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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Monthly newsletter: technology, startups, business growth and marketing

Monthly Newsletter: Issue 3

This is an issue of my monthly newsletter. Main topics: technology, startups, business growth, and marketing. See other issues on my blog or subscribe. ~Max


Now, get a cup of coffee and enjoy!

Technology and Startups

Growth and Marketing

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Monthly newsletter: technology, startups, business growth and marketing

Monthly Newsletter: Issue 2

This is an issue of my monthly newsletter. Main topics: technology, startups, business growth, and marketing. See other issues on my blog or subscribe. ~Max


Now, get a cup of coffee and enjoy!

Technology and Startups

Growth and Marketing

  • Intercom on Marketing (ebook). A good intro to marketing and, in particular, product marketing that will be interesting to those who are relatively inexperienced.
  • How to Design Marketing Campaigns. Basics of marketing segmentation, messaging hierarchy, and campaign management – this article will be useful to those who’re new to marketing or looking for a refresher.
  • HubSpot’s Pricing Page Redesign → MQL Conversions 165%↑ & Free Sign-Ups 89%↑. How: research first – usability testing, internal feedback, and customer intelligence; then design based on insights and A/B test.
  • What’s next in growth?” (video) talk by Andrew Chen who leads the rider growth at Uber. Andrew recommends you ignore “growth hacks” and focus on fundamentals that worked for decades. E.g. user referrals, shareable content, and using discounts to jumpstart demand for new products.

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Monthly Newsletter: Issue 1

This is an issue of my monthly newsletter. Main topics: technology, startups, business growth, and marketing. See other issues on my blog or subscribe. ~Max

Technology and Startups

  • Ten-year Futures – a presentation by A16z. New technologies enable new use cases. Seeing them, as well as non-obvious “second order” effects, is key. E.g. mobile enabled Instagram, Instacart, and ride-sharing.
  • Decrypting Crypto – another presentation by A16z. Bitcoin is a combination of three old technologies: hashcash, public key cryptography, and distributed ledger. Value of cryptocurrencies goes beyond the traditional store of value and medium of exchange. E.g. tokens can help bootstrap new protocol-level innovation and incentivize developers, customers, and investors to contribute.
  • AlphaGo Zero masters the game of Go from scratch. The ML algorithm learned the game without any pre-existing understanding of rules or strategies. Building a general or at least a-little-bit-less-narrow AI appears to be a big priority for DeepMind. Perhaps this can count as a small step in this direction?
  • Delivering blood with drones in Rwanda – a TED talk by the founder of Zipline. What an amazing application of new technology and a case study in social entrepreneurship.
  • Tacotron 2 is a new text-to-speech technology by Google that is (almost?) indistinguishable from a human voice. If Google manages to make it less computationally demanding and ship it as part of the Android OS, all kinds of interesting use cases will be made possible. I personally will listen to more of my Pocket articles in audio.
  • Magic Leap is launching its SDK, shipping in 2018. AR/VR is already quite a saturated market. It’s not entirely clear yet how hyped Magic Leap technology will compare to Microsoft HoloLens, as well as to VR headsets: HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.

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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is yet another mind-expanding book:

“About 13.5 billion years ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.

About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry.

About 3.8. billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. The story of organisms is called biology.

About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history.

Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different. This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.”

A fascinating weekend read about AI

A fascinating weekend read about AI on Wait But Why:

“Kurzweil then takes things a huge leap further. He believes that artificial materials will be integrated into the body more and more as time goes on. First, organs could be replaced by super-advanced machine versions that would run forever and never fail. Then he believes we could begin to redesign the body—things like replacing red blood cells with perfected red blood cell nanobots who could power their own movement, eliminating the need for a heart at all. He even gets to the brain and believes we’ll enhance our brain activities to the point where humans will be able to think billions of times faster than they do now and access outside information because the artificial additions to the brain will be able to communicate with all the info in the cloud.”

Book Notes: Waking Up by Sam Harris

I just wanted to share some excerpts from Waking Up by Sam Harris that I listened to a couple of months ago. It is a great book that covers so many topics: mindfulness, meditation, neuroscience, cognition, emotions and others. It is worth reading in its entirety and I am personally planning to re-read it. So here are some notes:

“Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.”

“There is now little question that how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes. Our minds—and lives—are largely shaped by how we use them.”

“My mind begins to seem like a video game: I can either play it intelligently, learning more in each round, or I can be killed in the same spot by the same monster, again and again.”

“How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives. Mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages—but a growing body of scientific research now bears it out.”

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Obedience research: Milgram Experiment

Most likely a majority of readers have already heard about this famous experiment, probably on multiple occasions. Those who have not though might find it both eye-opening and terrifying. Here is the brief summary of what has been done:

Milgram told his forty male volunteer research subjects that they were participating in a study about the effects of punishment on learning. He assigned each of the subjects to the role of teacher. Each subject was told that his task was to help another subject like himself learn a list of word pairs. Each time the learner made a mistake, the teacher was to give the learner an electric shock by flipping a switch. The teacher was told to increase the shock level each time the learner made a mistake, until a dangerous shock level was reached.

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EconTalk podcast about artificial intelligence

Just wanted to share a recent episode of EconTalk podcast by Russell Roberts. This one was with NYU Professor Gary Marcus on artificial intelligence and big data. I found it quite refreshing in its sensible skepticism towards “AI is evil” paranoia that was picked up by the media recently.


Download mp3.