Learning How to Learn (And 20+ Studies)

I’ve been interested in cognitive science and effective learning methods for years. I’ve read multiple books and articles and put many ideas to test. So I thought I’d synthesize my notes into the blog post, add references to scientific studies, and share it with you.

TL;DR

Effective Learning Strategies

  • Distributed learning: study less in each session but more frequently
  • Active recall: actively test your knowledge and skills
  • Distributed recall: space the tests in time and adjust the intervals based on performance
  • Interleaving: practice multiple related yet different skills/concepts simultaneously
  • Elaborative interrogation (quiz-and-recall): ask yourself questions and use the material you’ve learned to answer them
  • Self-explanation and the Feynman technique: explain what you’ve just learned in simple terms

Physiology and Brain’s Health

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Nutrition

Disclaimer and Introduction

I have no formal background in cognitive science or neuroscience and this has been more of a side interest. My understanding is limited and I still need to learn how to effectively and consistently apply all these ideas to practice.

That being said, I found some of the methods described in this article very useful. For example, I’ve used them to learn foreign languages, the basics of programming, and various disciplines covered during the two-year MBA program.

Effective Learning Strategies

Strategy #1: Distributed (Spaced) Learning Practice

In short, it’s better to distribute one’s practice over a period of time than cram it into one day.

In one study elementary school students were asked to study in one of the three ways: massed, clumped, and spaced.

  • Massed = four lessons at a time
  • Clumped = two lessons on one day and two lessons on the next day
  • Spaced = one lesson per day for four days

The “spaced” group performed best, followed by the “clumped” group:

Another study compared comprehension scores under three different conditions:

  1. Read a text once (“single”)
  2. Read a text twice (“massed”)
  3. Read a text twice with a week-long gap (“distributed”)

When tested immediately, the second group performed best. But when tested with a delay of two days, the third group performed best.

This method is also superior for learning motor skills.

How to apply this in practice:

Create a learning schedule or find time to practice a little bit every day or every few days instead of cramming all your learning into one or just a few days.

If you’d like to learn more, read the Wikipedia article on distributed practice.

Strategy #2: Active Recall (Retrieval) Practice

It might be more effective to actively retrieve the information you’ve already learned than passively re-read or try to learn it once again.

One study that compared a method that emphasized study sessions with a method that emphasized tests and found the latter to be more effective for delayed recall.

  • SSSS = four study sessions
  • SSST = three study sessions, followed by one test
  • STTT = one study session, followed by three tests

Even imagining that you might be tested on the material you’re learning might help improve the recall.

How to apply this in practice:

If a few days ago you learned how past tense works in the Spanish language, try to remember the rules or even test yourself on your knowledge — instead of simply re-reading the same material once again.

You can read more about the active recall practice on Wikipedia.

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Mental Math: Years to Double an Investment

Sharing a very simple, but handy mental math rule that was mentioned in quite a few of our MBA classes, such as Investment Styles and Strategies, Designing Financial Models that Work and others:

If you want to quickly ballpark the # of years it will approximately take for an investment to double, then just divide 72 by the annual growth rate. For example, if your investment grows 7% a year, it will take slightly more than 10 years for it to double (72/7). But if it grows 36% a year, it will only take about two years to double (72/36). 

You can read more about this “Rule of 72” on Wikipedia. Now, you now you can come across as a math genius without much effort 😉

Magic shortcuts: 13 best chrome custom searches that will save you lots of time

As you may already know, Google Chrome has an amazing feature that let’s you edit search engines. And search engine means literally any website. What’s the practical application?

Well, if you type something like “great blog” and press enter, by default you’ll be redirected to Google. But you can set up your Chrome to use, let’s say, Yahoo when you type “y great blog” or Bing when you type “b great blog”. Sounds like a great life-hack and a time-saver, doesn’t it? So, instead of going to the other website you just add one letter before the query itself and Chrome uses the other search engine to find what you need.

First, you’ll need to know how to add a new search engine, I won’t go into details as there are a lot of tutorials on web at the moment.

I’m sure you can come up with lost of ideas on how to use this feature yourself, but let me sparkle your imagination a little with my own list of searches. Here is what I use and consider to be the most useful:

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