What I have learned about learning

When I graduated almost ten years ago I had this funny idea that now all this “painful and hard” studying is over at it is time to start applying all this useful knowledge at work.

As anyone who works in knowledge work knows it’s just the opposite.  I have learned a lot more after my graduation than during my studies. A lot of this learning has happened as a side product of working on interesting problems, but learning has also become my hobby. I think I spend as much of my limited free time studying now a days than I spent during my university time.

Now that it is voluntary I enjoy learning  a lot more than I used to. I have also become better at it in two ways:

  1. Learning is like a physical activity. The more you do it the better your stamina and capability for the activity becomes.
  2. Like any sport there is quite a lot of technique to it. My understanding of how to effectively learn is a lot better now than it used to be.

How to learn effectively is vast subject and I won’t be able to but all I have learned in one blog post. Instead I would like to share with you what I think are the three most important things in learning:

  1. Motivation
  2. Practice
  3. Time separation


We learn what we want to learn. If we are really motivated about something we will find the time and resources to learn it. Learning also becomes a lot more easy when you are motivated. For example when you want to learn something you will remember what you have read a lot better. Studies have shown motivation to be the number one factor in learning.

Fine, but how does this help me learn? Well you can use this to your advantage in two ways:

  1. Concentrate on studying those things that you find interesting. You will be a lot more successful in your studies and enjoy life a lot more if you focus on the things that fascinate you.
  2. Motivation is not a constant factor. There is a lot you can do to motivate yourself to learn something and sustain you motivation (equally important). The easiest way to motivate yourself about something is by asking the question to your self “what is in it for me”. By repeatedly asking this question you will discover (become mindful) your motivation for this subject. Then write it down and remind yourself regularly about it. Print it on your wall! If you can not discover your motivation to learn something then you should seriously consider focusing on something else!

You can use these techniques on yourself, but if you are a teacher/trainer/coach helping your “students” find their motivation should be a big part of your job.


Practice makes perfect. Even a small amount of practice can have a very significant impact on amount of long term  learning you achieve from studying. Practice has two important benefits:

  1. It forces you to actively try to make sense of the new knowledge instead being a passive listener.  By doing this the new information is fitted into your existing knowledge and skill base in a way that can be applied to new situations in combination to what you already know .
  2. By applying the new knowledge into practice you notice all the little things that you have not yet understood and makes you search for answers to those as well.

A good habit to have is every time you learn something new ask yourself how can you practice what you have learned during the next week and making that into a commitment for yourself. You’ll definitely notice the difference in your learning results.

Time separation

Learning is about reconfiguring your brain and that takes time. No way around it. The time needed is not just about the time you spend learning something new. It is also about how that time is spaced out in calender time.

If you have eight hours to learn something is the best way to spent that time by using one day learning something new? While that might sound good (a whole day without interruptions!) studies suggest that it is better to split time over a longer period. Perhaps use four hours now to study the basics, two hours in a couple of weeks to cover more advanced topics and two hours in a month to recap the most important points.

An easy way to use utilize time separation in practice is when your on a course (or read book) make notes about the most important parts. Then make two calender appointments with yourself to go over those notes. Make the one appointment about two weeks in the future and the other about two months in the future.

It is amazing how separating your learning in time will help your brain make permanent memories.


About teemut

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One Response to What I have learned about learning

  1. Pingback: Learning to Learn | Troikka

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