• Belén Cobeta and Spencer Greenberg

12 Techniques to Accelerate Your Learning

Updated: Oct 22

Part 1: LEARN FASTER

1. Listen 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 mind 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. 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.

Part 2: BOOST UNDERSTANDING

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 for 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 you memorize it at the same time.  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 actually 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.

Part 3: REMEMBER MORE 

10. Active recall Research shows that learning is more effective when you spend time retrieving the information to remember rather than just passively reviewing the materials (the testing effect). 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 try to remember the answer (before you check whether you are right), rather than merely reviewing the material passively. Forcing yourself to try to remember actually makes the memories longer lasting.  11. Spaced repetition This method, based on the spacing effect, minimizes the time spent reviewing the learning materials while increasing long-term retention. 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. 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 ThoughtSaver a try, which is our own system we created for this purpose. Or use advanced flashcard software, such as Anki or Supermemo. 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 though is inspired by Michael Nielsen’s take on incremental reading, which you may find it 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 your 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 any time. You've just seen twelve 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'd also recommend that you checkout our website, ClearerThinking.org, where we have more than 40 free, interactive tools to help you learn about how to quickly form new habits, make better decisions, and catch cognitive biases before they trip you up. Our "How Rational Are You, Really?" test is a great place to start.

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