And how you can implement the powerful way to learn.
No life skill can earn you greater dividends than learning how to learn.
After reading more than 30 books on learning, I noticed a recurring principle.
It’s a clear practice that integrates almost all of the most effective learning strategies:
- Retrieval practice: recall something from your memory
- Spaced repetition: repeat the same information across increasing intervals
- Interleaving: alternate before each practice is complete
- Elaboration: rephrase new knowledge and connect it with existing insights
- Reflection: synthesize key lessons taught by experience
- Self-testing: answer a question or a problem and identify knowledge gaps
The following lines will not only reveal the key idea and how it works but also show you an efficient way to integrate it into your daily life.
The Principle All Great Books on Learning Agree On
I spent countless hours trying to find a process that integrates all of the above aspects into a learning habit. For example, one result was an efficient (yet time-consuming) way to remember everything you want from non-fiction books.
Luckily, there’s a more efficient way: teaching in public.
Here’s why and how it works.
When you teach, you first have to retrieve what you know from your memory.
And the good thing: you don’t need to feel fully knowledgeable about the content before you instruct others. You’ll understand the material by teaching.
Dr Barbara Oakley writes in her book:
“You may think you really have to understand something in order to explain it. But observe what happens when you are talking to other people about what you are studying.
You’ll be surprised to see how often understanding arises as a consequence of attempts to explain to others and yourself, rather than the explanation arising out of your previous understanding.
This is why teachers often say that the first time they ever really understood the material was when they had to teach it.”
Moreover, by teaching, you make new material stick to your memory.
Learning through teaching is efficient because you have to rephrase new knowledge in your own terms and connect it with existing insights — the essence of elaboration, as the authors of ‘Make it Stick’ define it:
“Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know.”
Moreover, knowing you’re learning something to explain it to somebody else transforms how you process the material in the first place and includes a second repetition loop.
Jim Kwik, a renowned expert in memory improvement, explains in ‘Limitless’:
“Everything we learn should be learned with the intent to teach someone else. When we know we have to present information to someone else, we pay attention differently than when we learn just for ourselves.
So if we can take that mentality and apply it to everything we want to learn, we can increase our retention and understanding. The thing about learning to teach is we actually get to learn twice. The first time when we learn it ourselves, and the second when we teach it to someone else.
The information gets cemented through their questions and observations, making learning an interactive process instead of a passive activity.”
Effortful learning is far more effective than passive content consumption. And teaching is one of the most active things you can do.
The more work your brain does, the more connections you establish. And as you know, more connections increase the chances of remembering what you learn.
By teaching, you have to recall things from your memory actively. The authors of ‘The New Science of Learning’ state::
“To make good use of your study time, don’t just look over the material or read over the material passively, but actually try to recall the material.
Each time a memory is recalled, both it and its cue are strengthened, and you can access the desired information in your brain faster. Simply reading the material over is much less effective in building a strong memory process.”
Lastly, teaching helps you identify knowledge gaps and review the material strategically.
Award-winning science writer Benedict Carey explains why teaching something to others is so effective:
“These apparently simple attempts to communicate what you’ve learned, to yourself or others, are not merely a form of self-testing, in the conventional sense, but studying — the high-octane kind, 20 to 30 percent more powerful than if you continued sitting on your butt, staring at that outline.
Better yet, those exercises will dispel the fluency illusion. They’ll expose what you don’t know, where you’re confused, and what you’ve forgotten — and fast.”
Now that you know why teaching is so powerful (it naturally includes retrieval, spaced repetition, elaboration, self-testing, and reflection), let’s see how you can put this into practice.
The Best Way to Teach and Maximize Your Learning
You can do many things, but many of them are inconvenient. Likely, you don’t have the time or resources to give lectures, host a podcast, or have patient friends who listen to you trying to explain newly learned concepts.
I tested various ways to teach in public before finding the most effective way. For example, I created YouTube videos about cryptocurrencies or recorded Podcast episodes about communication and polyamory.
While I enjoyed the process, it was time-consuming and filled with secondary tasks (video and audio cutting).
Writing in public is the best way to teach what you learned to the entire world. It comes with less friction (you can write anywhere) and minimum time commitment (no video or audio skills required).
Since I’ve started writing in March of 2020, I learned more than in the combined five years of university education.
When you write, you put pressure on your thinking. It forces you to make your thoughts crystal clear. In this process, you learn and understand.
Writing helps you see how seemingly unrelated thoughts connect. That’s why writing is a mind-expanding, often even enlightening experience.
Through writing, you realize whether you truly got the concept or swim in the illusion of knowledge.
“The one who does the work does the learning,” learning scientist Doyle states. And when you write about your newly learned knowledge, you do the work.
“I’ve learned more in the course of writing and researching the thousands of articles to date than in all the years of my formal education combined.”
— Maria Popova, author of The Marginalian
How You Can Create a Consistent Writing Habit
A replicable writing habit is not as simple as having an idea, writing it down, publishing.
New writers often fail to acknowledge the micro-steps that are neccessary to move from idea generation to a well-articulated article.
Here’s what you want to focus on to stay consistent and create your personal learning engine.
1. Start with the right mindset
Write and publish 30 articles before expecting any joy or return on your time investment.
When you start out, writing can feel challenging. Words don’t come easily, and writing might feel slow and painful.
Likely, with every step of your writer’s journey, things become more complicated — you’ll become aware of everything you don’t know yet. But be sure that this is a sign of progress, not of desperation.
Just like any habit, it’s easy to stop after your initial enthusiasm. Answering the following questions early on have kept me going.
- How does writing online fit into your story?
- Why is writing online the right thing for you to do right now?
- What might get in your way and prevent you from completing this course and publishing consistently?
- How do you prevent this from happening? Can you use the energy from this fear to help you?
2. Set a clear goal and schedule
Again, the first few months of writing are tough. You will struggle to put words on paper, and nobody will be interested in your work because it’s not good enough (yet).
You don’t have external recognition; you don’t have the skills to write fast and good; you don’t have a backlog of content you can recycle; you don’t have a large following waiting for you to publish, which will increase your commitment.
Remember that building a writing habit is not linear but exponential. You will have to practice a lot before your words resonate with readers. In the early days, you will write in the void.
What you want is to set up a routine and structure that carries you towards writing your first 100 articles. A couple of questions that can help you:
- How many articles do you want to publish until the end of this month and year?
- When and how often will you write? (days, time, duration)
- What do you need to stop doing so you find the time to write?
- How will you protect your writing time?
3. Get help and join a tribe of fellow writers
Steven King shared a piece of wisdom in his book on writing: “You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”
I agree. And yet, while you have to do the work yourself, the right tools and tactics can fuel your growth.
That’s why I started the writing online accelerator — a three-week cohort-based course that will help you transform from a dreamer into a doer. You will learn how to create your learning engine and attract a broad audience. You can pre-register for free here.
Writing is one of the rare professions that give you a ticket to lifelong learning by turning you into a teacher. Make sure to make the most of it.
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