Learning How to Learn
Long ago, I described myself as a “lifelong learner.” I never liked school much, but I liked learning. When I think about the most intense periods of personal growth in my life, they were always times where I was actively learning something.
Somewhere along the way, however, I fell off the learning wagon. I just stopped learning! Or at least, I stopped actively learning. I had so much to do that I no longer took time to study and absorb complex topics. During the first few months of the pandemic, I decided to regroup.
What else was I going to do? My 40-city tour for The Money Tree was canceled, and it wasn’t like I was going to start baking or something. (I did, however, eventually get into plants. I grew a whole rain forest in my living room! Or at least that’s how I like to think of it.)
It started with the realization that I mostly consumed information that had a direct correlation to my work or for entertainment. A third, important category was missing: information that I didn’t necessarily need, but that was interesting and potentially helpful.
A lot of it came down to the simple rule of forming an exercise habit, or probably any other number of habits: you just have to make yourself start doing it, and everything else tends to fall into place. Watching a long series of lectures on world history might not be as entertaining as a typical TV series, but when you take the time to do it, you’ll go away feeling enriched and wanting to learn more.
In this post I’ll give you two things: a list of free and low-cost learning platforms where you can access world-class courses, as well as a few tips to make learning stick. (Spoiler on the last part: the single most important thing is to write down what you learn.)
Where You Can Learn for Free or Low-Cost
If you want to learn online, you have an abundance of options. Too many options, most likely, so you’ll need to narrow it down or you’ll be overwhelmed. To start, here are a few good starting points, all of which I’ve tried.
These are some places you can learn for free:
- Coursera – I really enjoyed The Modern World: History from 1760-1910
- edX– especially strong with technology topics, like this course on computer science for lawyers, or this one on blockchain from Berkeley
- YouTube – get a premium membership to avoid ads and download videos for offline viewing
These are some places you can learn for small amounts of money:
- Udacity – watch for sales, where courses drop to just 10-20% of their usual cost
- LinkedIn Learning – available for free to all LinkedIn Premium members (check out my classes on entrepreneurship
- CreativeLive – for $13/month you can get a “Creator Pass,” which provides access to the entire catalog of hundreds of courses
- Blinkist – some authors hate book summaries, and I agree they aren’t nearly as helpful as reading books—but for topics like the sciences, where I’m not going to read a ton of 400-page books, I like it
Notetaking Is Essential
Alright, so you’re learning new things—awesome! But this is only the first part.
If you don’t take notes on what you learn, you’re essentially just entertaining yourself. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, of course, but your goal is to learn. If you’re not actually absorbing the material in a way that you can easily recall later, you’re not really learning.
There are a lot of habits that can help with knowledge retention. Spaced repetition is one, where you create a system of flash cards (digital or otherwise) that you then use to revisit and recall key facts.
The single most important habit, however, is synthesis in the form of notetaking.
Synthesis in this case just means “summarize in your own words.” After you read, study, watch, or listen to something you’d like to recall later, write down the key points in your own words.
Research has shown that writing is much more effective than highlighting. When you highlight something in a book (including Kindle or online), you trick your brain into thinking you’ll remember it later, but really you won’t. There’s something about the synthesis process that helps makes things stick.
For example, if I was reading this article, I might synthesize it as follows:
It’s important to learn actively. If you don’t have a plan for regular learning, it will never happen. The single most important habit to retaining what you learn is to rewrite core concepts in your own words.
You might say it differently, but those are the essential, critical points of this post. If you remember and apply them, you’ll be better off every day of your life. But of course, remembering and applying is not easy! That’s why you need a plan.
I’ve started making much more time for active learning. I feel like a lifelong learner again—just one who got off track for a while. I think it’s going to stick this time, at least as long as I keep taking notes.
What have you been learning recently?