-in-progress not to feel overwhelmed with learning.
- I scheduled two 1-hour sprints for learning every working day (one after I finish my morning kick-off routine and writing and one in the late afternoon after the exercise).
- The chunking strategy is now the core of my learning. I have chunks of knowledge defined on my semantic tree and I will learn chunk by chunk with elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, mnemonics, visualization, recall, self-testing and interleaved practice. I tried flashcards, but I don’t like them. Notes, summaries, blog posts and practical applications are my thing.
- I will try to use the diffuse mode more during walks, exercise and sleep. I will give instructions to my brain what to work on while I focus on other stuff.
- I will create more mind maps – for brainstorming, building semantic trees and memorizing new things I want to learn. But I will focus more on summaries and notes, because that’s what I like the most.
These are my steps. Now take a blank piece of paper, go through the text again, write down the key points of different learning strategies and concepts, and decide what you will apply into your life. Make a commitment and a new agreement with yourself for how you will study from now on and how you will become a superlearner.
Investments in yourself always pay the greatest dividends. Knowing how to study and then becoming a lifelong learner is absolutely the best type of investment. Knowledge and applying it is power. Now you know how to become more powerful in life. You just have to do the first step. Take a piece of paper, start writing down your commitments and then follow through.
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