How to Learn Effectively
By: Amy M Haddad
- What topics should I learn first?
- What learning tactics should I use, and how do I apply them?
- How do I retain everything I’ve learned?
Enter Principles of Learning. It’s a free learning guide that my husband, Paul, and I created in an attempt to answer these questions. You can access it at howtolearneffectively.com.
Principles of Learning offers concrete, hands-on tactics that’ll help you learn efficiently and effectively. At long last, there’s a hands-on practical system for learning—from the learner’s perspective.
Efficient and Effective
Paul and I never learned how to learn in school.
Left to our own devices, we picked up on ineffective approaches. We also got hung up learning the wrong things in the wrong ways. The poor habits we picked up in school carried over into our professional lives, as we set out to better our skills and build new ones.
As a result, we felt:
- Disorganized, wondering what to learn first?; what to learn next?; what matters most?
- Tired of applying learning tactics that didn’t work.
- Frustrated that we’d pour tons of time and effort trying to learn a topic, only to forget it a day or week later.
Our learning processes could be summarized as time-consuming and frustrating.
We live in a fast-paced, ever-changing world where learning new things efficiently and effectively isn’t a nice to have. It’s a must have in order to:
- Land that promotion.
- Make a career change.
- Get into the college of your choice.
- Stay competitive among peers.
Learning efficiently and effectively is useful for personal reasons, too. Say you want to learn Japanese, climb Mt. Everest, or train for your first marathon. Likely you want to learn how to do these things as efficiently and effectively as possible.
This was the motivation behind our framework. We knew that there had to be a better, more effective way.
There is. And, as Paul and I can both attest, it’s never too late to make the change.
Born Out of a Need
Principles of Learning was born out of a need: our own. We needed a learning system—with concrete, practical tactics—that we could apply to all of the personal and professional topics we learn about.
In the process, we discovered that we weren’t alone. There are a lot of people like us. And if you’ve read this far then you’re probably one of them. You, too, want to learn topics efficiently and effectively, and want specific and concrete ways to do so.
Principles of Learning is the solution. It’s designed to help learners get where they want to go. Instead of a bunch of theory, we offer practicality: actionable steps from the learner’s perspective you can apply immediately.
Principles of Learning contains a three-part framework. Let’s dive into each part.
Step 1: Understand the Terrain
What matters most. You can be the best learner in the world, but if you’re learning the wrong things, then you’re not going to get where you want to go.
That’s why it’s essential to understand the terrain. Do this by getting the big picture of whatever you want to learn about before you dive into learning it.
Most people don’t do this.
And for the longest time, neither did we. Paul and I were guilty of diving into the details—all of the details—when learning a new topic. Learning something new took forever.
However, one change has made learning new things far more efficient: getting the big picture.
The Essential First Step
Getting the big picture means to get a general scope of a topic by identifying its core concepts before you start learning the material itself.
Say you’re going to put together a 1,500-piece puzzle. Before you start, you study the box lid because it contains an image of what the puzzle looks like when it’s complete. You take note of the two gondolas, large canal, and the yellow, white, and tan-colored buildings.
You’ve just made solving the puzzle far easier because you got the big picture: a high-level view of your task and what to focus on. So instead of dealing with 1,500 random puzzle pieces, your mind is primed to think about the core parts that you’ll have to put together and how they relate to each other.
Plus, the process becomes much more manageable. As you get the big picture, you move from disorder to order; from complex to simple. Think of getting the big picture like a filter: it’ll help you distinguish between the nice to know from the have to know.
When you apply this tactic to learning, you’ll make your learning process much more efficient.
Think of the 80/20 rule when you get the big picture. This rule states that roughly 80% of the results come from 20% of the efforts. So, for our purposes, identify the topics that’ll give you the biggest return for your time and effort.
It’s not to say that the details don’t matter; they do. But you don’t need to know everything right now.
That’s why getting the big picture is the essential first step when it comes to learning something new. Doing so will focus your time and attention from the start. So instead of trying to learn everything, you zone in on the core parts.
More to the point, the fine details, if you need them, will be far more meaningful once you first understand the core concepts of whatever you’re learning about.
It’s a point made clear by Elon Musk:
“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree—make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”
Indeed, the details are much more meaningful when there's something to “hang onto.”
Now that you know what topics or concepts to learn, let’s make learning those topics effective.
Step 2: Learn It
Paul and I repeatedly faced the same challenge when learning new topics: we didn’t have any useful tactics to apply.
So we defaulted to the bad habits we picked up in school:
- Memorizing instead of really understanding.
- Focusing on quantity (the number of repetitions) instead of quality.
- Re-reading text instead of testing our knowledge.
- Passive watching instead of actively doing.
As it turns out, a lot of people default to similar techniques. And anyone who’s used any of them can attest how ineffective they are. In our case, we often found ourselves pouring a ton of time and energy into the learning process, but we weren’t seeing the results.
We often felt like we were spinning our wheels, going nowhere. This alone was motivation for a change.
There’s a lot of theory about how to learn. But we needed practical tactics geared toward everyday people just like us.
Specifically, we needed a concrete answer to this question: How do I learn X?
So we implemented and created several learning tactics that have helped us to learn a range of topics, which collectively include: programming, math, computer science, writing, art history, investing, and entrepreneurship.
The learning tactics I’m referring to make up the second pillar of our Principles of Learning framework, and I want to share one of those with you today: Apply First, Study Second.
Apply First, Study Second
To learn—and actually retain your knowledge—you should give Apply First, Study Second a try.
The idea is to actively apply your existing knowledge first. Attempt the problem; attempt the article; attempt the design. Then, turn to passive modes of learning, such as reading books or watching tutorials, when you get stuck.
Apply First, Study Second stresses the importance of the attempt. You don’t need to draw the perfect picture or create an award-winning design. Attempt the picture; attempt the design.
There’s value in the attempt.
Applying your existing knowledge first draws awareness to the roadblock. This is the thing you don’t know or need to get better at. You’ll think to yourself: How do I do X? For example, how do I prepare smooth gravy?; how do I transition between paragraphs when writing an article?; how do I use a for loop in Python?
Now that you’re aware of the roadblock, toggle to passive modes of learning—like reading chapters in a book or watching a lecture or two—in order to get yourself past this roadblock.
Once you have the information you need, then apply it right away. Return to the problem, recipe, article, or whatever you were working on and apply your newfound knowledge.
Apply First, Study Second can be boiled down to this: get what you need when you need it. And you only know what you need by applying your knowledge first.
There are many other learning tactics in Principles of Learning, and you’ll find similar themes, such as:
- Actively applying your knowledge instead of passively watching or listening.
- Developing the critical skill of self-assessment.
- Repetitive testing your knowledge.
- Stepping outside of your comfort zone.
- Understanding instead of memorizing.
Incorporating these themes into practical learning tactics have helped Paul and I to learn a number of topics, and ultimately make the personal and professional strides we were after.
The same can happen for you.
Step 3: Retain It
By now you know what topics to focus on and understand how to learn them effectively.
For many, the learning would stop there. But not you.
You’re out to learn—and actually remember what you learn a week, month, or year later. After sinking time and effort into learning something, you don’t want to forget it all.
And that brings me to the final step in our Principles of Learning framework: how to retain what you’ve gained.
Sequential Isn’t Better
Most people learn topics sequentially. A math student learns exponents, then fractions, then decimals, and so on. But there’s a problem with this approach.
Eventually, you need to recall previously learned material. But you can’t, at least not easily. You’ve forgotten what you’ve learned, and have lost your edge.
That’s why it’s important to retain what you gain along the way. It’s a small investment in your future self. Otherwise you risk decaying skills and mounting frustration as you sink even more time and effort into re-learning previously learned content.
There are several simple ways you can retain what you’ve gained, and today I’ll share two of them.
Space It Out
Consider an exam that you crammed for in school. Cramming may help get through the mid-term the next day, point out the authors of the book, Make It Stick, but you’ll probably forget the material by the time the final exam rolls around.
In other words, spending a big chunk of time learning or practicing a skill may help you in the short term. But if you’re looking for longer-term retention, you’re better off spacing out your practice over a period of time and mixing it up.
First, let’s talk about spacing out your practice. It means practice over a period of time. Instead of pulling an all-nighter to cram for an exam, space your study time out over the course of the semester. Or instead of solving math problems for seven hours on Monday, you practice one hour every day each day of the week.
Mix It Up
Second, mix up your practice by interleaving. Interleaving means to practice two or more topics or skills during a practice session.
A basketball player, for example, alternates among different shots in basketball: free throws, three-point shots, and layups. This is in contrast to sequentially working on each type of shot, one at a time: shoot 15 free throws, then 15 three-point shots, and finally 15 layups.
You can also apply this interleaving technique to intellectual pursuits. Say you’re learning prealgebra, and specifically you’re learning about square roots. As you set out to practice today, you mix it up.
You begin your practice by solving several fraction, inequality, and percent problems (topics you’ve previously learned about). Then, you work through a few square root problems (the topic you’re currently learning about). Finally, you conclude your practice with a decimal and ratio problem (two other previously learned topics).
You may be thinking: using spaced practice and interleaving takes some time and effort. And you’re right, it does. But the benefits are well-worth it.
First, you’ll stay sharp with previously learned material as you interleave your learning. As you learn about square roots, for example, you’ll stay fresh with fractions, inequalities, decimals, and ratios.
Plus, in our experience, you’ll pick up on the details. This makes sense because you know more now than you did three weeks ago. As a result, you’ll see things differently, and probably better, than you did before when you set out to learn the topic initially. Put another way, what you overlooked in your first pass at a topic, you pick up in your second or third pass.
Second, interleaving can keep you prepared for the unexpected. Rarely does life come at you predictably in sequential order. Rather, you have to be ready for anything. Interleaving can help prepare yourself for this very real-world scenario.
Third, you’ll become more adaptable and versatile. Sure, you can practice cooking one type of meal over and over again until you get pretty good at it, like pasta with tomato sauce and meatballs. You may be tempted to prepare this meal each time you have guests over for dinner.
But this approach can be problematic. What if you invite a guest for dinner who doesn’t eat meat, or who doesn’t eat tomatoes? Well, then you’re stuck.
It’s better to have a variety of tools in your toolbox, and to pick the best tool to do the job. A way to have a reliable set of tools is to space out your practice and mix it up.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of retaining what you gain is that you don’t have to re-learn a topic from scratch, which is frustrating and time-consuming.
Make It Happen
When it comes to learning, you don’t need another article that summarizes recent research. What you do need is a practical system—from the learner’s perspective—that simplifies the learning process and offers specific and concrete tactics to apply.
Principles of Learning is that system. It’s your roadmap for how to learn efficiently and effectively.
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