How to Learn (and Why Most of Us Never Do)

by Corey Pemberton 8 Minutes

LearningIs “learning” a dirty word to you?

A lot of us had bad experiences in school. The memories from back then – and the habits we built – carry over to how we learn in our professional lives today.

Ever wish you could grasp concepts faster and retain the valuable information you learn?

Emerging scientific research is calling what educators thought they knew about learning into question. By changing your relationship to the learning process and some of the tactics you use, you can build the knowledge you need to thrive.

Keep reading to find out how.

Learning Is a Requirement for Every Successful Entrepreneur

You have to work hard to be a successful entrepreneur today, but you also have to learn a lot.

Continuing education is more important now than ever before. With technology advancing so quickly, entire industries rise and fall in the span of just a few years. Companies like Amazon and Netflix have shown consumers what’s possible online, changing their behavior and heightening expectations.

To meet these challenges as an entrepreneur, you’ll spend a good portion of your time exploring new concepts and acquiring skills. It’s this ongoing process that will inspire new products, tap into underserved markets, and maybe even drive you to pivot your entire business.

You can delegate many tasks once you have the resources. But learning is something you have to handle all on your own.

Unfortunately, a lot of entrepreneurs are going about it the wrong way.

Most of Us Never Learned How to Learn (and We Use Ineffective Methods)

Remember when you were a kid in elementary school?

How did you learn multiplication?

The teacher probably gave you a table and a ton of practice questions. Then you went to work. Through rote repetition, the concepts eventually squeezed their way in your brain.

That’s how it goes in most formal education environments. We’re told which concepts we need to learn. But what we’re not told is even more important: how to learn them.

No wonder why so many of us have hangups about learning!

This carries over into the business world too. There’s so much we need to learn – customer service, the basics of compelling web design, and much more – but we rely on the same methods (or lack thereof) we picked up in grade school.

The result?

We end up wasting a lot of time, and we learn ineffectively.

We Can Learn Faster – and Remember More

Tragically, many people believe a lack of intelligence is what’s causing their learning difficulties. They never consider there might be something wrong with their methods.

Most of us were never taught any learning methods at all. Maybe we picked them up through imitation. We saw how other kids studied – maybe our parents gave us a pointer of two – and we stuck with those methods throughout our academic career and beyond.

If you can tweak the way we learn, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the skills you need to succeed. You’ll move faster than your competitors and meet the high demands of doing business today.

As business theorist Arie de Geus said, “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”

How to Learn Better Starting Today

Here are a few ways you can start learning better today:

1. Rethink Highlighting, Summarizing, and Re-Reading


Image credit: Hans

Making my way through school, I didn’t get much advice from teachers how to learn. Most of what I picked up – highlighting, summarizing lectures (by taking notes), and re-reading things I didn’t understand – were things I saw other kids doing.

If I had thought to ask these kids where they learned those methods, they probably would have given me a similar explanation – some kind of variation of “because that’s what everyone does.”

These methods are old standbys in the academic world. Because that’s all we know before we start working and building businesses, it’s only natural we turn to them in that setting as well.

Here’s the thing. Just because these methods are common doesn’t mean they’re effective. In fact, a study published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest compared the effectiveness of 10 different learning techniques and found they were some of the least effective ways to learn.

That’s not to say you should stop doing these things entirely. They work great as supplementary techniques to some of the others discussed below (which researchers found most effective). But maybe it’s time to take them off the pedestal.

2. Ditch Your Toxic Relationship with Failure


Image credit: Unsplash

This is more of a conceptual tip because it cuts to the core of what effective learning “looks” like.

In a lot of school settings, instructors emphasize accuracy and frown on mistakes. Students feel they aren’t good at learning whenever they struggle through material—or don’t live up to a teacher’s perfectionist standards.

Maybe you picture the ideal scenario as smooth and painless. You absorb the material with ease, you’re able to explain it and apply it on tests, and you remember it for the long haul.

But truly effective learning is messier than that.

Scientific research reveals that mistakes aren’t anything to shy away from. In fact, consciously putting ourselves in situations that are just over our head – where we’re more likely to be wrong than right – is one of the best ways to learn.

This played out in research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. Researchers at UCLA found that students remembered the correct answers on a word association test better when they were forced to come up with their own answers first.

It sounds counter intuitive. But instead of trying to make the learning process as painless as possible, ask yourself how you can step up the difficulty.

The obstacles you must overcome to demonstrate competency make it much more likely the concept sticks with you for good.

Instead of picking the right choice from a multiple options, try to recall the answer from memory. Instead of reviewing notes, try your hand at writing down what concepts mean in your own words.

Just the act of forcing yourself to retrieve something from memory (which often leads to that frustrating “tip of the tongue” feeling) makes you more likely to remember things longer.

It can be frustrating, and you won’t always feel the same progress you would if you just read something and skimmed over notes. But struggle is what effective learning looks like.

Fail now, and fail often to truly grasp the concepts you need to learn!

3. Practice Testing


Image credit: Pixapopz

Testing is another dirty word we learned back in our school days. It’s also one of the keys to effective learning.

But the type of testing matters.

The testing you experienced in school was extremely stressful. It’s easy to see why. The stakes are high: grades, scholarships, and degrees are on the line. And tests didn’t occur often – only a few times for the entire semester!

That testing style is a recipe for stress and caffeine-fueled cram sessions. I’m not suggesting you replicate it to develop new skills.

But if you’re willing to test yourself in a different way (one that’s a lot less stressful), you can supercharge your learning ability.

For effective learning we want our tests to be:

  1. Frequent
  2. Low-stakes

We’re looking for pretty much the opposite of the tests you faced in school.

The researchers in the Psychological Science in the Public Interest study found practice testing was one of the most effective learning methods by far, doubling free recall for some study participants.

The coolest thing about this is you can get creative. You can design tests for yourself to suit whatever skill you’re trying to master.

It might be going through a stack of flashcards on a topic and trying to get a certain percentage correct. It might be explaining what you learned to someone else so they’re able to understand it too. You can even test by doing. If you’re learning copywriting, for instance, you could challenge yourself to write two dozen headlines using the principles you just learned. If you’re learning web development, you develop a basic app.

Don’t worry about making mistakes. Remember, you’re doing this in a low-stakes environment. If you do this regularly, you’ll redefine your relationship with testing and accelerate your learning.

Who knows… testing just might become your favorite learning method!

4. Spaced Repetition


Image credit: PeteLinforth

Ah, all-nighters. I’m sure you pulled at least a few of them cramming for a big exam. You did everything you could to remember the material and regurgitate it a few hours later.

But what happened a day later?

Poof. All that stuff you crammed slips your mind.

These short, intense cram sessions have their place, but they’re far from the most effective way to learn.

To set a more sustainable pace (and stop stressing yourself out), you need spaced repetition.

Absorbing new information isn’t enough. To make it stick, you must review it from time to time.

All those notes you’re taking aren’t worth much if you never break them out. If you’re like me, you’re always eager to press on to the next book or course.

But it’s best to slow down and really digest what you’ve already covered. Learning three books deeply is worth a lot more than skimming 15.

Professor Robert Bjork, chair of the psychology department at UCLA and an expert in learning and memory, maintains that spaced repetition is crucial for long-term memory retention.

You can even try some cool spaced repetition software to help. Tools like Anki are free to download and accessible from your smart phone, tablet, or computer.

These programs are great because they allow you to create your own deck of virtual flashcards. Using algorithms, the software determines which material you need to review and when you need to do it. You’ll see material you struggle with more often, so you’re always focused on what you don’t know instead of going over familiar stuff for the umpteenth time.

5. Connect New Concepts to the Familiar


Image credit: Myriams-Fotos

What does physics have to do with marketing consulting?

Not much, you might think. They seem like radically different fields. But by using the power of association – connecting new ideas to principles you already know – you can cement new information into your brain.

The human brain is like a web. Knowledge and experiences are connected, even though you might not always see it. The more strands you can connect, the stronger that web becomes.

It’s only natural to focus on what’s unique about a new field or concept. But challenge yourself to see it the other way. Take this vague thing and build some “mental scaffolding” to something familiar.

When you’re learning something for the first time, ask yourself, “How does this remind me of something I already know?”

You might be surprised at how many parallels you can come up with. This is extremely powerful because it allows you to frame the new content in familiar terms.

Your Turn

If you’re looking to succeed as an entrepreneur today, continuous learning is a requirement. It might not be a matter of working harder or wishing you were more intelligent.

Simply changing how you learn will benefit every aspect of your life – whether you’re trying to pick up valuable professional skills like email marketing, or pursuing personal projects like cooking or martial arts.

Which learning methods work best for you? Have you struggled learning new things in the past? Leave a comment below and share your experience!

Get Our $270M Client Proposal Kit (free)

by Corey Pemberton
Corey Pemberton is a freelance copywriter and blogger who helps small businesses and software startups get more traffic and conversions online. You can find him on his website or follow him on Twitter.