Escape the Bad Learning Habits You Picked Up at School

The formal education system teaches us poor learning habits. Instead of promoting deeper understanding, it forces students to memorize. Instead of creativity, it promotes rule-following. The skills of collaboration that are crucial in the outside world are labeled cheating or academic dishonesty.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel universities will change much. But the advantage is that you don’t need to apply these bad habits to your self-education efforts. University education has been shaped to make it fit easily into lectures and multiple-choice tests. If you don’t run your self-education that way, you can learn more and actually enjoy the process.

Why Memorization Sucks

It’s no secret that I don’t believe in memorization. For a classroom environment, I dislike rote memorization because there are better ways to reliably store information. For a real-world environment, I dislike memorization because nobody is going to demand you answer a question without the benefit of Google or Wikipedia.

There is value in having knowledge outside of reference materials. But that value doesn’t come in a list of memorized facts and figures. It comes from deeper understandings that allow intelligent intuitions.

The 70% Rule for Educating Yourself

Formal schooling pushes memorization. The way it does this is in the grading system itself. Understanding 70% of the course content is a C or C+ in most classes. In some settings, missing 30% of the information is a failing grade.

The problem is that in the real world, knowledge isn’t neatly divided into course curricula. Understanding 100% about one narrow topic and 0% about everything else, is far less useful than having 70% knowledge on several topics.

I use the 70% rule when educating myself. Learn something with roughly 70% accuracy and then move on. Remember: self-education isn’t school; if you forget something important, you can always read it again later. The laws of diminishing returns mean that the time it takes to go from 70% accuracy to 95% accuracy in a topic are often longer than going from 0% to 70%.

Unfortunately, formal schooling often fails people who follow the 70% rule, even when life rewards those people for knowing more.

70% for Technical Subjects

What if one topic is a necessary foundation for the next? If you only understand algebra with 70% accuracy, you won’t have as much success with calculus. The 70% Rule works here too on the principle that the best way to learn something is to need to learn it.

When I first taught myself computer programming I used a version of the 70% rule. Computer programming is definitely a subject where topics build. If you don’t understand a variable, you’ll have difficulty understanding conditional statements, which are necessary to understand loops, functions, object-inheritance and then polymorphism. Every step is a building block, so it seems foolish to only learn the foundational blocks 70%.

But in practice, it never works that way. Although in a school environment, lectures are one-way, learning isn’t. After you learn 70% of one topic, moving on to the next will force you to go back and nail prerequisite concepts when you get stuck. If I forgot a few details from Chapter 1, I can go back to there while in Chapter 2.

If, in contrast, you try for 99% accuracy before moving on, you won’t know which blocks are foundations and which are details. Some pieces of information in Chapter 1 may be used in every subsequent chapter. Other details were just used for the first assignment and never again. By using a nonlinear strategy, you spend all your time learning what is important.

70% for Learning Languages

I’m currently have 4 months to learn French before I’m living in France for a year. The 70% rule has been a great help in learning. Instead of trying to master the vocabulary for each lesson, I strive for 70%. I know that, if I forget a word or conjugation, I can always go back and check.

By using the 70% rule, I’ve enabled two things in learning French:

  1. I’ve exposed myself to more of the language in shorter period of time.
  2. By going back to check for missing information, my time is focused on the most frequently used parts of the language.

70% for Reading Books

When I read a book, my goal is to retain 70% of the key ideas. Sure, I may miss ideas from that 30% which were truly valuable. However, by trying to retain 95% of the ideas, I read fewer books. I’d rather miss 30% of the ideas from one book, than 100% of the ideas from a book I never got the chance to open.

70% Makes Self-Education Enjoyable

Learning is an enjoyable event. Considering most people’s experiences with schooling, it’s often hard to remember that. Children and animals play with each other to learn. Mystery movies are exciting because they are a problem for your brain to solve. Learning is one of primary forms of entertainment, but few people seriously self-educate because the school system has drained any enthusiasm for the process.

Focusing on 70% makes it learning more enjoyable. Instead of trying to memorize every detail, you pick out the information your brain feels is useful or interesting. If you do miss something important, you can always go back and check.

  • Positively Present

    I love learning, but, you’re right, some of those habits taught in school are just terrible. Nice post!

  • Bigrecovery

    Dear Scott,

    As long as I read from you (a few actually and a piece one of your books before subscribing), you encourage a cavalry style instead of infantry one – in spead and acting power. Of course infantryman is the backbone of the army, but to be mobile and offensive, also to get more, you have to be in a cavalryman fashion also.

    There is a popular saying: “Know about all, be best on one”. This is possible in the manner you mention in this post.

    A seed-like fashion is the best; put some root, lead some leaf, and repeat deeper! And yet, be aware to stay satistied, while forthgoing for more!

    Good work really, thanks.

  • Neil Matthews

    I have a system I use for learning something.

    For example a technical book, I will scan the information and get the idea that something is there to learn. If it were a technical subject, knowing that there is an interface with a database is enough, I would not learn it then, I would have the knowlege it was there and only call upon it if I needed that section.

    Does that make sense – I learn that there is something to learn if I need it, but don’t bother if it is not directly relevant.

  • Niro Thambipillay


    Well said. I agree completely. The 70% rule certainly takes the pressure off yourself and allows you to start and make progress without waiting until things are perfect.

    I know I’m sometimes guilty of trying to get something perfect before moving on, but lately, I’ve decided I’ll just keep moving on because I know that if I need to recall something I’ve learned earlier on, I can always go back and refresh myself, exactly as you say with the 70% rule. It’s worked an absolute treat for me!

    Cheers, Niro

  • Richard Shelmerdine

    I wrote a post recently on the key to changing a habit actually. You will be surprised what it is. (Little spiritual for those of you who are skeptical Atheists lol).

  • Ash

    My teacher in AP Biology is just like this. She does not care about memorization, but about random facts in articles. My french teacher as well, one missing accent is completely wrong. I prefer to learn in your way, because this way you actually LEARN or UNDERSTAND something

  • scott yourn

    hello scott
    memorization isnt the only bad habit school teaches you.
    They leave you with bad reading habits also.

  • Doug in Italy

    Hello Scott,
    I’ve got to disagree with you you in this article, I think you are off target. Your 70% rule seems to assume that knowledge is finite.
    I believe some rote memorization is important. I’m a history teacher and I ‘l be the first to acknowledge that what I teach is relatively useless. I don’t teach my students how to drive a forklift, run a cash register, or fix an engine (these are all skills my students have told me are more important). My class is all about understanding the world around us and how/why we have arrived at this moment. Memorizing some things allows us to scaffold our learning on solid ground and allows us to process more information, more efficiently. You are a good writer and I know that at some point you learned grammar well, and how to use commas well (I didn’t lol). I would say that writing is a skill which depends on memorized sets of data. I agree that critical thinking is a more important skill, but in order to think critically in real time you need to have ready access to the facts.