What’s it about?

Learn Better (2017) upends conventional approaches to learning skills and acquiring knowledge. Learning was once thought to depend completely on the innate ability and intelligence of the learner. Rote learning was the order of the day. We now know there are much more efficient ways to learn. In fact, there are six easy steps to better learning.

About the author:

Ulrich Boser has worked as an editor, writer, reporter, and education researcher. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Slate, Wired, and Newsweek. As a child, he was classified as a “slow learner” by his teachers, which sparked his following interest in the science of learning. His other books include The Gardner Heist and The Leap.

Learning is simple; you just lack the proper strategies and tools:

Many assume that the learning ability is dependant on inborn intelligence. Now, experts proved that this isn’t the case. With the proper tools and strategies, you can enhance your learning abilities drastically.

Back in 1980, Anastasia Kitsantas experimented on an all-girls school. In teams of three, she taught the girls to play darts. Those of the “Team Performance” group were told to aim for the bull’s eye to win. On the other hand, the “learning Method” team was taught throwing strategies, and those called “Team Conventional Wisdom” were just told to do their best. Obviously, “Team Learning Method” won and had the most fun!

Another effective learning tool is self-quizzing which involves testing and recalling yourself constantly and repeatedly on whatever you need to learn. It makes any new information, no matter how hard it is, stick in your long-term memory. As a matter of fact, research proved that self-quizzing is 50% more effective than other techniques.

The third learning strategy is to use sound-blocking earbuds to eliminate distractions. As an 11-year-old, the author used this method while solving math problems. He had a hard time focusing and discovered that earplugs maintain a sharp concentration.

If you find meaning in your study, you’re going to learn much better, faster:

We’ve already established how effective some learning methods are and how fun they can make your studying time. You can use the six steps of learning to make it even more effective!

The first step encompasses value. If you acknowledge the value and meaning of your learning, you’ll have a much stronger drive to take the initiative and maintain perseverance.

A great example of this step is Jason Wolfson. Jason is an engineer in his forties with a basement jam-packed with his creative lego creations. It’s absurd for a grown man to play with toys, but not in his case. Each of his construction has a story behind it. The blue police phone booth was inspired by Dr. Who, and his model of Gonzo is for his wife – a huge fan of The Muppet character. He spent so much time and effort on these creations because they were meaningful to him, and later on, they turned him into a master!

However, meaning and value don’t just come out of thin air; it takes great time and effort to unravel them.

You have to put small, concise goals to ace a skill. First you’ll want to double-check the basics:

We all know the story of how Newton grasped the law of gravity after an apple fell on his head. But we can’t count on similar eureka moments in reality. That’s why the second step is about setting targets to reach learning breakthroughs by dividing large goals into smaller ones that are easier to focus on.

Say you want to develop your running skills to win a marathon. Rather than pushing yourself to run faster, tackle smaller targets like practicing on hilly terrain. This way, you’ll see improvements in a less daunting way and track your development more efficiently.

However, there’s more to acing a skill than dividing goals. You also need to build some background knowledge before you start. It makes learning difficult and less enjoyable if you get into it without getting a handle on the basics. For instance, you wouldn’t start fixing the pipes without prior pluming knowledge. So whenever you have the essentials down, you’ll be set to achieve your goal.

When it comes to learning, feedback is essential:

The third step is to develop, as in improving your skills upon feedback. Obviously, when you learn, you aren’t aware of your weak spots. That’s why another person’s perspective can be the ultimate key to improvement. Even the author benefited from this step when he was on the basketball team.

He was pretty much the worst on his team. Even with the long practice hours he spent making shots; he wasn’t aware that his moves and footwork were the areas that needed improvement. Until one day, he found a basketball instructor on craigslist. The trainer pin-pointed some notes and details the author would’ve never figured out on his own. He even commented on where his middle finger should be while holding the ball. And soon enough, the author was able to hit as far as three-pointers.

You can also improve your skills by decreasing your error rate and monitor your mistakes. This way, you’ll be more aware of your performance and detect what you’re doing wrong. And eventually, you’ll stop repeating mistakes.

Brain surgeons use this technique as well. Doctor Mark Bernstein recorded every error he made in the operating room for 10 years. He took notes of all miscommunications, poorly positioned sponges, or seconds of delay in anesthesia. His database was able to decrease his surgical team’s error rate from three mistakes a month to a maximum of one and a half!

“Tracking outcomes can be embarrassing. Yet, this type of focused awareness about our performance makes us better at just about everything.”

-Ulrich Boser

You can enhance your learning by engaging yourself in your field and making things visual:

You might believe that artists, scientists, and writers were born to excel in their field only. But all geniuses are forged in the cycle of continuous learning. That is a brief way to describe step four. You have to extend the knowledge you already have. In other words, if your wish to grasp the highest echelons, you’ll have to enhance your understanding of a specific concept continuously.

The painter Jackson Pollock was greatly aware of this. When he was 23, he worked in David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist’s workshop, where he was encouraged to experiment. There he learned the drip-and-pour techniques that got him into the world’s spotlight. But it wasn’t easy to master this skill. At first, his drip-and-pour paintings showed just a little fractal complexity. With time, the fractals grew drastically complex and detailed that the physicist (not an art historian), Richard Taylor, was the first to spot them.

To take your skills even further, visualize images in your mind. This simple act can make all the concepts and facts stick in your mind and serve your long-term memory.

You must understand the relationship between concepts and practice various passageways to a skill:

We’re all told that the best way to master a certain topic is to practice repeatedly. However, practicing alone isn’t that efficient. The fifth step encourages you to relate as in understanding the relationship between concepts.

Psychologist Charles Judd was able to prove this theory in 1908 when he experimented on two groups of children throwing darts at a target for inches underwater at the University of Chicago. The first group just kept practicing throwing those darts. However, the second group learned the physics of refraction before and understood how the dart refracts in water and appears in a different position.

Undoubtedly, even after Judd moved the target deeper and the refraction was more pronounced, the second group outperformed the first group. Practice could appear in forms you don’t expect. Learning anything related to the skill can be a much more effective practice than aiming for the skill itself directly.

You can break free of overconfidence by evaluating your knowledge:

Do you ever find yourself driving around in circles for hours just because you aren’t willing to admit that you can’t find a certain place and ask for help? The sixth and last step prompts you to evaluate your knowledge and rethink this exact sort of mistake to ultimately prevent it.

Overconfidence is a clear route to regular mistakes because people overestimate their past familiarity and performance. Thus, they think they know more than they do and expect a fairly good performance in the future.

In the military, this is called victory disease. More often than not, generals overestimate their power when they win multiple times. Just like General George Armstrong Custer, the Union general. He defeated his enemies time after time in the Civil War until everything went downhill in the 1876’s battle of the Little Bighorn. He took his 200 men into war against a 1,000 Native American army. Only one of Custer’s army survived.

That’s why evaluating your knowledge protects you from overconfidence. Only after admitting our lack of knowledge could we seek to learn what we don’t know.