Scott H Young

9 Tactics for Rapid Learning (That Most People Have Never Heard Of)


Whenever the subject of why some people learn faster comes up, I get a whole host of common answers:

  1. Some people are just naturally smart. (Often implying you can’t improve)
  2. Everyone is “smart” in their own way. (Nonsense, research indicates different “intelligences” often correlate)
  3. IQ is all in the genes. (Except IQ changes with age and IQ tests can be studied for, like any other test)

There may be some truth to these claims. But, I don’t believe that means that average learners are doomed to mediocrity. I’ve met and heard of many people who went from middle to spectacular students after changing their learning habits and finding motivation.

Considering the upcoming launch of my rapid learning program, I wanted to share my favorite tactics to learn faster, retain information better or just enjoy the process of learning more:

Genius (or Crazy?)#1 – Pegging (or How Mental Magicians can Perfectly Recall Hundreds of Numbers)

One of my favorite learning tactics, that is rarely mentioned, is pegging. This is a great tool for remembering numbers, provided you practice it.

The systems I’ve seen typically work with a special cheat sheet. This is a list of the digits 0-9 which each correspond to the sound of a consonant. All you need to do is memorize the corresponding consonant and digit match (e.g. 0 = t, 1 = s, 2 = k, 3 = r, etc.)

From there, you can translate any series of numbers into a series of letters. Now all you need to do is make groups of letters into nouns by adding vowels between the consonants. So 201 becomes, k-t-s, which can become “kites”, for example.

Then, once you have your string of nouns, you just need to create a story that combines each of the nouns in a sequence. To translate them back you only need to remember the story and decompose the objects back into their original digits.

#2 – Metaphor (Juliet is the sun… or is she a chemical formula?)

Here’s a quick way to separate the rapid learners from the average learners. Ask them to give you an analogy for whatever they are learning. The rapid learners probably have already thought of at least one analogy, application or metaphor. Slower learners usually are baffled by the question.

Linking ideas allows you to retain them longer and understand them better. Shakespeare isn’t the only one who should be making connections between ideas.

#3 – Total Immersion (Or How a Guy Can Become Fluent in 8 Languages)

Benny Lewis became fluent in eight languages in under a decade. More, his current goal is to become fluent in a new language in under 3 months. When I asked him how he achieved this his answer was straightforward: “I stop speaking English. I do everything in the language I want to learn.”

When you’re totally immersed in a subject (or language), even if you’re lost, you’ll learn far faster than everyone who just dabbles.

#4 – Visceralization (What does a derivative look like?)

When we were kids, we played with crayons and drew pictures of fantastic things that never existed outside our imagination. What happened?

Now most of us feel embarrassed if we try to imagine anything exciting or creative with what we learn. This is, I believe, a key reason many people struggle scholastically. They try to memorize exactly the way they were taught, instead of visualizing the material in an inventive way.

When I recently had to write a test on international labor law, a key topic was the International Labor Organization. Rather than memorize facts, I drew a picture of a creature which had three heads for each of the sections of the ILO, one with 4 mouths for each of the different delegates. In all, I managed to incorporate a page of notes into one picture.

Learning only needs to be boring because you make it that way.

#5 – Linking (Or How to Remember a Grocery List Without the Paper)

Like pegging, linking is another trick mental magicians use. The idea here is that you form a chain, linking each item in a sequence to the next item. You form these links by imagining bizarre and surreal pictures which combine the two elements.

For a simple list like Milk -> Honey -> Apples, you would need to form a link between milk and honey, which you could imagine a giant cow that had bees which came from its udders instead of milk. For the honey and apples, you could imagine an giant apple beehive swarming with tiny apple seeds.

Like pegging this technique can go far beyond the scope of this article. I’ve used it successfully to remember lists of abstract principles that need to be memorized in a sequence for tests.

#6 – The 5-Year Old Method (Try explaining quantum physics to a first grader)

Most rapid learners know how to simplify an explanation. Obviously, actually explaining your masters thesis to a first grader might be impossible. But the goal is to reduce the complexity, by explaining, breaking down and using analogies, so that someone far below your current academic level could understand it.

If you can teach an idea, you can learn that idea.

#7 – Ambiance Catalysts (Or How Drinking a Pint Can Improve Your Studying)

Cal Newport, wrote about the importance of context when studying. If you lock yourself away in a library to get work done, no wonder you’re going to hate it. If the ambiance is appealing, it can push you to get working.

He suggests even going to a quiet bar with your reading material and ordering a beer.How’s that for a more inviting study setting?

#8 – Diagrams (Who said doodling in class was wrong?)

It turns out doodlers perform better in mental retention tests than non-doodlers. I would add even that if the drawings you create in a class are related to the course material, you would probably learn even better.

#9 – Speed Reading (Or How to Read 70 Books in a Year)

Speed reading is less about speed and more about control. Just as racecar driving is more about controlling speed for tight turns, rather than just hitting the accelerator.

If you want to speed read, the basics are:

  1. Use your finger as a pointer to underline the text as you read it. This reduces the impact of saccades and distractions in slowing your reading time.
  2. Practice reading books faster than you can comprehend, by moving your finger faster. This “practice skimming” helps you improve your comprehension at higher reading rates.
  3. Stop subvocalizing. Practice reading faster than you can say the words aloud in your head. Subvocalization can help at slower speeds, but if you require it to read, your top speed will be reduced.

As a quick side-note, Learning on Steroids now has close to 900 people on the pre-launch list. Despite this, I only have room for 100 people when we go live in January. If you want a chance to get in on the program, you better put your name in now.

Merry Christmas Everyone!


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72 Responses to “9 Tactics for Rapid Learning (That Most People Have Never Heard Of)”

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  9. colorthewind says:

    That is interesting! I am trying to search your website for articles on how to take a test, like how to finish it quickly, if double checking your answers necessarily, if time is equally distributed between all questions,…etc.

    What is your advice about that?

  10. Consistency seems to be a generally theme to all the learning techniques. As you consistently implement these ideas, you will increase you ability to learn and retain information.

  11. Jeremy DePrato says:

    I was curious about your link on my way to Rapid Learning for a Physics and Statistics session. You don’t know how much I appreciate people with the type of information posted on this page. I am 32 yrs of age, started college at 28, and I’m excelling in my classes. It was not always like this. When I was younger, you couldn’t make me believe that I would be where I am today. I was a below average student, hated school, and my lack of education reduced my quality of life in every setting. I was convinced that I was stupid, hopeless, and incompetent…until I met someone who shares the same perspectives as you. Through a little one on one and months of persuasion, I decided to give college a go. Just last month, I was accepted into a selective program at the local university and I’m nervous, but excited. It’s taken a lot of hard work, and even more to come, but I’m confident I can do it. I am looking forward to learning and applying the valuable information you have to offer.

    - J. DePrato

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  13. regret says:

    Searched for pegging for more techniques on mnemonics.i tell you,it cant be unseen

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  15. Andrew says:

    Wow, I must try that speed reading method :)

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  17. Ron says:

    I’m always looking for new ways to learn languages, and I think a lot of these (pegging, linking, immersion, and ambiance catalysts) would be good for vocab learning. Some of the other stuff (diagrams and the 5-year-old method) would be good for learning meta-info about the language you’re learning, like formal grammar and linguistic info. Any thoughts on how any of these might help one rapidly learn the practical application of grammar–i.e., learning how to put words you know together meaningfully?

  18. […] The answer is holistic learning. This is the strategy of learning I’ve taught to tens of thousands of students who have either bought my book, or read my many free articles. […]

  19. Nice list. I studying Mandarin and not speaking English much. Finding easier than last year when was speaking much English. Heres to 20 Days Meditation for New Year: http://llavealhighway.com/20-days-meditation-for-new-year/

  20. Mpho says:

    I have been getting along just fine [but who wants to be "just fine"] with the rote memorization but after reading about all the above interesting and very user friendly methods, realized that there was really no need for one to suffer and fall mercy to the rote method. Taking a new twist and all thanks to you!!

  21. Tmomma47 says:

    What about my 7th grader. She’s struggling in school – she is smart – but like her mom, and 3 other siblings has a ADD. She has matured to control her more impulsive actions (which annoys others) but is in danger of failing in classes that require her to ‘focus, read, process, understand, and recall for a text. If she focuses while we are studying – she might remember 1/4 of it – rarely ever passing. The ideas sound good – but will she be able to come up with the mental pictures and connections she needs. She’s pretty ‘down’ and discouraged about her lack of progress.
    Thanks.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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