Learning how to learn effectively
All our life, we learn new skills. Starting at the first days of life, through school, university, and apprenticeships, up to adulthood or old age. The reasons for learning are usually entirely different. Some things we learn without realizing it. Other things, such as playing an instrument, we learn because of intrinsic motivation, i.e., for our enjoyment. But very often, we learn because we have a concrete goal. For example, for many people, learning as part of education has a clear purpose. We often learn to pass a particular exam and not because we are particularly interested in the subject of learning, especially at young ages. This type of learning is instrumental in nature. It usually involves a little more effort because we humans have to use our willpower to work towards this instrumental learning goal on a regular basis. Especially with this form of learning, it is very important for many people to reach the respective learning goal as effectively as possible. We are looking for techniques, tips & tricks that magically help us reach our goal faster.
At edyoucated, we ask ourselves every day: How do we learn effectively? In this article, we would like to share our techniques with you.
The edyoucated Effective Learning Framework
We at edyoucated deal with this question every day. And we have found different answers. We see three essential problem categories across many different learners:
1. people learn the wrong things
2. people do not learn (stop or do not start at all)
3. people learn ineffectively
In the reverse case, you will realize relatively fast how it should look like. We should:
1. learn the correct things
2. make sure that we actually learn
3. Learn effectively
In the following, we will take a closer look at these three areas and show concrete techniques that can directly be applied.
Step 1: Learning the right things
How do we make sure that we learn the right things? In other words, deal with the right topics and skills. Learn in the right order? Start with what? Skip what?
We have to learn to deconstruct and isolate skills.
What do we mean by this? Put simply, a skill consists of a large set of smaller skills (we call these micro-skills), many of which are interrelated and interdependent. So many abilities can only be mastered if the necessary micro-skills for understanding have been mastered first. We know this problem, e.g., from math lessons. Mathematical topics are very much based on each other, and if you don’t pay attention to them, you will be “hung up” very quickly. This problem also exists in many other subjects - whenever skills build on each other and cannot be learned in isolation.
Depending on the skill, however, micro-skills also often have a different effect on the “degree of mastery” of a skill. Sporting greats like Kobe Bryant have been preaching “don’t sweat the easy things” for ages - because it has been proven that mastering and ultimately perfecting the basics is often the biggest lever in actually mastering a skill. Micro-skills, which have to be used particularly often in daily work, need to be perfected. What the simple passing game and physical condition are in soccer, the statistical basics and programming knowledge in Python can be in the area of machine learning. Too often, we see learners who despair in the learning process because they are too quickly occupied with advanced concepts whose basics have not been mastered or which are exciting to learn but are not among the most important micro-skills.
This is exactly why we at edyoucated are extremely focused on the process of “deconstructing a skill” for learners in the area of personalizing our learning paths. We deconstruct skills and determine the ideal sequence of micro-skills to be learned. Our experts find the appropriate materials for learning these micro-skills very quickly. **In other words, we design the optimal learning path to help each learner learn the right micro-skills in the right order.
Step 2: Make sure we actually learn
Actual learning. Sit down, start, pull through, and you’re done. So easy, so good. The reality is often quite different. Humans are absolute masters in doing exactly the opposite. We let ourselves be distracted and prioritize other things in the short term.
If we do not manage to actually learn, this is often due to one of two different reasons:
- we have not started - we “procrastinate
- we stopped - we were distracted
In order to actually learn, we need to be able to minimize procrastination and distraction. But before we get into certain techniques that are good for that very purpose, it makes sense to take a step back and look at why we are so good at “postponing” and distracting ourselves in the first place.
In the end, there are many reasons. One of the most important: learning is a process with delayed gratification. Similar to the way, many people do sports or eat a healthy diet.
Delayed gratification is a psychological term and simply means that a reward for behavior is not immediate but delayed. Learning is often complicated in the first moment, and many things are not directly understandable. Learning is difficult at the moment, and we often have to repeat things so that you can really consolidate. To make matters worse, the advantage of what you have learned often does not necessarily occur immediately, but only after several learned micro-skills have been combined.
The same applies, by the way, to go to the gym. If we put ourselves in front of the mirror before and after training, we will not notice any major changes. The positive effects will only become visible in the future and when done regularly. For us, as human beings, this is a huge problem because we have to spend a lot of motivation to do these things anyway. This is further complicated by the fact that we, unfortunately, encounter many things in everyday life that do not create a delayed reward but a direct reward in the brain: things like the smartphone, chocolate, or the evening series on the couch.
But other activities have similar effects on us that give us a “sense of urgency.” When a deadline is approaching or when things get stressful, the first things we drop are almost always those with reward postponement.
But what can we do about it? How can we ensure that we actually start learning?
We need to prevent procrastination. There are a number of different techniques to do this, and it is up to each of us to find out for ourselves which one works best. In the following, we would like to introduce you to three techniques that we have had good success with:
The 2-minute rule: To make sure you get started, make sure you study for at least 2 minutes. For example, you often have no motivation, or you don’t have enough time to learn a full hour and want to postpone learning again. But if you take 2 minutes as a minimum, you have no mental excuse to postpone learning. Everyone has 2 minutes, no matter how busy you are. Often the original 2 minutes become a bigger time investment as soon as you have successfully overcome the initial hurdle of starting.
Adjustment of the environment: The easier we make it to start learning, the sooner we will start. This means: placing learning utensils within reach. Do you want to spend more time with a particular non-fiction book? Put it directly on your desk, where you can see it every day. Do you really want to finish the online course? Set it up as the start page of your browser. The more difficult it is to start the learning process, the more likely you will postpone the start. By the way, the same concept also works great for avoiding negative activities. Do you want to spend less time sitting in front of the Playstation? Instead of placing the controller on the living room table, you should instead remove the console and put it in the closet.
Generating External Commitment: If we give someone else a promise to do something, it dramatically increases the chances that we will actually do it. For example, you can find a learning group or tell a friend that you want to achieve a certain learning goal at a certain time. Just the announcement of such a goal will make itself felt.
For many people, the problem is to start with but maybe not the only or most serious problem. Probably everyone knows the feeling when you seem to have been “busy” the whole day, but in the end, you somehow didn’t achieve as much as you had planned. The most common reason for this? We get distracted during our actual work.
What tips & tricks are there to minimize distractions while learning? Here, too, we like to give you three techniques with which we have achieved very good results.
“Please do not disturb!”: The easiest and probably most effective trick is to minimize distractions caused by external factors. However, possible distractions appear in many places - our smartphone flashes, a call comes in, the colleague needs something from us, or our children want to play with us in the home office. In many places, we can’t eliminate these distractions because of our job - especially when “Adhoc support” is part of our work (e.g., as an IT administrator or sales expert). Nevertheless, we should try to limit distractions as much as possible. Possible examples:
- Set your smartphone to “do not disturb” or even better: put it in another room
- Disable your favorite website on your desktop PC for a short time with tools like StayFocused, Freedom or Limit (#byeFacebook)
- Set up a separate room for very focused activities - especially in a shared office, it is often very difficult to work in a concentrated manner when many parties are talking
Minimize Distracting Noise: Besides minimizing visual distractions, noise reduction is one of the most important factors to minimize distraction. If your working environment allows you to work undisturbed for a certain amount of time, wearing headphones (preferably with active noise cancellation technology) or the good old earplugs will help you learn and concentrate. At edyoucated, for example, we have introduced a policy that we do not disturb anyone wearing headphones since they might be in their focused learning or working phase - unless it is extremely important. The headphones serve as a clear sign of deep work focus and the request not to be distracted.
Increase focus: Unfortunately, it is often the case that we are not distracted. For many of us, it is simply impossible to shut ourselves off completely from distractions because we have to answer calls, or we have small children at home who want to be kept busy. We have found that regular meditation and the use of concentration music can help us to drastically reduce the amount of time we need to set up after distractions. In other words, we learn to get back to focused work and learn faster after we have been distracted. For meditation, there are now a lot of very good programs available - the favorites of our team: Headspace, Calm, and Waking Up.
Step 3: Learn Effectively
So if you manage to learn regularly and learn the right things, you will reach the third area of learning optimization: increasing learning effectiveness. What do we mean by this? This is about the question of how we can maximize the output - i.e., the learning success - per invested learning time. Remember: learning success is a very general concept and means very different things in different areas, depending on the objective (understanding concepts, implementing projects, or memorizing vocabulary). Put simply, how can we learn, remember, and apply more in less time?
Again, there are a number of techniques that can help us as learners. Three general techniques that can be applied to almost all complex learning topics are briefly introduced below.
The Feynman Technique
Going back to the well-known physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, this technique describes a process for a better understanding of new topics.
Step 1: Describe what you have learned as if you were explaining it to a child. Write down the concept or problem you want to understand right at the top of a sheet of paper. Then, directly below, explain the ideas as you would explain them to someone else. Use illustrative examples, analogies, and visualizations. When you are describing an idea from beginning to end in a simple language that a child can understand forces you to understand the concept on a deeper level. Within this process, you will notice that in some places, it is particularly difficult to do without technical vocabulary or where there are fundamental problems of understanding. This is where the gaps in our understanding lie - and this is where step 2 comes in.
Step 2: Check the unclear topic. Now that you know where there are still gaps in understanding go back to the learning material and work through it again until you can explain it in simple terms. Because only if one can explain without technical terms and in simple words, one has really understood. If you leave this step out, the problem often arises that you think you have understood something, even though this is not the case. This is the so-called “knowledge illusion.” The term can be traced back to the communication scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann from 1986 and describes the subjective assessment of knowing more than one objectively knows.
Step 3: Explain it to someone else with little understanding of the subject. If you manage to get this person to understand the content of the topic, this is a very good sign that you have really understood what you have learned. If you still notice that there are still ambiguities in some places, go back to step 2.
With the Active Recall concept, information is retrieved from memory by testing oneself at each stage of the learning process. By actively retrieving information from our brain, our ability to retain information is dramatically improved. One creates an active feedback mechanism that gives us as learners feedback on whether we have actually understood or retained something. By actively testing ourselves, we ensure that we do not fall into the “knowledge illusion” and believe that we have understood something when we have not.
There are several ways to implement Active Recall. For example, if you learn a lot with non-fiction books, it can help if you close the book for a short time, and at the end of a chapter, you ask yourself what you have taken away from the last pages. Too often, this is not very much (and unfortunately not the fault of the book content). If you learn with online courses, we have proven to use a method based on “Cornell Note-Taking.” Within this adapted technique, you think of questions during the learning process that you would expect to find in a hypothetical quiz, but you don’t write down the answers explicitly but note down the appropriate places within the respective learning material. This way, you can continue to test yourself even after you have finished the learning videos and know in case of doubt where to find further information about the learning content. Important here: resist the urge to formulate a question for everything! Instead, focus on the essential concepts, ideas, and content instead of on unimportant details.
You might ask yourself why we do not recommend writing down the answers to the questions directly? In our experience, this can slow down the editing process of the learning videos too much and does not result in any advantages in learning effectiveness.
Finally, our “insider tip” when it comes to the transfer from the learned to long-term memory. As the name suggests, “Spaced Learning” involves looking at the topics to be learned repeatedly at certain intervals over a certain period of time and actively checking whether what has been learned can still be actively recalled. Of course, this technique is particularly suitable for fact-based learning (e.g., learning vocabulary), but it is also very helpful in the long-term understanding of concepts and ideas. The background of this system is the “curve of forgetting,” which says that the less we have repeated the content, the more of what we have learned is forgotten over time. Conversely, this also means that content that is learned over a longer period of time is better remembered than content that is intensively repeated in a short time. Therefore, in the context of Spaced Learning, it is important to keep certain intervals between repetition processes, which become longer over time.
If you successfully follow these three steps and apply the techniques presented here, we are extremely confident that you will see a dramatic increase in learning effectiveness. We also use these techniques on our edyoucated platform to make learning new skills as effectively as possible for our learners. Click here to access the platform and contact our team today. But we never stop learning and are looking forward to your tips & tricks in the learning process - so what helps you in your daily learning process? Let us know: Link to firstname.lastname@example.org - we are looking forward to hearing from you!