Research-backed strategies for better learning
This article is a summary of another article I wrote. Check it out if you want more details!
One of my favorite subjects is learning how to learn. I’ve read and studied on learning science for many years. That said, I’m no expert — enjoy this outsider’s take on the literature. In this article, I sum up what I’ve learned about learning in eight points. If you’re a learner too, this article is for you.
If my background interests you: Sagefy is the project I’m building on these ideas.
Idea 1: Do One Thing at a Time
“Do one thing at a time” is a long way to say: focus. Remove distractions. Drop unneeded interfaces. Silence background chatter. Don’t multitask: it doesn’t work. Only focus on one lesson of one subject at a time. When we focus, we get more out of the energy we put into learning. Isolate and learn each idea, and then integrate the ideas to solve the problem.
1.1 Account for the limits of working memory.
What we remember in the current moment, we call working memory. Our brain limits working memory to four items. We learn by connecting new information to previous known information. In summary, be realistic about how much information you can put into your working memory. It’s less than you expect.
1.2 Do one activity at a time. Avoid multitasking.
Humans are terrible at multitasking. Trying to learn more than one thing at a time is counterproductive. Instead, it’s much better to try to learn one thing at a time instead of many things at once. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, break down what you’re learning into different steps. Then, bring it all together at the end.
1.3 Cut noise: distractions, extra choices, tangents, extra inputs…
Noise can come in many forms. Noise detracts from learning. Find a quiet, comfortable place to learn where nothing will distract you. Disable social media, put the phone on quiet, close the browser tabs. Get rid of extraneous thoughts, worries, and planning. Allow yourself to focus on learning one thing at a time.
Idea 2: Set & Adhere to Goals
Define small and achievable goals. Then as you learn, check against those goals. Setting specific goals gives the opportunity for frequent wins, which keeps you learning. If your goal is too large or ill-defined, you’ll deal with the constant question, “what’s next?” and spend more time on figuring out what to do than actually learning. By setting small and achievable goals, you keep learning.
2.1 Define small and achievable goals.
You should start each learning session with a small and specific goal. Often, the more specific the goal, the more achievable the goal is. Losing motivation while learning is common. Setting small and achievable goals helps us to stay motivated.
2.2 Set goals for both knowledge and skills.
One of the most common sayings is learning has no value unless you can apply what you’ve learned. So we need to make sure the goals we set go beyond memorization of facts. Challenge yourself to relate data points to each other. Work on projects that apply the knowledge. Do comparison exercises. Spend time identifying patterns in the knowledge. Present arguments based on what you’ve learned.
2.3 Habitually review your progress against your goals.
Checking our progress against our goals grows our sense of mastery, one of the three powerful intrinsic motivators. That in turn builds intrinsic motivation. As you learn, create a way to visualize your progress against your goals. That reminder can help keep you motivated towards learning.
Idea 3: Adapt to Prior Knowledge
The strongest predictor of how much we will learn is what we already know. Prior knowledge is how much we know going into a learning experience. Adapt the learning experience to prior knowledge. If the content is too easy, we get bored. If the content is too difficult, we get frustrated. By staying in the in-between zone, we get the most of our learning effort and keep with it for longer.
3.1 Assess prior knowledge first. Focus on areas of weakness.
We often decide to pick a book or a course for a topic without considering what we already know first. If you want to learn how to play piano without knowing how to read sheet music, you are in for a difficult journey. Instead, find a means to assess what you already know— and what you need to work on — before you start learning. And, use assessment as you learn to identify areas of weakness and build up in those areas first.
3.2 Stay in the middle and adjust the challenge. Scaffold.
We want to avoid learning experiences that are too easy or too difficult. Too easy, and we get bored and waste time and effort on things we already know. Too difficult, and we get frustrated and start to shut down. We want to stay in the middle. Sometimes that means breaking down what we are learning into smaller parts first. That might mean reviewing prerequisite knowledge. Start with simple, and slowly increase the complexity.
3.3 Connect new information with existing knowledge.
Before learning something new, start by reviewing related information you already know. For example: you are going into a lesson about choosing effective typefaces. You could start by reviewing the different categories of typefaces. Connect what you already know to what you want to learn.
Idea 4: Build the Graph
Our memory system works by forming relationships between data. Mastery is the result of a large, deeply-connected graph. We link new information with information we already know. By learning how to organize the information first, we can quickly connect information. We can use our prior knowledge more. And we get more out of each piece of the graph.
4.1 Learn how to organize the subject before getting specific.
Learn the subject’s organization before you begin to learn something new. That could mean reviewing the Table of Contents in a book before reading it. Or reading the section headings before reading the full text. Review maps and diagrams of how to organize the information. As you learn, you’ll know how the information relates to other areas within the subject.
4.2 Work top-down.
Learn the organization and main ideas first. Then dive into each of those solo. Get deeper as you move further along. As you learn, try to figure out what the main idea of the lesson is. Then, try to find ways to tie back in each point with the main idea.
4.3 Test your organizational knowledge.
As you learn, find ways to test your organizational knowledge. Try concept mapping; drawing out a map to structure the subject. When you understand the organization, you learn faster and keep the knowledge.
Idea 5: Empower Choice
Autonomy is one of the “three” major intrinsic motivators. Choice fuels autonomy. When we take ownership of our learning through choice, we are more motivated to stick with it. If someone forces learning on us, we resent the requirement. Our focus becomes our resentment, not learning. Too many choices can break down our ability to learn too. Instead, the right amount of choice as we learn keeps us motivated and focused on learning.
5.1 Create a system that often allows for choices, in both content and format.
As you create a learning plan for yourself or others, think about ways to include simple choices. For example, you can choose one of three activities for the same information. Your learning plan for yourself might look more like a graph instead of a list. That way, given the day you can choose which part to work on next instead of feeling forced into the next step.
5.2 Cut unnecessary choices and reduce the number of options.
Choice is powerful. Often too powerful. We need to be careful to not overwhelm ourselves with too much choice. The purpose of choice is to create a sense of autonomy and control to drive motivation. The purpose of choice in learning is not optimization.
5.3 Create a recommended default choice.
A learner’s own perception of ability is often inaccurate. Avoid putting yourself or another learner in a position to make a poor choice. Avoid choices that require learner self-assessment to make an informed choice. Present a default choice if the learner wants to move on without choosing. You want choice to be about the feeling of control and autonomy, not about optimization.
Idea 6: Dive Deep
Rote memorization is boring. No one enjoys learning that way. We must apply knowledge to create results. When we learn not only what, but also how and why, we empower ourselves to use the knowledge we gain. Diving deep means learning is more interesting, we can apply what we learn and make a real impact.
Getting enough practice is important for skill development. That may sound obvious. But, in school we get this idea that we will learn something by only hearing a teacher recite the information. We also have strong misconceptions about how much practice we need. You need to build more practice in your learning plan than you might guess.
6.2 Go beyond rote: explain, apply, analyze, and synthesize.
As you create and update your learning plan, make sure to include a variety of practice. Include exercises that need not only recognition or recall of information. Include exercises that have you to explain, apply, analyze, and synthesize knowledge.
6.3 Build metacognition.
As you are learning, every few hours or so, ask yourself a few questions:
- What should I be paying attention to?
- How well do I understand this? How difficult is this for me right now?
- Do I have a strategy? Is my strategy successful?
Ask these sorts of questions often. These questions improve your metacognitive ability. And lead you to stronger learning results.
6.4 Space your practice.
The stronger the memory, the longer we keep the memory. And the more spaced repetitions of the event, the stronger the memory. Spread out your practice rather than cramming. As the memory becomes stronger, you can go longer times without review. Create a system for yourself, some sort of reminder, to review your knowledge as you learn.
Idea 7: Make It Real
We need to know not only why the knowledge is important to the subject. We also need to know why the knowledge is important to us. Real-life connection and examples gives the knowledge purpose. And makes it easier to apply the knowledge later.
7.1 Check your own reasons for learning.
Before you learn, write down why you want to learn the subject. Focus on what that goal means for you. Does getting that promotion mean more autonomy in your day-to-day work? Is that course going to help you help others in some way? Go for deeper purposes. As you learn, remind yourself of that goal every now and again. And make sure you connect the day’s goal with the bigger picture.
7.2 Connect material with real-life problems.
As you learn, try to connect what you are learning to something real to you. An easy way to do this is to ask, “What problem does this solve?” The problem is the context.
7.3 Learn from examples. Use audio, images, video, and interactive.
Listening to lectures and reading textbooks is common. But an example is so much clearer. Examples can be in visual, auditory, or interactive form. Include examples in a variety of formats in your learning plan. If you get stuck, search for an example using an image or video search engine. Or create your own diagram to help with your own understanding!
Idea 8: Learn Together
When we learn with other people, we can accelerate both our own learning and others’ learning. We can share ideas. Challenge each other’s misunderstandings. And provide and gain feedback. Learning together changes what we learn, when we learn, and how often we learn. We need to be careful in how we interact as we learn together to keep things positive and constructive.
8.1 Invite and offer feedback.
Feedback is powerful. Feedback isn’t automatic. We shouldn’t expect others to provide feedback. We need to ask for it. Feedback should be timely. Feedback should be as tailored as possible. When you are learning, see if you can find someone who can offer you feedback as you learn. And you can learn as much by offering feedback to others too.
8.2 Be honest and forthcoming.
We learn better when we are honest and forthcoming with each other. When others are honest with us, our trust in them grows. We’re more willing to let down our shield and let in what they know.
8.3 Hold each other accountable.
When we hold each other accountable for learning, we’re more likely to stick with it and finish our goals. One strategy you can try is to find a ‘study buddy’ and have regular, recurring check-ups.
8.4 Build consensus.
We are social creatures, and we are social learners. When learning with others, consensus can drive learning results. The sense of belonging and alignment can help us to learn faster.
Think about ways to create an environment where these ideas can flourish. Print out this list and hang it on a wall or another place you’ll see it often.
Update: Wondering how to act on these ideas? Check out my “Checklist” article!
Thanks for reading! Feedback on this article is welcome. Let me know by writing a response! Check out the full article for more resources too.
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