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).
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.
2. Scaffold Your Learning
Learning builds upon itself: we start small and add to it as we progress. 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.
Practice retrieval is one of the best learning strategies out there. 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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