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6 Science-Backed Tips To Learn How To Learn

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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]

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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

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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

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Last Updated on August 11, 2021

23 Killer Sites for Free Online Education Anyone Can Use

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23 Killer Sites for Free Online Education Anyone Can Use

Whether you’re five or ninety five, the internet has a lot to offer. Particularly when the topic is education, the resources on the internet are endless. Best of all, many high quality sites are completely free. From history to coding, excellent, free online education awaits on the following 23 sites.

1. Coursera

Coursera is a website that partners with universities and organizations around the world. This brings a wide variety of topics and perspectives to one searchable database.

Coursera is a powerful tool for free online education and includes courses from many top universities, museums and trusts. This gives the site an extremely wide range of in-depth courses.

Coursera is extremely useful if you’re looking to study many different topics, or want courses from different schools and groups. However, the free courses are now quite limited, so you’ll have to

2. Khan Academy

Partnering with many post secondary schools, Khan Academy offers a useable, well-organized interface. Also curating many courses from around the web, Khan Academy offers impressive depth on many different subjects.

Among the more well-known educational sites, Khan Academy is also incredibly user-friendly, which may make it easier to keep learning goals. If you’re looking for a free online education, you can’t go wrong with Khan Academy.

3. Open Culture Online Courses

If you are struggling to find exactly the material you are looking for, try Open Culture’s listing of free online education courses. The page highlights 1000 lectures, videos, and podcasts from universities around the world.

The site features a lot of material found only on universities’ private sites, all in easy-to-browse categories. This means you can find hundreds of university courses without having to visit and search each university’s site.

Open Culture’s list features courses from England, Australia, Wales, and many state universities around the United States. It’s a very helpful resource for finding many courses in one area of study.

4. Udemy 

Udemy’s free courses are similar in concept to Coursera’s but additionally allows users to build custom courses from lessons.

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Working with many top professors and schools, the site mixes the customizable platform of other sites with a heavy emphasis on top-quality content. This is another site, however, that mixes free and paid content.

5. Lifehack Fast Track Class

Lifehack believes in skills that multiply your time, energy, and overall quality of life.

In this rapidly changing world, traditional education skills just don’t cut it anymore. You can’t afford to take years learning a skill you’ll never really practice. Besides offering some paid courses that will help you become a better self, it offers a list of free courses which aim to train some of the Core Life Multipliers including:

These are cross-functional skills that work across many aspects of life.

6. Academic Earth

Another site with courses from many different schools is Academic Earth. Much like the three sites above, Academic Earth brings together top notch courses from many different sources and focuses on offering a wide variety of subjects.

Academic Earth lists courses by subject and school, so it might be easier to find what you’re looking for.

7. edX

Another great option for free online education is edX. Also bringing together courses from many different schools, the site has impressive, quality information for everyone. edX covers a great range of topics from universities such as Harvard, MIT, and Berkeley, meaning a high-quality, free online education is entirely possible here.

8. Alison

Unlike the previous sites on this list, Alison is a free education site offering certification in some areas. Alison offers courses mainly in business, technology, and health, but also includes language learning courses.

It’s a great option if users need a professional certificate for their learning, as Alison also offers school curriculum courses.

9. iTunesU Free Courses

A very convenient place for free online education is iTunesU, because it integrates seamlessly with your iPod or any app-ready Apple mobile device. On an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, users download the iTunesU app.

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Desktop users can access iTunesU on the upper right hand corner of the iTunes Store. iTunesU is also convenient because the store is categorized much like iTunes.

Users can search learning materials in many different ways, including by genre and topic. However, courses are often a mix of free podcasts or videos and paid content.

iTunesU does include courses on a variety of topics, but it does not integrate with Android, Google or Windows mobile devices.

10. Stanford Online

Your hub for all the online offerings from Stanford University, Stanford Online offers self-paced and session-based courses. While Coursera features some courses from Stanford, many classes are only available via other hosts. Some courses require iTunes, but most are completed in your web browser.

Stanford Online is a great site for high-quality courses, though the topics are somewhat limited compared to sites partnered with more than one school. If you’re looking for free courses, make sure to mark the “free” option on the left-hand side.

11. Open Yale Courses

Open Yale Courses echoes Stanford Online, in that it offers only courses from Yale. While the site is similarly limited to topics taught at the school, Open Yale Courses offers a lot of videos of actual campus lectures. The availability of videos makes the site a great option if you’re looking for quality courses but learn better by watching than by reading.

12. UC Berkeley Class Central

Much like the other schools on this list, UC Berkeley has a variety of free online education options. The school has slightly fewer courses than the schools above, but it includes some supplementary lectures, webcasts, and RSS Feeds, making it easy to keep up with the topics you choose.

13. MIT OpenCourseWare

Similarly, MIT offers a variety of free courses. The school has a comparable number of courses to the schools above, and it includes very in-depth course materials on the subjects available. MIT also offers free RSS feeds, a convenient way to continue learning.

14. Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative

Carnegie Mellon’s free online education site is comparable with the other school’s on this list. However, Open Learning Initiative also covers a smaller range of topics, but for the topics that are covered, impressive, in-depth material is available.

15. Codecademy

Codecademy is a website dedicated specifically to teaching coding. Where other coding sites follow an example/practice session workflow, Codecademy includes a live practice window. This means you can practice coding while still viewing the lesson material.

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The courses at Codecademy are well-written and easy to follow, and the website is organized very nicely. Codecademy features a centralized dashboard where you can monitor your progress, and it organizes lessons into complete modules. This lets you learn an entire language without needing to pick the next course manually.

16. Code

Code is another website focused on coding and app writing. A site with high-quality courses, Code also features learning options for kids.

In addition to kid-friendly courses, Code offers free online education classes on a wide variety of technology topics. These classes include app writing, robotics, and Javascript.

Most of the courses are also geared in a such a way that they can be useful in a classroom setting. This makes Code a great resource for harder to find coding topics, as well as various learning settings.

17. University of Oxford Podcasts

The University of Oxford features many different podcasts. Most are public lecture series or lectures from visiting professors, with several different recordings available.

The advantage to this particular site is that podcasts are organized into series, making it easy to subscribe to multiple lectures on one topic. This is another great site for thoroughly in-depth lectures.

18. BBC Podcasts

For the more casual learner, the BBC offers a wide variety of podcasts on many different topics. Most podcasts are updated weekly and focus on everything from finance, to sports, to current events.

Through the World Service line of podcasts, there are also many in different languages. The focus of these podcasts are less in-depth and theory based, which may be more accessible to the average person.

19. TED-Ed

Another great destination for more general learning and free online education is TED-Ed. From the same people that brought you the all-encompassing, motivational web series comes a site chocked full of educational videos. Most include impressive animation, and all are ten minutes long or less.

Not only is TED-Ed an excellent site for the curious, but it also includes supplemental materials and quizzes on the videos. This makes the site extremely useful in formal education settings, as well as in entertaining ways to brush up on new discoveries and topics.

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20. LessonPaths

LessonPaths is another great tool for those looking for a more usable and convenient way to access learning material. On this site, users create link playlists of their favorite learning materials from other sites. Users then rank these collections, making it easy to find many different high-quality, accessible sources on a given topic.

21. Memrise

Another impressive free online education site offering ease of use and convenience is Memrise. Available both on desktop and as an app, Memrise is a particularly powerful tool if you are studying a language. The site encompasses many other topics as well, though some of the course material is user generated content.

Part of what makes Memrise special is their integration of games into the learning materials, mixing learning with entertainment.

22. National Geographic Kids

The kids site for National Geographic is another site that makes free online education applicable for younger users. For those looking for kid-friendly education, a large variety of games, puzzles, videos and photos keep kids interested on this site.

National Geographic Kids doesn’t organize learning into courses, making materials available by topic and medium instead. This makes National Geographic Kids a good option for those looking for a more casual learning environment.

23. Fun Brain

Fun Brain is another great option for kids looking for free online education, as it focuses on games and fun puzzles. Particularly focused on math and reading, Fun Brain’s game-based approach can be valuable if the child in question struggles to pay attention.

Fun Brain offers rewards and challenges as well, and it is another site aimed at a casual learning experience for kids K-8.

The Bottom Line

With so many amazing free online education resources, everyone has the ability to boost their skills and knowledge. Whether you’re interested in picking up some interesting trivia for your next party, improve your resume with some coding or business skills, or become a more well-rounded person, these resources are perfect for you.

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Featured photo credit: Dai KE via unsplash.com

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