Learning how to learn

We spend years of our lives attending school, but there are many life skills missing from the typical curriculum. Critical thinking, constructive conversations, handling money, business writing, time management, and self-care are just but a few. Another skill we don’t spend enough time honing is learning how to learn.

It’s a shame, because there are many science-backed mental tools at our disposal. How can you learn fast, better, and ultimately grow as a maker and leader?

1. Understand how your brain works

There is a great course on Coursera called Learning How to Learn, taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski. It covers the science of learning so you can optimise the way you go about studying, understanding, and using novel material.

For example, your brain has two modes: a “focused” and “diffused” mode. The focused mode consists in sustaining your attention on one specific task, such as reading this article or solving a coding challenge. The diffused mode consists in letting your mind wander, leaving your brain to make new connections on its own.

This is why we often have “shower thoughts”⁠—after intently studying a topic, the shower is a place where we usually relax, and new thoughts seem to just pop into our mind.

This is also why sleeping is so important when trying to master a new subject. Sleeping allows our brain to solidify new connections, get rid of toxins that build up during the day, and be ready for your next study session.

2. Forget about your learning style

Nowadays, there are many, many ways to study a topic: books, online courses, podcasts, in-person bootcamps, blogs, conferences, wikis, mobile apps, study groups, mentoring. According to many teachers, your learning style could be visual, auditory, verbal, physical, etc.

A learning style can be defined as “the complex manner in which, and conditions under which, learners most efficiently and most effectively perceive, process, store, and recall what they are attempting to learn” or, alternatively, as “the preference or predisposition of an individual to perceive and process information in a particular way or combination of ways.”

A framework that’s historically been used to figure out one’s learning style is called VARK, which stands for Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing or Kinesthetic learning. If you’re curious, you can take the test for free.

But it’s important to note that there’s recently been some push back in the scientific community around learning styles and their validity, with some researchers even calling them neuromyths. While most students believe that learning styles influence performance, recent research shows that there is very little evidence to support the idea that learning outcomes are best when teaching styles align with people learning styles.

The idea of learning styles can also be hurtful by placing you in a fixed mindset, preventing you from cultivating key learning skills that can be developed in everyone.

Ultimately, what’s most important is to use learning strategies that maximise your recall. Such science-backed techniques include spacing out your study sessions over time, testing yourself on the material, and experiencing the content in multiple ways so you can make meaningful connections.

Learning how to learn: the reality about learning
The reality about learning

3. Just do it

Procrastination often gets in the way of progress. But getting started is half of the battle. Here are a few techniques that can help you do just that.

  • The Pomodoro Technique: you probably have already heard about this one, but the reason why it’s so popular is because it actually works. You set a timer and do nothing except studying the topic at hand, and keep on focusing until the time is over. A typical Pomodoro timer is 25-minutes with a 5-minute break afterwards.
  • Chunking: this consists in breaking what you want to learn in manageable chunks, and master each of the chunks until you can form a bigger picture in your mind. First, prime your brain by surveying the content, for example by scanning the table of contents of a course. Then, observe an example, such as watching a video of the instructor building an app. Finally, do it yourself. This is a very important step to consolidate your knowledge.
  • Process versus product: learning is not a project with a beginning, a middle, and an end. You need to fall in love with the process. Want to become a better writer? Write everyday. A better coder? Code every day. It’s impossible to know everything about a topic, but you should embrace that impossibility.

Trust the process and you will go from good to great.


Anne-Laure Le Cunff

I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.

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