Published on March 24, 2021

10 Best Methods of Learning Smarter and Faster

10 Best Methods of Learning Smarter and Faster

I remember my first all-nighter in college. I made a few pots of coffee with my tiny coffee maker and read and reread my class notes. Unfortunately, this resulted in me being delusionally tired and yet somehow still woefully unprepared for my final exam. I didn’t know it at the time, but the methods of learning are more important than time spent learning – quality over quantity.

Reading and rereading my class notes was not a great strategy to learn the exam material. So what are the best methods of learning? How can we work smarter and learn more efficiently?

Research on Methods of Learning

Lucky for us, there’s research that points us in the right direction. John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, Daniel T. Willingham published their findings on the efficacy of ten methods of learning in their paper “Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology.”[1]

The study breaks down how effective 10 different learning techniques are depending on who’s doing the learning, what materials are required, and the specificity of the learning task. In short, the researchers create a comprehensive picture of which learning techniques are most effective when, why, and for whom.

Prior research findings are another important factor in ranking each of the ten methods of learning from low to high utility (usefulness). If there wasn’t any research indicating a method of learning was effective, the researchers categorize it as having low utility.

Let’s take a look at what this comprehensive analysis of learning methods found. What should I have been doing instead of reading and rereading my notes all night?

Highly Useful Methods of Learning

We’re going to start with the most effective and useful learning methods. Only two of the ten methods of learning were found to have high utility.

1. Practice Testing

Practice testing is low or no-stakes testing by an instructor to check for mastery. Practice testing in this sense is not high stakes summative assessment such as final exams or state tests. It’s a formative assessment to see what students know and don’t know.


Practice testing plays a vital role in teaching because it’s a quick way for teachers to figure out who knows what. The other benefit of practice testing is that it demonstrates to the student what she does and doesn’t know. This makes adjusting the learning plan simple and effective, so the student can spend more time studying what she doesn’t know instead of dwelling on what she already does know.

In the study, participants remembered information 80% with practice testing as compared to 36% with reviewing the material. That’s a significant improvement in efficacy and is what puts practice testing at the top of the methods of learning heap.

There are two reasons practice testing seems to be an especially effective learning technique: direct effect and mediated effect. Direct effect means the act of taking a test or quiz changes how the brain pays attention and stores information. Most people try a lot harder to retrieve information during a test, even a formative test designed to check for understanding.

Mediators are what connect cues and targets. In the case of a practice test, the cue might be the practice test question and the target the answer. Practice testing seems to improve these mediators by helping the brain organize information better. So if you have to choose only one method of learning, give practice testing a try. You can cover up the answer key and try it solo or you can ask a friend to quiz you on the material, so you know what you do and don’t know. This way you can focus on what you don’t know as you continue to practice test your way to true mastery of the material.

2. Distributed Practice

How you schedule your study sessions matters. In the study, some people participated in six study sessions back to back. Others had a day between each session, and the final group had a month between each session. The group who binged the six sessions retained more information earlier (after sessions two and three). However, the groups who took some time off ultimately retained more information (after the sixth session).

So if you want to truly learn something and store it in long-term memory, give yourself some time to digest the information between each study session. Another study showed that participants recalled 47% of information with spaced study versus 37% with mass study (cramming).

Schedule your study sessions accordingly. Give yourself at least 24 hours between study sessions. Your immediate recall might suffer, but know that eventually, you’ll end up remembering much more than if you take a one-and-done approach.

Moderately Useful Methods of Learning

The next group of learning techniques falls into the moderately useful category. Some because not enough research has been done. Others because research has shown that these methods of learning aren’t quite as effective or as broadly applicable as practice testing or distributed practice.


3. Elaborative Interrogation

I have a toddler in the house, so I’m no stranger to the question, “Why?” It turns out, this is also the first of our moderately useful methods of learning—elaborative interrogation. The key to elaborative interrogation is “prompting learners to generate an explanation for an explicitly stated fact.”

In other words, getting them to answer “why?”

In the study, participants were separated into three groups. The first learned facts directly. The second read an explanation for each fact, and the third was the elaborative interrogation group. They were prompted to explain why each fact was so. The elaborative interrogation group was 72% accurate, while the other two groups were 37% accurate, which means the elaborative interrogation group outperformed the others.

Elaborative interrogation appears to be effective because it activates people’s schemata, which simply means it helps people situate new information within what they already know. That could be the reason that elaborative interrogation is more effective for people who know more about a topic. They can better explain why something is so and add new information to their wealth of knowledge.

So if you already know a thing or two about the topic at hand, start asking why to boost your learning.

4. Self-Explanation

Self-explanation is when the learner is promoted to explain the principle behind something as they’re learning. The idea is that explaining how something works helps them transfer that principle to future problems.

In the study, participants were divided into three groups. One group received a brief explanation of difficult problems before trying to solve practice questions. Another group was prompted to explain their problem solving as they answered the questions, and the final group answered all the questions and then explained their work after the fact. The two groups that were prompted to explain their work outperformed the group that didn’t when asked to take a transfer test that required knowledge of a similar principle.

The problem with self-explanation is that it’s not always a relevant technique. Its usefulness depends on what you’re trying to learn. However, when explaining your work makes sense, research shows that it helps you transfer those skills to future related problems.


5. Interleaved Practice

Interleaved practice is when you loop an old skill into a new lesson. For example, if you’re learning how to find the volume of a triangle, you could incorporate a question from the previous lesson on the volume of squares. It’s incorporating older material into the new material. This creates a cumulative effect on learning and helps you find connections between different lessons.

In the study, interleaved practice didn’t help people perform better than blocked practice (when lessons are separate from each other). However, when students were asked to take a criterion test one week later that asked them to solve novel yet related problems, the interleaved learners performed 43% better than the block learners.

Similar to self-explanation, interleaved learning doesn’t always make sense. Again, it depends on what you’re trying to learn, but if you can incorporate older material into new lessons, interleaved learning can help you gain a higher level of understanding about the complexities and connections between ideas. This can help you become a better problem solver going forward and help you transfer what you’re learning to other areas.

Methods of Learning with Low Usefulness

Researchers also categorized five methods of learning as having low efficacy. Unfortunately, these are often the ways people try to learn new material.

6. Summarizing

Summarizing material—pulling out the main points—is only as effective as your summaries are accurate and salient. Some studies show that summarizing information helps students retain information, but it’s not great for applying or transferring that information.

7. Highlighting

Highlighting information does not help you learn it. Research shows that highlighting, while easy to do, does not help you learn the material.

8. Keyword Mnemonic

Mnemonics are when you create some kind of shortcut (like abbreviations or an acronym) to remember a set of ideas. The most famous might be ROYGBIV to remember the colors of the rainbow.

The problem with mnemonics is that they’re not efficient. It takes a lot of time and energy to create and memorize them. They’re also particular. You can only learn certain things with mnemonics.


But most troubling is that some research shows that rote memorization is sometimes better for learning material long-term. Therefore, you shouldn’t rely too heavily on mnemonics.

9. Imagery Use for Text Learning

Imagery use for text learning is when you mentally picture or visualize or draw pictures as you read. The good news is that mentally picturing as you read does help with short-term comprehension (drawing doesn’t). The bad news is that it’s a great reading technique that doesn’t help in many other learning contexts.

10. Rereading

Finally, there’s rereading, the study technique I resorted to far too often in college. It’s the most common study technique. Unfortunately, it’s also among the least effective.

Retention and learning improve dramatically after rereading once. But then there’s a plateau. Reading something more than twice does not impact the level of understanding and comprehension much. So by all means, reread once or twice, but then spend some time with the moderately and highly effective methods of learning.

Final Thoughts

Sometimes things really are too good to be true. Rereading and highlighting are extremely easy, but they just don’t share the study benefits with the moderate and highly useful methods of learning.

If you need to learn something and be able to integrate that new knowledge into your schema and apply it in other contexts, you’ll have to do better than rereading. Try quizzing yourself and spacing out your study sessions for better retention. Ask why, explain your answers, and weave old material into the new to help yourself understand more deeply.

Learn from my mistakes. Use moderately and highly useful methods of learning and avoid having to pull an all-nighter filled with coffee and pointless rereading.

More Learning Tips

Featured photo credit: Ben White via



[1] John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, Daniel T. Willingham: Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology

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Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of PLAY YOUR WAY SANE (January 2021 Simon & Schuster)

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Last Updated on August 11, 2021

23 Killer Sites for Free Online Education Anyone Can Use

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.


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.


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.


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.


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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