How To Learn The Most Important Skill There Is

You use your learning ability to pick up guitar, speak another language, get through calculus, and adapt to a new job. It underlies almost everything we do.

It makes sense then, that learning how to learn should be something taught early and well maintained throughout life. If we can create stronger memories at a faster rate we gain a multifaceted skill with life changing consequences.

Make It StickLearning is an acquired skill, and the most effective strategies are often counterintuitive.”Make It Stick

Unfortunately so many of us still resort to cramming, to doing one thing over and over, to highlighting and rereading, and to going through everything in the same order we first saw it.

These practices aren’t so great, so let’s find out what works.


The reason highlighting and rereading don’t work is that they’re too easy, and learning isn’t supposed to be easy.

“The hours immersed in rereading can seem like due diligence, but the amount of study time is no measure of mastery.”Make It Stick

Desirable difficulty” is a term coined by Robert Bjork, an eminent psychologist in the field of learning. We need to pull the memories back without resorting to our notes, we need to test ourselves.

Usually tests are thought of as measuring devices, whose job it is to determine if we’re smart enough for the next level. But tests are just as effective as learning tools themselves.

An easy way to accomplish this is through flashcards, rewriting from memory, or trying to tell someone else about what it was. Anything that forces you to recall the information yourself will do.

“Students who read a passage of text and then took a test asking them to recall what they had read retained an astonishing 50 percent more of the information.”Make It Stick


Cramming works in the short-term, not in the long-term. Those caffeine fueled study sessions for an exam the next day might get you an OK grade, but how much do you remember beyond that?

This is a problem, because getting a good grade should only be a secondary goal after actually learning the material.

The trick is to space the study sessions. The forgetting curve designed by Hermann Ebbinghaus shows that we lose what we learn quickly, but that revisiting information over time replenishes it, and progressively slows the rate of forgetting.

“Forget about forgetting. People tend to think that learning is building up something in your memory and that forgetting is losing the things you built. But in some respects the opposite is true.”Robert Bjork

Forget about the ineffective technique of cramming, and learn over time with space in-between. Combine spacing with your flashcards using the Leitner system, a method in which your most well known cards are shown less often than those you have trouble with.


Don’t focus on getting one thing right first, and then moving on. Going through one thing at a time is not as effective as mixing things up.

If you want to be a great basketball player, don’t opt for getting your foul-shots perfect before moving on to three-pointers and layups. Do them altogether, at random, even if it doesn’t seem like you’re progressing.

“The mixing of problem types, which boosted final test performance by a remarkable 215 percent, actually impeded performance during initial learning.”Make It Stick

It might feel like you’re making less progress, but your all-around game will get much better. Running through from start to finish in the same order doesn’t allow for the unpredictable nature of the world outside of class. It’s similar to learning the alphabet as a song, and then needing to pick out a letter or identify the location of one without going through the full song — It can prove difficult.

Make sure the subjects are connected in some way — don’t go from basketball to programming — and mix them up.

“Interleaving and variation help learners reach beyond memorization to higher levels of conceptual learning and application.”Make It Stick


It would be a mistake to think that our memory works like a camcorder. We don’t sap up everything we see or hear in perfect clarity, our memories are distorted and full of holes, more akin to a spiders web.

Like a web, knowledge needs to be held in place, and it does this by connecting to other points and forming stronger bonds.

We remember more if we can connect what we’re learning with what we already know, or we can create more sensory links using things such as sounds, visuals, smells, locations, or movements.

We can achieve sensory links by learning in different locations, setting up different smells or visual cues, and using music while we learn. The Method of Loci is a technique in which we mentally visualize locations and connect them to what we want to remember. Mnemonics are also great at this type of learning.

To connect what we learn to our current schemas and concepts, we can try brain and concept mapping, designing metaphors and writing stories, or drawing the information without using any words. Trying to redesign the material calls upon what we already know to help us find and manipulate what’s important, strengthening the bond between them both.

By adopting these tactics as your new learning arsenal, you’ll better position yourself to tackle tough subjects, gain greater insight, and have them remain in memory for longer.

I believe this is something that should be in more learning environments than it is, what do you think?

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