Note: This is a long article (4000+ words), I suggest bookmarking it for later if you don’t have time to read it all right now.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how to learn faster.
The biggest reason I do this is because it’s important. With so much knowledge out there, the answers to most of our biggest problems are out there, but they’re useless if we don’t understand them. People who can grok hard subjects and big ideas will earn more money, live better and have a bigger impact on the world. Learning matters—a lot.
The second, and admittedly more selfish reason, is that most of my income now comes from working with students. Through the programs I run, students get strategies for learning better. In return, I get paid to field test my ideas, to see what works and what doesn’t. Not a bad deal.
Today I’d like to share with you some of what works. Whether you’re a student trying to ace tough classes, or just someone who wants to learn better, I hope you find it useful.
I’ve split this rather long article into three sections to make things a bit easier, feel free to jump to particular sections:
- How to Learn Faster – The basics of learning better
- How to Learn Anything – Rules of thumb to master hard subjects
- Tactics for Learning Better – Specific methods to learn faster
How to Learn Faster
The simple observation that resulted in the most popular topic every to appear on this website was this:
Smart people don’t memorize things.
It’s a simple idea, but a rather strange one, especially if you spent most of your school years pouring endless hours into the textbooks. After all, smart people seem to have all the answers at their fingertips, how could they not be memorizing information? What else could they be doing?
My answer was equally simple:
Smart people don’t need to memorize, because they connect ideas together.
People are bad at memorizing. It only takes one look at a computer to see this is true. I spent months of my elementary school education trying to memorize the multiplication tables up to 12×12=144. A computer can be programmed to do that in less than a second.
However, people are really good at forming patterns and connections. Supercomputers which can perform calculations at rates of millions per seconds, still have difficulty recognizing objects that a human 3 year-old does effortlessly.
Because we can form connections and recognize patterns far more effectively than we can memorize information, why not use that to learn?
Learning by Connections
It turns out that learning by connections is not only faster, it’s also a much better way to learn. Consider two students trying to learn calculus:
The first student diligently memorizes all the rules for differentiation. He memorizes the power rule and the chain rule. He knows what to do for exponents and logarithms. He spends hours with flashcards to drill those ideas into his brain.
The second student takes a different approach. She doesn’t try to memorize at all. Instead, she uses analogies to try to relate calculus to her everyday life. She starts with simple metaphors, like the odometer and speedometer on a car, but as the calculus gets more abstract, she simplifies and tries to walk through what the formulas are saying and the problems they are trying to solve.
Now after all this, which student do you think understands calculus better?
The first student may perform well on basic quizzes and tests that don’t ask creative problems. But he doesn’t really understand calculus. He just has a memorized set of rules. A computer could easily replace him.
The second student may need a bit of practice to be able to answer the questions quickly, but I’d guess she’s more likely to actually understand calculus. Later in her life when faced with a novel problem, she’s more likely to think about calculus as a potential solution instead of some “useless” course she took all those years ago.
I’m using math deliberately because I’m often accused of writing about something that is impractical for the hard sciences. As if engineering or physics were only solvable by rote memorization and that thinking creatively was reserved for “soft” subjects.
The truth is, learning via connections can make learning almost any conceptual subject easier. Every time I think there’s a subject that can’t be learned holistically, I’m corrected by a reader who claims it helped them a lot in law, history or even wrestling.
How to Make Connections Between Ideas
This basic method of relating ideas to things we already understand is something people do automatically, every day. Like creativity, however, it is easy to witness and more difficult to replicate. We may be able to find past examples of times we learned holistically, but it’s trickier to foster that approach for future subjects.
Slicing up what happens mentally when people learn successfully and effortlessly is probably a good place to start looking for clues as to how to trigger this process more often. In my experience, I’ve found the process usually goes like this:
- First insights
- Expand on insights
- Trim back connections
Stage One – Confusion
Whenever you’re learning anything difficult, the first stage is always confusion. Unfortunately, this is where a lot of people give up and decide memorization is the only option.
I actually think confusion is a step forward. When you’re confused by something, your brain is automatically searching for a pattern. The worst thing you can do is declare something is impossible to learn, or that it there is no pattern and you need to memorize. I can’t tell you how often I get emails from students who claim there are “too many things they need to memorize” even when the subject has, in fact, an obvious pattern that makes it easy to learn holistically.
The goal for this stage should be to seek out the first insights to get the ball rolling.
Stage Two – First Insights
Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible to come up with the first insights just with a method alone. I’ve tried repeatedly and failed to come up with something to create those first seeds of understanding.
The only method that works here is exposure. Exposure yourself to as many high quality explanations as possible until you find something that causes a mental click. Luckily, with the internet, this shouldn’t be too difficult for most topics. Not getting the first insight usually means you aren’t trying, not that you’re too stupid.
Once you have enough where you feel you “sort of get” a subject, you can start rapidly building on those insights. It’s like a snowflake: it needs seed particles to begin, but once crystallization starts, it can grow rapidly.
Stage Three – Expand on Insights
This is where most of the methods I’ll discuss in Part 3 come in. Once you have a very general understanding, you can leverage that to come up with analogies, visualizations, metaphors, simplifications and make an idea more concrete for you.
The problem for most people, in most subjects, in my opinion, isn’t that they don’t reach those first insights. It’s that they reach them but fail to build on them substantially. If you don’t expand on those first insights, they are easily forgotten and relatively useless when you need to use them.
Stage Four – Trim Back Connections
Skepticism is a trend amongst smart people (or is it that skepticism makes people look smarter?). I think part of the reason is that smart people are both good at creating connections, and culling them back where they don’t apply. Smart people see all the possibilities of an argument, but can also point out the counterarguments along the way.
This step, which is broadly referred to as critical thinking, is basically playing devil’s advocate with your ideas. You question some of your analogies to ask yourself where they don’t connect. This process of connection and destruction is something I do all the time when writing an article. I begin with a main idea, explore the major implications and then try to ask myself all the places my idea may have limits or flaws.
Skepticism without knowledge is just ignorance, however. In order to trim back connections you first have to make a lot of them. This stage tends to come later, when you’re already comfortable with an idea.
Stage Five – Repeat
Learning well moves in a loop, not a line. You constantly go back to confusion, insights, expansion and refinement so that you learn ideas deeper.
If you’re like me, you might have felt that algebra made you understand arithmetic a lot better. Once you expand beyond, the core foundation is always being tested and strengthened. That’s the idea in this last stage, that as you go further, the earlier ideas seem more and more obvious.
Learning Faster Means Learning with Connections
Most of the tactics I’ll outline in the third section of this guide are tools to jump-start this process that happens automatically when most people learn something deeply.
Therefore, learning faster isn’t a magic process for doing something incredibly different, rather it’s a process of figuring out what you do when you learn well, and trying to repeat that more often. More, it’s about avoiding the trap of memorization which is pushed on students in standardized testing, but does little to actually create a deep understanding.
How to Learn Anything
After running a monthly coaching program for over a year, and responding to student emails for nearly four years, I’ve had the advantage of getting to see a lot of students from different backgrounds.
Also, because I’m not an educator of the topic’s they are studying, I’m restricted from providing the right answer or explanation for a particular subject. Instead, I have to approach all problems from the learner’s perspective, giving meta-advice for how to break down hairy problems into concrete strategies to learn different topics.
Doing this hundreds of times with students from many different fields has given me some rules of thumb that work to create a general strategy for learning anything. In this section, I’ll share what some of those rules of thumb are.
“How Should I Study for ________?”
This is a common question I get. It’s interesting, because there isn’t a universal answer. It depends on a lot: what the subject is, what your goal is for learning, how it is being tested (if your goal is to pass an exam).
From a general perspective, however, there are a few good ways to start thinking about how to learn a subject. These broader rules help split the topic so you can start devising a battle plan.
Rule #1: Practice for Skills, Connections for Concepts
Anything that can be learned falls broadly into two categories: things you need to understand intellectually, and skills you need to be able to perform. Most things you want to learn involve a mix of the two. Programming is both theory and practice. Math involves an understanding of the ideas, but requires rigorous dedication to method. There is business theory and business savvy. The list goes on.
While the first section I discussed an approach that tends to work well with learning concepts, it’s rather lousy for learning skills. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the popular distinction between book smarts and street smarts.
The first, an academic or intellectual understanding, is useful, but it doesn’t provide the unconscious mastery. A good programmer can feel patterns in an algorithm, such that a particular solution feels ineffective, even if she would have to take hours to write the proof. To only focus on concepts is definitely a mistake in life, and often a mistake even in an academic setting, where tests often emphasize quick solutions to routine problems.
However, if you start to see the distinction between skills and concepts, you can devise two separate learning strategies for each. You spend time practising for skills, following some of the tenets of deliberate practice to maximize your results for your effort. On the concepts, you learn by connections so you can understand things faster.
Is your subject mostly skill or mostly intellectual understanding? Once you see the difference, you can spare yourself a lot of time on methods that won’t deliver results.
Rule #2: Concepts before Facts (95% of the time)
Some things are best learned by memorization tricks and not by connections. For example, if I gave you a list of 30 arbitrary items and asked you to remember them, trying to devise an overarching pattern will probably be a waste of time.
However, the vast majority of things that can be learned do have a pattern, however hidden. If they didn’t, they probably wouldn’t be very useful subjects to learn. Patterns make concepts useful, patternless concepts tend to have a very limited use, so they aren’t studied that much.
This means that if you’re learning something that consists of both (a) big ideas and (b) little details which need to be remembered, always start with the big ideas. The first reason is that many little details appear random, but in fact fit neatly within the big idea. Often you can forgo much memorization because the concepts explain the facts.
The second reason is that facts are less important than most students think. I frequently get emails about how some unfair teacher is forcing them to memorize all these useless facts. But it’s generally not true. Most of the time educators want students to have a deep understanding of the fundamentals, if those same students can’t recite details they usually still do well on the tests.
There are, of course, exceptions. But as a rule of thumb, this one works pretty well.
Rule #3: Never Cram
Inevitably there will be a test that you have 24 hours to study for and don’t understand anything. I’m not going to win any awards for originality in claiming that cramming is unproductive. But the reason cramming is bad isn’t because it forces all your learning into a short period of time, but because it forces you to memorize.
Learning by connections doesn’t happen under cramming conditions. It doesn’t usually take an enormous time investment (in my experience, far less time than memorization). But it needs more time to mature in the back of your head while you do other things. Worse, it utterly fails when put under intense stress or time constraints.
When I previously made the claim about acing exams with no studying, I was called a fraud. Although today I usually do some review, I spent more time watching movies last exam period than I did studying.
But I think the reason I got away with “no studying” is because I actually learned the material through the semester. There was no need for cramming because I attended all the classes, did the readings and work and spent time trying to generate connections throughout the term.
You may need more work. You may need to study. I would never claim that natural ability has nothing to do with it, nor that it’s possible for anyone taking any course to pass without studying. But I still think you can save yourself a lot of time by learning via connections throughout the term instead of at the end.
Rule #4: Concept Checklists are Useful
A piece of advice I’ve been giving a lot recently to the students in my program is to create a concept checklist.
A concept checklist is a good way to handle those scary, “I don’t understand anything!” moments that many learners face. It allows you to dissolve the frightening implications of total ignorance into a step-by-step guide that can allow you to slowly conquer any subject.
The basics of a concept checklist are simple:
Write out (I suggest on a word document, since it allows multiple levels of bullets) all of the major concepts covered in your course. If your truly stuck you can start with the course outline, which should give a rough idea of everything you need to know.
Then create a second-order list under each of the larger bullet points with sub-concepts. So for a finance class that might be:
- Present value calculations
- Bonds and stocks
- Portfolio Theory
- Calculating 2-stock portfolios
- Global minimum variance portfolio
Once you’ve built up this list, you then need to make a checkmark beside everything you feel you “get”. For everything else you need to go back and repeat the 5-stage process on the first section until you feel you do “get” it.
This may look like an immense amount of work (and it is, if you aren’t up-to-date) but each item has a cascading effect. Once you understand the first concept well, adding a second usually doesn’t take too much effort. It’s trying to add them all at once that kills most people.
Heuristics for Learning Better
This is just a starting point, but you can go into a lot more depth. The point is that if you have some broader strategy for learning, you can enter into any subject (especially self-education without a teacher to guide you) and dissolve it into manageable components.
Tactics for Learning Better
In the first section I posed a problem: we know, intuitively, what it looks like to learn something easily and deeply. Most of us have past experiences of really “getting” an idea. The challenge, is replicating that process in all our future learning.
That’s been my goal in designing tactics over the last 3 years. I wanted to find ways that can make the spontaneous process of rapid learning into something more deliberate.
As I mentioned before, it’s not an easy problem to overcome. People who have only read a few of my articles and free ebook on holistic learning are often frustrated because they see the power of the ideas, but they can’t apply them. But how do you make connections?
Learning by connections is a lot like creativity. You can’t entirely replace it with a formal method. However, there are tricks you can use to put your mind in the right reference frame so that connections come more naturally.
You can also push yourself to create more connections. I chose the title Learning on Steroids for my monthly program (before I learned about the unfortunate real instances of students using performance-enhancing drugs). The idea was to give tactics that would take the normal amount of connections learners make, and amplify that. I’ve found deliberately trying to form more analogies is akin to weight-lifting for your mind, with bigger mental muscles than you would otherwise possess.
I’ve explained my reasoning behind learning faster, so now here are some starting points for actual doing it:
Tactic #1: The 5-Year Old Method
With this tactic you want to explain a concept to yourself using ideas that a 5-year old could understand. Make sure you speak out-loud or write it on paper, as just thinking about the idea in your head doesn’t help.
The goal here isn’t to actually explain quantum physics to a kindergartener. Instead, the goal is to simplify ideas until they are easier than you need them to be.
The reason this method works is that we often don’t realize that an idea confuses us until we actually have to start explaining it. Often it isn’t until you actually start using this method that your weak points are revealed and can be strengthened.
This may sound like a silly technique, but it works. In one of the case studies I put together for my course, R.J. Weiss used it extensively in preparing for his financial professional designation, which has a high failure rate and he aced with a month less preparation than is typically required.
Tactic #2: Metaphors
People who have followed me for awhile have probably heard me discuss this tactic before. But for the people who are new to the blog, metaphors and analogies are key in the approach I use to learning faster.
Although metaphors come from literature, the irony is that they actually work better with technical subjects like math, chemistry, physics and finance. This is because those subjects tend to be very abstract, so the primary difficulty is truly understanding the concepts.
However, once you do understand them, there isn’t a lot of material to learn. Calculus is difficult, but it has way less information than say, an anatomy class.
I recommend brainstorming for metaphors. Start with open-ended questions like:
- This idea reminds me of…?
- This idea is used in real-life situations, such as…?
- What phenomenon mimics this idea?
- If I wanted to tell a story about this idea, it would go like…?
There are more specific ways to generate metaphors in different subjects. I’ve spoken with Kalid Azad of the great blog BetterExplained.com, and he likes to look for the historical context of an idea in order to generate analogies in math. Knowing that “e” was originally used in the context of interest payments gives clues as to a metaphor you can create.
Tactic #3: Visceralization
This is another one of my favorite tactics for understanding difficult ideas. The word itself is a portmanteau between visceral and visualization, which describes my preference for trying to combine smell, feeling and motion into an image, not just a picture.
The premise behind this ideas is that many concepts need to be seen (or felt, or heard) in order to be intuitively understood. Some professors understand this, and the best lectures I’ve had, the professor made use of a visual aid, diagram or even a demonstration to teach the underlying idea.
Unfortunately, visual aids are expensive and take more preparation time, and many professors are lazy, so they stick with dry textbook analogies rather than truly vivid and memorable discussions of a concept.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t imagine mental scenes that represent the ideas. I can still vividly remember calculating the determinant of a 2×2 matrix as moving my hands diagonally through the planes, scooping them up and putting them down. I can visualize a present value calculation in finance as being a perspective drawing flattened and linked lists in computer science as being briefcases with laser pointers attached.
This method takes more practice than others, and it may be completely foreign to some people. But it is useful because visceralizing an idea, particularly an abstract one, allows you to understand it more deeply.
Tactic #4: Deep Linking
Coming up with creative pictures and analogies is only one way to learn via connections. Another approach is simply to link ideas into their context. Deep linking is basically a practice of doing deeper research on an idea to discover more connections.
Often in a classroom environment, students try not to learn anything that isn’t on the assigned readings. After all, why do more work?
However, if you know you don’t actually have to deeply learn the material, going deeper into a subject can actually make the original idea easier to understand. This is extremely easy now with Wikipedia. I frequently will do Wikipedia searches on any concept that I don’t understand, that allows me to see the context of the idea.
Wikipedia isn’t great for explanations. They are written with the obtuse language of an encyclopedia, not the imaginative language of a good teacher. However, just because some of the definitions can be unenlightening, doesn’t mean you can’t glean something from the added context.
I remember using this when learning about 2-3 trees in computer science. Some of the concepts were a bit tricky to remember, but once I understood the broader context, as well as alternatives (such as red/black trees which were never taught) then it was easier to “get” 2-3 trees.
How to Learn Faster and Better
Unfortunately, learning by connections and practicing the tactics I’ve described above is a skill, not just an idea. You actually have to practice it for it to be successful.
That’s one of the reasons I built my course, which allows you to get monthly coaching and updates. Because it’s not enough to just read about ideas once and expect them to integrate perfectly into your life. If there is a sixth stage to the 5-stage process I listed above it would be application. Only by applying ideas to you actually benefit from them.
If you liked the ideas in this guide, check out my course (video + book), which is a more detailed look at the ideas I’ve tried to briefly cover here.
Even if you aren’t going to enroll, I hope that you find these ideas useful whenever you have to learn anything in the future. Part of the reason I wrote this guide was because, after spending a few years working privately with students, I wanted to give some updated ideas for the people who are just passing by and don’t have the time to invest in a larger program.
If you’ve used any of these ideas successfully, or have a question about holistic learning, feel free to write in the comments. I’ll try to answer as many questions as I can, so that this post can serve as a reference in the future.
Image courtesy of moriza