The most powerful skill you can ever have to guarantee your success in life is the ability to learn. More specifically, the ability to learn new things quickly and well.
There are many hard skills out there that society is asking for: coding, writing, public speaking, marketing, sales, and many more. There are also soft skills like empathy, confidence, and poise.
Yet all of those skills remain less important than the skill of being able to learn. If you know how to learn new things quickly and well, then you can get any of the skills listed above, and more, anytime you want.
But if you know all of those skills while not knowing how to learn new skills effectively, then you can never gain anything more. If on your way towards achieving your goals you find that you need a new skill, you won’t be able to learn it fast or well enough to succeed.
That begs the question: how can you become good at learning?
Mastering that skill will open the doors to all of life’s opportunities.
Here are the three best methods to learn new things, backed up by research in cognitive psychology.
#1 Distributed practice
Distributed practice (sometimes called spaced practice) is a strategy where your practice is broken up into multiple short sessions over a longer period of time.
For example, when you’re learning how to code, doing 1 hour per day of practice over 100 days (distributed) is better than 10 hours per day of practice for 10 days (massed). The space between each session in the distributed method is larger, yet the total practice time is still the same.
The distributed method has been proven to be far superior to massed practice. The massed practice was the second option in our example of learning to code, where you would cram all of your studies into fewer yet longer sessions.
To understand this, consider the following scenario.
Whenever you’re in a situation where you need to remember something you’ve learned, your brain will go to work in the background. You try to remember it, which triggers your brain to look for the information in your memory bank. If your brain successfully retrieves the right information, then your memory of that item becomes more resistant to forgetting.
With distributed practice, the time gaps between your memory retrievals are larger. Those larger time gaps make the task of remembering the information harder. This benefits your memory just like practicing lifting more weight in the gym would make you stronger — doing harder things makes you stronger than doing easier things.
If you were to do the less effective massed practice instead, then the information you retrieve from your memory would still be recent and relatively easy to retrieve. Your training isn’t very hard, so your brain doesn’t need much effort for memory retrieval. Harder training gets you better long-term results.
Therefore, when you’re learning something new, be sure to spread out your practice rather than cramming it. Following a simple structure can be really helpful with this. For example, you could do 1 hour per day of study or practice for 100 days straight. Another common schedule is to study your subject for 1 day, then 1 week from now, then 1 month from now, then 1 year from now. All of them work as long as there is spacing in-between your learning.
#2 Test-enhanced learning
Properly challenging your brain is critical to successful learning. Many of us have experienced this when we used to (or still do) study for tests in school or when taking courses.
Reading over the notes or the textbook isn’t rigorous enough to create really deep memory retention. It’s too easy for our brains to process so we don’t get the proper training necessary for learning. It’s far more effective for learning to challenge yourself to remember things without looking at your notes like you would do during a test.
Test-enhanced learning is the idea that the process of remembering things (memory retrieval) in an unaided, challenging way increases the effectiveness of the learning. That is, you must make your brain put in actual effort to do the retrieval, rather than just reading over the answers, to be able to remember effectively. This has become one of the most consistent findings in cognitive psychology.
This concept actually extends even beyond testing. In general, to learn better, you should focus on challenging your retrieval system. Testing without looking at the answers is certainly effective, but there are also other ways in which you can challenge your brain to remember information.
For example, if you’re learning to code, practice not looking things up on the internet for help. If you’re learning a new language like Spanish, go to a new restaurant where they speak Spanish. If you’re learning any new skills in general, go to a conference or event where the experts gather and engage in conversation.
The whole idea is to make your learning and remembering more challenging since more challenges for thinking and retrieval equates to more training for your brain, which improves your learning and memory retention.
#3 Explanatory questioning
Explanatory questioning is the practice of asking yourself questions that dive continuously deeper. The idea is that by asking yourself these deeper and deeper questions, you force yourself to fully explore all of the possible ideas, thus gaining a comprehensive understanding of the thing you are trying to learn.
A powerful and well-tested way of doing this is called Socratic discussions, a method of discovering answers by asking questions named after the philosopher Socrates. Socrates would play the role of a person with an ignorant mindset as he asked his students to explain a certain subject. This assumed role of ignorance forced the students to break down the subject into its purest form, reconsider ideas that weren’t concrete, and summarize the most important parts. That’s the only way they would be able to explain the subject to a person with an ignorant mindset.
We can apply this idea to fully learn any modern subject. Let’s say that you’re learning how to invest your money, and you read somewhere that investing in stocks is a good idea. In order to fully understand why so many people do it and why it might (or might not) be a good idea, you could ask yourself continuously deep questions:
- Why do people like investing in stocks? — “because they can make money”
- How do people make money from it? — “they sell their stock at a higher price than they bought it at”
- Do they always make money? — “well sometimes, it depends on the market”
- What conditions in the market would make it good to invest? — you could make a list of things here
- Why are those particular conditions good for making money? — this a tough question for most people
- Are those conditions present now? If so why? What would I do if they change? — now we’re really diving in and learning about investing!
By challenging your brain to think of all the possibilities and all the angles through such questioning, you are gaining a very deep understanding of the subject matter. You’ve really dug into all of the different parts and thus challenged yourself to come up with good answers. Those answers are your new knowledge of the subject.
Your learning lays the foundation of your life. There are many many skills out there. But if you’re good at learning, then you can pick up any and all of them at any time. Here are the three best methods to learn new things according to psychology:
- Distributed practice — space out your practice rather than cramming it
- Test-enhanced learning — train your brain and memory with challenging, real-world tests of retrieval
- Explanatory questioning — ask yourself deeply probing questions that challenge assumptions and explore the subject matter from all angles
This article was inspired by David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.
The research paper by Roediger and Pyc explains all of the above learning techniques in more detail. It’s called: Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice