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What Is The Best Way To Learn, Or Learn How To Learn?

May 22, 2014

Once again, a smattering from many on this subject, but I can vouch for many of these techniques.

The quickest way to learn anything is by Positive Transference of Learning.
Transfer of learningIt means transferring the skills you have learned in one field to something else.

Some obvious examples.

  • If you learn one instrument you can learn another easier than the first.
  • If you have learnt a new language it is easier to learn another quicker than the first.

But there are other aspects of it.

If you have learned to play the piano, you will be able to learn touch typing easier. This is because learning touch typing requires a rhythm and hand-and-eye motor skills.

If you have learnt to draw well you will generally be more observant.

You can use Venn diagrams to see what skills have in common.

Let’s imagine you want to learn three different subjects of:
Touch Typing

Also assume you were a beginner in each, and had only an hour a day to learn.

  • Typing and piano both require hand practice (the overlapping skill)
  • Touch Typing requires typing out words. You can choose to type out french words from french songs. So words are the common element.
  • Piano requires learning songs. You can choose to learn french songs..

You can now use your practice hour in the following way.

  1. Practice your typing for twenty minutes. This will get your hands warmed up, and increase your french vocabulary.
  2. Then practise the piano for twenty minutes. Try singing the french words to the songs you are learning.
  3. Now practice your french by learning new french songs.

This is only an indication of how skills can be transferred. We do it all the time in lesser ways, but it can be worked out systematically.

In my own case I once worked as a sailor.

I transferred that skill to helping run a diving boat. I was able to get free diving lessons for doing this.

Once I had learned to dive, I took up underwater photography. I now used my diving skills to get photos.

Once I got photos I sent them to magazines, so used my photo skills to get into journalism.

Once I got into journalism I wrote travel articles about diving.

I then expanded my journalistic skills to other subjects.

In most cases I simply learned enough to do the job required, so I was never particularly good at any of them, but good enough to achieve my purpose.

From an outside view I appeared to be a quick learner with many skills, whereas I was a normal learner with adequate skills applied in a systematic way.

  • Positive Attitude/Wishful Thinking
    : I simply make myself think that the subject matter is actually easier than it is (“other people can learn, so can I” attitude) and imagine myself actually know the topic well or the answers.  I know it sounds silly, but the reason to do so is to help you get rid of any anxieties or stress you may have about learning the subject.
  • 3 I’s approachIntroduce, Isolate (concept), Integrate (into current project or life).
    Integration or applying what you learn is really key to making what you learn stick. What you learn has to be valuable or you’ll forget it.
  • Mind-mapping: I try to mind-map everything I read/study. It’s a great way to take note and also see how the different concepts connect to each other.  It makes easier to retrieve/remember the information later.
  • Diagram/Pictures: Drawing things out on a whiteboard makes me see what I learn in different ways. Check out the Dan Roam books (back of a napkin and blah, blah, blah) on how to do it.
  • Deep understanding through 5 why’s:  That main concept or issue you have a difficulty in understanding – ask why 5x, and try to get the answer. If you go 5 levels deep, you’re more than like to really understand the subject matter.
Learning has two components…- The ability to create the correct neural pathway (Short-term memory)
– And the ability to fire the same neural pathway with the right associated pathway (Recall)

Repetition leads to synaptic conditioning – the brain is plastic, and it allows the neural pathway to fire at a faster pace than before. That’s why repetition over a long period of time creates an instantaneous recall – that’s why you can recite your ABCs and 123s.

Try reciting your ABCs in the opposite way, and you’ll have a bigger difficulty than doing it forward.

What’s important is that you must realize that memories aren’t intangible – they are, as a matter of fact, physically touchable. They are simply patterns of neurons in different ways – just like how you would join the dots on a dot puzzle in a specific manner.

There’s another way:

Psychologists call it conditioning and some call it anchoring – but associating a very powerful previous neural pattern to your new memory is almost always going to give a very powerful trigger.

For example, you see it demonstrated in “memory techniques”…

You know your 1, 2 and 3s. But let’s say you peg them to RHYME with a certain word…

1 = bun
2 = shoe
3 = tree
4 = door
5 = hive
6 = sticks
7 = heaven
8 = gate
9 = line
10 = hen

Once you’ve gone through it a few times, it should be nearly impossible for you to forget the rhymes. Since each word is linked to your already powerful neural construct of numbers, each of these words get triggered once you think of each number and the methodology of rhyming.

And this is called “priming”. One thought leads to another – almost certainly.

Think about it…

When you think of a “bun”, you don’t simply think of the word. The image of a bun inevitably floats out. The smell maybe. The associated memories with it floats up.

But it doesn’t end there. The image might lead to something else. The smell might lead to something else. It’s an endless chain.

It’s a train of thoughts.

That’s how the Journey method works too. This method works on journeys you go on everyday, like a walk back to your home from your workplace or school. Obviously, you will be able to know what’s on your journey back home as well as your ABCs. And linking your memories is a method the Greeks used in the past.

Same with the Room method.

If you notice, “memory techniques” are almost all based on connections. Because that’s how the brain works.


I’m not just talking about memory here. It’s your whole approach to the brain. We’re leaping from thousands of thoughts per second to thousands of thoughts per next second. We’re only conscious of a few.

When you learn something, you immediately try to relate it to a past, strongly connected neural pathway (past memory).

Think about it. The first time you saw a four-legged animal, as a toddler, you might learn that it is a dog. But when you see a cat with four legs, you might understand that there are differences, but you might still call it a dog. When someone else corrects you, you build a new memory on that past memory that allows you to differentiate a cat and a dog.

We learn from contrast and connections. Imagine your brain to be extremely non-linear. It’s extremely random, and the only way to consciously organize it is to create non-entropic “tree branches”.

A similar technique known as the “Mind-map” is based off this. You can Google it.


Now that the background information is out-of-the-way, let’s talk about learning new stuff.

New stuff = Creating contrast from old memories

That’s it. And to do that, you need to ensure that the old memory that you’re “piggy-backing” off is strongly connected.

For example, for a pro tennis player, practice has allowed him/her to do a strong volley stroke on a tennis ball as proficiently as he can spell out his ABCs. That’s the meaning of a strong connection. (Again: The more you repeat it, the more conditioned the synapses.)


To learn something, you need to understand that the people who created these ideas also have had “past memories”. The timeline looks something like this…

Basic Info… -> Background Info… -> “Your new information”

It’s kind of what I’ve done above. I’ve lined out the background information so you can somewhat better understand my post here.

What you do… is you go way back to that person’s basics. Then you go to the background information. Then you go to your new information and soak it up like a sponge.

It’s kind of like a dartboard. You start from the outside (the easier foundation thoughts)… and slowly move in and zone in (your new concept).

It’s kind of an upside-down approach to the “WHY? WHY? WHY?” approach that a lot of people are advocating. It works, and it’s still going from the basic info -> new information.


To go a step even higher, you start to apply it on a lateral perspective.

You go sideways.

For example, there are tons of theories that can be applied to thousands of other seemingly unrelated scenarios.

Think of examples of the concept happening.

For example, the chaos theory says that the smallest things can create a huge difference in the results.

Classic example: Butterfly flaps its wings, creates a tornado in another part of the world.

You research: Tiny molecule contacts body cell, triggers over hundreds and thousands of chain reactions.

Or: 1 gene mutation creates a huge radical change in a body, leading to early death.

And if you actually go deeper, you’ll see that it correlates to other fields like economics… physics… chemistry… mathematics… sociology… anthropology…. literature…..

Well yeah.

The gist was “Connections using old connections”. But I hope the exemplification helped.

No trick or gimmick will transform you into a ‘fast learner.’ When I started at university, I was struck by how quickly top students were able to understand and apply new concepts. Now, I understand that fast learning is an illusion – these students had encountered similar concepts in the past, and were modifying and combining old ideas to figure out new ones. They were always looking to learn new things, draw new connections, and develop their intuitions.One answer cites Scott Young, a blogger who ‘completed’ four years of MIT coursework in one year, as an example of a fast learner. But did the blogger really learn? On closer inspection, you’ll find that he wasn’t even able to tell that several of his solutions were incorrect! (see his solution to 6.042 problem 4a – his example graphs are not even isomorphic).

My advice is to not worry about time, learn something, and learn it well. Build your intuition – ask questions like, “Does this make sense?” “How does this fit in with everything I already know?” Make this a habit, and one day I guarantee someone will take you as a fast learner.

Mark HarrisonRunning technology at FundingKnight (British Peer to Business – P2B – lending) 

1: Put it into practice – do some worked examples. mind map the application of it to something you’re currently doing,  You can’t learn golf from a book, you need to swing a club at a ball. You can’t learn Ruby on Rails from a book – you need to put together a site.2: Find someone who knows how, and has a reputation for being good at explaining things. Ask them to explain something. Buy them lunch if needed.  If you don’t understand something, ask them to repeat it. If you don’t understand it then, ask them to explain it a different way. If they can’t, or they won’t, or you still don’t understand, find someone else to explain it.

3: Find someone else who is keen to learn about the same subject, and arrange to get together with them regularly (online or in meatspace), to run through how things are going.

4: Each month, go and buy a magazine in a category you’ve never bought before. I don’t care what – Interior Design, Fishing, Cooking, Sports Cars, anything really. Read it – you may pick up a ‘pattern’ that resonates with something else, elsewhere, and much of learning is about patterns. (Even if you don’t, you’ll learn something, so the day won’t be a waste.)

5: If you are in a meeting situation (class, business, club, whatever), don’t be afraid to put up your hand and say ‘Sorry, can you just explain why…’ a bit more. Stupid people will think you are stupid. Intelligent people will admire you. This helps discover who the people to start networking with are.

6: Accept that mastery takes time and practice…. and isn’t a constant upwards curve. Learn to love the plateaus.

7: If you are having trouble getting something, write it out, longhand (not on a computer) on a pad of paper, just before you are going to bed. (Ideally, wait until you are in bed, do it, then close your eyes and go to sleep). You don’t actually need the conscious mind to be involved to internalize a lot of things.

Robert FrostProfessional instructional systems designer and author of a training course and manual on the learning process 
The key to quicker learning is to understand how learning happens and then taking advantage of that process.If we study how neurons work in our brains, we can reach two conclusions:

  1. Learning occurs because of repetition
  2. Learners must connect new knowledge to previous knowledge in order to learn

The first one is pretty straightforward.  Repeatedly think about something and the neurons related to that something will grow dendrites and make associations with other neurons, making it easier for us to remember and recall that something, when needed.  We all know how to learn or memorize by repetition.

The second is the more complicated one.  Our brains store information by context and association based on existing mental models (AKA schema).  If we want to learn new information successfully we need to either find an existing mental model that will associate with the new information or we need to build a new mental model in which the new information will fit.

The quick learner determines the analogous existing mental model or realizes when they don’t have an existing acceptable mental model and they back-off and build a new mental model before trying to absorb the concept that is new.  Building new mental models can be done by outlining or mind-mapping.  Start with the central new concept and branch off to the key features of that concept.  Keep branching off until you reach a point where you have existing knowledge that can connect to the new knowledge.

Here is a crude example.  Let’s assume we wanted to learn how to play chess:

By making the association between the shape of the Bishop piece and a picture of a bishop’s hat we will have a neural association that will make it easy for us to recognize which piece is the Bishop.

Using images wherever practical is a benefit, because our brains are better at remembering images than words.

Much more on this subject is found at this link.
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