Why This Blog Exists: Learning How to Learn Matters Much More Than You Realize

Photo by Dimitar Belchev on Unsplash


“When you’re on to something great, it won’t feel like revolution. It’ll feel like uncommon sense.” - Derek Sivers

“What are you doing that the world doesn’t realize is a really big fu*king deal?” - Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit

I believe that the world doesn’t realize learning how to learn is a really big fu*king deal. Learning how to learn is about using evidence-based learning strategies from the learning science to accelerate your learning, to minimize wasted time and effort, and thus, maximize your learning outcomes. I believe you, my readers, realize the value of learning how to learn because you’re here.

Staring contest

I used to go to my school’s library a lot. I usually sat at the same spot and I always saw this same student sitting across. She always had a stack of notes (those eight lecture slides in one A-4 page), sat incredibly still… and just stared at them. Literally. Motionless. I thought she was practicing telekinesis (moving objects by mental power). Like the harder she stared the better she could soak up the information. Not even highlighting, not making notes, just having an endless staring contest with her notes.

The Illusions of Knowing from re-reading

The finding that rereading textbooks is often labor in vain ought to send a chill up the spines of educators and learners, because it’s the number one study strategy of most people—including more than 80 percent of college students in some surveys—and is central in what we tell ourselves to do during the hours we dedicate to learning. Rereading has three strikes against it. It is time consuming. It doesn’t result in durable memory. And it often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the content. The hours immersed in rereading can seem like due diligence, but the amount of study time is no measure of mastery. Make It Stick

“Without an understanding of human cognitive architecture, instruction is blind."- John Sweller

I just think this is unfortunate. I didn’t write to single her out. I was more or less like her. Her approach is typical: most students are spending countless hours re-reading and highlighting when studying. I think it’s pretty well-known among researchers that, re-reading, highlighting and copying notes are not good learning strategies. But we, the lay people, don’t know and keep doing them:


source: Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques

Our default ideas about how to learn are completely wrong

We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not. When the going is harder and slower and it doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary. - Make It Stick

Going about your instincts on how to learn (without informed by cognitive science) is not a good strategy:

Our own intuitions as to how we learn and how we should teach are not always correct. [This] is evidenced by the frequent survey finding that college students tend to read their textbook and notes repeatedly as a learning strategy. In fact, one survey conducted at Washington University in St. Louis revealed that 55 % of students utilize repeated reading as their number-one study strategy. Yet research indicates that repeated reading is not the best way to learn.

Our feelings about how we learn can often be more compelling than reality. For example, if students read and re-read a textbook, they will become more and more confident that they will do well on a later test. If another group of students instead take practice tests, they will be less confident in their later performance – because these tests can feel hard. But in reality, those who took the practice tests will outperform those who re-read the textbook. In this case, and in many others, going with our intuition about how we learn can be detrimental. Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide

But the advice you seek might not be helping you either:

In fact, what students are advised to do is often plain wrong. For instance, study tips published on a website at George Mason University include this advice: “The key to learning something well is repetition; the more times you go over the material the better chance you have of storing it permanently.” Another, from a Dartmouth College website, suggests: “If you intend to remember something, you probably will.” A public service piece that runs occasionally in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offering study advice shows a kid with his nose buried in a book. “Concentrate,” the caption reads. “Focus on one thing and one thing only. Repeat, repeat, repeat! Repeating what you have to remember can help burn it into your memory.”

Belief in the power of rereading, intentionality, and repetition is pervasive, but the truth is you usually can’t embed something in memory simply by repeating it over and over. This tactic might work when looking up a phone number and holding it in your mind while punching it into your phone, but it doesn’t work for durable learning. - Make It Stick

We don’t know far superior learning methods exist, or how inferior our current approaches are. Our default ideas about how to learn are completely wrong.

If there are certain study strategies or approaches that are more effective or efficient than others, then of course it’s smart to use the most effective or efficient approach. The only problem here was that most students, and also many or even most teachers, don’t have an accurate picture of the effectiveness of their study approach. We’d even venture to state that many don’t even know the different effective strategies. - How Learning Happens

“Everybody that wants to succeed at a game is going to practice at the game,” he says. “You can practice haphazardly, or you can practice efficiently. And that’s what I did.” - Roger Craig, 5-time winner on Jeopardy! How One Man Played ‘Moneyball’ With ‘Jeopardy!'

A shovel is much more effective than your hand, but a power shovel is orders of magnitude better than both - even if it requires training and expertise to use. Gwern’s Spaced Repetition for Efficient Learning


Source: here and here

It baffles me when people don’t realize the importance of learning how to learn. Then it dawned on me that I didn’t realize it as well. I simply got lucky bumping into a few good books.

Our comforting conviction that the world how to learning makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance. Thinking, Fast and Slow

Why learning how to learn is so important

In our increasingly complex and rapidly changing world, knowing how to learn has never been more important, especially as both the need and opportunities for us to learn on our own outside of formal classroom settings continues to grow—not simply during the years of formal schooling but across our lifetimes. - Ultralearning

“Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works 10% more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity - it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. Gwern’s Spaced Repetition for Efficient Learning

[W]e need to keep learning and remembering all our lives. We can’t advance through middle school without some mastery of language arts, math, science, and social studies. Getting ahead at work takes mastery of job skills and difficult colleagues. In retirement, we pick up new interests. In our dotage, we move into simpler housing while we’re still able to adapt. If you’re good at learning, you have an advantage in life. - Make It Stick

Knowledge about how to learn is like compound interest: after learning how to learn, every minute you spend will yield higher returns (better grades and faster results). It seems preposterous to me that everyone is touting the importance of education (learning) but we are never taught how to learn. Therefore, I created this blog to tell everyone (or anyone who’s willing to listen) about these evidence-based learning strategies. If I die tomorrow, one of my biggest regrets would be not sharing what I know with others.

You can’t put a price tag on ideas

If you had known then what you know now, what difference would it have made?

This is rather useless speculation but sometimes I do fantasize what I could’ve become if I had known SuperMemo/Anki earlier in life. At the very least, if I had stuck using it, my life trajectory would be a lot different (e.g., more options for different majors and colleges). I mentioned it in my very first article: I would give you all my money if you had told me about SRS (Spaced Repetition Software) earlier in life.


In retrospect, however, I probably wouldn’t have listened, because I hadn’t yet realized the value of SRS.

Our ideas about how to learn are completely wrong… so what we do subsequently is wrong:

As college professors, we have seen [the illusion of re-reading] baffle students. Occasionally students will come to see one of us in our offices […] and say they are unhappy with their performance in the class, and that they thought they aced a recent exam on which they actually scored quite poorly. We ask them how they prepared for the exam, and they almost always tell us they “read the textbook and looked over all the notes.” They also often add that they “spent tons of time studying.” - Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide

Too common is the experience of a college professor answering a knock on her office door only to find a first-year student in distress, asking to discuss his low grade on the first test in introductory psychology. How is it possible? He attended all the lectures and took diligent notes on them. He read the text and highlighted the critical passages. How did he study for the test? she asks. Well, he’d gone back and highlighted his notes, and then reviewed the highlighted notes and his highlighted text material several times until he felt he was thoroughly familiar with all of it. How could it be that he had pulled a D on the exam? Had he used the set of key concepts in the back of each chapter to test himself? Could he look at a concept like “conditioned stimulus,” define it, and use it in a paragraph? While he was reading, had he thought of converting the main points of the text into a series of questions and then later tried to answer them while he was studying? Had he at least rephrased the main ideas in his own words as he read? Had he tried to relate them to what he already knew? Had he looked for examples outside the text? The answer was no in every case. He sees himself as the model student, diligent to a fault, but the truth is he doesn’t know how to study effectively. - Make It Stick

Whether you know how to learn can be the difference between failing in or excelling at school. I believe there are aspiring high school or college students who are passionate about a particular profession or major, but are struggling and failing due to not good enough academic results. It’s not that they’re not hard-working, it’s very likely about their learning approaches. Case in point: Kharma Medic’s Why medical school REJECTION was the best thing that happened to me. Of course, everyone’s situation is different. Whether being accepted into medical school is much more complicated and involves a lot more than exam scores: interview preparation, application strategies etc. However, all else being equal, knowing how to learn can mean whether you have a good enough score to become a doctor/lawyer/engineer or any particular major you want. Isn’t this important?

Why Should I Trust You?

This is a very legitimate question. The short answer is, you don’t.

Don’t Trust Me

Regardless, I believe in everything I write. The following from The Black Swan captures what I want to say:

I have only written, in every line I have composed in my professional life, about things I have done, and the risks I have recommended that others take or avoid were risks I have been taking or avoiding myself. I will be the first to be hurt if I am wrong. […] It does not mean that one’s personal experiences constitute a sufficient sample to derive a conclusion about an idea; it is just that one’s personal experience gives the stamp of authenticity and sincerity of opinion.


If you want to know more about my learning how to learn journey, see A Look Back at My 8-year Journey on Learning How to Learn.