4 Principles of Effective Learning

Prefer to listen? I also recorded a podcast episode based on this blog post. You can listen on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Or, download and stream the episode below.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You read a book and it speaks to your soul. You highlight every other paragraph and wonder how you ever lived without this information. Then, a few days or weeks later, you have trouble recalling the main points when trying to explain it to a friend.

I’ve struggled with this and it’s super frustrating. I would read a book or listen to a talk and have the feeling that I grasp what is being said. But when it came time to recall that information later on, I would blank. I couldn’t recall what I had learned.

What’s the point of reading a bunch of books if you can’t recall the information later?

The Illusion of Competence

In today’s world, we have so much information at our fingertips and are being bombarded with it all day long, it’s easy to feel like we know things, like we’re informed. But there’s a difference between truly understanding something and just feeling like we do. This “feeling like we do” is sometimes called the illusion of competence.

Why don’t we remember what we learn?

As far as I can tell there are four main reasons:

  1. We get bogged down by details.

  2. We don’t spend enough time with it.

  3. We don’t actively use it.

  4. It’s not relevant to our lives.

How can we remember more of what we learn?

Below are the most important principles and strategies I’ve distilled from a variety of sources over the years. I’ve given each a tidy little name by which you can remember them. Just remember the first letter of each word and it will help you S-E-A-R information into your memory ;-)

  • Structure

  • Effort

  • Active Learning

  • Reason

These principles have helped me remember and absorb more of what I learn. I hope they help you too.


PRINCIPLE 1: STRUCTURE

Organize and clarify the information.

How information is organized and structured plays an important role in how you process and understand it. Here are some strategies to help you use this principle to your advantage.

Pay attention to how the information is organized.

In order to learn more effectively and efficiently, you need to uncover the structure by which information is organized. Often, this structure is not explicitly stated so you may have to figure it out yourself. Virtually all information can be structured in at least one of the following five ways (thanks to Jim Kwik for this mnemonic device).

Location
Alphabetically
Time
Category
Hierarchy

For books, the table of contents is an extremely powerful but often overlooked way to do this. It’s like a map — it helps you orient yourself within the big picture without getting lost in the details. It also helps you understand the core concepts of the material. Which brings me to me next point…

Identify the main ideas.

Once you’ve figured out the basic structure of the topic you're learning, the central themes, ideas, and concepts will become more clear to you. The key here is to keep it simple. Don’t get bogged down with superfluous details. As you read or listen to material, ask yourself periodically: “What is the main idea being communicated in this paragraph, chapter, book, lecture, etc?”

Understanding the main ideas will allow you to dive into the details of each without becoming overwhelmed. But if you try to learn the details first, without becoming acquainted with the structure of the material, you will get confused and not know where you are.

Most books are too long.

Most good non-fiction books contain only one to three big ideas on which they are based and could be summarized in a meaty blog post rather than in 200-300 pages. If you want to extract the meat of the book, identify the main ideas through the table of contents and don’t worry about the rest. Most of the space in a non-fiction book is spent trying to convince the reader that the ideas are valid and then providing supporting evidence for them.

This is one reason why I love TED Talks or interviews with authors — the shorter format forces them to distill their main ideas down to their most important parts. I often listen to several author interviews or keynotes before reading their book.
 

PRINCIPLE 2: EFFORT

Engage with the material.

This principle is the heart of learning. It requires you to take an active role in your comprehension rather than just passively consuming information. The more cognitively challenging your learning methods are, the more likely it is that you will retain the material. Although, I have to warn you, these strategies are not sexy. Or easy. But they are effective. Here are some ways to apply this principle:

Test your comprehension.

When you come across an idea worth noting, instead of just consuming it and moving on to the next one, close the book or pause what you’re listening to and try to recall what you just learned. Write it down in your own words. The point here is to practice recalling it on your own, without the help of the source material.

If you’re not in the habit of this, it will be challenging at first. It’s similar to going to the gym if you haven’t been in years. You’re working out mental muscles that haven’t been trained in a while. It’s cognitively demanding. But it’s this very quality that has been shown to help your brain learn more effectively. Recalling information strengthens the connection that made the recall possible, which is the beginning of a long-term memory.

Often, learning isn’t an problem of retention but rather a problem of attention. Periodically quizzing yourself on what you’re learning ensures that you won’t space out.

Take notes

In addition to testing your comprehension, you can also write down other thoughts about the material. This will help make it more sticky by attaching more “cognitive hooks” to what you’re learning. Here are some prompts to help you:

  • What are your general thoughts or feelings about the information?

  • Why do you agree or disagree?

  • Where does this material fit into your life?

  • How does this idea relate to what you already know?

Why it works

The reason this works is because it helps information stay in your working memory longer, which makes it more likely it will be transferred to long-term memory.

Your working memory is like a holding cell. The problem is that it only has a 2-4 “slots” where information can be stored before being transferred to long term memory.

If you overload your working memory by constantly feeding it new info, you don’t give it enough time to savor and engage with each idea. As a result, instead of being transferred to long term memory, the information disappears (aka you forget).

We live in an age of information overload. You may have already come across the one idea that could change your life, if only you had taken the time to master it and absorb it rather than moving on to the next new idea. Quality over quantity.

Practice remembering.

The most effective way to ensure information stays in your working memory long enough to be transferred to long-term memory is to practice recalling it at regular intervals.

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

This is the whole idea behind spaced repetition. After you learn something new, your ability to recall that information decreases as time passes, until it finally disappears altogether. That is, unless you recall it before it goes away. Studies show that recalling information just as you’re starting to forget it is the most effective way to strengthen the neural connection that made the recall possible.

Think of it like working out. You wouldn’t go to the gym once and think that’s all you need. You need to exercise on an ongoing basis if you want to continue to reap the benefits. The same is true for learning and strengthening neural connections. Consuming information one time doesn’t cut it, just like going to the gym one time won’t give you a beach body for life.

Tools and techniques

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 in and of itself isn’t not cognitively demanding enough to help you remember things long-term. But that doesn't mean it’s not useful. The reason to highlight passages is so you can easily locate the information you want to practice recalling in the future. What you do not want to do is highlight a passage and never return to it again. That defeats the purpose.


PRINCIPLE 3: ACTIVE LEARNING

Use what you learn.

Teach someone else.

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 is one of the best indicators that you truly understand it.

“When you teach something, you get to learn it twice.” —Jim Kwik

Apply it to your life.

Your brain tends to remember concrete concepts more easily than abstract ones. How do you make ideas more concrete? Use them. Integrate them into your life. Test them out in the real world. The sooner the better. When you actively use information, it makes it more real and less abstract. Which brings me to the final principle...


PRINCIPLE 4: RELEVANCE

Have a good reason for learning.

Only read it if you need it.

From an evolutionary perspective, part of the reason we developed memory was to store information related to our survival (i.e. complex social dynamics, location of food sources, etc). Today, we no longer need to remember the location of berries in our backyard but we still do need to make sure that what we’re learning is important to us in some deep way.

A good rule of thumb here is to read to solve immediate problems. This will help the information stick in your mind more easily. When you read in order to solve a problem or find an answer to a specific question, you are more alert and receptive to new information, which increases comprehension. Focus on learning information you can use now, not at an undefined date in the future. 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.

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.

Seek information that truly interests you.

Skip the boring parts of books. If you find your mind wandering, skip to the parts that excite you. This may seem like “cheating” but it’s actually an extremely effective way to make material “stickier.” Your brain will soak up information more readily if you focus on things that you’re truly interested in. This is partly because interest increases dopamine production, which puts your brain in an optimal emotional state for learning.

If you’re in school, I realize 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.

Summary

Here’s the TL;DR version for those of you who just want to cut to the nitty-gritty:

Further Reading & Listening

If you liked this article, you’ll probably this other content.