Advertising
Advertising

Published on November 16, 2020

6 Science-Backed Tips To Learn How To Learn

6 Science-Backed Tips To Learn How To Learn

When people want to pick up a new skill or learn a new subject, they tend to dive right into it. They rarely take the time to learn how to learn in the first place, and that’s a mistake. If they took the time to improve their learning skills, they would get better at everything else.

How can we avoid that mistake and become better learners? Here are 6 science-backed tips to learn how to learn.

1. Connect What You Are Learning To What You Already Know

Let’s imagine you’ve never seen a leopard in your life. If I were to describe it to you, I could start by naming different facts about it, such as height, weight, how many legs it has, etc. That would make the information very abstract. The other option would be telling you to think of a leopard as a wild oversized cat, and then point to its distinctive characteristics, such as its spotted coat and long tail.

The second example is easier to grasp because I am asking you to use the knowledge you already have (the “concept” of a cat) to learn a new one (the “concept” of a leopard).[1]

All learning works the same way; it’s easier for us to grasp new knowledge and skills if we connect them to what we already know. It’s the reason great teachers commonly use analogies, similes, and comparisons. They know the best path to make us learn something new is to relate it to what’s already in our heads.

Advertising

2. Scaffold Your Learning

Learning builds upon itself: we start small and add to it as we progress.[2] It’s the idea of learning to walk before learning to run. And though that seems obvious, we often want to jump ahead without learning the foundation to build upon. Think of people who wish to learn multi-leg options trading without having a fundamental understanding of financial instruments and the stock market. Or people who want to learn handstand pushups before learning the mechanics of a basic handstand.

This tip ties in with our previous one. By following a progression, you are using your prior knowledge as support for adding the new one. Effective learning should always be progressive, moving from general concepts to specific, simple processes to complex ones, concrete information to abstraction, and principles to strategies.

3. Use the Right Input Mode

Learning scientists classify the different ways we take in information into four categories: Observation (seeing someone doing what we want to learn), Imitation (Following along), explanation (listening or reading to instructions), and experimentation (trying things on our own).

Depending on what you are trying to learn, some will be more effective than others. If you are learning martial arts, observation and imitation are better approaches than learning purely from a book (explanation) or experimenting on our own. In other cases, such as learning history or philosophy, a class, podcast, or a book can be a good option. Ideally, we should try to combine different input modes, so the new knowledge is easier to understand and takes a better hold in our memory.

4. Practice Retrieval

Practice retrieval is the technical name for testing. We know testing in the form of exams and quizzes, but it can also come in the form of explaining what we know to someone else or reviewing information in our mind. The point of practice retrieval is that, as the name implies, we retrieve information from memory.

Advertising

Practice retrieval is one of the best learning strategies out there.[3] It takes advantage of something that renown psychologists Robert Bjork calls desirable difficulty. Retrieving information from memory challenges the mind, and it is that extra effort we put into recall that helps us solidify our learning.

Practice retrieval helps us in two key ways. On one side, the effort we put into the recall reinforces what we know. And on the other, testing our knowledge shows us what we know well and what needs more study.

Something to remember about practice retrieval is that we are not testing ourselves to get a grade or to get the answers right all the time. We are doing it to improve our learning. Even when we get the answers wrong, our mind primes itself to learn the right answers afterward.

How do we practice retrieval? We can create our own quizzes for what we are learning, use flashcards, review the information in our mind, or teach it to someone else (teaching forces us to recall information from memory, so it works as practice retrieval).

5. Follow Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is about allowing ourselves time between study sessions instead of cramming everything into a short amount of time.

Advertising

Learning research is clear in declaring spaced repetition a better strategy than cramming. This is because spaced repetition provides something cramming cannot: balance.

Effective learning requires a period of concentrated study, followed by a consolidation period. It also requires, as surprising as it may sound, moderate forgetting (more on that below).

When we cram, it feels as if we are learning faster, but the progress we make fades almost as quickly as we got it. And since we are packing large amounts of information in a short period, it’s hard to identify what has taken a good hold in our mind and what hasn’t.

With spaced repetition, we allow time between study sessions, so when we go back to test or review what we are learning, we’ll know which knowledge was internalized and which wasn’t—and needs further study. Also, the time between study sessions allows for some forgetting, making it more effortful to recall what we learned before. This relates to the desirable difficulty[4] we discussed in the previous tip. The effort we put into retrieving information helps us solidify our knowledge.

6. Seek Out Mentors

The value of mentors cannot be overstated. They guide us through the learning process, help us avoid common pitfalls, and offer us a wealth of experience into what works, what doesn’t, and where to direct our efforts.[5]

Advertising

The mentor-apprentice model has been successful throughout history in all fields. Beginners are paired with advanced practitioners and teachers to show them the ropes.

Trying to do things on our own without any guidance makes our learning slow. If we want to get the most out of the time and energy we put into learning any skill in our craft, we should seek out mentors to learn from. They will push us to give our best and help us accelerate our progress in ways we could never do on our own.

Closing Thoughts

Learning how to learn is a skill that should precede all others. When we get better at learning, we shorten the time it takes us to learn any other skill. It is an investment that pays off for the rest of our lives.

Start with the tips we discussed in this article: Connect what you are learning to what you already know, Use the right input mode, Practice retrieval, Follow Spaced repetition, and Seek out mentors. These will give you a strong foundation to get better at learning anything you want.

Recommended Reading

  • Brown, Peter, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel. Make it Stick. The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard, 2014.
  • Carey, Benedict. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why it Happens. New York: Random House, 2015.
  • Novak, Joseph, and Bob Gowin. Learning How to Learn. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

More Learning Tips

Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] VeryWellMind: The Role of a Schema in Psychology
[2] Wiley Education Services: Scaffolding Learning in the Online Classroom
[3] ERIC.EDU: Strengthening the Student Toolbox
[4] Psychological Science: Desirable Difficulties
[5] The National Academic Press: Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend

More by this author

Nick Velasquez

Bestselling author of "Learn, Improve, Master."

6 Science-Backed Tips To Learn How To Learn 4 Reasons Why You May Be a Slow Learner

Trending in Learning

1 What Is Learning by Doing And Why Is It Effective? 2 7 Science-Backed Learning Hacks to Help You Learn Anything Faster 3 The Faster You Learn, the Easier You’ll Fall Behind 4 12 Reasons Why Rote Learning Isn’t Effective in Learning 5 7 Best Languages to Learn in Order to Stay Competitive

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

Published on January 19, 2021

What Is Learning by Doing And Why Is It Effective?

What Is Learning by Doing And Why Is It Effective?

The list of teaching techniques is ever-expanding as there are multiple ways for us to gain knowledge. As a result, there are multiple techniques out there that leverage those particular skills. One such technique I want to share with you is learning by doing.

This technique has been around for a long time, and it’s a surprisingly effective one thanks to the various perks that come with it. Also called experiential learning, I’ll be sharing with you my knowledge on the subject, what it is deep down, and why it’s such an effective learning tool.

What Is Learning by Doing?

Learning by doing is the simple idea that we are capable of learning more about something when we perform the action.

For example, say you’re looking to play a musical instrument and were wondering how all of them sound and mix. In most other techniques, you’d be playing the instrument all by yourself in a studio. Learning by doing instead gives you a basic understanding of how to play the instrument and puts you up on a stage to play an improvised piece with other musicians.

Another way to think about this is by taking a more active approach to something as opposed to you passively learning about it. The argument is that active engagement provides deeper learning and that it’s okay if you make mistakes as you learn from those as well. This mentality brought forth a new name for this technique: experiential learning.

What Are Its Benefits?

Experimental learning has been around for eons now. It was Aristotle who wrote that “for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

Advertising

Over the years, that way of thinking changed and developed and for a time was lost once computers were integrated into schools. It’s only been in recent years where schools have adopted this technique again. It’s clear why teachers are encouraging this as it offers five big benefits.

1. It’s More Engaging and More Memorable

The first benefit is that it’s more engaging and memorable. Since this requires action on your part, you’re not going to be able to weaken your performance. This is big since, traditionally, you’d learn from lectures, books, or articles, and learners could easily read—or not read—the text and walk away with no knowledge at all from it.

When you are forced into a situation where you have to do what you need to learn, it’s easier to remember those things. Every action provides personalized learning experiences, and it’s where motivation is built. That motivation connects to what is learned and felt. It teaches that learning is relevant and meaningful.

Beyond that, this experience allows the opportunity for learners to go through the learning cycle that involves extended effort, mistakes, and reflection, followed by refinement of strategies.

2. It Is More Personal

Stemming from the reason mentioned above, learning by doing offers a personal experience. Referring back to the cycle of effort, mistakes, reflection, and refinement, this cycle is only possible through personal emotions—the motivation and realization of knowledge of a particular topic tying into your values and ideals.

This connection is powerful and thus, offers a richer experience than reading from a book or articles such as this one. That personal connection is more important as it encourages exploration and curiosity from learners.

Advertising

If you’ve always wanted to bake a cake or cook a unique dish, you could read up on it or watch a video. Or you could get the ingredients and start going through it all yourself. Even if you make mistakes now, you have a better grasp of what to do for the next time you try it out. You’re also more invested in that since that’s food that you made with the intention of you having it.

3. It Is Community-Connected

Learning by doing involves the world at large rather than sitting alone in your room or a library stuck in a book. Since the whole city is your classroom technically, you’re able to leverage all kinds of things. You’re able to gather local assets and partners and connect local issues to larger global themes.

This leans more into the personal aspect that this technique encourages. You are part of a community, and this form of learning allows you to interact more and make a connection with it—not necessarily with the residents but certainly the environment around it.

4. It’s More Integrated Into People’s Lives

This form of learning is deeply integrated into our lives as well. Deep learning occurs best when learners can apply what they’ve learned in a classroom setting to answer questions around them that they care about.

Even though there is a lot of information out there, people are still always asking “what’s in it for me?” Even when it comes to learning, people will be more interested if they know that what they are learning is vital to their very way of life in some fashion. It’s forgettable if they’re unable to tie knowledge in with personal aspects of their lives. Thus, experiential learning makes the application of knowledge simpler.

5. It Builds Success Skills

The final benefit of learning by doing is that it builds up your skills for success. Learning by doing encourages you to step out of your comfort zone, discover something new, and try things out for the first time. You’re bound to make a mistake or two, but this technique doesn’t shame you for it.

Advertising

As a result, learning by doing can build your initiative for new things as well as persistence towards growth and development in a field. This could also lead to team management and collaboration skill growth. These are all vital things in personal growth as we move towards the future.

How to Get Started

While all these perks are helpful for you, how are you going to start? Well, there are several different approaches that you can take with this. Here are some of them that come to mind.

1. Low-Stakes Quizzes

In classroom settings, one way to introduce this technique is to have many low-stakes quizzes. These quizzes aren’t based on assessing one’s performance. Instead, these quizzes are designed to have learners engage with the content and to generate the learned information themselves.

Research shows that this method is an effective learning technique.[1] It allows students to improve their understanding and recall and promotes the “transfer” of knowledge to other settings.

2. Type of Mental Doing

Another approach is one that Psychologist Rich Mayer put together. According to him, learning is a generative activity.[2] His knowledge and the research done in his lab at Santa Barbara have repeatedly shown that we gain expertise by doing an action, but the action is based on what we already know.

For example, say you want to learn more about the Soviet dictator Stalin. All you need to do is link what you do know—that Stalin was a dictator—and link it to what you want to learn and retain. Stalin grew up in Georgia, killed millions of people, centralized power in Russia, and assisted in the victory of World War 2. This technique even applies to the most simple of memory tasks as our brain learns and relearns.

Advertising

3. Other Mental Activities

The final method I’ll share with you is taking the literal approach—getting out there and getting your hands dirty so to speak. But how you go about that is up to you. You could try reading an article and then going out and applying it immediately—like you could with this article. Or maybe you could find further engagement through puzzles or making a game out of the activity that you’re doing.

For example, if you wanted to learn about animal behavior patterns, you can read about them, go out to watch animals, and see if they perform the specific behaviors that you read about.

Final Thoughts

Learning by doing encourages active engagement with available materials and forces you to work harder to remember the material. It’s an effective technique because it helps ingrain knowledge into your memory. After all, you have a deeper personal connection to that knowledge, and you’ll be more motivated to use it in the future.

With that in mind, I encourage you to take what you’ve learned from reading this article and apply that in the real world. It’s only going to benefit you as you grow.

Featured photo credit: Van Tay Media via unsplash.com

Reference

Read Next