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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On Meditation

I’ve been experimenting with and thinking about meditation in recent years and thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you. 

What this post is not: it’s not another “you should meditate” article. Even though I’ve seen quite a few valuable benefits, my practice is still semi-regular. And l debate how much time I’m willing to spend on meditation, given the opportunity cost. 

Instead, I’d like to share a few observations and invite you to share yours. If you have never meditated, some of these ideas might intrigue you and spark an interest in trying. And if you have experience with meditation, I’d love to compare notes!

Here are some realizations I had over time:

1. Our thoughts and emotions largely determine our destiny. And unlike other factors, they are not entirely outside of our control. Of course, they also define our subjective experience.

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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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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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Harvard’s Positive Psychology Class

Positive psychology course at Harvard by professor Tal Ben-Shahar is freely available on YouTube. Highly recommended!

It covers all the well-being related topics: health, happiness, longevity, optimism, change, success, self-development, emotions, goals and many others. It’s all spiced with a reasonable amount of scientific scepticism that popular self-help books usually lack.

Here are the videos. It gets especially videos at 3-4th video.

If any of them don’t work, try one of these lists: Positive psychology playlist, links in the description for the first lecture.

1.

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Moonwalking with Einstein review: memory & mnemonics

I’ve just finished listening to an interesting audiobook about memory and mnemonic techniques: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Author is a young journalist who decided to try all the memory improvement techniques himself but remain sceptical and objective while doing so. He talks about memory itself and the way it was influenced by spread of written language and by technology. Than, he tells us stories about people with extraordinarily good memory and amnesiacs, about people who had an ordinary memory but became memory champion and about mnemonic techniques they used.

moonwalking ith-einstein the art and science of remembering everything by joshua foer

 

Joshua begins his quest with a totaly ordinary, if not mediocre, memory. Bus after long preparation and work with best so-called “mental athletes” wins one of US memory champtionships. Although he himself acknoledges the fact that most of techniques he learned are useless in day-to-day life, I actually extracted a lot of intersting and useful ideas from the book. And this is what I would like to share with you.

 

Interesting facts and ideas

  • Memory becomes highly underestimated nowadays because of all the various ways to store information “externally”. But in fact, the better we remember our life, the more connections we can make. Memory is also necessary to understand and appreciate many things in life. For example, a person who never read or heard anything about China would not get as much culturally from the trip there as somebody who studied history and architecture of this country for a couple of months.
  • One of the people Joshua interviewed for the book tried to increase “subjective” (perceived) life expectancy by improving his memory. The idea is that the more events you remember the longer life seems to be.
  • Best chess-players don’t really evaluate all the possible moves logically. Instead, they recognize familiar patterns from other games.
  • Cab drivers in London pass obligatory and very demanding exam called “The Knowledge”. It has been found that those who passed it after months of preparation have larger brain region that is responsible for orientation in space. Interestinlgy, brains of “memory champions” are actually quite typical.
  • Odyssey and Iliad were initially created the way that made it easier to remember it and paraphrase verbally instead of writing down.
  • We can remember almost unlimited number of pictures. At least the fact whether we’ve seen one or not. That is why many memory techniques revolve around transforming other types of information into visual images.
  • Also, Joshua acquaints us with several interesting, although ambigous personalities, such as Daniel Tammet, Ed Cooke, Tony Buzan and others.

Mnemonic techniques:

  • Some savants naturally use synesthesia (mixing visual, audiotory and other types of perceptions) to enchance remembering and learning through associations.
  • “Chunking” is a technique of breaking information into smaller pieces. For example, it is easier to remember a phone number when it is presented as 12-34-56 than when it is presented as 123456.
  • Major system. To use this technique, one should use the same consonants for certain numbers. Then, to remember a number, one uses these consonants to form words, which are supposedly easier to remember, by inserting vowels.
  • Memory palace. Images are placed in a certain space (appartment, city route or real imagined palace). The more absurd, shiny, sexual and animate the images the better.
  • Speech preparation. Try to remember key topics to cover in your speech by visualizing them.
  • Remembering texts. Try to feel empathy with an author, to resonate emotionally with a text.
  • Deliberate practice: here Joshua gives just another interpretation of the same old study, which almost everybody mentioned recently. The basic conclusion is that people who are best at something did not necessarily spent more time practicing it. But they practised differently.
  • In essense, deliberate practise is  an effort to consciously improve one’s level of mastery instead of stopping at the minimum acceptable level (“ok zone”). For example, one might try to type faster than he or she would normally do in order to progress.
  •  Deliberate practice also comprises of constant adjustment to feedback and focusing on the most difficult aspects. For example, top violinists practiced most difficult pieces instead of just playing what they already know. Top chess-players re-played best chess games in their heads trying to understand the reasons behind each move. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin learned to write essays by first attempting to cover a certain topic by himself and then comparing the texts to those of best writers.
  • Person – action – object system. According to this mnemonic system, one should come up with a person, action and object for each of 100 digits: from 00 to 99. Then, these “PAOs” are used to form sentences in order to remember long lists of numbers.
  • Remembering names. Try to come up with a meaningful association. For example, nobody of people studied could remember name “Baker” (no associations) but majority remembered profession “baker” (a lot of associations).
  • The reason why people sometimes get an impression that times flies faster might be related to the fact that our life becomes more boring and we get fewer new experiences. In other words, we have less interesting things to remember. So, make your life more memorable!
  • Practical advice to remember things in day-to-day life: pay attention. For example, focus on remembering that name instead of just waiting for your time to introduce yourself.
However, it is less clear how to apply it all to learning things that might actually be useful, such as grammar rules, math formulas or just life experiences. Any ideas?
Overall, there are not so many practically applicable things in the book but it is still very interesting to read.
Here is the short interview with an author that covers many of the topics from the book: