The Matrix is one of my all time favorite movies, a particular scene in the film always raises a fun party question - if you could instantly learn one thing like Neo does in The Matrix what would it be?
Now, we may be a while off from instantly downloading kung fu mastery into our minds but, it often gets me thinking - how do I build better learning strategies for more effective learning.
Everyone's study time is limited. So it is important to maximize it. The answer to maximizing your time isn’t speeding up your learning. Rather, it is to make more effective use of your time.
The key to effective learning becomes about effective learning strategies. Strategies that help you recall information when and where you need it. Unfortunately, becoming an effective learner is not something we can download into our minds instantly... yet. But, in this post I plan to outline a few learning strategies that you can put into daily practice to help you become a more effective learner.
Before we explore those learning strategies it is important to understand how you learn. So you can better maximize the strategies.
How we learn
Learning "is defined as" the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught.” Learning for the purpose of this post is recalling information.
Many want their learning to progress quickly. It is why you see new books popup every year on how to learn anything in x amount of hours. I liken this to get rich quick schemes, people want to get results without doing the work. We love shortcuts. It is why products like the vibro shape belt exist.
But, compare learning to exercise. Lifting weights for five minutes a day won’t make your muscles significantly bigger. You have to put the reps in. Just as you do with learning you have to put the work in to get the results. There are no shortcuts.
To put the work in effectively you first need to understand how the mind works while learning.
Focus and Diffused Mode
There are two modes of thinking, the focused mode and the diffused mode. The focus mode is how it sounds, it’s when you are focusing on what you are learning. The diffused mode is when you allow your mind to drift or relax from what you are trying to learn. These modes are highly important for learning.
It is normal to be stumped by new concepts and problems when we first try to focus on them. To figure out these new concepts and to solve these problems it is important to not only focus initially, but to then also turn your focus away from what you want to learn. As learning is a mix of focus and effort, followed by periods of relaxation. The relaxation periods helps us to store information in our long-term memories.
So when you start learning you first focus on the new idea you’re trying to learn. You focus on understanding how it works and what each part of the idea does using the focused mode. Next you go off and have a nap and enter your diffused mode, when you wake up you can see at a much broader perspective how the idea fits in with the rest of what you have learned on the subject.
Understanding how the two modes work together to help you learn is vital when implementing the learning strategies I will outline. But, to effectively learn you also must understand how we store the knowledge you have been working hard to acquire.
Working memory to long term memory
When you start out learning something you store it in your working memory and then as you practice and revise it you move it into your long-term memory. This act of moving something from your working memory into your long term memory is essentially how I think of learning. You have learned something when you can recall it and use it in situations when you require.
To move something from your working memory to your long-term memory, two things should be happening; the first is the idea should be made memorable and the second is it must be repeated.
You’ve over your lifetime managed to store lots of knowledge into your long-term memory, things like reading, multiplication, touch typing etc. This was done through practice and recall.
So essentially learning is moving something from your working memory into your long term memory to use when you need it. But, how do learning styles fit in and do they effect how you move knowledge between the memory systems.
Do you think you’re a visual learner, maybe you're more auditory. Perhaps your learning style is kinesthetic. I’m going to let you in on a little secret...you're none of these.
As nice as it would be to have a particular learning style, the truth is, these have little impact on our ability to learn.
Like any good myth they tend to persist. It’s why people believe things that aren’t true like vaccines cause autism or that the Stanford Prison Experiment shows how situations can turn any one bad. But, by understanding that learning styles are pseudoscience you will be a few steps ahead of everyone else in building better learning strategies.
Now we understand that learning styles are about as scientifically robust as anti-vaccine studies. Let’s get into the top learning strategies that will actually make you a more effective learner.
Top Learning Strategies
If you take one thing from this post, it is that the trick to effective learning is to build effective learning strategies. The below will help you overcome procrastination and greatly improve your ability to learn. Just start with one or two strategies and test them out to find what is most effective for you.
Below are the best learning strategies to help you store and recall information.
1. Use Active Recall
Guess what, re-reading, highlighting and summarizing aren’t usually effective methods for learning.
What is effective, is a learning strategy called active recall. It is an efficient way of moving information between memory systems. The strategy involves retrieving information from memory by testing yourself at every stage of the revision process.
To test yourself it requires you to try and recall what you’re learning without looking it up in your notes first. You just try to actively recall what you know about the concept. So in order to remember something you shouldn’t just be reading it, re-reading it and highlighting it, you need to actively try to recall it. A common way to do it is to look up from what you have been reading and try to recall what you have just read (try it on this paragraph). So if it was this easy why don’t we use active recall.
The reason you tend to avoid active recall and opt for things like rereading and making mind maps, is that it is more difficult and mentally taxing. Let’s go back to the exercise analogy, if all you lift is light weights you won't progress much. On the other hand if you’re lifting weights that constantly test your strength you will more likely build muscle faster. The harder you work to retrieve information the more effective you will be at recalling the information when you need it.
Here are some of my favorite strategies and techniques that use active recall:
- After you read a page, look away and recall the main ideas.
- Try recalling the main ideas as you commute to class.
- Try to write your notes with a closed book, instead of copying notes directly out of the textbook. It is better to explain the key points and concepts in your own words.
- Instead of writing notes, write questions for yourself on the topic and then test yourself.
Using this learning strategy by simply by testing yourself once and trying to recall without the help of your notes, you could drastically improve the effectiveness of your learning.
2. Space your repetition
You ever notice how overtime you tend to forget things. I for the life of me can’t remember much of my eighth grade Japanese. Well, part of the problem is we tend to forget what we don't use. This brings us to our next learning strategy spaced repetition.
Spaced repetition is the learning strategy that uses time intervals between study sessions, so you can remember more, by spending fewer actual hours studying. Spaced repetition leverages a memory phenomenon called the spacing effect. What happens with this effect is our brains learn more effectively when we space out our learning.
How it works is you spread out your learning in any subject over a few days, just like an athlete. Your brain is like a muscle, it can handle only a limited amount of exercise on one subject at a time before it needs a rest.
Learning well means allowing time to pass between focused learning sessions, allowing the neural patterns to solidify properly. It’s like building a brick wall, you need time for the mortar to dry otherwise you’re going to end up with a crummy wall like below. So spacing out your repetitions will give your brains mortar time to dry so you can put the next layer on top of a solid foundation.
Now there are a few ways of actually implementing a spaced repetition system into your studying. One of the simplest ways is to use the box system. Here’s how it works.
First, you decide on a number of “boxes” you want to use for your system. Each of your boxes represents a different study time interval. In a system with four boxes, a good set of intervals would be:
Here every card starts out in Box 1. When you get the card correct, it gets promoted into the next box. If you get a card wrong it gets demoted to box 1 - no matter where it was. By doing this you’re ensuring that you study the material enough that itchallenges you.
Once you graduate something from box 3 to box 4. You should only really need to study it about a week before the test. I sometimes like to schedule revision for this once a month just to stay sharp.
A great way to ensure you are sticking to the box technique is to set up recurring calendar events, so that you get a reminder to study each box at the right time.
To implement spaced repetition there are two ways I like to do it:
- Analog - use flashcards, and rubber bands to separate the cards into boxes.
- Digital - Anki is a great system and it’s free for desktop. You can also use Notion like I have in the image above and set up toggles.
Whatever way you decide to implement this learning strategy remember the key is to briefly repeat what you want to remember over several days. Gradually extend the times between repetitions as the material begins to firm in your mind.
3. Teach what you learn
There is a saying ‘those who can, do and those who can’t, teach’. But, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Research shows us that those who can explain and teach concepts have the greatest grasp of the concept.
In this study, there were two groups of students that studied the same material, however each had different expectations. One group was told they would be tested on it, the other was told they would be expected to teach it. But in a surprise twist, both groups were tested on the material. And guess what, the group that expected to teach did better than the group who actually studied for a test.
So what makes learning with the intention to teach such an effective learning strategy? Well, when you expect to teach it you are forced to break the material down into simple chunks, it also forces you to examine the material more thoroughly, constantly asking yourself does this make sense.
Whenever you find yourself struggling with a concept, stop and ask yourself - how can I explain this so a five-year-old could understand it? By being able to simplify a concept down to a level so that even a five-year-old would get it, it forces you to consider if you really understand the concept.
A great way to practice this learning strategy is to write and teach as you’re learning. Let’s say you're learning a new programming language. You could write blog posts on the sections you’re learning. As you write try to anticipate what questions a beginner would have that only knows simple language. The results of doing so might surprise you.
So remember those who teach, tend to have the deepest understanding of a topic. Using this learning strategy you’ll be surprised to see how your understanding improves as a consequence of trying to explain it to someone other than yourself.
4. Eat your frogs first
Mark Twain the American novelist once said “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” What do frogs have to do with learning strategies?
Well, for you and I, the frog is that one thing on your to-do list that you just can’t seem to find the motivation to do. It’s the one you’ve been procrastinating" on for days. Eating the frog therefore is to just do that task. Once you’ve eaten that frog, the rest of the day will seem easy in comparison. It will also give you momentum to propel you on to the next task on your list.
To know which frog you should be eating first, the night before think about the one thing you most dread doing the next day. Write that task down on a post-it note and place it somewhere you’ll see it as soon as you start working.
Putting this into the context of learning often you dread starting a new topic or doing revision on subjects you find hard. If you leave them to do until the end of the day, you’re likely to avoid them and tell yourself you’ll do them when you're fresh. But by doing it first, you’re already fresh. And that is the key to this learning strategy, tackling the hardest problems first while your mind is fresh.
5. Set up a distraction free environment
One of the best learning strategies is to give yourself a distraction free environment. Yet, this seems almost impossible in the age of constant notifications.
The key to this learning strategy is to find a place where you can avoid all of these distractions from the outset. But, the space has to work for you. Not everyone will find the library the most productive place. For some it might be the local coffee shop with some mild background noise and for others it could be in the park.
No matter what your ideal study environment, it is important to turn off all those interruptions on your phone and computer, and then focus on what you want to achieve.
It might sound impossible to be distraction free in today’s notification frenzied world. But, trust me it is possible. Your phone lets you turn on do not disturb mode, same with most computers. You can use website blocking software that stops you from browsing Reddit or scrolling through Facebook. There are plenty of tools that will stop the buzzes, bells and rings from interrupting your learning time. You just need to start by disabling the distractions using the same technology designed to distract you.
After a few sessions in the distraction free environment you will start naturally associating that place as a place to learn and work. So try to set up times and places where studying—not glancing at your computer or phone—is just something you naturally do. You’ll soon reap the benefits of this learning strategy.
6. Learn by doing
Our Homosapien ancestors were natural learners, as early on in our history we had to learn by doing. They didn’t have the opportunity to use flash cards and notebooks to help them learn. They learnt best when performing the task they were trying to learn. Want to learn how to make a fire, you got to get that flint and practice.
Just like your ancestors, most of your learning takes place once you actually start using and applying it. I learnt more in the first three months in marketing than I did in 2 years of my Masters Degree. The key is to find a way to practice and apply what you’re learning, kind of like how I’m learning about writing by writing about things I’m interested in on this blog.
So let’s say you're learning Facebook ads. Don’t invest all of your effort into learning the theory and terms, get your hands dirty ASAP. This will help you master the skill through trial and error (hopefully not too much error and expense). Start a business page. Make a few ads. Test and learn what works and what doesn’t.
This learning strategy is simple enough, the more you do, the more you learn. So find your flint and start making fires.
7. Focus on the difficult stuff
To learn best you need to stretch just outside your comfort zone. You need to operate just on the edge to push growth.
You can do this through practice. However, while practice is great, if you’re just going through the motions and practicing things you’re good at, then you’re practicing the wrong way. In order to effectively learn, the key is to get outside of your comfort zone. A great way to do this is through deliberate practice.
The technique of deliberate practice, has been the buzz word of the learning community for the last few years thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s mention of it in his book Outliers. However, the technique has been around since the 70’s when Anders Ericsson discovered it during his experiment.
Ericsson studied experts in their fields and found they improved from three key strategies. The first was spending time improving their skills in areas they were weak. The second was they sought feedback to find out where they were lacking. Finally they would concentrate intensely when practicing. If you’re not focused and your mind is all over the place, then you're most likely not really getting much out of your practice time.
For example he found musicians would spend time working on areas they fumbled in songs not just playing songs they were good at. They would also seek feedback from teachers on where else they were going wrong that they might not be picking up on themselves. Then they would then focus on improving these parts as they practiced.
So next time you sit down to learn, make sure you're pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. Challenge yourself. Concentrate on the difficult parts, get feedback and overtime you’ll start to see improvement using this learning strategy.
8. Take Breaks
This learning strategy requires you to strike the balance between the focused and diffused modes of thinking.
While in the focused mode, you’re able to learn the essentials of the concept. In the diffused mode, you get the helicopter view of how the concept fits in with everything else. It is like that piece of the puzzle you just can’t find and suddenly you find it and it clicks into place.
Sometimes this happens as you walk to the bus, just as you're about to go to sleep or when you’re in the shower. All these moments have a commonality, they tend to be when you’re not focusing on anything in particular. But, then suddenly you connect the dots that were eluding you in your focused mode and you get the solution to the problem.
So even though it might seem counter intuitive, it’s important to let your brain take a break, particularly after an intense session of study. It lets you get those ‘aha’ moments. This is why a little study every day is a much better learning strategy than cramming. Next time you notice yourself getting frustrated with a problem, take a break so that your diffused mode can take over and work its magic.
Picture this, you have a test tomorrow. You stay up until 3am cramming for the test. You chug coffee and hustle the night away so you’ll do well on the test.
A week later the test results are out. You got a lot less than your friends did and they didn’t spend the whole night before the test studying. What the hell went wrong?
You staying up all night is what went wrong. You tried to cram as much information into your brain as possible without really understanding it. All your brain was seeing in the end was a swirl of random words and numbers that it couldn’t comprehend.
Sleep is a vital part of memory and learning. When you don’t get enough sleep your brain's ability to recall is affected. Your brain needs rest just like the rest of your body. Most people need a minimum of 7-8 hours of sleep.
What makes sleep so special is that it cleans your mind by erasing trivial aspects and memories, like what you had for breakfast. At the same time it strengthens the areas of importance.
If you’re tired, it is often the best decision to actually just go to sleep and wake up a little earlier the next day, so that your learning can be done with a fresh and rested brain. This might sound like a lame learning strategy, but it works. It’s science y’all.
Interleaving is practicing by doing a mixture of different kinds of problems that require different strategies to solve them.
When you don’t practice interleaving, you can run into what is known as overlearning. Which is the continual study or practice of a problem until it is well understood. Overlearning has its place, it helps to produce automaticity which is useful if you’re doing repetitive tasks like shooting a basketball or playing first chair violin.
But research shows that overlearning can be a waste of your valuable learning time. It can actually lead to a phenomenon known as the ‘illusion of competence’.
The trick to this learning strategy is to alternate different problem-solving techniques during your practice. Don’t spend too long in any session practicing using only one problem-solving technique. Because, after a while, you are just mimicking what you did on the previous problem. You’re just like a parrot. Instead, shake it up and work on different types of problems. Shaking it up teaches you both how and when to use a technique.
Here are some great interleaving strategies:
- Flip through a book to a random problem and try to solve it.
- Jumble up your flash cards so they are not in order.
- Mix up your new material with old material.
- Take old practice test where the questions don’t follow the order of the textbook.
The benefit of the interleaving learning strategy is it helps you avoid the illusion of competence. As Dr. Oakley puts it in her book - “Focusing on one technique is a little like learning carpentry by only practicing with a hammer. After a while, you think you can fix anything by just bashing it.”
The combination of understanding how you learn with any of these learning strategies will make you a more effective learner. So much so you won't ever need to download knowledge straight to your brain like Neo in The Matrix.