The 7 Most Common Learner Mistakes

I write a lot about how to learn things better. In doing so, I get a lot of emails from readers attempting to learn anything from biology to basketball. I also see a lot of common mistakes people make which make it harder to learn.

In this article I wanted to share some of the most common mistakes I’ve seen and how you can avoid them.

Mistake #1: Memorizing What Needs to be Understood

I die a little inside whenever I get an email asking how to memorize formulas for a math or physics class. Memory is important, and you do need to be able to remember formulas and facts for exams. But trying to memorize undermines your success in many subjects.

Consider the classic physics formula F = ma. As a student, you might see this formula on a sheet along with a dozen other similar looking strings of letters and numbers. At first glance, it might seem that the only way to learn it is to memorize.

In reality, F=ma is just the skin of a much deeper insight. Here the idea is about how objects move. You should be able to look at this formula and see immediately that a ten pound rock requires twice as much force as a five pound rock to get the same acceleration. You should be able to combine this formula with others—W=Fd to figure out how much energy it takes to get those rocks moving at 100 miles per hour.

The problem with memorizing these facts is that what you really need to learn are the connections between the facts and the deeper insights they represent. The added benefit is when you approach many subjects from this perspective, the need to memorize goes away. Formulas are automatically remembered because they’re the only logically consistent option with the mental framework you’ve created.

Mistake #2: Not Enough Practice

Going to class isn’t practice. Highlighting a textbook isn’t practice. Rereading notes isn’t practice. These activities may be useful, to a point, but your learning generally suffers when you spend most of your time on them instead of practicing.

Practice means trying to answer a question without looking at the answer first. It means performing a skill not just learning about it. It means getting feedback on whether your attempt was correct or not.

It’s almost impossible to practice too much, especially if the practice activity you’re using is highly similar to the conditions you want to perform in. For highly conceptual subjects like math or physics, I found spending at least 50% of my time on practice to be ideal. For less conceptual subjects, like languages, that number may be over 90%.

You can practice by self-testing even if you don’t have a lot of material. The next time you’re reading a book you want to remember deeply, write questions instead of statements in your notebook. For example, if your book explains the difference between breadth-first and depth-first searches, don’t jot down the differences, write a question such as “Which type of search is guaranteed to halt?”

Later, you can use this notebook to ask yourself questions about the subject matter. If you remember, great. If you don’t, go back to the page and check it again. Not only will this clue you in on the things you’re forgetting, but the act of rechecking a mistake imprints that fact more deeply into your head.

Mistake #3: Not Choosing the Right Environment

Making one big change is often easier than making many small ones. Your learning environment is often that big change that can have a dramatic impact on how much you learn for the same amount of effort and intelligence.

Consider learning a language. You could buy self-study courses, sign up for a university class and force yourself through endless grammar exercises. Or you could commit to immersing yourself for a certain amount of your time. I’m doing this right now by living abroad, but other learners have gotten similar results without leaving home.

Another example might be writing. You could read a ton of books on writing and type drafts in your spare time, or you could start a blog and start getting feedback on your writing immediately. If you’re a blogger looking to improve further, writing under an editor for another publication or for a book forces you to reach a higher level of quality than your readers insist on.

Sometimes the problem isn’t you, or the specific habits you’ve created, but your environment that’s purposefully impeding your success. Look for people who have growth much faster than you and ask yourself if they have a different environment which facilitates that speed.

Mistake #4: Being a Short-Term Perfectionist

Nobody wants to be found out. Nobody wants the people around them to realize that they are the only one who doesn’t understand the lecture, who can’t solve the problem on the blackboard or who speaks with an accent.

The solution many people take is to wait until they are ‘ready’. Wait until you’ve fully mastered something before trying to use it or get feedback on it. Unfortunately, with this attitude you’ll never be ‘ready’.

Fail early and fail often is a better motto. Make mistakes so you can learn why they are mistakes. Many misunderstandings are like landmines—hidden until you walk over them accidentally. Only by walking that terrain thoroughly can you expose them all. Your ego may be bruised a little, but the benefits exceed the cost.

Mistake #5: Not Being a Long-Term Perfectionist

Short-term perfectionism is bad. This is the kind of “wait until I’m ready” approach that keeps you from learning quickly.

Long-term perfectionism is good. This is the kind of perfectionism that doesn’t wait to attempt, but doesn’t settle on your current level being good enough. There’s always room for improvement, and the long-term perfectionist isn’t happy with adequacy.

Language learning perfectly demonstrates the contrast. On the one hand, you have short-term perfectionists who refuse to attempt a conversation, out of fear that they’ll make a mistake or look dumb. On the other hand, you have people who aren’t long-term perfectionists, who are happy saying an expression incorrectly repeatedly as long as the other person understands them.

The key to cultivating the good kind of perfectionism without the bad kind is to (a) never hold back but, (b) remember to learn something from every attempt.

Mistake #6: Learning Without Constraints

I frequently get emails from someone who says they want to “master programming” or “learn Chinese”. These aspirations are great, but most people will never do anything with them. It isn’t enough to want to learn something, you need to actually have a system for learning it.

The problem with most systems is that they try to do too much. Mastering programming, for example, isn’t an actionable goal. Picking out a specific Ruby course and learning it deeply over the next month is. You need to convert your learning aspirations into projects that make choices about what you plan to learn and what you won’t (or under what constraints you’ll follow).

Both my current language-learning experiment and the MIT Challenge benefited from this approach. With the MIT Challenge, I knew I wanted to learn more about computer science. There were many different approaches I could have taken, but I settled on working through MIT’s computer science curriculum. This had certain advantages, such as strong fundamentals in mathematics I might not have put the effort into learning otherwise (even though they are critical for advanced topics like artificial intelligence). But it also had disadvantages—web programming wasn’t a course I took, even though it’s a skill I’d still like to develop.

In my current language learning project, restricting the learning efforts to not speaking English also constrained the project. I could have easily put the constraint on taking a certain number of hours of classes, or preparing for a CEFR exam. Each would have then dictated somewhat different learning focuses.

Designing constraints is an important step that can take some research, especially if you plan on learning something for more than a few months. Interview other past learners and see what constraints (formal and informal) they used.

Mistake #7: Not Being Interested in What You Learn

Many people have convinced themselves that boringness is intrinsic to a subject. If you dislike accounting, math or French, it’s because those subjects are dull, and the best you can do is grind through those classes.

This is false. Subjects are interesting both for their natural appeal and how you choose to learn them. Meaning you can choose to learn something in an interesting way or in a boring way, irrespective of how inspiring your book or teacher is.

You can make a subject more interesting by deliberately connecting it to things you care about. Accounting may be boring, but perhaps your own money isn’t. Math may be boring, but the patterns in nature it describes are fascinating. Connections breathe life into subjects boxed into esoteric compartments.

The second way you can make a subject more interesting is to hunt for questions. Ask yourself why things are the way they are. Curiosity is the antidote to boredom, but if you don’t cultivate curiosity about a subject you can’t blame it later for being boring.

Not all topics will inspire you. Others you might hate for reasons completely aside from their inherent boredom. Even if you use this method, you’ll still like some subjects more than others. But that doesn’t negate the potential to make a class more interesting by making connections and developing a curiosity about it.

Making a subject more interesting also makes it easier to learn. Believing a subject is dull is a sure way to make it needlessly more difficult. Believing a subject has the potential to be interesting helps you avoid all of the previous mistakes I’ve written about above.

What are your thoughts? What other common mistakes do you see other people making when trying to learn your favorite subject? Write about it in the comments below.

  • Michael Dawson

    Excellent post. I think though for me, when it comes to writing, that a mixture of short and long works best for me.

    A little research into blogging before I get into it is ideal, but not too much to where i never get started.

    I like to check out successful blogs, such as yours, and note down why they work and how I can apply that.

  • Timothy Kenny

    Great post.

    Related to practice is making sure you get enough spaced repetitions on what you learn. Most people will read an article or book and maybe even take notes on it…but then they never look at it again. Having even a simple system for organizing your learning resources an then going back and getting your spaced reps in really helps lock info into your mind long term. Rereading really good, deep books is also good because you get a deeper level of insight on the second reading.

    I think your last point is most important. Even if you do nothing else if you are just really interested you will almost always find the answers. One thing I like to do is watch alot of youtube videos of people who are really interested and passionate about whatever I want to learn. I’ve been doing this the past year to get more motivated to eat well and go to the gym and it works really well.

    Finding role models is one of the best ways I have motivated myself. I sometimes use a role model as a way of constraining my learning project: I will set the goal to learn everything that person has ever written or model one of their skills until I am as good as them.

    DaVinci has a great quote about how he sees learning:

    “Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses.
    Especially, learn how to see.
    Realize that everything connects to everything else”

    ~Leonardo da Vinci

  • Marisa

    I really enjoyed this post, Scott. I’m guilty of #1 and #7 when it comes to learning mathematical subjects. At the same time it explains why languages are easy for me.
    I’d like to add something to #7. The lack of interest in a subject isn’t due to boredom only, it can also be due to anxiety/insecurity the field.

  • Dorie

    I enjoyed your article especially the last point, that material is boring unless you are curious about the subject.

    A follow on would be how to cultivate curiosity in our society and in our schools. Some of this is by allowing people to learn in their own style. Often in a competitive environment, people do not become curious because they are too afraid of failure so often resort to survival mode, not asking questions, not wanting to learn for fear of failure and no one to ask for information. It can be devastating to curiousity. I think the internet has improved this situation for many people and allows people to be curious without fear of failure.

    I’m sure your’ve seen in your MIT courses…they do not usually cultivate a discussion in Physics or Math..people don’t want to appear not to know so the room is often just a lecture where maybe people understand the concepts,but perhaps the learning would be better with more discussion. I realize smaller groups, such as recitations are where these discussions happen, but it depends a lot on the teacher’s ability to encourage discussion.

  • Vincent

    The 7 reasons are definitely the reasons that I can relate to. These mistakes can also frustrate the learning experience for whatever you attempt to learn.

    Regarding mistake #2: I also found that in some technical subjects, understanding concepts in theorems and algorithms require some bit of practice. For example, if I know that there are some underlying ideas that are foundational to applying the concepts, I would have used flashcards to make sure I know these concepts in a similar way to learning a language, so I won’t have much misunderstandings in applying those concepts to theoretical problems. That being said, would such activities be also considered practices? My guess is that practising this way – even in maths or sciences – is similar to practising less conceptual subjects.

  • Maggie

    It’s a brilliant article! 1 mistake I made is didn’t know how to retain the knowledge after learned it. I learned some statistics when I was in university, and actually got pretty good marks back then. However, I found I forgot most of them when I tried to pick it up, because I never used them when I graduate.
    I think learning efficiently is an important step, but how to retain what your learnt is a further step.

  • John

    Hi Scott,

    Here is a additional insight about mistake #7, not being interest in what you learn.

    Often, when students are “bored” by a subject it’s, because the subject is too difficult for them. They have not develop the necessary skill and knowledge to master the subject.

    Scott, imagine if you had to take a university-level Spanish Literature class taught in Spanish. I am sure you would be overwhelmed by the challenge and you would soon disengage from class.

    The same principle applies universally to all learning endeavors.

  • Chris

    I’d like to comment on Johns comment above.

    I’ve taken classes that I originally had a low interest in ( Intro to logic ) but suddenly found my interest skyrocketing due to an engaging and “interesting” teacher, who was skilled at inspiring students to learn.

    I’ve also taken classes that I had very high interest in ( Mandarin Chinese ) and found myself bored-to-death due to, in my humble opinion, a boring teacher using robot-like, ineffective teaching methods.

    Taking a spanish level literature class taught in spanish isn’t boring or uninteresting. If you don’t speak any spanish, it’s just dumb.

  • Sebastian

    Being short-term perfection has hurt me several times in the past. I’ve been working on this so much and it’s still a battle some times.

  • Firdaus Khan

    Great article Scott!

    I teach management students & I am a firm believer in #1. In fact if the learner understands the concept at its core, it takes away the short-term perfection & boredom bit. There are numerous concepts in Management such as ‘valence’ in Expectancy Theory of Motivation or ‘cash flow’ (vs. profit) in Finance or even good old ‘opportunity cost’ in Economics – these concepts are based on such fantastic insights that if the learner understands the core perspective she can see opportunities to apply them (#4) in her personal life as well, other than her professional life . Besides it makes the subject interesting, personable & actionable (#7)

    Apologies for the long post, but I believe that my job as a teacher is to invoke this intuitive connectivity between concepts & practices in my students so that they ‘get it’ even long after memory has faded. Hope all teachers would do the same.

  • Jane

    Loving this project and this type of speed learning would be amazing for students in schools even if only for the subject they are most interested in initially.

    I am now on a path where I although I am passionate about the subject matter and can remember that easily, I also need to remember the references that the information comes from and I’m definitely not so interested in that, but need it for credibility.

    Any advice?

  • Alfred

    I could have used help on 1 & 2 around this time in 1976. Only later did I discover that those two were the bulk of my problems in learning organic chemistry and differential equations/linear algebra.

  • ClintB

    Excellent post! Although some likely do, integrating these seven points into not only the learning process but the teaching process as well would prove beneficial.

    Thanks for reminding me of mistake #4.

  • Matthew

    Great post Scott. I immediately identified some of these mistakes in my past study endeavors.

    One other mistake I’ve seen is giving up too early. I’ve heard so many people tell me how they dislike mathematics courses because they can’t immediately understand the concepts. I usually need multiple passes before I fully absorb some challenging topics. I’ll never forgot a story a math professor told me about having to read a paper 15 times before he fully absorbed a concept – and he was a PhD!

  • Michael Bowen

    You are definitely right about conscious practice.

    My level of understanding skyrocketed once I started doing more practice problems in place of reading. For my calculus class I don’t even watch the required video tutorials anymore. I just read the theorems and practice applying them. I’ll spend the same amount of time, or even less, on practice problems than if I watched the videos, and the amount of understanding I come out with is exponentially higher.

    I have also noticed an increase in understanding from doing programming projects. Doing projects is a lot of hard work, so I always shied away from them and tried to get by on just reading. But after I created tictactoe in HTML 5 I noticed that my level of understanding was way higher than before. So I made another game that I made up and I can fairly say that I am familiar with HTML5, JS and CSS3 just from doing that.

    So now I am going back to Rails, which I started thinking and reading about back in 2010 but never really did anything with it. There were so many headaches in getting it installed, and then when I tried to create a scraper with an outdated gem I just gave up. But now that I understand that hard work and practice gives me exponentially higher rewards than just reading and passive learning, I am starting many projects in Rails.

    It’s also good to note that working in frequent bursts, and keeping a daily consistency is key. Burnout can kill any passion.

    Thanks Scott!

  • tejas

    Referring to #2 i think if we have proper insights about a topic about what it actually is,i don’t think we need to practice more because sometimes when i go to lectures and use “The Feynman Technique ” & not practice problems i m able to solve problems without being stuck.

    The only time when i get stuck is when i do not “get” the concept completely or when there are some adjustments to be made when solving questions.

    I just don’t understand why is it so important to solve practice problems,i think if u have good “constructs” which are linked to the most basic ones , i don’t think we need to even solve practice problems..given u can do those tricky adjustments required while solving calculus problems.

  • Oliver

    Interesting post (and blog in general), thank you for your efforts, Scott. I liked the phrase “Fail early and fail often …” – as a software developer I’d say “Test early and test often.”, same thought behind it 🙂

  • Tim

    Hey Scott, great post again, thanks. I believe getting inspiration from the right people that are passionate about a topic can also help a great deal in motivating you to learn something. And about languages: here in the Netherlands most students learn several languages in secondary school: Dutch, English, German, French, sometimes Spanish. But nobody can have a decent conversation in this language. Moreover, a couple of years after leaving school they hardly remember anything. Sure, they’ll probably be able to pick it up more quickly, but maintaining your skills / knowledge is essential as well!

  • tejas

    Can anybody tell me why do non conceptual subjects need to be practiced more than conceptual ones.

  • Meredith

    Cool post. Highlight for me was learning that short-term perfectionism is pointless. New motto? Fail early, fail often, fail purposefully.

    Thanks for sharing this part of your journey.

  • wil

    Thanks for this, Scott!

    I came here through a link from 17Calculus.com. This helped me “clear the clutter” along my journey to loving and (re)learning Mathematics, then eventually moving on to Physics. I got a degree in pure physics, but I feel like I haven’t learned enough to proceed to a masters education.

    I’m all set and determined to study hard (and with burning passion) till I get my PhD.

    Wish me luck!

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