One of the things that we expect you to pick up by osmosis, but almost
never mention explicitly, is techniques for learning itself.
After you leave university, you will be expected to be able to learn
by yourself for the rest of your life. And
an hour spent addressing the meta-issue of learning skills pays off in
reduced time to actually learn.
A lot of work has been done over the past few decades
about how people learn. This document suggests a wide range of techniques
that may make your learning more effective. You may want to experiment
with some of them to see if they work for you.
I recommend the work on accelerated learning by
Colin Rose and Brian Tracy. You might also want to read
J.J. Gibbs, "Dancing with your Books".
You can learn anything if you have a goal that requires it. This implies
that you must connect what you are learning to your personal goals in
a credible way. Trying to learn because of some second-order benefit
(getting a credit or a credential) will seem very difficult.
Learning how to learn is the core skill. This is probably the one skill
that was never explicitly mentioned in all the years that you've spent
in school. But it's the one where there's the most reward for the smallest
Anyone can learn faster by structuring the information. This is another one
of those common trade-offs - getting right into it can feel satisfying, but
taking some time to organise can increase effectiveness, even if it doesn't
feel so satisfying in the short term.
Intelligence is not fixed. You probably know that the idea of a single
monolithic thing called 'intelligence' is in disfavour right now (see
Martin Gardner's work). There seems to be some evidence that what we
might intuitively think of as intelligence (e.g. the ability to get
things done cognitively) can be increased by several kinds of mental
Learning more means earning more. Those who learn more, and do it continually
over their lifetimes, do much better in whatever career they have chosen.
Knowledge and skills overcome obstacles. Improving both are survival skills
no matter what your situation.
Everything to which you were paying attention, either consciously or
unconsciously, will be remembered permanently. What seems to get lost
is a way to access these memories. So effective learning requires you
to be there, in the moment, and to make the things you learn memorable,
i.e. easy to access. Anything that makes what you are learning
different helps to make it memorable. So does the emotional content you
associate with the material.
There are a number of stages to learning, each of which involves a number
of aspects. Some version of this sequence is appropriate whenever you
sit down to learn. The sequence also applies at higher levels: whole course,
the whole of your degree, and even your whole life.
The right state of mind
There are six aspects to being in the right state of mind to learn. If
you think about a situation where you seemed to soak up knowledge without
any real effort, you will probably find that all of the aspects came into
play. Imagine how nice it would be if everything you had to learn came so
Here are the six aspects:
Find a personal reason to want to learn this material. This may be something
that's already clear in your mind, but it may be something that you have
to create. Creating a desire to learn something specific may require
connecting the knowledge to your self-image; it may help to think in terms
of missing skills that you would like to have; or you may need to connect
the knowledge to your larger goals. However, if you don't have a good reason
to learn, learning will not happen easily and may not happen at all. You
can't be compelled to learn.
Having come up with your reasons for learning something, you need to translate
these reasons into motivation. Asking questions like "what's in it for me?"
may help. For most people, increasing the emotional content of the
reason adds extra motivation. Try to visualise, hear, or feel some situation
that will result from having learned the material.
Find a way to make the material relevant to you, right now. One way to do
this is to ask, "what's most important about this material?" or "how can I
use this material right away?".
Build anticipation about learning the material. Imagine what insights might
come to you when you really understand the material. Imagine polishing
off assignments or the final exam easily. Imagine being able to answer a
technical question stunningly at a job interview. Whatever it takes, find
a way to want to get started.
Have positive expectations: that you will find the material easy to
understand, that it will be interesting, that it will be exciting, that
it will be useful, that it will connect up to what you already know.
Expectations are self-fulfilling prophecies - what you expect is what you
Have a calm mind. Learning seems to work much better if you're generally
relaxed. Some things that might help:
consciously relaxing, and playing music that helps you stay relaxed;
deep breathing before you start, and frequently during your learning
having an organised place to work so that you're not constantly distracted
by other parts of your life;
giving yourself rewards when you have completed some task effectively
(don't make these time-based or else you'll become a time-server in your
A variety of ways of input
Here is a list of ways you can use variety in getting new
Play to your strengths in terms of how you process information. Some people
tend to visualise, other process information auditorily, while others
process it kinesthetically.
(Try this quiz).
Use whatever your dominant technique is
when you try to get a handle on something new, when you see how things
fit together, or when they sound right.
Make a general outline of what you're learning.
Ask "what will I be able to do differently because of learning this?".
Browse through the material, looking at headings, pictures, tables etc.
Ask "what do I already know about this?".
Ask "what do I need to find out about?".
Break the material into small chunks; or start anywhere.
Ask yourself questions before or after looking at each chunk.
Use mind maps.
Tick off each section as you read it, or when you understand it. Get
Highlight new information. (Using a highlighter can be useful, but highlighting
often becomes a substitute for reading; instead find other, more varied
ways of emphasising the important points.)
Read the important points dramatically, or whisper them (we're used to thinking
of whispered words as important!).
Summarise the material out loud.
Visualise the material internally.
Walk around while reading or listening.
Put key ideas on post-it notes and arrange them in different meaningful
patterns on your desk, board, or wall.
Make notes of your own thoughts, not of the content of what you are interacting
with (i.e. don't copy from it, and don't paraphrase it - generate your own
Go for a walk. Your brain seems to consolidate what you've been learning if
you give it some peaceful "cooling down" time.
Use the buddy system. Ask each other questions about what you've learned.
Exploring from different angles
Howard Gardner has suggested the existence of 7 intelligences, clusters of
related abilities. Some of the ways in which you might be able to
bring these into play is to look at the material in different ways that
are related to them.
Linguistic intelligence - describe the material out loud, or
use question and answer format.
Logical-mathematical intelligence - use a flowchart or diagram for the material.
Spatial intelligence - make an image of the material.
Musical intelligence - play background music as you learn.
Interpersonal intelligence - teach someone else.
Intrapersonal intelligence - ruminate on the material.
Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence - use index cards sorted in different ways.
Another major issue is the chunk size that you naturally choose when exploring
something new. If something seems hard to understand, maybe you need to
`chunk up', that is move up one logical level. On the other hand, if you
don't feel as if you really get it, then maybe you need to `chunk down' and
move down one logical level. You may also find that you organise things
into chunks of particular sizes, and that you feel overwhelmed by a topic that
exceeds your normal chunk size, or swamped by one that is too small.
It's also a good idea to put the things you see into a framework, that is
connect them to what you already know. It doesn't much matter if you
build this framework top-down or bottom-up, but the existence of the structure
reduces your feeling of `lostness' and also reduces the amount of explicit
content you have to remember.
Here are some ways that might help you memorise:
Decide to remember.
Take regular breaks.
Review notes regularly: after an hour, after a day, after a week, after a
month, after six months. (You'll need an organised way of making sure that
this happens, but it is extremely effective.)
Use multisensory memories, i.e. remember using as many representations as
Generate visual images that involve moving, interaction, and colour.
Use the same background music to review as when you learned, and perhaps
associate particular music with particular topics.
Organise meaningfully using key words.
Look briefly at a mind map, then put it away and try to recreate it. Repeat
until you can reproduce it perfectly.
Use flash cards with the key content on them.
Use higher-order mind maps to connect individual mind maps together.
Use mnemonics or acronyms.
Review at bedtime.
Overlearn, i.e. learn beyond the point at which you have complete recall.
Compress the amount of material by chunking and using keywords.
Showing you know
Demonstrating to yourself that you really do understand and remember can
increase your confidence that your learning is really working. Teaching
someone else, or writing mock or practice assignments and tests, can be
Reviewing and reflecting on the process
After every learning session, review the process you followed. What worked,
what didn't, what would you do differently next time. Do the same thing
at the end of each week, after each assignment, and after each tests.
Make notes of what you've learned about learning, and use them to improve
your next learning session.