How to Learn
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This page has a quick overview of some ways to find, understand, and remember new information. Some of this might seem basic or obvious. Other ideas might be a bit unusual.
I've met a lot of people who don't know how to answer their own questions. Sometimes this is because the subject matter is very hard and the person doesn't know the background information needed to understand it (which isn't really the domain of this article- go do some research on the basics to solve this problem!). Other times, it seems to be the result of not learning how to learn.
"What" is more important than "why" or "how" in many school systems. There's a strong focus on studying by rote and repeating back information until it sticks, even if the subject is absolutely incomprehensible to begin with. As a result, a lot of folks cram information without ever really "getting" it, then conclude that they're stupid or just can't understand things on their own. This isn't true in the slightest. The problem is that they were taught how to memorize things, but not how to understand them. They were taught the hardest possible way to learn. We can do better than that!
TL;DR: Make a lot of associations between new and old information. Find chances to apply the new information until it sticks. Don't be afraid to start with the absolute basics and build up from there.
- Understanding something means that not only can you recite what the information is, but you can go into detail about why it's true and how it can be used.
- Rote memorization is hard, takes a lot of time, and isn't very useful when you need to use the information in new ways.
- Memory follows understanding more easily than vice versa.
- People often have short attention spans, and they learn less if the information feels unimportant to their lives.
- Information is almost never remembered on its own. Human brains tend to make a lot of associations without much effort. Thinking of a cat might make you think of catnip or YouTube videos, for example.
- Jargon, uncommon words, and bad writing can make it very hard to understand something. Learning the jargon helps, but so does finding sources that don't use jargon.
- Doctors learn using a certain principle: "watch one, do one, teach one". If they can remember enough to do major surgery, then there must be some merit to this way of learning.
- Learn your own way. As long as it works for you and doesn't directly harm others, it's okay to go about learning things differently. If you can figure out what works for your brain, then you'll get the hang of everything else much more easily.
- Ask "why". It's one thing to be able to recite some facts, but it's another to be able to say why those facts are true. If you can do the latter, then the information is much more useful.
- If you don't know why, look it up or ask someone who does know.
- Let yourself follow a few tangents. Sometimes they'll help you make sense of the "why" or "how". If nothing else, you'll walk away having learned something interesting.
- Apply the information. If you can, find ways to use what you're learning in your everyday life. Doing this can help the information click together, and it's a lot less boring than reading an article over and over. This also helps with remembering it later, so it's all-around helpful to play around with what you're learning. Don't be afraid to experiment.
- Try to fit the new information in with what you already know about the topic. Put it into context and see how it works with everything else. Does it relate to something specific in your life? How could it be useful in a different context? Would a different person see it differently?
- If the topic is something practical, then try breaking things on purpose (safely!). See if you can fix it using the information that you want to understand.
- Find out what different sources agree on. That common information is often the important info. It'll cover you in most cases.
- Try making three passes over the information: "watch one, do one, teach one."
- Watch one: Skim your source(s) to get some loose familiarity- don't worry about making perfect sense of it yet. You just want to see it so your brain has a little exposure.
- Do one: Come back to your sources later and look them over properly (ideally, after a good night's sleep to process what you skimmed). Try your best to really make sense of the topic this time using whatever methods work best for you. Ideally, find a chance to apply the information to really "do one", but making sense of it is good enough otherwise.
- Teach one: Try to explain the topic to someone else (inanimate objects count). This checks that you really did understand everything- if you couldn't explain something simply, then focus on that specific part of the topic until you can explain it. This saves you from having to review the entire topic every time you have trouble. If you can simplify the entire topic to the point that anyone understands what you're talking about, then you've probably understood the idea yourself.
- It's okay to start with a bare-basics resource and build up from there. Starting with beginner resources makes advanced resources easier to understand. It might save you time (as compared to grinding away at that really complicated resource instead).
- Depending on what you're learning, you might not need to know all the details. A general understanding of the topic can be enough sometimes.
- Simple English Wikipedia can be surprisingly useful for this.
- Focus on understanding over remembering. Odds are good that if you understand the information, then you'll remember it as well.
- Make as many associations as you can. People often remember things by what other ideas they're attached to. Try to make comparisons between ideas as often as you can.
- Apply the information. This helps with memory as well as understanding. The more you use information, the better it sticks. For example, if you're learning about cloud types, try to name the clouds every time you go outside.
- Use mnemonics. Make a silly phrase that contains the information, tell yourself a story, or otherwise encode the information in something that's hard to forget.
- I still remember that a word root for the fibula is "perono-" because I told myself a story: Perono is Tibia's little brother who keeps hiding behind him. He calls himself Fibula to look more like his big brother, but his real name is Perono.
- Make mistakes and fix them. People remember what went wrong better than what went right, and you're not going to forget the things that you struggled to fix. You might even learn more in the process.
- Try to rephrase the information using only simple words. Using simple words makes it much easier to remember things later, and the process of figuring out how to simplify the information makes it more memorable.
- Doodle it. It doesn't need to be a good doodle- stick figures are just fine. Sometimes pictures are easier to remember than words, and you may have more luck remembering your doodle to bring up the information.
- If you're memorizing vocabulary words, don't just memorize in the order of word to definition ("cats are small furry mammals"). Learn it the other way around too ("these small furry mammals are called cats"). This makes it more likely that you'll remember the word when you need it.
- If you're memorizing acronyms, focus on the words they stand for and ignore the acronym for now. If you know the words, then they'll come to mind naturally when you're trying to figure out what that weird acronym means.
- Read the acronym as the words, not as the letters.
- Learn how to use a search engine. Most answers can be found on the internet if you know how to search for them.
- If you know the lingo, then it's easier to find good answers. Don't be afraid to check a dictionary or glossary to find the words you need. "Atopic dermatitis" will get better answers than "cat skin itchy".
- "Cat skin itchy" can help you find the phrase "atopic dermatitis", so this sort of search is still useful for finding the right words in the first place.
- Simpler sources are better for newer information. If you have a background in the topic already, then you might want a more complex source.
- Specific questions are better than broad questions. "How do I sew 4mm of paper to 5mm of fabric?" is going to get you a more useful answer than "how do I stick two things together?".
- If you can't find any relevant information for your question, try to find something that's sort of similar to what you're looking for. Oftentimes, related information can be generalized to cover what you need to know. You might not be able to find documentation on a specific model of CPU's wiring, but you can probably find info on how CPUs in general are wired. That might be all you need.
- Books and websites aren't your only options. Don't be afraid to look for videos, podcasts, powerpoints, etc.
- Check the reliability of your sources. Who wrote it? When? What gives them the knowledge to speak on the topic? Do they seem to want to convince you of something? Are they selling something?
- An official government agency responsible for mental health is a great resource on mental illnesses.
- A blog post from 10 years ago probably isn't a great resource on anything in the present.
- Wikipedia is an okay source for general knowledge on a topic, but it's better to use it as a springboard for your own research. It's not always trustworthy on its own. The list of cited sources at the bottom can turn up a lot of good information, though.
- Don't trust your eyes. A nice-looking website isn't always a reliable source. Photos can still be sketchy as well.
- If you can find an official support channel/forum/what-have-you for whatever you're looking for, then odds are that someone has already asked your question and gotten an answer. Most forums have a search box that should help you find their question. If it really hasn't been asked before, then go ahead and ask.
- If you really can't find any information that's helpful, then try to work it out on your own by experimenting, thinking, or messing around.
- If that doesn't work, ask a friend or librarian.
- If they don't know, then ask someone else.
- If they don't know, then you should ask an expert- if you've reached this point, then you might have a problem that they'd enjoy tackling.
- Seriously, put in at least some effort before asking other people. It can be very frustrating to other people if you ask them for answers without doing any looking yourself. They might answer a few questions, but if it becomes a pattern, then you might find that they'll stop helping you.
Find introductory sources that are easy for you to understand. When those make sense, find more complex information. Make connections to your existing knowledge base about the world whenever possible, and don't be afraid to learn in unusual ways. If you want to check your understanding quickly, try explaining the topic to someone else who doesn't understand any of it.
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