Learning How to Learn: 5 Powerful Strategies to Learn more Effectively
As a 21st century human, you need to know how to navigate social relationships, get along with technology, stay informed about politics, obey laws, balance your finances, make smart career decisions, choose a healthy diet, and about a million other little skills that help you thrive.
Each of these skills requires you to have a solid foundation to learn them effectively.
Last Updated May 2022
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You may be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:
It’s the idea that unless we meet our more basic needs, we are unable to even think about what comes next. If, for example, you aren’t getting enough oxygen, you really don’t care much about food and water.
If you think about it, learning is the same way. It’s the gateway skill to unlocking every other skill you need in life.
Here’s the thing: At any point in your life, did anyone, educator or otherwise, actually teach you how to learn?
Or, for that matter, how to best use the 10 pound mass of neurons and synapses you call your brain?
The need for learning how to learn has resulted in a surge of online courses and books helping students attain this invaluable skill. These include my own popular online courses on Udemy, Dr. Barbara Oakley’s “learning how to learn” MOOC, and more. And given that millions of people have taken these courses, one thing is clear: People want to understand how our brains work so that they can become better learners.
In this article, I’m going to share some of my favorite “quick win” principles to improve your learning.
1. Priming your brain for learning
One of the first exercises in my course, Become a SuperLearner, may seem like “fluff.” Essentially, I have students write out their why. What will completing this course empower them to do? It sounds like a waste of time, right? But research shows that it’s far and away one of the most effective things you can do to improve your learning.
Allow me to explain.
Most of the time, when a child has to learn something, they don’t need much of a reason or incentive. The world is so new, exciting, and interesting to them that they soak up new information like sponges. Learning is fun – and even when it isn’t, they usually only need a little reassurance that “this is important” to get them back on track.
But as our brains age, in middle school or high school, things start to change. Have you ever noticed that it’s about this time that students begin to ask: “Why do I need to learn this? When am I ever going to use it?”
According to early research by Malcolm Knowles, this is because the adult brain has greater requirements for learning.
- Foundation: As adult learners, we come to the table with more knowledge and experience. For this reason, we must understand how any new information we’re learning relates to, compares, or contrasts with what we already know.
- Need to know: The adult brain is practical and pragmatic; it learns best when it knows why it’s learning something. In other words, we need to know that there’s a practical use for whatever it is we’re learning.
- Readiness: Besides knowing that we’re going to use what we learn, we want to know that it’s going to happen soon. Adults learn best when they have an immediate application for the knowledge.
- Orientation: Because we are pragmatic learners, the adult brain learns best via problem-solving. We absorb information better when it’s presented as problems and solutions.
- Self-concept: Adults have more established identities. We learn best when involved in the planning and structure of our learning — rather than being passive.
- Motivation: Finally, adults need internal motivation, rather than external, to effectively learn.
With these requirements in mind, we start to get a picture of what it means to “prime” your brain for learning. It may seem like a silly step to take, but I always recommend that students begin by outlining their “why.” Sure, you might already know more or less why you want to learn how to program, but get specific. What will it give you? Why do you need to learn it now? How will you use the skill? This step is so important that, in most of my online courses, I assign students a journaling exercise where they answer these questions and more. In doing so, they check off the majority of the requirements above in one fell swoop.
From there, take time to tailor your learning experience to your needs and learning style. Even if you’re taking a ready-made online course, look for ways to tailor the experience. This might mean adding extra problem-solving exercises or doing supplemental reading on the side.
Which leads us to our next principle…
2. “Brute force learning”
When I began studying Russian, I couldn’t “hone in” and focus on just one source of learning. There were just too many options to choose from, ranging from online courses, podcasts, textbooks, blog posts, flashcards, and meetup groups. You’d think that doing so hindered my progress, right? I mean, wouldn’t it have been better to pick just one book and read it from start to finish?
No way! As we learn, our brains form complex neural networks of everything we know and understand about a subject. And no matter how good a particular book, course, or tutor is, nobody and nothing is comprehensive enough to stand entirely on its own. Think about it this way: though kale is very healthy for you, you’d be hard-pressed to find a doctor advocating the “nothing but kale” diet. Holistic nutrition, like holistic learning, requires a great deal of variety — even within the same subject matter. Even if a particular course seems exhaustive, you still stand to gain from approaching a subject in as many different ways as possible. Why? Because different people understand, present, and explain the same concept in very different ways. As a learner, it’s impossible to know if the approach you’re first exposed to will “click” for you.
In the SuperLearner® methodology, we call this approach brute force learning. It’s a term I learned from entrepreneur Mattan Griffel. Mattan himself lifted the phrase “brute force” from the world of computer hacking. In that context, to “brute force” something means to attack it from as many different perspectives as possible to try and gain access. Brute force learning, on the other hand, means learning something from as many different perspectives as possible to try and gain a complete understanding.
Doing this has many powerful benefits. First, the more you approach something from different perspectives, the more complete an understanding you’ll have of it. If you think about the things in life you’ve mastered, it’s unlikely you did so by reading one book or attending one lecture on them.
What’s more, as Mattan notes, brute force learning teaches us that it’s okay not to understand something the first time we learn it. Learning this way takes a lot of the pressure out of learning and prevents us from feeling “dumb” if we don’t get it immediately.
3. Upgrade your memory
Today, “memory” tends to get a bad rap. We see “rote memorization” as the opposite of “learning,” and end up dismissing a lot of valuable skills that could come from it.
In reality, there is no learning without memory. After all, to be able to say that you’ve learned something, you have to be able to produce it from memory — right?
It stands to reason, then, that by upgrading our long-term memory, we can upgrade our learning as a whole. Fortunately, there are some age-old techniques that can transform your long-term memory in little time at all.
Essentially, the method goes like this:
- Create highly detailed visualizations. It turns out that due to evolution, our brains have an easier time remembering pictures than any other kind of information. This is why every single memory champion uses a method based on creating imaginary visualizations. You’ve probably heard about people having a “photographic memory” – you just probably didn’t realize that literally anyone can develop a photographic memory.
- Opt for the “out there.” Our brains remember strange and novel things more easily than the boring and mundane. So as you create your visualizations, remember to make them bizarre, odd, or even violent. These visualizations are just for you, so don’t worry about them being “weird.”
- Leverage your existing knowledge. Because of the way our brains work, we have a much higher likelihood of remembering something that’s connected to things we already know. So as we create these bizarre visualizations, we should always incorporate existing information or visualizations that relate to things we care about.
- Supercharge this trick with the memory palace technique. If you ever need to remember a lot of information (such as the first 100 digits of pi, or 2,000 words in a new language), you’re going to want to organize these visualizations into a “memory palace.” This leverages yet another evolutionary “trick” our brains have: the ability to remember locations incredibly well. In essence, you can organize all of these imaginary pictures into your home, your office, or even a store you know — and make them even more memorable in the process.
By the way, it’s also worth mentioning that this type of memory improvement works for literally anything — from studying music, to learning languages, and even more.
4. High Comprehension Speed Reading
Eventually, if you really want to learn how to learn faster, you’re going to hit a bottleneck: your reading speed. Even in the era of online courses, so much of what we learn today is in the form of text. That’s why learning how to speed read is one of the most effective ways to up-level your learning speed.
Here, once again, this topic deserves its own article entirely, but I’ll do my best to summarize the highlights:
- Reduce “subvocalization:” The biggest bottleneck to your reading speed, it turns out, is that little voice in your head. It can read at a maximum of 400-450 words per minute — and with low comprehension, at that. Though we can never completely eliminate that little voice, we can reduce its influence by training it not to read every word. Once you do that, you break what I like to call “the sound barrier.”
- Larger fixations: In order to read faster, you need to be able to take in more information, which you might think means moving your eyes faster. Unfortunately, any time your eyes are moving, the optic nerve actually shuts off for a brief moment. Instead, speed reading with high comprehension requires you to learn how to make fewer movements of the eye (known as fixations) — 1 or 2 per line, in fact. At the same time, your eye’s focal width, or “fovea,” isn’t something you can change or train. You’ll need to, instead, train your brain to pay attention to the fuzzy stuff at the edges, otherwise known as the parafovea.
- Optimized fixations: Once you’ve done all this, you can then squeeze out a little more speed by optimizing your fixations. Instead of starting at the very beginning of a line and ending up at the very end, you’ll want to focus in on the middle. By doing this, you’ll waste less time reading the margins and more time reading the text!
5. Overlearning and repetition
Finally, let’s take a moment to talk about the idea of “overlearning.” Dating back to the work of Dr. Herman Ebbinghaus, the earliest memory research shows that it’s simply not enough to learn something once. If we want it to go into our long-term memory, we have to learn it repeatedly. Fortunately, there are ways to do this without it getting tedious or boring. One such option is “spaced repetition” software that only shows you the cards you’re on the brink of forgetting. There’s also the “brute force learning” trick I shared above to at least make this fun and interesting. Additionally, you can find creative ways to review the information you’ve learned.
One of my favorites — and a go-to for late physicist Richard Feynman — is teaching. Teaching is a powerful learning tool for multiple reasons. It helps fulfill many of the criteria outlined by Malcolm Knowles for immediate and practical use. It allows us to see the holes in our own knowledge. Plus, it’s a lot more fun than re-reading the same book twice!
I love to put this into practice by sharing the things I learn with others — even if I’m not a total expert just yet. In fact, I want to encourage you to share what you’ve learned here with someone today by explaining to them the key ideas in your own words!
So there you have it. Five simple strategies that can help anyone learn how to learn faster. Of course, improving your learning skills is a lifelong journey, and one that I hope will never end for you. If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to dive deeper into some of the topics I shared, including long-term memory improvement, speed reading training, and more, I encourage you to check out our best-selling course, Become a SuperLearner, right here on Udemy.
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