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.