Lesson One: What most people get wrong about effective learning

I’m going to be reopening another session of my popular course, Rapid Learner, next Monday (May 14, 2018). Before that, I’m going to be sharing some of the most important lessons to help you learn better with less wasted time and effort.

This is the first lesson in a four-part lesson series. The remaining three lessons will only be sent to my newsletter readers. If you want the remaining lessons, be sure to join my newsletter.

Misconception: Learning is Mostly Reading and Listening

Ask people to imagine learning something and there’s a common picture that emerges: sitting down with a book, highlighter and notepad in hand, getting ready to study. Or, it’s sitting in a big auditorium watching a professor get up and draw symbols on a chalkboard.

Most people view learning and schooling as synonyms. Even if they don’t believe that they are literally identical, many people hold the belief that we do most learning from reading books or attending classes.

I want to turn that view upside down. There’s a compelling range of evidence that not only is the typical classroom view of learning: passively acquiring written or spoken instruction, only a part of learning, it may not be the most important part.

Reality: Learning is Mostly Practice

Consider one study done by Jeffrey Karpicke of Purdue University.

In this study, Karpicke had students prepare for a test. Before the test, researchers asked the students what would be more effective for learning: re-reading their notes, creating a mindmap and material or trying to mentally recall what they had read.

Imagine for a second that you were taking place in this study, what would you think would be most effective?

The answer, contrary to the majority of respondents, was overwhelmingly that practicing recall was the best studying technique. Both mind mapping and studying fared poorly in comparison with trying to practice retrieving the information.

This experiment shows two things:

  1. Students don’t actually know what is most effective for learning. Despite literally decades of first-hand experience, most were mistaken about what matters.
  2. We often use the stereotype of classroom learning, as our model of ideal learning. In reality, however, learning is driven by practice.

How Learning Actually Works

Reading and listening are often important steps in learning. Without having any instruction, pure practice is little more than trial-and-error. The fact that we can learn from instruction and observation is one of the greatest powers we have as a species.

The mistake, however, is in assuming that most of the “work” that is done to create skill, knowledge and understanding, occurs as it is being passively absorbed. Instead, this view should be flipped, with trying to recall, apply and practice what has been learned being the place where skill building occurs.

The Internalization of Skill

One metaphor I’ve found helpful to think about this process is that learning often involves an internalization of processes and skills—turning things that exist as information in the outside world into synaptic connections within your brain for actually performing them.

This is why retrieval practice was found to be so effective. When you have to try to recall what you’ve learned, you’re training a search procedure that, given certain cues and features of the environment, will yield the correct answer. When you only read or listen to something, the answer might get connected to the typical question that it answers, but it might not. Only by practicing searching for the right answer, given the right questions, is useful knowledge being created.

This goes much deeper than simply recalling facts and trivia. Karpicke’s research team has also found that recall leads to deeper understandings, not simply shallow memorization of facts. This answer, again, should make sense: practicing bringing up information is training subconscious mental patterns to find the information when you need it, passive exposure is not.

Complex skills make the case for practice over passive learning even more powerful. If you need to program a computer, speak a language or understand an investment, you need the ability that, given a particular problem, your mind automatically draws up the relevant knowledge and allows you to perform skilled actions.

Schooling shouldn’t be taken as the focal example of learning, but as a weird edge case.

What This Means for You

Most of us have experience learning things: both in school and in our personal lives. However, as Karpicke’s research demonstrates, even years of experience can lead people to make incorrect assumptions about which methods are most effective.

My mission has been to try to understand the learning processes: both by reading a ton of dry books and papers about cognitive science, and by exploring the implications of those ideas firsthand in many personal experiments. From that, I believe I’ve found some guiding principles that can help you save time in learning new things.

What I hope you will do for now, at least, is to open your mind to the possibility that, despite years of ingrained habits, you might have opportunities to learn better than you do already. Perhaps that could come from discovering a new strategy for understanding or remembering things? Maybe it will come from increasing the scale and ambition of the skills you would like to possess?

Did you find this lesson helpful? Join the newsletter and, this week, I’ll be sending out the remaining three lessons in the series!

Book Club: The Enigma of Reason (April 2018)

This month we read The Enigma of Reason.

In the book, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber consider a double enigma:

  1. If reason is so valuable, such a boon to our cognition, why did it evolve only in human beings?
  2. Second, if reason is supposed to be so good, why are we so bad at it? Why do we suffer from so many cognitive biases and mental illusions that undermine its ideal power?

This book tries to explain this double enigma. Importantly it turns over thousands of years of assumptions about the role reason plays in human affairs and what we should expect it to be for. Far from just a philosophical treatise, the book also has major implications for how you can use your reason to think better, and the answer may not be what you expect!

If you would like to stream audio on your browser, click here listen on Soundcloud

The first idea I discuss is the claim that reason is the superpower that we claim it to be…

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that over the last 30 years, psychologists have been discovering that we deviate from rationality, that we are not the perfect creatures of reason that we like to think that we are. Consider the confirmation bias: where we seek out evidence that supports our pre-existing opinions even when disconfirming evidence is the thing we need to form truer beliefs… In the words of Dan Ariely, we are “Predictably Irrational.” [See my discussion on that book here.]

We don’t use reason for the task it was evolved for, argue the authors, but rather, we are mis-ascribing what the real purpose of reason is. To explain further…

It has a specific domain that it operates in. It is not a cognitive superpower but rather, reason has the input of taking reasons (justifications or explanations given) and evaluating whether or not they are good. In doing so, it is also providing intuitive judgement.

Reason versus reasons — what’s the difference?

Reason as a faculty (meaning the ability to make deductions, the thing that we do when we are being logical, we do when use critical thinking) and reasons (meaning a certain type of linguistic or maybe a representational kind of object that gives a justification for something) have been treated quite differently both in psychology and philosophy, so, even though it may seem obvious to pair the two, what Sperber and Mercier are arguing is that this is not how it has traditionally been looked at.

Despite the similarities of the words, they do refer to quite different concepts. So, ‘Reason’ is this general faculty, it’s an ability we have to make correct decisions about things, but reasons on the other hand, are usually sentences that involve a proposition and then a justification (i.e. “because”) with it. What the argue is that Reason takes reasons into account when evaluating that statement.

Reason is a specialized function…

It doesn’t exist in other animals because other animals don’t need it. They can come up with correct beliefs and decisions about things by only using the inferential model. Again, reason itself is not generating these beliefs. It is delegating itself to those modules so the purpose of reason, is an add-on that is used to communicate why you might want to do something in order to justify your behavior, why you want to do something or why you think something is correct — to other people. Reason is not there to do the calculations; it is there to communicate. In fact, it’s mostly for social consumption.

When the tail wags the dog…

This is the idea that although we believe we are in charge what we are really doing is explaining our behavior after the fact. But rather than reason being a distinct process, a uniquely human process, the center of the soul if you will, if you see it as just being a specific module and, just like all the other modules, it has inferential processing and is itself opaque, we understand that these are just linguistic constructs. So reason is simply coming here to offer an answer as to why we do what we do. In fact, we often don’t have access to the true motivations of our own behavior.

What does this mean for you?

If we properly view the domain of reason to be social, it means that correct beliefs and correct assumptions, are rarely going to come from solitary thinking. Rather, discussion and debate are the proper domain of reasoning. The cooperative process is probably the true situation of reason and really it shines. This also suggests that to be smarter, you want to find the right environments. You want to be where discussions about things are happening and you have intelligent consumers of the reasons and justifications that you give and you have people who are themselves suggesting good reasons so that when you evaluate them you can come at better decisions.


This book should also have us rethinking what we are. If you view reason as being just like any module and having quite specialized cognitive function, I think that it no longer makes sense to view us as rational creatures. Rather it’s proper to identify that we (if there is such a thing) should encompass all of these things and not just this reasoning impulse. Rather, each person presents their side and we as an audience evaluate them.

Click here to watch the Book Club wrap up on YouTube, here, to listen to it on Soundcloud, or here, for iTunes.

Feel free to join in on our Facebook Group Discussion I’d love to discuss this book with you there. For May, we’ll be reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.