What you've been taught about how to learn is all wrong

Imagine a student preparing for a big test in class.  She spends hours highlighting important passages with a highlighter.  She re-reads the material several times.  The night before the test she stays up late reviewing the highlights to make sure she will remember them for the test.

Does this sound unusual?  Of course not.  You may have done these things yourself.  

The school of life has taught us to use these methods, whether we have learned them from teachers or not.  And if, like many people, you have experienced test anxiety, it probably won't surprise you to hear these are not effective methods for learning.

So what methods are effective?

After studying the scientific literature, I've identified two methods known to be superior, so I'll emphasize them:  practice testing and distributed practice.

On his blog, Mark Koester recommends the highly popular MOOC (massive open online course) Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects.  I took the course this spring, and I also recommend it.  This free four-week course may be the best investment of time to help you learn more effectively.

Practice testing

You probably won't be surprised by this method.  Imagine the same student, but with a slightly different approach:

  1. She looks at the points she has highlighted in the text.  For each one, she thinks of a question that the point would answer.  She writes down the question.
  2. After reading and highlighting one chapter, she closes the book.
  3. She then reads each question she has written and tries to answer it from memory.

In order to find answers she's forgotten, she'll probably need to revisit some of her highlights.  In the end, she may spend the same amount of time as someone who rereads the material several times.  But she will be much more likely to remember what she is studying.  Why?

She is using active recall.  A test doesn't just show if you've learned something.  When we recall information, we actually strengthen our memory of it.

Another method, similar to practice testing, is teaching.  It is impossible to teach someone something without first learning it for ourselves.  Therefore, teaching is a very effective learning method.

Distributed practice

It simply means the opposite of cramming.  Instead of memorizing large amounts of information at once, distributed practice spreads the learning out over a period of time, ideally days or weeks. There are two main reasons why this works:

Our brains operate in more than one learning mode.  One of the instructors in the Learning How to Learn course, Dr. Oakley (pictured below), explains that in focused mode, the brain functions like a pinball machine with bumpers close together.  When focusing, closely related ideas come to mind easily but few connections are made to less related ideas.  The diffuse mode, on the other hand, is like a pinball machine with widely spaced bumpers. The brain more easily creates connections between less related ideas.

Barbara Oakley explains the differences between focused and diffuse modes of learning

In the opening scenario, the student is using focused mode to study.  The ideas she learns tend to be linked with each other, but not necessarily with other things she knows. 

When we are relaxed or sleeping, we are in diffuse mode.  If we focus intently on a new topic or idea, when we move on to something else, our brains will continue to process the ideas.  We are more likely to make connections we wouldn't otherwise.  We remember things we have learned better when they are connected to other ideas.

Distributed practice also involves forgetting curves.  Cramming for a test the night before takes advantage of the peak of this curve.  As time goes on, however, everything gradually fades from our memory.  In contrast, if we reintroduce ourselves to a concept before we forget it, the connection becomes stronger and the curve becomes flatter.  We will take longer to forget it next time.  We will need to review it again, but we can wait longer each time.  This is known as graduated interval recall.  With the flashcard app Anki, users can take advantage of this phenomenon to study more effectively.

In light of what we have discussed thus far, it is evident that waiting until the last moment to study is not a good choice.  Learning takes place over a longer period of time, with intense focus work interspersed with time spent thinking about other things (and getting adequate rest), so the long-term results will be better.

More ideas about learning

The two topics I covered above come from a list I found in a paper that Mark links to in his blog post.Dunlosky, J. (2013). Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning. The American Educator, 37, 12-21. The paper contains a very informative table, titled Effectiveness of Techniques Reviewed.  The table lists ten learning techniques and comments on what evidence has shown about each one's effectiveness.  You may want to view it yourself. (It's at the bottom of page 20 in the pdf.)  The author was also the lead author of an academic paper on the same subject, published the same year.Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266 This looks like a great place to go next if you have a strong interest in the current state of science on the subject of learning.

If you stop reading here, you still have learned two highly effective methods that will supercharge your learning.  But there are other ways to improve your learning.  Read on to benefit even more.

The following infographic is featured on the Outerbridge blog.  It represents the course's concepts so well, I found it via a link from inside the course itself:

An infographic featuring ten primary points from the Learning How to Learn MOOC

The first three points on the infographic are related to the two learning methods I discussed above. Chunking refers to the practice of learning a concept using its constituent parts.  For example, consider the letters C, A, and T.  Seeing them together, you immediately think of a fuzzy four-legged animal.  Both the word cat and the concept of a cat are chunks.  They are so closely related in our brains that we usually recall both together.  

The more connections we make with a chunk, the better equipped we are to understand and use it.  We begin to group together closely related concepts.  You pet a cat, but not the wrong way.  Cats like to chase mice.  No doubt you can think of many other related concepts.  It is because you clearly understand the concept of a cat.  The concept of a cat is linked to so many other ideas in your brain that you can never forget it.

Overlearning, Einstellung, and the illusion of competence

I found a great description of these related concepts on Danny Forest's blog.  Here's a brief breakdown:

When learning a subject becomes easy, spending time on it has diminishing returns. This is known as overlearning.

The Einstellung effect occurs when we overuse a particular method or technique. To avoid this, continually experiment to find better ways of achieving the same results.

The illusion of competence occurs when we think we know everything about a topic.  Teaching someone else is a great way to test this illusion.


Interestingly, in the paper I cited above, Dunlosky says interleaving is "promising for math and concept learning, but needs more research." Interleaving reminds me of my research on critical thinking.  I discovered that transferable skills generally involve some sort of deliberate comparison.

Learning productively

The seventh and eighth points are mainly related to time management and discipline.  Learning requires focused and effort-intensive sessions, as discussed above in the section on focused mode.  Taking breaks is necessary to let the diffuse mode operate, but without the time spent on focusing in the right way, we won't learn effectively. 

I plan on discussing these two subjects further in the future, but for now you can find suggestions that can help you with both of them in the article How to Keep Yourself Motivated.


Some people place a lot of weight on memorization techniques.  You may find memory palaces fascinating, for example.  A simple example of this technique is associating a new concept with a place in your house.  You can recall an object by picturing yourself placing it in a familiar spot.  In your mind, put it in your bedroom drawer.  If you envision yourself opening the drawer in the future, the object you're trying to recall will come to mind.

Another memory technique is mnemonics. Here's a great example: Since the cerebrum is larger than the cerebellum, the keyword for cerebrum could be drum (a large instrument) and the keyword for cerebellum could be bell (a small instrument).From 5 Mnemonic Strategies to Help Students Succeed in School  Mnemonics work particularly well for ideas that you encounter at rare intervals.  Since you don't use the word all the time, a mnemonic helps you separate similar concepts.  I still use this mnemonic to help me keep the rock formations in caves straight:  Stalactites hang tight to the roof of the cave, while stalagmites stand mightily underneath.

Regarding this technique, Dunlosky comments, "Somewhat helpful for learning languages, but benefits are short-lived."  In most cases, I prefer chunking over mnemonics.  Having a mental shortcut to remember something is not as effective as fully understanding it.  To truly learn something, it may take more time and energy, but if it is worth learning, it will usually be worth learning well.

The takeaway

If someone promises you an effortless way to learn, be very skeptical. Learning most things requires deliberate effort. Spaced repetition is one possible exception. It is because of this brain feature that we are pretty good at learning concepts we are frequently exposed to without much effort. It will take less effort to learn certain things if you are exposed to them frequently.

Realize this doesn't apply to every situation.  Because we were repeatedly exposed to our native language, we may think we learned it easily.  We did, however, put forth a lot of effort.  If you watch a baby or young child closely, you will see how much effort they put into mimicking sounds and understanding what they hear. No one remembers how hard we worked at it, but we all did it.

Imagine two immigrants moving to a foreign country.  Within a few years, one becomes fluent in the local language while the other knows very few words.  If you have spent much time around immigrants, you have definitely seen this.  Why the difference?  It may seem that some people learn languages more easily, but in reality, it comes down to effort.  The immigrant who learned the local language did so because he put forth the effort.

This leads to another, related concept: motivation.  The first speaker put forth the effort to learn because he wanted to.  He probably enjoyed the process.  Certainly, he eagerly anticipated speaking like a local.  What does this teach us?

When it comes to learning methods, effectiveness isn't the only factor to consider.  You should also consider how much you enjoy it.  An ineffective method you use is better than an effective method you don't use.

Mark Koester put it well:

Research has shown that stress is not good for learning and we learn best when we bring positive emotions and moods to our learning. So it makes sense to follow learning methods we like and enjoy, even if they are not scientifically-speaking the most effective.

To have a bright outlook, adopt a growth mindset and keep learning!