How to learn efficiently

I am convinced that much of the gap between the best college students and the worst is explained by study habits. Frankly, most students study poorly. To make matters worse, most teachers are incapable of teaching good study habits.

Learning is proportional with effort

Sitting in a classroom listening to a professor feels like learning… Reading a book on a new topic feels like learning… but because they are overwhelming passive activities, they are inefficient. It is even worse than inefficient, it is counterproductive because it gives you the false impression that you know the material. You can sit through lecture after lecture on quantum mechanics. At some point, you will become familiar with the topics and the terminology. Alas, you are fooling yourself which is worse than not learning anything.

Instead, you should always seek to challenge yourself. If some learning activity feels easy, it means that it is too easy. You should be constantly reminded of how little you know. Great lectures make it feels like the material is easy: it probably is not. Test yourself constantly: you will find that you know less than you think.

Some students blame the instructors when they feel confused. They are insistent that a course should be structured in such a way that it is always easy so that they rarely make mistakes. The opposite is true: a good course is one where you always feel that you will barely make it. It might not be a pleasant course, but it is one where you are learning. It is by struggling that we learn.

On this note, Learning Style theory is junk: while it is true that some students have an easier time doing things a certain way, having it easier is not the goal.

There are many ways to challenge yourself and learn more efficiently:

  • Seek the most difficult problems, the most difficult questions and try to address them. It is useless to read pages after pages of textbook material, but it becomes meaningful if you are doing it to solve a hard problem. This is not news to Physics students who have always learned by solving problems. Always work on the toughest problems you can address.
  • Reflect on what you have supposedly learned. As an undergraduate student, I found that writing a summary of everything I had learned in a class was one of the best ways to study for an exam. I would just sit down with a blank piece of paper and try to summarize everything as precisely as possible. Ultimately, writing your own textbook would be a very effective way to learn the material. Teaching is a great way to learn because it challenges you.
  • Avoid learning from a single source. Studying from a single textbook is counterproductive. Instead, seek multiple sources. Yes, it is confusing to pick up a different textbook where the terminology might be different, but this confusion is good for you.

If sitting docilely in a classroom is inefficient and even counterproductive, then why is it so common a practice? Why indeed!

Interleaved study trumps mass study

When studying, many people do not want to mix topics “so as not to get confused”. So if they need to learn to apply one particular idea, they study to the exclusion of everything else. That is called mass (or block) practice.

Course material and textbooks do not help: they are often neatly organized into distinct chapters, distinct sections… each one covering one specific topic.

What researchers have found is that interleaved practice is far superior. In interleaved practice, you intentionally mix up topics. Want to become a better mathematician? Do not spend one month studying combinatorics, one month studying calculus and so on. Instead, work on various mathematical topics, mixing them randomly.

Interleaved practice feels much harder (e.g., “you feel confused”), and it feels discouraging because progress appears to be slow. However, this confusion you feel… that is your brain learning.

Interleaved practice is exactly what a real project forces you to do. This means that real-world experience where you get to solve hard problems is probably a much more efficient learning strategy than college. Given a choice between doing challenging real work, and taking classes, you should always take the challenging work instead.

Further reading: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown et al. and Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques by Dunlosky et al.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

20 thoughts on “How to learn efficiently”

    1. I agree, great post, but I just wanted to clarify that the initial ‘confusion ‘ from learning is a result of testing one’s concepts of a newly learned topic such as the difference between a function and an actual measurement in an equation and being able to distinguish it from another.

  1. There’s a blog called “Study Hacks” by a guy named Cal Newport that has efficient studying as its central habit. Most of what the author writes overlaps with what you have here. I’m not affiliated with that blog in any official or informal capacity, I’m just a rabid fan.

  2. “Seek the most difficult problems, the most difficult questions and try to address them.”

    I (politely) disagree with this, based on my own experiences and what I hope is some logic. I gain nothing by being confronted with a question so hard that I cannot make any progress. The most difficult problems will always be beyond me, and beyond the vast majority of learners.

    I learn most by attempting problems that are hard, but achievable; problems into which I can make progress, even if I don’t complete them. I would propose that in terms of learning by solving problems, we learn very little by solving the easiest problems, and nothing by staring blankly at the most difficult problems, and learn most at some intermediate position in which the problem stretches us and taxes our understanding, but without being so hard we simply stare blankly with no idea where to even begin.

  3. Wow what an awesome article, I need to bookmark this. I’ve spent the last 3-4 years at a community college and I completed a few associates degrees. However I felt that I wasn’t truly learning anything so I’ve decided to join the “Coding House” basically a 2 month program where you learn full stack development through project based learning. I am super excited and I feel like this will be the first time I will be challenged to learn, understand and apply the concepts of what I’ve learned into real-life applications!

  4. You’ve hit the nail on the head! Hardly any schools teach students how to learn. When my students ask me how I became expert in several fields, I always say it’s because I learn to acquire skills, not just information. I put my homegrown methods together into a course, Becoming Genius. Check it out on my site.

  5. Do you have any data to back all this up? Because, without actual study that confirms your hypothesis, all of this is meaningless.

  6. Very well drafted article indeed. I am studying for MBA and this should help me out in learning and improving my efficiency. Thanks for sharing this. I also write about career on my blog but never have read about learning tips.

  7. Hello.

    While I agree on most of the article, saying learning Style theory is junk is highly dismissive.

    In fact, learning style theory is quite obvious when you study the brain extensively. There are different parts in the brain, and different people naturally develop more one area or another.

    On one hand you are saying that LST is junk but on the other hand you say that is better to personally struggle on a problem.

    One of the main reasons personally struggling with a problem is better is because LST, because naturally you redefine the problem “on your terms”.

    At the same time, while struggling could be useful for learning, it is probably also not the only way, or the most efficient.

    Struggling makes you remember something because it is painful and painful things are important to the body. But also is surprise emotion, which is a positive emotion that does not drain the energy of the person like struggling does.

    If you see an extraterrestrial alien landing from the sky you will remember every single detail of it, naturally.

    But if you see the same alien every single day doing the same for a year you could forget the details of the last encounter easily in the same way you have forgotten what you eat yesterday if it was made routine.

  8. Every tip you gave here are completely meaningless platitudes. Take out a blank piece of paper and write down what I learned? How can I verify if anything I’m writing makes any sense above rote memorization? I read posts like this all the time and its all the same. If you want to really get onto something try checking out Harvard Professor Eric Mazur’s Confessions of Converted Lecturer.

  9. What I particularly appreciated about your post was how easy it would be to share your ideas with learners/students and not just other educators. Thanks for that, as well as for the clarity of your presentation.

  10. @Nick

    Take out a blank piece of paper and write down what I learned? How can I verify if anything I’m writing makes any sense above rote memorization?

    You are just reorganizing the material for yourself as if you were about to teach what you just learned. If there are gaping holes in your understanding, you will often find out on your own. It is very hard to explain something you do not understand at all.

    Of course, you should test yourself again and again to make sure that you correctly understand the material.

    There is no silver bullet. Learning requires various activities.

    If you want to really get onto something try checking out Harvard Professor Eric Mazur’s Confessions of Converted Lecturer.

    That is great source for teachers but my blog post is directed at people who want to learn.

  11. Seeking out the most difficult problems is definitely challenging, but could also be crushing. Especially if the necessary foundational knowledge is lacking.

    Alternatively, student could look for challenging problems just beyond their comfort level. Once those are conquered, repeat at the next higher level.

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