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No matter your path in life, you’ll spend a lot of time learning new things. That’s just a fact of life in the modern world. Since you’re going to spend a lot of time learning it would be time well spent to learn how you learn now to optimize this time spent to get the best results.

There are numerous books on this topic, some of which go down to the neuron level of the learning process. Here I’ll give you a short list of pointers that have worked for me over the years.

Mix It Up

You may think you learn best through visual input, or whatever. But don’t just stick with one input method. Use as many different forms of input as you can for everything you need to learn. You may focus on one or the other, but don’t settle for just one.

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Muad’Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It’s shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult. Muad’Dib knew that every experience carries its lesson.

Frank Herbert, DUNE

Setting Matters

When I was in college, I read a study that the setting we’re in when we input information into our brains affects how we get that information back out. The researchers asked two groups of students to study a topic that was new to them. One group studied while listening to their favorite music. The other group studied in a quiet room, similar to the test-taking room.

When it came time to take the test, the group that listened to music did considerably worse than the group that didn’t listen to music. The lesson isn’t to never listen to music when studying—what would be the fun in that? But remember to sometimes duplicate your testing environment as best you can while studying.

Putting information into the brain is easy. Getting it back out again is the hard part.

Dan Gardner (CTO/Mapt)

It’s not much different than a basketball player who practices shooting free throws all day in an empty gym. They might be money in practice but put them at the line in a crucial situation near the end of a game with the crowd going wild, and all that practice suddenly goes out the window. A great basketball player practices not just the mechanics but the situation.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

I wish I had learned this trick earlier in my college career. (Yes, it was a career.) During my fall junior semester, I decided to be more disciplined with my studies. I dedicated myself to the following:

  • Before a class, I would skim the reading material at least once. Nothing crazy. Just a quick scan so I’m familiar with the topic.
  • During class, I sat with pen/paper and a highlighter and listened to the lecture. I’ve never been crazy about taking notes in class, and it helped if I had skimmed the material. If what the teacher/professor lectured on was in the book, then I didn’t need to bother writing it down.
  • As soon as possible after the class, I would reread the material again and give it more time and focus. Based on the lecture, I would take notes and highlight the things that seemed most important.

That’s about all I needed to do. When it came test time, I would set aside a maximum of two hours to study my notes. If I kept up with the reading, then that would be all I needed. My last semesters were my best because I finally had a system that worked best for me. Maybe something like this, with your own personal tweaks, will work best for you.


Don’t overlook the importance of sleep. There are enough studies on this topic to fill a library. Every one of them points out that sleep deprivation is counterproductive to studying. The idea of pulling an all-nighter just seems like what the college experience is all about, but it’s a bad idea.

Go Above And Beyond

Let’s say you want to be a psychologist. Why would you want to do such a thing? I hope it’s because you find it really interesting. If you do, then don’t rely on your classes to be your introduction to anything on the topic. Get your textbooks early and read them. The entire thing. Read the supplemental material; read journal articles on the topics that most interest you. As a freshman, you should be at least on the sophomore level. As a sophomore, you should be at a junior level, and so forth.

Don’t let college get in the way of your education.

Mark Twain

That’s what I did when I was a mathematics major. I took calculus in my freshman spring semester. Nerd that I am, I stayed on campus for spring break and not only finished every problem in the book for the rest of the semester but had finished all of the problems for second-semester calculus as well. I could have taught third-semester calculus by the time I took it.

If you love a topic, don’t wait to learn about it in class. Forge ahead and set your own pace.

Recycle Wasted Time

High school and college are filled with short gaps between classes, or while you’re on a bus going to campus, or hell, just sitting down on a toilet. In fact, this isn’t a school problem. This is a life problem. Everyone can find moments of wasted time throughout the day. You can recycle that time, so to speak, and put it to work. Always have on hand something you can study. If you’re waiting in line at the grocery store with three minutes to kill you can quickly read over some notes on your phone. Don’t just default to scanning social media when you have a few minutes to kill. The default should be to utilize that time productively. If you choose to waste time, then by all means, do so. But make it a choice, not a default reaction.

Information is the currency of democracy

Thomas Jefferson

What Are Your Study Tips?

Do you have any study tips and tricks to share? We would love to hear what you have to say.


2 responses to “Learn How To Learn”

  1. Anne Turnbow Avatar
    Anne Turnbow

    Great advice and thoughts. I love the tip about recycled wasted time and the value of choosing versus slipping into the trance of default behaviors – ie, scrolling until my brain is mush! And sleep. Yes, to not pulling all-nighters. So important. As a mom, I’ve always been obsessed with my children getting enough sleep to the point of annoyance. And in college, so damn long ago, I guess I just didn’t care enough about getting a perfect test score enough to stay up all night.

    1. I think it’s funny that when I was younger my friends and I would talk about how nice it would be to read an “operations handbook” for women so that we could understand them better. Now that I’m 40 years older I realize I should have been wishing for an “operations handbook” for myself. 🙂

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