It’s been a long time since I’ve had to give an exam. But the memory of how it felt, lingers. Words like “cramming”, “all-nighters”, “flash cards” and “mnemonics” were common to me then. So was “burnout” and “exhaustion”. While we were all taught what to learn, it amazes me that we were never taught how to learn.
Most of us wandered into a learning routine based on what our parents, peers or teachers told us. The result was that many people always felt that learning anything new was an uphill journey. Forever discouraging them from trying. Yet, you cannot be consistently productive without continuously expanding or deepening our knowledge banks.
I am not an assessed student anymore. But I continue to learn. With an ocean of information washing over each subject regularly, I am sure you need to keep yourself updated too. So, how have your learning routines evolved?
In this article I would like to ask learners of all ages and walks of life to pause and reflect. There is a strong body of research around learning techniques and their effectiveness. What does your Learning stack look like? Are you carrying over some weak practices? In any case, knowing what else is out there can help you elevate your technique.
This article is for the student within you and your home
Table of Contents
The Learning Model
Using science as our guide means going back to the basics. Start with the brain. Learn how it forms and retrieves from memory. Use this knowledge to assess the techniques of learning. Understand what current research tells us about the most efficient options. We’ll also address the role of our environment in helping or hindering us in winning at learning.
Here’s the tldr of this article and the structure of the learning landscape
Start with the Brain
As the object of this article is not to be a medical journal I am going to resort to some simplified narrative.
We all understand that the brain is the store of memory. Memory is classified into Declarative and Non-Declarative types.
The former is a combination of semantic and episodic memory dealing with facts and events respectively. Non-Declarative memory refers to habitual skills such as riding a bicycle or playing a piano (or even brushing your teeth).
Any information that is picked up through our sense organs is evaluated by the limbic system within our brain. Particularly through our hippocampus. This little, sea-horse shaped, organ is thought to house the algorithm that ranks and indexes the information that comes into our brain.
Much like the search engine.
Our internal Search Engine
The hippocampus decides whether a new piece of information is stored or discarded. This is the pivotal point where short and long term memory are segregated. If the algorithm decides to retain this information, typically beyond 30 seconds, it is considered to be added into long-term memory. It is then encoded into a neuron which communicates with the rest of the neuron-clusters through a synaptic exchange of electrical charge. But this isn’t the interesting part.
The interesting part is answering the question; How does the hippocampus decide to induct information into long-term memory? The current research tells us that it is based on Frequency and Association.
To borrow from the search-engine example, the brain’s algorithm searches the existing data. Then, it establishes how frequently information of this type is stored/retrieved and how well does it connect with the existing groups of information. If the new input ranks high on these parameters, then congrats! Welcome to long term storage.
This long term storage then moves this information higher or lower in the ranking by constantly reviewing the frequency and association parameters. In short, the more you ask for this information and the more you connect this with existing memory the longer the brain will make this available to you.
Now that you understand this, how does it translate to real world learning scenarios you encounter?
Poor Learning Habits
Before we get into what works, let us have a quick look at the techniques that are inefficient:
- Highlighting: This practice creates colourful islands of facts but ignores the logic that ties them into knowledge. Highlighting is often an impediment to learning the larger picture or drawing inferences
- Re-reading: Another culprit that tricks you into “learning adjacent” behavior. These are practices that look like learning but are either counter-productive or inefficient. Rereading tricks the brain into thinking that you are familiar with what you are looking at making you glaze over the particulars.
- Mnemonics: Personally guilty. I prided myself in coming up with creative mnemonics and acronyms for learning multi-stage processes or elaborate concepts. What I was left with were a set of gibberish acronyms which, on a good day, I could expand but not explain.
- Intense reading (AKA slow reading): How did one think that reading slowly and intently, often one word at a time, is efficient? The brain just looks at the slowly scrolling words, nodding at how familiar they appear. The cohesive knowledge in that article is missed almost entirely.
Let me know how many of these techniques did you relied on? (or continue to). Leave me a comment below.
These were the techniques that aren’t useful. Now, let’s talk about the good stuff for each of the learning scenarios that we encounter.
Learning for Replication
A recurring scenario in the education system is to expect replication of information taught. Facts and figures, sequence of events and processes that the learner is expected to understand and reproduce within an acceptable margin of deviation.
This the realm of text books, blackboards and lectures. This is also where weaker techniques have thrived for the longest time. No more. Let’s delve into scientifically recommended techniques to boost learning.
Academic research on the best modes of studying are almost unanimous in their praise for Active Recall. It ranks the highest in impact for before and after implementation studies.
Here’s what it means in simple terms. Are you ready? Practice Tests. Yeah. That’s it! Kind of anticlimactic, but hear me out. It seems like an obvious thing, but it is ranked way lower amongst students in preferred study techniques than it deserves. Here’s what it means in practice.
Here’s a simple way to implement this is . Once you are confident you’ve done a thorough review of your notes, generate a test on the intended subject. Answer it fairly, without looking up any clues. Verbalize or write down the answer Once you’ve attempted the test, go back and review your answers against the actual notes. Do another test in a few days. Rinse. repeat.
It is important to get over the embarrassment of exposing your ignorance. It’s that simple, yet also immensely powerful.
Why does it work?
The machinery of the brain does not create strong connections through storage but through the act of recollection. Raising a query triggers the search engine of the brain. Even if it is unable to find a satisfactory answer, the mere process of recollection starts to strengthen the neural connections related to the subject. Repeated attempts at recollection improves the ranking of the subject in your brain and information is made available faster.
Brilliant.org hosts courses on fundamental concepts by first introducing concepts then expanding your learning through challenges and quizzes. This is an entertaining way to introduce you or your child into learning through Active Recall
Following closely on the footsteps of Active recall is the Spaced Repetition System. There’s mention of this system in German psychological publications as early as 1885. Recent studies have stepped into the neuroscience of spaced repetition and found encouraging results from using this technique to train humans and animals.
At its basic, spaced repetition refers to exposing yourself to the information across a well spaced interval. This is the opposite of reading a piece of information 5 times in one go and expecting to retain the knowledge. Instead you read the article and either revisit it or quiz yourself about it once in a few days or weeks. Here’s the process
- Rank information with strong recall vs those with weak recall on a first attempt.
- Increase frequency of testing on topics with weak recall while still having scheduled exposure on strong topics.
This treats the brain the way it is meant to, like a muscle. With an interval-based training program, the brain becomes better at retaining the information given.
A favorite of stage performers and memory trainers. This is the trick where you walk up to a crowd and offer to memorize their names, birthdays, jobs and a variety of aspects of their lives and then recalling them at random. Pause for applause.
Memory palace technique involves taking new facts, concepts or flow of information and virtually placing it in a familiar surrounding in your mind. When you need to recollect it, you mentally go back to the location where you placed it and retrieve it. The research community recognizes this as the method of loci.
This requires practice and definitely has a learning curve. But people who have mastered it, swear by its effectiveness.
The memory palace technique has its roots in anthropological studies. Humans have an evolutionary need to be able to recollect familiar paths, places and structures. A specific part of the brain, the locus coeruleus, is activated when you walk into new locations. This then stimulates regions of the hippocampus to map that into your brain.
You can close your eyes and visualize every room in your home as you virtually walk through it. If you want to imagine placing a new object in the space between your TV and couch, you can. You’re already good at it.
The brain has a strong association between memory of objects, events and location. This is why you can always answer the question, “Where were you when (insert world changing event) happened?”
By mentally following a set path from room to room as you navigate the information placed, you can connect concepts in a logical sequence. That’s why this technique is particularly effective in remembering long presentations, lectures & historical events.
Advanced practitioners can make complex structures in their minds and fill it with new information that can be recollected in random order or in a logical sequence.
A quick search reveals that online courses are the best ways to dabble with this technique as this requires some assistance to calibrate. But here’s a start: Memory Palace
Remember that all these techniques excel at recalling and replicating facts, figures and concepts. This is useful at early stages of learning where you need to understand the basics before you can make original observations and contributions.
What techniques help you there? The next stage sheds light on that
Learning for Inference
Making original observations require you to go beyond recollection. You need to be be able to make new connections. You understand the origins behind the facts and figures so you can retrace the path and draw first-hand conclusions. This is the transition from being a consumer of information to being a generator.
This requires techniques that promote structured thinking. In many ways these are an evolution of techniques discussed in the earlier segment. But you, the learner, will have to make conscious modifications to migrate to this stage.
A prolific technique in the academic circles with an impressive showing in research is the protégé effect. The system has evolved from its early forms, such as the Feynman technique attributed to the legendary physicist, Richard Feynman.
Learn by teaching. More accurately, learn as if preparing to teach. This is the core of the Protégé Effect.
Several tests revealed that approaching a subject as if you are preparing to teach yielded better mental models than those who approached learning as if it was for themselves.
The Protégé Effect led to a structured and often original approach to the subject. It is also known to be a source of motivation to learn. People who take this approach put more effort into being able to answer queries.
Applying this technique can be done in 3 ways depending on what you have access to.
- Study buddy. Find one (willing and curious) person or a group of people and actually teach them. The study buddy can ask questions or indicate gaps in the lecture. A quality study buddy can help in upgrading the understanding of the subject being taught (and learnt)
- Teach virtually. Blog it, Vlog it, Podcast it. As someone who has personally tried to tackle complex concepts I can tell you that I have never put more effort into understanding any subject than when I’ve had to blog about it.
- Pretend to teach it. Rewrite the concept you are learning as though teaching a five year old. This is borrowing from the Feynman technique referred to above. The mere approach, without actually having an audience, is proven to be superior to studying for yourself
More a hack than a full-fledged technique. The zeigarnik effect is named so after the the Soviet psychologist who discovered it. There are controversies surrounding the replicability of this effect. But under specific circumstances this triggers cognitive attention where it matters the most.
The Zeigarnik effect simply states that the brain retrieves unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. When you are deeply engrossed in a project or research any break you take finds your brain mulling over the task you left behind. That is the zeigarnik effect in action.
As indicated above, this works best for self-motivated projects involving deep work or knowledge work. Activities or subjects which are forced upon or are fueled by weak rewards do not benefit from this effect. So how do you harness it?
In qualifying areas of study, the pomodoro system, which enforces timely breaks in the process, is often found to stimulate problem solving capability in the learner. When entangled in particularly confounding learning scenarios, especially ones involving original solutions, walking away briefly provides fresh perspective.
We’re entering rarefied air now. A small but fiercely loyal movement in the field of deep work and research has yielded tools that only current technology can deliver. While there isn’t as much research in this area, there are icons and thought leaders. Names like Niklas Luhmann, Sonke Ahrens, Conor White-Sullivan are heralding the next stage of digital learning.
Inspired by the indexing mechanism of the brain or a well maintained library, networked note-taking is the subject of ongoing research but is relevant enough to be part of this list.
How it Works
To explain in simple terms, along with an example, networked note-taking unfolds like this:
- Take standalone notes on a finite term or topic in your own words. Let us say, a standalone note on “The Protégé Effect”
- Create a system to uniquely identify that note and attach context tags to it. “The Protégé Effect” is identified with a unique timestamp and tagged with “Learning”, “Teaching”, “Study buddy”
- Identify links to other subjects that this note would associate with. This note, in my mind, has secondary associations with “Productivity”, “Feynman”, “Podcast”
- Record the Note IDs of the linked topics alongside the standalone note. I can add tags linking “The Protégé Effect” with the notes identified in Step 3. This reciprocatively ensures that this note will appear in each of those topics’ notes as well.
- Maintain the notes in a free-form atmosphere (Suggestions include Roam Research, Obsidian, Notion & Remnote)
When you have an idea to produce original output (research or otherwise) you start with closest note associated with that subject. This will then give you leads to linked notes which will then lead to an expanding network of notes.
So when I wanted to write an article about Learning Effectiveness I started with my primary note on “learning”. It was linked to articles about “Active Recall”, “Spaced Repetition” and, among other things, “The Protege Effect”. This helped me create a coherent structure, fill in the gaps in research and produce this article.
This system facilitates serendipitous discovery of patterns that leads to original observations and output.
From this description, you can tell that this is not everyone’s cup of tea. It probably isn’t, but it follows a certain bio-mimicry that resembles how ant colonies, bee hives and the brain work. A swarm of standalone notes find links within each other and come together to form something unique and impressive.
Techniques enabling Replication and Inference are the world of theory and research. It is where mental models are born. But what if you need to learn to swim? or work at a restaurant?
It is learning. A bit of theory is involved. But it taps into a different part of the brain to become proficient. Let us talk about it
Learning for Application
Falling outside the realm of imbibing knowledge and generating new content from inference and association is learning for application. This is the area for practiced skills and professions.
While the previous models of learning were centred around theory, no amount of theory will prepare you when faced with a boat to be navigated, a sales target to be achieved or a video to be edited. In fact, many of these skills receive inputs from a part of the brain that has very little to do with learning facts and concepts. It originates from the part that governs the intent to move. We’ll get into why this is important shortly.
Skill development is a vast subject, the learning in this can be broken into 3 phases. I’d like to explain this through the stages of learning photography
- Cognitive Stage: Your brain starts to come to terms with the rules and boundaries of this skill. Early memory clusters start to form and lay the groundwork for further development. You know how to hold a camera properly and can identify most of the buttons on it. You can, incidentally, take a photo
- Associative Stage: You’re able to recognize the basic workflow. Crucially, you’ve picked up the ability to self-correct. You know how to choose between shutter and aperture priority modes. You can look at a photo you took, realize that the high ISO is introducing a lot of picture noise. You compensate by dialling down the ISO, opening up the aperture and compensating with a steady hand or supporting the camera with stable prop.
- Autonomous stage: You’ve mastered the cogs and wheels that go into the skill and can manipulate them in an original fashion. You start shooting under self-imposed handicaps. 50 mm street photography, 3 tone color-grading process, composing a night to day time-lapse.
Knowing the stages in themselves do not become a technique. In the world of application, learning is a direct function of Time and Commitment. This correlates with the brain’s ability to encode the signals of movement. Over a period of time, the brain becomes more efficient at replicating the movement required to produce the outcome. Soon the translation between intent and output is almost seamless.
This is why a music composer’s ability to convert an inspiration into a complex interplay of instruments with layers, transitions and variations seems almost magical when we are struggling to even produce a consistent note. This is what makes learning for application different.
The trouble comes when we confuse learning with skill acquisition. If you want to acquire a new skill, you must practice it in context. Learning enhances practice, but it doesn’t replace it. If performance matters, learning alone is never enough. – Josh Kaufman
Which is why, when it comes to acquiring skills, the age old methods are often the best. Namely
On-the-role Practice: Being an intern or assistant with hands on training with room to fail without judgment
Mentored experiences: Having the privilege of following on the footsteps of a master, climbing on their shoulders and reaching the next level.
This takes us through the world of learning techniques and the types of output they are best suited for. But efficiently deploying these needs discipline. Let me share a few powerful tips.
Attention management tips
Effective learning is an act of work life balance. On the one hand, you have a volume of information to be processed and on the other you have an army of variables poised to break your flow. Managing the variables gives you the bandwidth to learn.
Here are just a few of the variables and an overview of how to handle them
Focus & Distraction
Your best efforts to staying in the flow of your learning endeavor is thwarted by the need to get a cookie… react to a message from your friend… watch the latest Batman trailer. It’s night time already? Same time tomorrow then.
Focus and Distraction originate from two different parts of the brain. In fact, distraction originates from an older part of the brain that was designed to keep you shifting focus from scene to scene to watch out for predators. Well, no marauding sabre tooth tigers now.
But redirecting this primitive instinct requires you to consciously seal your environment from sources.
I have provided insights into the “how” in earlier posts. Here’s one where I’ve summarised Graham Alcott’s approach to maintaining momentum that covers 2 of the three topics covered in this section.
Navigating the "dip"
Early into learning any subject or skill you will make rapid progress. Basic concepts, baby steps..easy peasy. The brain rewards you with happy hormones, pushing you forward in the learning journey.
But soon the topic becomes riddled with complexities and slow progress. This is where your brain starts to get bored. This is the space where most learners drop out.
Being conscious of this universal experience of loss of interest is important in defeating it. This dip in interest, by academic observation, is temporary and needs to be countered with active motivation to ride out. True mastery of the subject lies beyond it.
Get an accountability partner. Establish the “why” of starting on this particular journey and remind yourself of it.
Power of rest
Being engrossed in a complex topic, especially with a looming deadline, can rob you of all sense of time. Other routines come to a halt. Exercise and rest often take a back seat.
You often view your ability to forgo sleep in favor of completing the course notes as a sign of commitment. But exercise and sleep are vital for the brain to form and retain memory.
If the aim is to give your brain the best chance to retain what you’ve learned then you have to nourish it. Exercise and sleep are just what the doctor ordered.
My aim through this article was to sift through the ocean of “study tips”, “learning hacks” and beautiful notes to get to the heart of the matter. Effective Learning through scientifically tested methods. We understood how the brain forms and retrieves memory. This helps us in understanding why the selected methods work while others do not.
A majority of academic studies recommended Active recall, Spaced repetition and Learning by teaching as the most effective methods to study concepts and research for inference respectively. Skill building, on the other hand, requires one to take the tried and tested journey of embedding the muscle memory and routines into the brain.
I have introduced you to the definitive tools I wish I’d had in my student days. But, on second thought, my learning days are far from over. So I will still need it. I hope this helps you improve your learning journey and that of the people you care about.
Reach out if you need me to go into further detail into any of the techniques mentioned here in a separate post. For those who want to pursue the research I’m sharing the resources that helped me put this together
How Do you make memories? – SciShow | Youtube
Memory and the Hippocampus – BioBrainBuddies | Youtube
Scientific Approach to learning
Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning – Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel | Amazon
How to Learn a New Skill Quickly: A 4-Step Process – Tomas Frank | Youtube
Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques | Dunlosky, Rawson et al
The right time to learn: mechanisms and optimization of spaced learning | Smolen, Zhang and Byrne
On the mechanisms of plasticity in young and older adults after instruction in the method of loci | Verhaeghen, Marcoen et al
Memory Palace Science: How The Memory Palace Technique Actually Works – Jonathan Levi | Yutube
Learning by preparing to teach | Muis, Psaradellis et al
Teachable Agents and the Protégé Effect | Chase, Chin et al
On finished and unfinished tasks | Bluma Zeigarnik
Undermining the Zeigarnik effect | Mc Graw and Fiala
Learning for application
How the Brain Learns New Skills | CalTech
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