Originally written by Belén Cobeta and Spencer Greenberg from ClearerThinking.org. Revised by Teis Rasmussen & Florence Hinder from ThoughtSaver.com. This is a cross-post from the Effective Altruism Forum.
TLDR: There are a number of techniques that may accelerate the speed at which you learn (14 of which we explain in this article). Additionally, embedded within this article are flashcards to provide you with the key takeaways so you can remember these ideas and more effectively put them into action.
Vasconcelos Library — photo by Diego Delso
What if you could learn more in less time? Whether you’re studying to pass your classes, aiming to improve at work, honing your personal life skills, or focusing on having the greatest impact you can, learning to learn more efficiently can be a great time investment because it accelerates the rest of your learning.
Many learning methods are inefficient
Many widespread learning practices waste a lot of time and effort, at least if we assume that the goal of those efforts is to actually learn. For example, you have probably had the experience of reading an exciting and useful piece of nonfiction, only to forget basically all of it and not take any action based on what you learned from it. And you’ve probably spent a lot of time taking classes that taught information that mostly wasn’t useful to you, and which you no longer remember either way.
It’s unfortunate that such experiences are as common as they are. The good news is that there are more efficient and powerful learning practices out there - many of us just don't adopt them.
Here we lay out 14 of our favorite techniques for improving your learning processes. They are grouped into four categories:
- Learn faster
- Boost understanding
- Remember more
- Put your learning into practice
Part 1: LEARN FASTER
This section will cover techniques that can help you absorb more information or knowledge per hour that you spend learning.
1. Listening instead of reading
Listening is the new reading: take advantage of technology by listening to books and articles. It may feel less studious than reading, but at least some research shows that you can learn and retain just the same. The intonation of the narrator can also help you understand the text. Use the Audible version of the book or text-to-speech software and set the reading speed to a level that feels challenging but still allows you to understand the content. In time, your listening speed may become faster than your reading speed, as you go from listening at 1x to 2x and beyond. Some people even claim that faster speeds can improve comprehension to a degree because they require greater focus and so can prevent the mind from wandering. Another advantage of audio over regular reading is that you can do other activities that don’t use your conscious mind at the same time, like taking out the trash, walking outdoors, washing the dishes, or taking a bath.
Check out The Nonlinear Library for audio-versions of content from blogs such as the EA Forum, Alignment Forum, and LessWrong.
2. Immersive reading
Why choose between listening and reading when you can do both? Try Emerson Spartz´s #1 speed reading hack: read a book using the printed and the audible version simultaneously (that is, read with your eyes WHILE you’re also listening). By engaging two senses at once, your focus and reading speed may increase. It takes some practice, so be sure to try this method for at least a few hours before deciding if it’s right for you (people who just try it for one hour are unlikely to see a benefit). To get the full benefit, you’ll also want to push the speed of the audio to the upper edge of what feels comfortable to you.
3. Recursive sampling
Use this technique to help you decide how to allocate your reading time. Instead of diving right into a book, start by reading an article about it or a review of it. Most published books have blog posts or articles about them, so this shouldn’t be too hard to do. If, based on the article or review you read, the book seems like it will be valuable, then read the first three chapters of the book. If it still feels valuable, go ahead and read the whole thing. Apply a similar method when choosing what scientific articles to read: start with the abstract if there is one. Read the conclusion or the last few paragraphs next before you read the whole article.
Here is the first set of flashcards to provide you with all the key takeaways so you can remember these ideas forever.
Part 2: BOOST UNDERSTANDING
Here, we cover techniques to help you spot connections between concepts and expand on your mental models of how things work.
4. Intuition flooding
We often think of learning as an analytic process, which involves thinking carefully about concepts in order to understand them. But there is another important kind of learning, which involves developing a deep, intuitive grasp of a topic. You can work on developing this kind of understanding by using a technique that we call “intuition flooding”. To practice intuition flooding, find a large number of examples of something you want to understand (say, 20 to 100) and look at each of them carefully, one by one, scrutinizing them, while jotting down any interesting observations you have or patterns you notice. Here are a few examples:
- To understand painting better, spend two minutes looking at each of 100 paintings of many different styles, scrutinizing each one carefully
- To understand app user experience, take a close look at different user experiences in 50 different popular apps
- To better understand depression, read 50 accounts of depressed people talking about what their experience of depression is like
- To understand why civilizations fail, read brief accounts of the collapses of 20 different failed civilizations
If you pay really close attention to each example and look at enough of them, patterns will likely jump out at you. What’s more, you’ll likely start to develop an intuitive grasp of the subject even if you can’t fully verbalize it.
5. Mind mapping
This technique helps you understand a topic by uncovering the relationships between the most important concepts. Simply draw a picture to represent the main idea you want to grasp. As new concepts are introduced, put each of them in an oval, and then connect them with different types of lines to represent different sorts of relationships between those ideas. For instance, you might use an arrow to mean “causes”, a regular black line to mean “correlated with”, a thick line to mean “is a part of”, or whatever other types of connections you think are useful to highlight. The process of identifying these connections leads you to understand the idea at a deeper level, while the combination of text and diagrams helps your brain scan, synthesize and digest the information.
For example, if you were learning about the Surrealist art movement, your mind map could look something like this:
6. Tell a friend
One way to test your understanding of a topic you just learned about is to try to explain it. You could do this by explaining the idea to an interested friend, writing a blog post summarizing it, or by pretending you are teaching it to a 6th grader (this last one is sometimes known as the “Feynman Technique”). As you are doing this, you’ll likely not only end up with more clarity in your understanding, but you’ll identify important gaps in your understanding. Go back to the source material to fill in those gaps.
7. Spot the Core
When learning about a complex idea, often one of the biggest challenges is figuring out the most important parts of the idea. A nice social-media method to do this is what we call “Spot the Core.” For the concept of interest, ask yourself — what is the most important part of this idea that I can express in one tweet? Then attempt to represent the core of that idea in just 280 characters. This forces you to focus on what is truly essential about the idea, which can deepen your understanding. A follow-up exercise once you’ve done this is to ask yourself what you would add to your first tweet if you could only use an additional 280 characters (so, two tweets worth of material).
8. Triangulating Genius
Suppose you want to learn about a complex topic where experts disagree with each other. This is tricky because it’s hard to even know where to begin, or which experts to trust. For instance, take the topic of “the power of intuition”. A quick search will show you that there are well-reputed scholars that solidly argue both in favor and against using your intuition to make decisions. To Triangulate Genius, pick two to four brilliant experts with differing perspectives on the topic.
Using the example of intuition from above, you may choose Gary Klein (famous for his work on the effectiveness of expert intuition), Daniel Kahneman (famous for his work uncovering many biases in our intuition), Gerd Gigerenzer (who challenged some of Kahneman’s work), and Phil Tetlock (who examined the poor forecasting abilities of many experts).
Or, if you’re trying to learn about the world of investing, you might choose as your geniuses Warren Buffet (generally believed to be the greatest value investor of all time), Ray Dalio (who started what was the world’s largest hedge fund), and Nassim Taleb (a famous contrarian in finance).
Once you’ve selected your experts, go ahead and read their arguments on the topic. Not only will you learn a lot from their ideas, but you can learn even more by taking note of what they agree and disagree on. The intersection points where these experts agree are the conclusions you can be most confident in. You should have less confidence in the points that they disagree on, and you’ll either have to defer judgment or form your own opinion based on the arguments each side makes.
9. Expert Observation
It is quite unlikely that you can master chess just by reading books and following tutorials. Although those are a good starting point, your game will most likely benefit from “expert observation” — watching experts play the game while they explain what they are doing and why.
Observational learning begins in childhood. We model the behavior of parents and teachers as well as friends and siblings. Expert Observation takes this idea to the next level by watching someone truly exceptional at a particular task. If you have the chance to ask questions during the process, that’s even better. Ideally, the expert carrying out their skill would explain what’s going through their head and why they make each decision the way they do. When the expert does something you don’t understand or that confuses you, that’s a great time to ask a question. These days, YouTube is a great place to look to find experts explaining their process as they carry out their craft.
Here is another set of flashcards to provide you with the key takeaways from the section “Boost Understanding.”
Part 3: REMEMBER MORE
In this part, we’ll cover techniques that can help you reduce waste by retaining more of the valuable information or knowledge that you’ve already acquired.
10. Active recall
Active recall is where you actively try to retrieve an answer from your memory before you look at the answer.
One famous study found that using active recall, students were able to remember 80% of what they learned long-term whereas, with traditional study techniques, students were only able to remember 36%.
So how could you apply this? For example, if you were learning about space exploration, you could quiz yourself with a question like “How did the U.S. government justify the expense of going to the moon?”, and then when you review the content, take a moment to try to remember the answer (before revealing the answer), rather than merely reviewing the material passively.
11. Spaced repetition
Newly acquired information quickly fades in memory when no effort is made to retain it, following a pattern known as the forgetting curve. After you have finished reading an article or a book chapter, some studies suggest that you will likely have forgotten more than half of it already within the hour!
Image from the Farnham Street blog
Spaced repetition is a powerful way of counteracting this natural information decay. This method, based on the spacing effect, minimizes the time spent reviewing the learning materials while increasing long-term retention. It is most effective to schedule reviews of your learning materials at increasingly longer time intervals. This means that you should review what you just learned shortly after learning it (within a day or a week at most) and space out the reviews afterward:
Image from the Farnham Street blog
If you noticed that you had trouble recalling the information, that would be a sign that you waited too long for the review, so schedule the next one within a shorter time interval. If you get the material right, then you can wait a longer amount of time for your next quiz.
To make this easier, you can give Thought Saver a try. It’s a free tool we made to accelerate your learning with active recall, spaced repetition, and our own approach to turning learning into action. It's designed to make it much easier to integrate spaced repetition into your life and to help you turn ideas into new, helpful actions.
12. Incremental reading
This learning technique involves going through new learning material and reviewing old material at the same time, using a process that helps you understand difficult concepts that are new to you. Incremental reading is credited to Piotr Woźniak and is integrated in the newest versions of Supermemo, which he created. The method, as described below, is closer to Michael Nielsen’s take on incremental reading, which you may find a bit easier to learn and apply.
Suppose that you are reading a challenging set of articles on a topic that you are not familiar with, but which you are motivated to really understand. For instance, you may be trying to figure out how “deep neural networks” work.
Skim the articles once, making no attempt to fully understand them. The purpose at this stage is to identify the main ideas in the articles, notice what you already know and figure out the things that you need to learn about.
As you do this, take notes using advanced note-taking systems like Roam and Notion. When you encounter each important seeming concept and definition, turn them into flashcards using ThoughtSaver, Supermemo, or Anki, so that you can be quizzed on the content using the methods of spaced repetition and active recall. Review these cards regularly.
Make several passes through the articles this way (most likely spread over a few days or even a week), and you will notice that the flashcards you’re creating start going deeper into the topic. Once you’ve reviewed these more detailed flashcards a few times, you can now try reading the articles again, this time taking your time to try and understand them in detail. You will likely find that the concepts start to fall into place in your mind. What’s more, because of using spaced repetition, the content will likely stay in your memory much longer, and you have an easy way to brush up on the ideas at any time.
Here is another set of flashcards to provide you with the key takeaways from the section “Remember More.”
Part 4: PUT YOUR LEARNING INTO PRACTICE
It can be really difficult to turn knowledge and insight into valuable changes in behavior. It’s unfortunate that this aspect of learning is so often neglected, as it tends to require conscious effort. And the things you learn are only useful if they result in different outcomes. So in this final section, we’ll explore three techniques to help you take action based on what you learn.
13. Trigger-action plans (TAPs)
One way to turn learning into practice is by associating an idea or mental model with a situation in which you would like to apply it. This can be done by forming mental habits with the structure "When situation X arises, I will perform response Y". Put differently, “When I encounter this trigger, I will perform that action”. This is what the psychological research literature calls “implementation intentions”. The Center For Applied Rationality (CFAR) instead refers to the catchier “trigger-action plans” (TAPs).
The triggering situation could be just about anything; it could be something external, such as your immediate physical environment. Or it might be something internal, like a certain emotional state. For example, you might want to associate shallow breathing or racing thoughts (trigger) with the action of closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths to calm yourself. Or when you enter your office or apartment building, you might want to simply look at the staircase (as opposed to the elevator) to get yourself to take the stairs and get a bit of exercise.
The idea is to make goal-directed behavior automatic. Ideally, by mentally associating a trigger situation with a desired action, you will effortlessly take that action once the trigger is encountered.
To create new trigger-action patterns, CFAR has recommended that you mentally rehearse it a total of ten times. Yes, ten times! That is, either think or say to yourself "When situation X arises, I will perform response Y" ten times. You can use ThoughtSaver to automatically remind yourself of the TAPs you’ve set. Or you can use our free Clearer Thinking tool “Program Yourself” to create new TAPs.
14. Project-based learning (PBL)
A more hands-on approach to turning learning into practice is to work on a small project using the skills you are trying to learn. The advantage of PBL is that it increases your engagement with, and motivation towards learning. Additionally, it focuses your learning on skills and knowledge that you actually intend to use.
For example, if you want to learn data science you can pick a project that you are particularly interested in, such as analyzing a data set about air pollution's impacts on health. You can look up the resources needed, run through some example questions on the Kaggle data science competition site, and then finally apply what you learn to a particular dataset that seems interesting to you. You make something of your own by the end of the process, creating a sense of personal achievement and satisfaction.
At the same time, by using PBL you can often create tight feedback loops where you quickly get high-quality feedback on your performance (as you see where you are making progress and where you are stuck), which can dramatically speed up your learning. In addition, it helps you understand the subject matter more deeply when you put it into practice; you’re naturally encouraged to notice gaps in your understanding, as you often won’t be able to do what you’re trying to do without filling those gaps.
For example, you probably won’t be able to do data science without knowing some programming. If you were just doing an online course, the temptation to simply skip content related to improving your programming skills might be too high, as the consequences of doing so might feel abstract and distant in time when you’re not putting it into practice right away.
Finally, Project-based Learning can be useful as a way of combining a favorite hobby or passion with learning a desired skill set, making it more fun and engaging to learn something new. For example, if you love graphic design, you could design an infographic to complement your data analysis.
You’ve just seen fourteen techniques for accelerating your own learning. We hope that you’ll take a moment right now to pick one or two of them to apply right away. You can start learning faster today!
We also would encourage you to check out our app ThoughtSaver.com to help you to continue applying these concepts. You can also click below to get a flashcard deck we made to help you remember the fourteen learning techniques covered in this article.
Here is our last set of flashcards to provide you with the key takeaways from the section “Put Your Learning Into Practice.”