4 Principles of Effective Learning

Effective learning is characterized by a deep understanding. It is learning that sticks with you over time and that which you can recall whenever you need.

Most of us aren’t taught the principles for effective learning in school. We are taught what to learn but not how to learn (a topic Jim Kwik discusses in Episode #14 of The Think Grow Podcast).

In this post, I've compiled some of the most important principles of effective learning I’ve encountered from a variety of sources over the years.

As far as I can tell, the strategies of learning can be divided into four basic categories, or principles.

  • Structure

  • Effort

  • Active Learning

  • Reason

The acronym S-E-A-R is also a helpful mnemonic device because you want to “sear” information into your memory ;)

 

PRINCIPLE 1: STRUCTURE
“Organize information to understand it better.”

Although information may be infinite, the ways of structuring it are not. In order to learn more effectively and efficiently, you need to uncover the structure by which information is organized.

Virtually any information can be structured in at least one of the following five ways (thanks to Jim Kwik for this list).

Location
Alphabetically
Time
Category
Hierarchy

Often, this structure is not explicitly stated. You just need to figure out what works best for the information and for your brain. The structure that you use will depend on the kind of information you are learning. For example, if you're reading a story, the most obvious structure for that information would be time (sequence of events) and location. However, if you're learning about psychological disorders, it might make more sense to divide them up into different categories based on shared symptoms, areas of the brain that are affected, etc. 

Properly organizing information leads to better comprehension and better retention. Much of the value of information lies in how well it is organized. Two-hundred thousand words and definitions typed out in a random, unordered list is fairly useless. But if those words are ordered alphabetically, they become a useful little tool called a dictionary. 

Learn from low resolution to high resolution.

Once you’ve figured out the basic structure of the topic you're learning, the central ideas will become more clear. Once you understand the central ideas of a subject, you can then move on to studying the details in finer resolution without becoming overwhelmed.

But if you try to learn the details of a new subject straight out of the gate, your brain won't have any scaffolding on which to organize those details and they will not stick as readily.

 

PRINCIPLE 2: EFFORT
“Make sure your study sessions are cognitively challenging.”

The more cognitively challenging your learning methods are, the more likely that you will retain the material. Exposure to information is not the same thing as understanding the information. Repetition is useful but only when done methodically and intentionally, otherwise it's wasted effort.

Quiz yourself.

Spaced repetition is a learning method that has proved effective in many research studies. It involves brief study sessions where you quiz yourself on your knowledge about a subject you recently learned about. These sessions are strategically spaced out to give your brain time to “forget” the information just enough so that when you recall it, it strengthens the connection that made the recall possible.

Remembering is like any other skill. If you want to get better at it, you must practice. When you recall something, you're practicing retrieving it from your memory.

There are several spaced repetition apps to help optimize your learning schedule and integrate the practice into your life seamlessly. If you want to dive deeper into this subject, a great book I’d recommend is Make It Stick.

If you're more old-school (like me), you can do an analog version of this method using regular old index cards. Ryan Holiday uses a note card system for revisiting information he wants to remember, which he talked about on my podcast. (He uses this system primarily for taking notes but you can easily turn the note cards into flash cards and quiz yourself).

A note on highlighting

The act of highlighting while reading doesn't necessarily help you remember things long-term because it's not cognitively demanding enough. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. The reason to highlight passages is so you can easily relocate the information you want to review in the future. Don't make the mistake of highlighting a passage and then never looking at the information again. That defeats the purpose.

 

PRINCIPLE 3: ACTIVE LEARNING
“Engage with the material in order to absorb it.”

I think of this as “snuggling up” with the material. You need to get intimate with it. Here are some ways to do that.

Relate it to what you already know.

A big part of the learning process has to do with comparing new information to your existing body of knowledge. Your brain learns in relation to what you already know.

When you come across an idea you want to internalize, try to relate it to concepts with which you're already familiar and ideas you already understand. I call these "cognitive hooks." With each additional "hook," you give your brain another chance to recall that information in the future. Recall is the ability to remember complex ideas spontaneously. The greater your body of knowledge is, the easier this becomes since you'll have more of these hooks.

Try filtering new material through the lens of a subject with which you're already familiar. Let’s say you're an expert chef but you're trying to learn the principles of entrepreneurship. Try to find parallels or similarities -- however faint -- between the two seemingly unrelated fields. For example, you might recognize that a successful entrepreneur caters to his customer's needs just as a successful chef caters to his patron's palate. Or, that an element of precise timing is necessary both in the kitchen and the marketplace. These connections will help make new information more “sticky.” 

Take notes.

Another way to engage with new material is to write about it in your own words. Translate ideas in a way that makes sense to you. This will help personalize the information and make it more recognizable to your brain.

Things you could write about include:

  • Your general thoughts about the information.
  • How would you summarize it?
  • How does it relate to what you already know?
  • How might you put it more clearly if you were explaining it to someone else?
  • Why do you agree or disagree? 

Write down your responses to these questions in a journal (by hand, if possible). It will strengthen your ability to recall the information at a later time. 

Think critically.

The key to getting better answers is to ask better questions. When you're studying, ask yourself questions about parts of the material you're not completely clear on and try to answer them using your existing knowledge. This is the basic idea behind critical thinking.

Don’t depend on the information to do all the work for you. Try to come up with reasonable answers on your own. You'll be surprised how far you can get if you really put your mind to it.

Read for ideas, not words.

Think conceptually. When you read or listen to material, make it a point to look for the "big ideas" and not get bogged down in the minutiae of each individual sentence.

It's quite possible to read an entire article and understand the individual words and even sentences, yet not grasp the deeper, overarching ideas of the material. If you don’t take the time to truly understand the information, put it into its appropriate context, see how it relates to what you already know, etc, you won’t fully absorb the material. (Side benefit: reading for ideas will also help improve your reading speed).

Learn with the intention of teaching.

One of the best ways to learn is to teach. When you learn something with the intention of teaching it later, you pay attention differently. It forces you to clarify concepts and ideas in your mind and recall them in a way that increases both your comprehension and retention. 

The ability to teach something successfully to someone is one of the best indicators that you truly understand something.

Use it or lose it.

As soon as you learn something new, apply it to your life somehow. The sooner the better. Test it out in the real world. When you actively use information, it makes it more real and less abstract. Your brain tends to remember concrete, tangible concepts more readily than abstract ones.

 

PRINCIPLE 4: REASON
“Have a good reason for learning something new.”

In order to learn something new, you need to have a strong motivation for wanting to learn it in the first place. In order to do this, you must identify the reasons that drive you. You must crystallize your "why." 

I've noticed that I retain information better if I have a burning question or something very specific I'm trying to learn.

When you read in an effort to solve a problem or find an answer to specific question, you are more alert and receptive to new information, which aids in learning.

For example, when I was in my early twenties, I had acne and became extremely motivated to cure it with a diet-based approach. During that time period, I had excellent retention for any information I came across that had anything to do with clear skin, nutrition, or diet. And most importantly, I still have the bulk of that knowledge more than a decade later. Having a "why" is extremely powerful.

Along these lines, you should focus on learning information you can use now, not information you might use later. The more relevant information is to your life, the more likely you are to apply it, remember it, and use it again  in the future.

Make it a matter of survival

Your brain primarily remembers things insofar as they are useful to your survival. From an evolutionary perspective, part of the reason we developed memory was to remember social dynamics, location of food sources, and other things necessary to our survival. Today, we've outsourced so much of our knowledge to the internet and our digital devices that we hardly need to remember anything. This is not good for our memories.

Having a compelling reason to learn things helps mitigate this problem. If your brain thinks something will be useful to your survival, it will be more likely to remember it. (I'm using the word "survival" loosely here).

Learn about what interests you.

Your brain will soak up information more readily if you focus on subjects that genuinely excite you and that you’re truly interested in. 

When you learn something new and interesting, your brain's dopamine production increases, which puts you in an optimal emotional state for learning. This is also an optimal emotional state for learning.

If you’re in school, this isn’t always possible since you’re not in complete control of your curriculum. In this case, try focusing on the aspects of the material that do pique your interest and relate them to other subjects you already know about that interest you.

Further Reading

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy these other posts I've written:

How to Remember More of What You Read

5 Ways to Boost Your Intelligence