Learning to Learn

The thing we often forget when thinking of learning is that we are not officially thought how to learn. When we start school, we don't usually go through different learning processes, how to approach math, biology, history, or any other class. At least this wasn't a thing that we did.

We just try, and try, until we succeed. Or not. Some of us is quite lucky with supportive teachers, parents, mentors. But most of us lack that support.

Now, one (among many) of the problems with school system in Serbia, besides teachers and professors not getting nearly enough credit as they should, is learning how to learn. In school I didn't attend a class that explains you how to learn. It was just assumed that you know how, and can, for that matter.

This article, even though I already started a rant on school system in Serbia, won't be about that! Here I want to touch base with the skill of learning. How do I see learning, and what are my approaches to it. And hopefully, you will find some of the information useful.

Are you a life-long learner?

Bluntly - yes. I consider myself a life-long learner! A long time ago I've finished my official studies, but the love of learning stayed. I wasn't like that during primary or high school, to be honest. I was a good student, but somehow I didn't enjoy learning. Something changed when I finished high school, and at that point, I started seeing myself as a life-long learner. Started to really enjoy learning. And I didn't stop ever since.

Throughout my life I continued to immerse myself in different things, learning about new stuff I didn't know, and exploring new things. It was great! And still is! This can be seen from the variety of topics I write about on this blog - Wondering Chimp.

Besides learning I like to learn about techniques that will help me learn better. Oftentimes, instead of actually going and learning the material in hand, I research different ways how to learn better, how to remember better, and how to be a better student.

Humans are learning new things every day, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. But we are learning. Our brains need it. Crave it. Some studies have shown that we can fight Alzheimer's disease just by learning a new language.[1]

Food for thought?

Then, why don't we just satiate that craving our brain has? Well, we do, kind of. But in a wrong way. Endless scrolling, I'm looking at you.

By being so dependent on scrolling through pages and pages of social media, chats, inboxes, and whatnot, we deprive ourselves, our brains, of the joy of learning. The joy of figuring out how something works, why something happened, how to do some calculations, etc.

The first thing we can do to feed our brains in the right way is to dedicate time for learning. Start small, maybe half an hour each day (bonus points if more), where you will explore some topic you were always curious about, but haven't found the time to do so. The important thing here is that it needs to be in a distraction-free zone. In other words - no smartphone!

Learning approach

Throughout the years, and endless scrolling of different material on how to be a better learner, I found some things that work for me the most. As with most things, there is no one-size-fits-all here. Use the following as a guideline and experiment on your own.

When I want to learn about a topic either professionally, be it some new technology, approach, or tool; or privately - how to optimize and train better, learn a new language, a skill, etc.; the first thing I do is to dedicate time to search for a good source on that topic.

The sources I prefer are those that I can read - books, articles, blog posts, e-mails. I don't mind watching a video or listening to a podcast. However, in that case, I need to fully focus on them. I cannot go about my day and at the same time try to learn something from a podcast, and ride a bicycle. Or maybe I'm not just that good at it?

I need to dedicate time for it. And with reading this comes naturally. I cannot do anything in parallel while reading.

When I've finally found a good source, let's say a book - I start reading one chapter, or a couple of pages, just to get the feel of it. During the reading, I take notes. With pen and paper. Most often by using the Cornell method for note-taking.

The things I note are usually in a form of questions and answers. On the left side of the page, I write down the questions, and on the right I try to answer them, in my own words. Not by copying it word for word from the book. Instead, I focus on how I understand the material. Then I check to make sure I haven't made a mistake. Usually, I re-do the answer, if I totally missed the point.

The next stage is to repeat - answer the questions I've written down. I also like to add a review of notes I've taken down on that page or for the book chapter I'm currently reading.

After that, I go once again through the questions and answers. Then I create flashcards based on those questions and answers. There is a great tool that I use for this - Anki. It has an application for almost every platform or OS, and it's quite versatile. You can add different types of flashcards, use images, graphs, and so on. Check out this tutorial for more on how to use Anki. Small disclaimer - this person is a pro!

The last step in my learning process is to regularly repeat or answer the questions. For this, I basically schedule a short task in my todo application to go and check Anki flashcards on my phone or laptop, and that's it. Anki itself will prompt you for the things you need to review, and the things you don't. This step however is the most important one. It shouldn't be missed if you want to learn something in a long run.


So, now, to summarize the things that help me learn better and more effectively. For all of you who reached this point. And for myself. Also, this part makes the article more readable.

  • Take time and find the good source(s) on the topic you want to learn about.
  • Start learning by reading, listening, watching.
  • Take down notes, preferably by hand.
  • Ask yourself questions, and answer them in your own words.
  • Review those questions and answers.
  • Create flashcards.
  • Review those flashcards.
  • Bonus tip: practice, practice, practice!

Where did I got all of this?

The process I mention above didn't come overnight. It required a lot of try and fail runs. Then, I stumbled upon a great course on Learning how to learn.

The course instructors are Barbara Oakley, a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. The course is hosted on Coursera, and it's free. I highly recommend you check it out! There you will find some of the things I mention above, and many more.

Professor Oakley also wrote a book on the same topic, and this book is a base for the course above. Even though the subtitle of the book says - How to excel at Math and Science, the techniques described there can be used throughout various topics.

Enjoy and happy learning!

And also, let me know in the comments what are your thoughts on learning. How do you approach it?


  1. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/100218-bilingual-brains-alzheimers-dementia-science-aging ↩︎