In this essay I try to collect everything I have learned about the process of learning how to learn.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” - Abraham Lincoln

Learning how to learn is important because we spend a good part of our lives learning new things.

Thus, it makes sense to become better at this.

These tips are geared and applicable both for students studying for exams and knowledge workers working in tech.

Most of these tips are obvious, but some are very counterintuitive. They are so counterintuitive that I almost disagree with them, but the science doesn’t lie.

💡 This is a work in progress

Learning is focused and diffuse

Current research shows that you have two types of brain activity, diffused and focused. A good analogy is that of a flashlight.

Your brain has two modes: focused thinking and diffuse thinking. Focused thinking happens when you are solving a mathematics problem. Your brain is engaged and focused on the task at hand. Diffuse thinking happens when you are actively not thinking about a problem at hand, for example when you are in the shower.

The trick to using this knowledge for your learning is to use both modes of thinking. You need active thinking time and focused problem solving, but you also need time to let your mind wander and roam, because it is exactly this diffuse thinking that leads to connecting two seemingly unrelated concepts or ideas and to come up with new ideas, i.e. creativity.

Tip: Engage both types of thinking (focused and diffuse) when problem solving

Learning is spacing things out

Current research shows that it is better to space out your learning than to cram it all together. If you are studying for a test then cramming is not so bad, but if you are studying for life-long retention then you should space out your learning.

There is a whole subfield that is related to this but the key principle behind this idea of spacing out your learning is that you forget things, and by retrieving something you arrest this forgetting. Now, if you cram everything and do not retrieve shortly after, you will forget it in the long run.

This advice is counterintuitive because it feels like you are learning less, because you space it out, but in the long run you will learn more, because you won’t exponentially forget everything you learned.

Tip: Space out your learning, I use the space repetition app Anki for this

Learning is interleaving

Another counterintuitive tip is that you should interleave your practice. What this means is that you should practice different problem solving techniques together instead of just cramming one, which is usually the way it is presented in text books.

Imagine you are trying to solve some math problems related to finding the area and the circumference of a circle. You learn both formulas. Now conventional wisdom has you practice finding the area 10 times, and then the circumference 10 times, or until you get them down individually. What the research shows is that you actually get better results if you practice them together in random order.

Why this works is because when you just practice one thing over and over again you become really good in that one thing, but you don’t learn to recognize when to apply this technique, and this will be less efficient in the long run.

This tip is counterintuitive because it feels like you are learning less because you feel like you are not mastering the material because you interleave them. We are used to drilling a technique to getting it down, and I’m not saying that is bad or you shouldn’t do that, you should, but then afterwards you should also seek out learning opportunities to figure out when to apply them.

This tip, for me, is the hardest one to really believe. So here I am just going to trust my head and not my gut and just follow the science: I will interleave my practice.

Tip: I apply this tip by just putting all my flashcards into a single deck, this interleaves my practice naturally

Learning is visual

I have a very visual brain. I remember images much better than anything else. I think this true for most people because a big part of our brain is dedicated to visual image processing. Will a tiger jump out of this bush that I see?

Tip: Make flashcards with images

Learning is both bottoms-up and top-down

Learning is both bottoms-up and top-down. For example, I am learning French now and I would consider learning vocabulary to be bottoms-up learning. You learn the little individual units that make up the language. Top-down learning would be learning the grammar and how sentences are formed. You can learn this without knowing anything about the individual units but the concepts still apply. For effective learning you need both. One is useless without the other. I really enjoy bottoms-up learning, so I need to be aware for myself not to neglect the other one (top-down learning)

Tip: Apply both bottoms-up techniques (flashcards) and top-down learning (concepts)

Learning is retrieving

Learning is all about what you can retrieve from your memory, whether this is actively thinking about it or doing it by muscle memory. If you have to look something up then you have not committed it to memory.

I am not saying that you should memorise everything, but a certain level of fluency in concepts or ideas (like vocabulary) is important when you want to kick your learning into a higher gear. I am learning french right now and having vocab down and intuitively understood is important because if you want to construct a sentence you want to not have to think about the words too much, you want to get the meaning of the sentence right. Of course this is a process.

To learn, retrieve. This is hard work. This is what makes learning hard and take effort. You brain needs to work and exactly in this working is where the learning happens. It turns out that if something is harder to retrieve you actually learn it more.

To do this I use flashcards, these are great for practicing retrieval exercises like vocabulary and other random things like flags. They also provide a great calibration for you to test whether you actually really know what you think you know. It is quite hard to fool yourself when you see a flashcard that asks you “What is almost in french” and you can not answer it. You might think you know, but your flashcard will tell you for sure.

Tip: Use flashcards to incorporate retrieval practice

Learning is fun

I deeply believe that we like to do things that are fun. This sounds almost stupidly trivial but it has an interesting corollary, we can force ourselves to do things we want by making them fun. If you do something, and it is fun, you want to do it more often, simple. We can apply this concept to skill learning.

Early on in the process, say for example your first 6 months learning a new skill (French for me) try to seek out as much positive feedback that you can get. This can be encouraging words from friends that will put up with your rudimentary French babble, or Duolingo which is like a positive feedback machine on steroids. I think that Duolingo is really good in this case because it is an engagement machine. The streak feature helps you stay engaged with the material every day, which is fun. The sounds, dings, and cute animations all make learning fun and that keeps you coming back.

Tip: Especially early on in the process, try to make learning as fun as possible

Another tip in this same vein is that you should try to make your flashcards fun as well. If your flashcards become a chore because they are too difficult to answer that is not fun, and you will do it less. Make your flashcards a bit simpler than you might think you can answer, this keeps you answering them fast and that makes it fun. I usually practice around 130 flashcards in 5-6 minutes for an average of 4-5 seconds per flashcard.

Tip: Make your flashcards a bit smaller than you think, this keeps your flashcards fun

Learning is building a mental model

This one I am not a 100% convinced of yet, I think it is true, but it does not really fit in my current mental model of what learning is. I think that we all have this mental model (theory) that allows us to reason about the world around us.

By learning we update this mental model, so learning is about building a mental model that becomes better and more complex every time.

For example, I am learning french right now and I am learning all the tenses, but I have learned only three so far: the present, passé récent, and the futur proche. There are many more, but I haven’t learned them. So my mental model is restricted to only those times. This is not bad per se, but I need to work on both expressing myself with this limited mental model that I have and to build it out further, but one step at a time.

Learning is teaching

Learning is teaching. If you can teach something then you have adequately learned something. Teaching is learning because when you can teach something that means that you are above the material. If you are not above the material you will notice while teaching it that you have gaps in your knowledge that need remedying.

Tip: To learn… teach!

Learning is experiencing

There are two ways you can learn something. You can learn it from instruction, by reading about it, or you can learn it from experience, by experiencing it. Not one is better than the other, but I think that the latter one has far more impact because it is much more visceral.

Tip: To learn, experience!

Learning is hard work

Learning is hard work. Learning is not always easy. It is especially in this hard work where the real learning is. If it comes to easily, if you are not stumbling, if you are not failing, then are you really learning enough? It is in this struggle where you try to express yourself, try, fail, get corrected, and try again, that you really learn. That is why it is so important that you create a safe environment where it is OK to fail and OK to try new things because this is where learning happens.

Tip: Don’t get discouraged when things become hard!

Learning is chunking

Learning is chunking. An important concept that I forgot. Learning is chunking. Chunking means to understand something so well that you can do it without thinking. You have this one concept and it is just so ingrained in you that you can do it without thinking. Very close to doing things automatically. It’s like building a habit around it I think. Chunking.

Tip: Work actively on your chunks

Learning is being challenged

Learning is about being challenged at the right level at the right time. As of 2024 I am learning french and I took a course on A1.1 level but this was too easy. I was not challenged and I could not pull myself up on the level of the others around me. The right level of challenge is needed. It’s funny to see how this works now when you are the subject of personalised education yourself.

Conclusion

In this essay I have tried to collect most of the useful tips I know for improving your skill of learning how to learn, i.e. meta-learning. I firmly believe that learning is a learned skill that we can learn. We can learn how to learn which makes us more effective.

The first important conclusion of this work is that you must use spaced repetition & testing. Try to retrieve things from memory, if you can do it in a spaced way. Test your own knowledge by asking questions and generating things from memory. The harder it is the more effort you are expanding, the more you are learning, even though this feels frustrating this is where the magic happens.

The second important conclusion of this work is that you must avoid illusions of knowing. Illusions of knowing are dangerous because they hurt you in two ways: they make you think you know the material and you are actually not learning anything. The main culprits here are highlighting and rereading. Avoid them at all costs. Following along is easy and therefore you are not learning anything new, but it feels like you are. Here you are confusing familiarity from mastery, be careful!

The third important conclusion is that you must use both modes of thinking (focused and diffuse). Engage your brain in focused problem solving which actives focused mode, but also allow your brain to wander and ponder. Take a walk outside in nature, take a shower, drift off in a chair for a light nap. Use both modes of thinking to unlock new creativity and to let your brain really connect the things you’ve learned.

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