Stop following them to save precious time and energy.
In 2013, I studied for weeks for an undergrad test. Yet, I failed.
Research from different studies shows up to eighty percent of students never learn how to learn effectively. Even long after school and university, people waste time and energy with ineffective learning practices.
In the past five years, I’ve worked as a full-time teacher, completed a course on meta-learning, read 20 books on the science of learning. Each week I publish The Learn Letter — a newsletter that examines the best ideas around lifelong learning.
Again and again, I stumble upon beliefs around learning that are actually wrong.
Misunderstandings about learning waste your time. After reading this article, you’ll understand which common beliefs are learning myths so you can become a better learner.
1) Your brain capacity is limited
Some people fear lifelong learning can overload their brains. But, contrary to common belief, your brain is never full.
Learning is a virtuous circle. The more you learn, the more you can remember.
In this paper on the science of learning, scientists explain why storing information in your memory creates brain capacity. Rather than a library with limited shelves, your brain works like a growing tree.
The more knowledge you store, the more branches grow and connect. Instead of using brain space, learning creates additional opportunities for linkages and storage.
A research group around neuroscientist Henry Roediger and psychologist Mark McDaniel spent ten years bridging the gap between cognitive science and educational science. In their book, they explain:
“Learning depends on prior learning, the more we learn, the more possible connections we create for further learning.”
Your brain capacity is unlimited. The more you know, the easier you can hang up new information in your memory tree.
2) Rereading is an effective learning strategy
One of the most common learning myths is believing that reexposing yourself to something will burn the content into your memory.
Rereading feels productive because concepts sound familiar. But this feeling is an illusion of knowledge.
Roediger and McDaniel explain: “Rereading has three strikes against it. It is time-consuming. It doesn’t result in durable memory. And it often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery with the content.”
“Don’t assume you’re doing something wrong if learning feels hard.”
Rereading doesn’t lead to better retention. Effective methods include spaced repetition, interleaving, elaboration, self-testing, and free recall.
3) People learn better following their learning styles
Are you a visual or a verbal learner? While you might have preferences about the learning material, they don’t improve recall or retention.
No solid evidence from controlled experiments says that teaching in the preferred learning style improves learning.
“Tailoring instruction as suggested by the learning style approach can potentially have negative consequences for the learner,” psychologists explain in an evidence-based blog post.
The richer the learning material and the combination of styles, the better. The wider your mix of methods, the greater your learning success.
4) Rich environments enhance childrens’ brain
In ‘Understanding How We Learn,’ researchers looked for evidence for misunderstandings in learning. They examined 12 empirical papers with almost 15000 participants in 15 countries.
One of the biggest misconceptions about learning they found was the belief environments rich in stimuli improve the brains of pre-school children.
One reason why so many people wrongly believe this might be the following story of a misused teenager. Genie was locked by her father for 13-years. She was socially isolated. When she was found, she didn’t know how to talk.
True sensory deprivation can indeed lead to decreased learning. But under normal circumstances, the reality is enough for brain development. The researchers conclude:
“Even without decorated classrooms, children encounter sufficient information to enable their brains to develop normally.“
Children don’t need a stimuli-rich environment for healthy brain development.
5) 10,000 Hours of Practice Lead to Mastery
In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell introduced the ten-thousand-hour rule in his book ‘Outliers.’ He argued that it’d take 10,000 hours of practice to become a master in any field.
While this simple rule sounds appealing, it’s wrong in several ways.
Ericsson, one of the study’s authors that Gladwell used as the scientific foundation for his rule, debunks this learning myth. Ericsson lists several reasons why the rule is flawed:
- There is nothing special or magical about ten thousand hours. A lot of world-class performers practiced less or more before they achieved mastery. Ten thousand hours was an average.
- Gladwell didn’t distinguish how the hours were used (e.g., deliberate practice vs. ineffective practice).
- Nothing in the study implied almost anyone could become an expert in a given field by practicing ten thousand hours.
10,000 hours of practice don’t guarantee world-class performance. The additional practice would lead to further improvement even if you crossed the 10,000-hour mark.
Learning is a journey, not a destination. This meta-study on learning, memory, and metacognitive processes has shown that most learners hold outdated beliefs and commit errors that can even impair their learning effectiveness rather than enhance.
Reading more than 20 books on learning, I’ve noticed a recurring pattern: it’s less important what kind of brain you have — what matters is how you use it. To learn more effectively, here’s what to remember:
- Learning is a virtuous circle, and your brain capacity is unlimited.
- Spaced repetition and free recall are more effective than rereading.
- Learning in your preferred style doesn’t lead to better cognition. Mix the methods instead.
- Children don’t need a stimuli-rich environment for healthy brain development.
- The 10,000 rule is a lie. How you practice is equally important to how much you practice.