Updated: Jan 31, 2022
As a teacher, I try to help my students improve their learning skills so that they will do better not just in school, but also in life because I believe in life-long learning. In my experience, school teaches us what to learn, but it doesn't teach us how to learn.
I've invested a lot of resources into learning how to learn, and in this article, I share the highlights. Most of what I've learned is from Jim Kwik, a world-renowned brain coach. I've read his book Limitless, listened to his podcast Kwik Brain, and taken his classes on memory and speed reading.
I hope this article will help you improve your learning abilities!
This article will answer some common questions from students. You can click on each one to jump there, or just read them in order.
How can I get a high grade?
I once had a student email me and ask "I want to know how I can get more than 90 points. Is there anything I should pay attention to?" I was surprised because this student didn't seem to care much about the course in the few classes we've had so far.
At first, I was going to tell him it's important to do the homework, to review daily, to submit rough drafts of assignments, but then I stopped. I've told that advice to students before and it doesn't seem to help. I remembered something I learned from the book Principles, which is that the root of problems always lies in people's character. In other words, if a student gets a low score on a test, the root problem isn't that they didn't study well. The root problem is that they are not studious. They are not respectful.
So I re-wrote my response:
"The most important thing to getting a high score in school (and succeed in life) is respect. If you deeply respect the class and the knowledge, you will naturally do great. Respect means you take it very seriously and do everything carefully. It's like how you want your doctor to respect you. If you don't think the doctor respects you, you wouldn't want the doctor to cut you open and do surgery on you.
We haven't had any assignments due yet, but based on what I've seen so far, you can improve your respect in two simple ways. First is to show your face and be engaged in class. Students who don't show their face in class are usually busy doing other things like playing games or watching videos, which is why when I call on them, they don't reply me. Obviously, this lack of respect will result in them not learning anything.
Second is to do the homework with respect. That means doing it slowly and answering the questions thoroughly. Students who rush through the homework or copy and paste answers don't respect the learning, so they don't learn anything. Later, when asked about the homework in class, these students don't remember anything. Respectful students write their words neatly. They organize their notes. They add color and underline. They ask questions. These students do great in the course.
To go back to the doctor analogy, you would not want your doctor to be playing games or be distracted while doing surgery on you. All past students who have gotten 90+ in my courses had high respect."
How can I stop procrastinating and go do that assignment or homework?
Don't wait until you feel in the mood to do something. You'll never start. Just take the smallest action you can to start. Action creates motivation. Jim calls it Small Simple Steps.
A small simple step is “the tiniest action you can take to get you closer to your goal.” For example, if your task is to read a textbook chapter, the small simple step might be to just sit down. That’s it. After you sit down, the next small simple step is to open the textbook. That’s it. Then the next small simple step is to read the first sentence. That's it.
You might be wondering, is that really going to help? The answer is yes because uncompleted tasks create tension at the front of our minds until the task is completed. That's called The Zeigarnik Effect.
For example, if you’re in the middle of watching a video, and then suddenly get a phone call, during the whole time you're talking to the person, you just want to go back and finish that video. Well, if you just start that homework, you'll want to finish it so that you can stop thinking about it. In other words, starting it puts you in the mood to do it.
Also remember: Good things usually feel difficult before we start, not so bad after we start, and great after we finish. Bad things usually feel great while we do it, but after the pleasure comes feelings of low or guilt. We don't want to live life as a slave to temporary pleasure; we want to be masters of our own lives.
How can I study better and do better on tests?
In Limitless, Jim Kwik gives six major tactics, of which I think the first two are the most critical.
First is to focus on active recall rather than passive recognition. Many people study using passive recognition, which is simply looking at your notes and seeing how much you recognize. When reviewing, you might think to yourself, “Yup, know that, seen that, remember that, got it.” And yet when it comes time to use that knowledge, it becomes hard to remember it.
To employ active recall, first study something, then close your book and actively say or write down what you remember. You can also do this with a study partner. If you can't recall the information without looking at your notes, then you're probably not ready for the test.
Second is to do spaced repetition instead of cramming. As you might already know, cramming is stressful and the result is that while you might remember the information for the test the next day, after the test you’ll probably forget almost everything. Kwik recommends reviewing once in the morning and again before dinner for four days in a row before a big evaluation.
Third is to get in a focused and enthusiastic mental state before studying. Often that can be as simple as sitting in a posture as if you’re about to learn the most important information of your life. If we slouch and are tired, we’re not going to get good results.
Fourth is to use your sense of smell. Since smell brings back memories, you can put a certain perfume or cologne on your wrist while studying, then smell that smell during the test to help bring back memories.
Fifth is to use music to put you into a state that makes learning easier. He specifically recommends baroque music because it stabilizes the mind to help you reach deep concentration and focus. As a result, it helps you learn vocabulary, memorize facts, and read more effectively. This type of music tends to have 50–80 beats per minute. He recommends simply searching for a baroque playlist on any music streaming service you use, such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music.
Sixth is take effective notes. That brings us to the next question.
How can I take better notes?
First be clear on WHY you are taking notes. For example, the notes you take in a class might be less detailed than the notes you during your textbook reading.
Second, use your own words as much as possible instead of copying word for word from the textbook or speaker. This way, you’re actually processing what you read. I can't emphasize this enough.
As a teacher, I notice some students just copy from the readings word-for-word. That tells me either they are just rushing to finish the homework as fast as possible so they can't be bothered to spend the time to translate it into their own words, or they really don't understand what they're reading so they're just copying the wording. Either way, these students tend to do poorly on tests. So make sure you spend that extra time to translate the textbook into your own words.
Third, you should use a note-taking method, such as Capture-Create, Mind Map, or Cornell.
On the left side of your notebook page, capture things that the speaker said. On the right side, create your own notes by answering questions like How can I use this? Why must it use this? When will I use this? Below is an example.
Notice that the notes aren’t just transcribing word for word what the speaker said, which is probably defining and explaining each of the leadership traits. The notes are useful because they identify how those notes are going to be used.
The Capture-Create method is great for taking notes in class.
This method is great for organizing big ideas. Capture the main idea in the middle. Then put sub-ideas around it through branches. You can also use color and symbols to help you remember things better.
Here is an example of mind map notes:
The Mind Map method is great for taking quick, high-level notes.
The Cornell Method is best for taking detailed notes that you can use as study sheets for tests. You need three sections. The left section is small, and you write down questions or cues. The bottom section is small, and you write a summary there. The upper right section is big, and you take your notes as normal there.
Here is an example of Cornell-styled notes:
The Cornell method is great for taking notes in class and for taking notes from readings, which you can then study later before a test.
How can I more easily remember all the things I learn?
Studies show we forget up to 80% of what we learn within 48 hours if we don't review. That's why it's so important to take notes and review your notes! You should review your notes after 1 hour, 1 day, and 1 week. That should be enough to help you remember what you learned for a test.
Aside from taking good notes, Jim Kwik gives the following tools to improve memory:
MOM (Motivation, Observation, Method)
Turn words into pictures (visualization)
Linking new information to old information (association)
Creating a story to link a sequence of words
Use the loci story method
Memory Tool 1: MOM (motivation, observation, and method)
Motivation simply means having a strong purpose to remember something. For example, if I give you a list of 10 words and told you, “If you can repeat this list to be in order in one hour, I’ll give you 1 million dollars,” you’d probably be able to remember that list in one hour. So we need a strong reason to remember.
Observation basically means being present and focused. If the teacher tells you something important, but you're looking at your phone and thinking about your lunch, then you’re not likely to even hear that information, let alone remember it.
80% of your success in learning comes from motivation and observation. 20% comes from methods. Methods are all the tactics explained in the following paragraphs.
Memory Tool 2: Visualization
Linking words to images is a powerful way to remember something once and for good.
Let's say you need to learn the word adaptable. One way is to just keep repeating the definition to yourself, "Adaptable means being able to change with the situation." After you repeat it enough times, you will eventually remember it. It's a slow method.
A better way is to turn the word and the definition into a picture. Follow these three steps:
Turn the pronunciation of the word into a picture (pretend you're playing Pictionary)
Turn the meaning of the word into a picture
Link the two pictures together. Make it vivid, weird, extraordinary.
Let's use the word "adaptable" as an example again. What does "adaptable" sound like? It kind of sounds like a tap dancing table. You can turn it to an image by imaging a tap dancing table. Then turn the meaning into a picture. You can imagine that there's music and the music keeps changing, and the table is able to change it's dance style according to the music. This is a weird image, which makes it much easier to remember.
Memory Tool 3: Association
Linking new information to old information is key to memory and we’ve been doing it all our lives. For example, if you think of the word “cherry”, you might think red, sweet, fruit, pie, etc. That’s how you remembered the word.
Continuing the example of the word adaptable, you can imagine a chameleon on the tap dancing table. Then you remember, "A tap dancing table sounds like a-dap-table". There's a chameleon on it, so the word means "being able to change with the situation."
Memory Tool 4: Add Emotion
Information by itself is hard to remember, but when you add emotion to it, it becomes much easier to remember. We can add feelings of humor, adventure, or excitement.
To continue the above example of the word adaptable, you can imagine the table tap dancing to your favorite song, which creates feelings of humor and enjoyment.
Check out this article for more advice on memorizing vocabulary.
Memory Tool 5: Create a Story
If you need to memorize a sequence of words for some reason (e.g., the Periodic Table elements for a science test), you can link the words together by creating a story. Most people just use rote learning, that is they’ll say “Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium…” over and over again until the brain finally remembers it. This type of learning is inefficient. Kwik gives a story example:
Imagine you’re standing next to a giant fire hydrant. Then you attach a bunch of balloons to the fire hydrant. The balloons somehow take the hydrant off the ground so that it flies high up in the sky. Suddenly it starts raining batteries and the balloons pop.
He goes on and on with the story for about 10 events, each event representing an element of the periodic table. He then explains the first event, hydrant, represent hydrogen. The second event, balloons, represents helium. The third event, batteries, represent lithium, etc. Notice that the story uses visualization, association, and emotion. Since the story is so vibrant, it’s easy to remember the story, and since you linked each major event to a word, it’s easy to remember the sequence that you have to memorize.
Check out this article for the full example on creating a story to memorize a list of facts.
Memory Tool 6: The Loci Method
The loci story method is basically the story method with one additional feature: Your story involves you going through different parts of a setting (such as a house), and each setting has one object that represents something in the list your trying to memorize. The benefit of this method is that you don’t have to come up with a new story every time. You just use the same story, except you change the items in each setting.
For example, you can imagine a big mansion with 10 rooms, and during the story you walk through all 10 rooms. In each room you find a different object, which you can change to suit the list you’re trying to memorize. Again, you have to make the story vibrant by using visualization, association, and emotion.
How can I read faster and understand more of what I read?
Jim Kwik gives the following advice to improve reading speed:
Use a finger or pen as a tracker on the page so you don’t get lost while reading
Read for only 20 minutes at a time, and then take a 5-minute break. You will easily remember what you read at the beginning and at the end.
Look at the page directly rather than slanted. For example, put the textbook directly in front your eyes rather than flat on the table. This reduces eye strain.
The first tip is the most important one. When you use a tracker, your eyes are focused so you won't get lost and the page and waste time re-reading things. You can also move your finger or pen faster and faster to increase your reading speed.
For the second tip, you should figure out what works for you. If after 20 minutes, you feel really focused, you can keep going for even up to 60 minutes. But after a while, it's important to take a quick break to keep your energy up.
He also gives two tips for improving reading comprehension:
Don't just start reading. Write down the questions you want answered from the reading.
Talk to somebody about what you read. Teach it.
There's a reason why the teacher gives you questions to answer! It's to help you focus when you're reading so that you take away the most important information. If you have no questions, you'll get no answers.
Talking to a classmate about what you learned and even teaching it to them is probably the most effective way to make sure you understand it because when you have to teach something, you have to personalize the information and make it your own. Teaching also helps you remember because when you teach something, YOU get to learn it twice. If you don't have anyone you can talk to, then talk to a plant or animal or even your table. That will also improve your memory.
How can I increase my focus in online classes?
There are three things you need to do:
Be super clear on why being in class is important to you specifically.
Have a specific place just for school.
A lot of students don't take class seriously because they don't know why they have to be in class. If you have a strong reason for being in class, then you will naturally focus. Connect your future dreams to you succeeding in this class. For example, you might want to make your family proud, or you might want to get into that dream university. Well, what can you do right now towards that goal? Get the most out of this class.
If you don't have a strong future goal, then you can think about how fortunate you are to get to go to school. Think about all the people working hard for you so that you get this opportunity, such as your parents, teachers, and school staff. Think about how thanks to these people, you get an opportunity to have a better life than they had. The least we can do to repay their gratitude is to focus during these short class hours.
After you have a strong reason for focusing in class, you need to remove distractions. That means closing any social media, videos, or games on your phone and computer. If you can't go even an hour without looking at these things, then you are not the master of your life; those things are.
Third, you should pick a specific place in your home just for school. You can pick a specific table or even a specific chair just for attending class and doing school work. Nothing else. Don't do school work where you watch videos or play games or sleep or eat. Otherwise, when you sit down there, you're going to want watch videos or play games or sleep or eat. Have a separate place for those things.
On a similar note, you can even wear specific clothes for school, and then change out of those clothes when not doing school work.
How can I reduce my nervousness before a test or presentation?
The simplest way is to control your breathing. When you get nervous, you naturally start breathing shallowly and you start to hunch over.
To calm down, sit up straight, breath in through your nose for 4 seconds, then breath out through your mouth for longer than 4 seconds. Really focus on your breath while you're doing it. Repeat 10 times. You should feel calmer already. If you don't feel calm enough, then repeat another 10 times or until you feel calm.