How to Learn Anything— Learn Better by Ulrich Boser

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Learn Better on

About Learn Better

If you have trouble learning, the problem is not you — it’s your learning system. If you knew how to learn better, you’d be able to learn almost anything.

Learn Better by Ulrich Boser is your how-to guide for learning everything in a more effective manner. Boser goes step by step from WHY people learn to HOW people learn, sprinkling anecdotes about brain and learning research and how that applies to you, whether you want to learn math, a new language, or how to make your life better.


Most people have never learned how to learn, how to improve our expertise in a subject. People learn at different rates.

A research experiment by Anastasia Kitsantas in a NYC Catholic girls’ school taught one group of girls to learn to throw darts by focusing on the process of gaining expertise: mastering basic processes first and then shifting from process to outcome goals.

They did better than girls who just were told to throw the darts as accurately as they could.

Researchers recommend thinking aloud while problem solving.

Learning is a dedicated, engaged process and there’s no research supporting the notion of learning styles, though most people believe it exists.

But good news: It doesn’t take much to develop the learning process. Even small tweaks can dramatically improve outcomes.

People are growing more into interconnected systems and remember less info and more about how to find info. Our technology is a “prosthetic brain.” Facts and details have lost a lot of value.

Technology has decimated jobs needing procedural knowledge. To succeed, people need “expert thinking skills” to solve unstructured problems. They need to create understanding out of new information.

Memorization and understanding procedures is lower order thinking. Mastery is shifting and the life cycle of expertise has become shorter.

To learn, people need to

  • Understand relationshps and identify cause and effect.
  • Look for analogies outside their field
  • Develop a pithy summary of the situation
  • Clearly define a problem in order to crack a persistent riddle/issue
  • Practice testing yourself

Learning to learn is the ultimate survival tool. When you know how to learn, you can learn almost anything.

Develop a systematic approach to developing expertise:

  • Value: We won’t learn anything if we don’t want to. And we need to create meaning. Learning is about making sense of something.
  • Target: Focus is the key in the early part of gaining mastery. We need to know what we want to learn, and set goals and targets.
  • Develop: People need to hone their skills through forms of practice that work for them.
  • Extend: Go beyond the basics and apply what you know.
  • Relate: See how it all fits together.
  • Rethink: Reconsider your understanding and don’t be overconfident.

Chapter 1: Value

Start with a story: Jason Wolfson is a lego master. He loves making new things. Meaning is the first step of understanding.

How to create a sense of value: rewards, novelty, context.

Simply telling people that information has value can backfire. When people are told how to feel/think, they feel threatened/overly managed. — psych Prof Chris Hulleman, U of VA

People need to make a connection between what they’re learning and what’s going on in their lives.

We are more motivated to learn something if we have or will have experience with it.

  • See Yale prof’s Amy Wrzesniewski’s research: janitors who believed they were “hospital ambassadors” were more engaged and happy in their work.
  • Job crafting: shift your job to fit your interests. Looking for ways to make your job more meaningful.
  • Learn crafting: make what you want to learn more relevant. Hunt for meaning in your learning material.

Students with more autonomy show more motivation and better learning outcomes. We need choice to stay motivated, and we need a hand in crafting our own learning.

Emotional support tilts the motivation scale, creating a feeling of value and meaning. And a sense of drive can jump from person to person. Mental effort is contagious.

Meaning is learning

Expertise: making sense of things, an ability to see relationships within an area of mastery.

If you think about information meaningfully, you’re more likely to remember info than if you think about it superficially. — Stephen Chew

Learning requires effort. There’s a mind-body connection (which is why mental abacus experts calculate things by moving their fingers in the air)

To learn: people must figure out what they’re going to learn, then integrate that info into what they already know. Making mental effort to complete an idea (like leaving letters out of a foreign word) or coming up with a mental image, we retain more.

Students who manually practice writing have a more systemic understanding than students who just study or type letters.

When we explain ideas to ourselves, we are mentally doing, and that creates more mastery. People have to keep practicing to retain knowledge. Language attrition is real, and even happens to rural speakers.

With language attrition, what disappears is meaning, not the vocab. People lose the relationships and systems embedded in the language.

Learning tips:

  • We don’t learn things on accident. We learn things we AIM to learn.
  • Context and framing plays a crucial role in developing an engaged attitude.
  • Mindset plays an important role: people lose language abilities when they have a weak opinion of the native country.
  • Ellen Langer tip: people learning a skill must keep on the alert for nuances, hunt actively for what’s original and novel in an area of expertise. Don’t just do what’s regular — take some time to search and discover new things.
  • Learning requires instruction, guidance and support. Teachers should be cognitive coaches, like athletic coaches, breaking down a topic into key elements of thinking required.

Chapter 2: Target

The Success for All education program has helped South Carolina students learn through group learning. The secret was in the targeting: students are grouped and regrouped to make sure they learn what they have to learn.

Learning is a process/system.

To master knowledge, break it down into digestible parts and concentrate on discrete bits of mastery.

That’s why we can’t multitask while learning. Even a little music can prevent you from learning.

Because short term memory is limited, we learn better in smaller doses. (That’s also why short sentences are great for writers). We overestimate how much we can keep in STM. We can’t understand one big complicated idea in one sitting.

Cognitive overload: Combining two topics causes people to learn less (foreign language + another topic like history or literature)

Anxiety is hurtful for mastery. We can’t focus when we’re stressed. Effective communicators know this, so they’ll simplify the message. Effective instructors create easy to understand chunks for bite-sized mastery.

The Knowledge Effect: it’s hard to learn something if you know nothing already about it. There is no learning without some prior knowledge. That’s why mnemonics help: they hang new knowledge on old knowledge.

So to start: ID what background knowledge is necessary for expertise. What foundational concepts do you need to master for this field?

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Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash

Chapter 3: Develop

The nature of struggle — and repetition

There’s no such thing as effortless learning. Learning anything requires discomfort. Developing expertise requires repetition — NON mindless repetition.

Retrieval practice/testing effect: People who practice recalling info learn significantly more. Don’t just recall facts. Quiz yourself on things like “draw this conecpt.” “Give a real life example.”

  • See Mastermind by Maria Konnikova.

When the brain struggles with material, it grows white matter. The more you practice something, the more your brain thinks it is important.

The psychology of errors

Errors create meaning. They build understanding. Mistakes threaten our being, make us rethink who we are. They are necessary for expertise.

  • See: Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz

Learning shapes intelligence. They affect each other.

Emotional resilience is a major part of learning. See the famous marshmallow experiment.

How to work on this: people have more resilience if they label and identify their feelings. Once we know our emotions, we can manage them. We need to pep talk ourselves, being supportive after defeat/difficulty. Use the word “you” more than “I.”

Emotional resilience also comes from

  1. A feeling of social connection (because our attitudes toward errors are deeply social)
  2. Reframing difficult things in a different light. (Ex: see junk food as “poison,” not a “treat.”)
  3. Clear rules/ if-then plans. Instead of relying on thinking/feeling, you are relying on a type of habit and that takes less energy.

People live up to the labels that they give themselves. Labels have a lot of power. When we focus on outcomes rather than mastery, we are tempted to label ourselves with damaging narratives.

But people who focus on mastering skills, people whose goals are focused on mastery, are better able to shrug off these narratives.

Chapter 4: Extend

To become an expert we need to expand an area of mastery. Rich forms of learning is about knowledge extension, deepening understanding. That’s what long term memory does.

Summarization/the act of putting an idea into our own words helps us do this. It makes us focus on what’s important, extending our grasp of the idea.

Ex: Physicist Richard Taylor found that Jackson Pollock’s chaotic-seeming paintings actually contained a kind of fractal geometry, and the later into Pollock’s “drip phase of art,” the higher the fractal complexity.

Learners gain more when they ask themselves explanatory questions like “Can I describe this idea? Clarify this skill? Put it in my own words?” Describe ideas to ourself to gain a richer understanding of a topic.

WHY questions are particularly helpful when reading. Readers should frequently ask WHY questions like “Why does the author make this claim? Why should I believe the writer? Why does this matter?”

Arguments are also a way to expand learning and riff on an idea. Rounding up evidence to prove a point improves our knowledge of the field. It also forces us to use logic and reasoning and interpretation, the center of learning.

This is important because we often engage in weak reasoning. It makes sensne that seasons are a result of Earth’s distance from the sun (they’re not) or that you can solve 1/2 x 1/4 by simply multiplying denominators (wrong) or business interests always explain economic policies (they don’t). That’s why it’s important to weigh different pieces of proof.

The need for application

One of the oldest forms of learrning is imitation, which works because it’s concrete. Our brains like tangible things over abstractions. This urge shapes everything we think about.

The brain is a visual organ, and vision is our most powerful brain circuit. (That’s why abacuses arre so useful for mathematics). And we can learn a lot by drawing.

Applying learning helps you find gaps in understanding. It also makes your learning more relevant, which provides motivation. Applying knowledge makes it more integrated.]

Ways to apply learning:

  • Through simulations (like computer simulations)
  • Through teaching someone else (The Protege Effect)

The value of uncertainty

Expertise is always changing. With the increase of information through technology, our “knowledge economy” has become a “thinking economy.” We need subtler forms of knowledge to succeed, not rote academic knowledge.

So learners need to be able to change perspectives, be able to think abstractly and concretely, etc.

Remember also: the people around you also effect your expertise, how you think. People become more critical of their thinking when surrounded by people unlike them. Ethnic diversity promotes critical thinking via skepticism.

We don’t actually enjoy diversity because it’s socially uncomfortable to engage with people who are different. But it helps to have diverse perspectives.

  • See James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds. (A group of people can solve a problem better than one)

A bit of skepticism and rebelliousness also helps us be more curious, creative, and better learners.

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Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

Chapter 5: Relate

Thought experiments date back to the ancient Greeks.

One of the hardest parts of the learning process is understanding a topic’s underlying connections. That’s how we create mastery, a richer knowledge that you can use in different contexts.

Real learrning is about understanding rerlationships. So effective learning involves thinking about relationships.

Don’t just memorize facts. FInd causes, analogues, differences.

Problems have both surface (concrete, superficial elements) and deep (concepts, skills) features. And people usually get distracted by a problem’s shallow details.

When people see many examples with different surface details they can better see the underlying system. But most people don’t vary their practice and examples ennough. To spot deep connections we need a LOT of examples. And the contrasts between nexamples need to be immediate and explicit.

Speculating/Hypotheticals are another way to find relationships within a field. (“What if” questionns) These questions make us grapple with systems.

Ex: If money were no object, what woould you do? If ou had to cut half your products, how would you do it? — Steve Jobs asked his managers this question.

Pretend play is a kind of hypothetical, that’s why kids play so many imagination games.

Other ways to develop systems thinking: the scientific process!

  1. Look at evidence
  2. Develop theory
  3. Test theory
  4. Come to a conclusion

Ex: One art teacher made his students write a 1-sentence summary of their drawing before they put pen to paper to draw.

Dedicated experimentation is a powerful way to understand the system underlying the thing you want to learn. You can do this by creating a visual representation, like a Venn Diagram (Note: or a Mind Map)

The value of analogy

Analogies are all about similarities and differences, helping us understand things that are new/different.

Using analogies helps people grasp things quicker. Ex: When Blue Apron was starting out, it called itself the “Uber for high end cooking,” comparing itself to something people already knew.

Another example is the marketing jingle: “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there!”

Analogies bridge 2 ideas/concepts. When using an analogy, outline the exact similarities.

Ex: Thelma and Louise is a “cowboy movie with women instead of guys.” And Chronicles of Narnia is a fantasy novel version of the New Testament.

Analogies help sharpen the distinction between different things. A “compare and contrast” approach helps people understand things more deeply.

The skill of problem solving

Mathematician George Polya had a 4-phase problem solving system deatiled in his book How to Solve It:

  1. UNDERSTANDING: figure out the core idea/nature of the problem. What is the data? The unknown?
  2. DEVISING A PLAN: map out how to address the problem. Find the connection between the data and unknown.
  3. CARRYING OUT THE PLAN: doing and vetting, trying to prove the solution is correct.
  4. LOOKING BACK: learnning from solutions, re-examining the result and the path that leads to it to consolidate knowledge and develop problem solving ideas.

Studies show that people who ask themselves questionns are more effective at problem solving than people who don’t. Examples of questions you can ask are: Is there enough evidence? What’s the counter-argument? Have we fallen for any weak logic? Are we susceptibel to bias?

And also prioritization is important. Some problems are more pressing than others. People also need to recognize when something’s not working and try something new.

Chapter 6: Rethink

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for cognitive biases and founded the field of behavioral economics. Boooks that depend on Kahneman’s work in some way:

  • Predictably Irrational
  • Nudge
  • Moneyball

Most everyonen suffers from overconfidence, which trips us up. It prevents effective learning. People don’t think or ask themselves questions.

So this last stage of the learning process involves rethinking what you think you know.

A little knowledge is figuratively dangerous. It actually confuses us because the more we know, the more we think we know.

Ex: you use a toilet every day, but do you know how it works? Most people think they have a basic understanding of how it works, but when you consider the actual details of the physics and mechanics of how a toilet works, you probably don’t have even a basic understanding of how a toilet works.

This is called the experrt blind spot, the fluency heuristic, the illusionn of explanatory depth.

In other words, we think we know more than we do. We don’t realize how much we don’t know.

So to rethink your learning, BE HUMBLE.

Familiarity breeds overconfidence. That’s why people think they know more about toilets than they do — they’re around them all the time.

And if something LOOKS easy or common, we think it’s easier to learn. Articles with large images makes people think they got the content more than they did. Professsors who can win over a class make students think they can learn more from that professor even if they don’t.

And people don’t put in effort to learn something that seems easy. Material that’s easily learned is easily forgotten.

Another thing to watch out for: Victory Disease.

Successful past performance can make us overly confident and work less hard in the future.

The need to evaluate

Kahneman once had a meeting with Bill Gates who asked a question about the footnote of a footnote on one of eight appendices from a 40-page memo. He pays attention to details and closely tracks information to tell who is truly an expert.

Every learner needs to dedicate time to rethinking. Ask yourself:

  • What did I learn?
  • What was hard to undnerstand?
  • Does anything seem confusing?
  • What’s unclear?
  • How do I know what I know?

Changing the medium also helps, like reading an article aloud before you publish, or printing out a memo on paper (ratherr than viewing it on a screen) and reviewing it can uncover typos.

Also, we need external checks to rethink our learning. This is what instructors are for. Peers can help too. Andn colleagues. That’s why politicians have postmortems and doctors have debriefs.

Even specialists learn more if they closely track what they do and don’t know. Quizzing is a great way to evaluate what you know.

The forgetting curve: Memories come with a timer. If the timer rings before we’ve re-engaged the memory, that memory is forgotten. This is how software like Anki works.

That’s why you need spaced repetition to learn. Spread your practice out over time, review right before you forget, and don’t cram. So anything you can do to distribute your learning over time pays off.

The need for reflection

After each performance, guitarist Pat Metheny who has played at 20 Grammy ceremonies, writes six pages on the experience. Writing and talking out loud pushes deliberation and slows the thinking process.

  • See Susann Ambrose’s How Learning Works

People assume that rerflection just “happens.” But people need time to think through a skill in a focused way.

We need cognitive quiet to learrn, that’s why it’s hard to learn when we’re stressed, angry, or lonely. We can’t deliberate or gain understanding.

The brain’s default mode is not resting, but active consolidation. — Prof Immordino-Yang of USC.

Daydreaming also boosts cognition.

People have to consider their emotional state as they learn. They want to be calm, focused, centered.

  • See Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think
  • And Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto

When it comes to tech learning apps, simpler is better. And checklists help reduce errors and improve performance.

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Here are the steps of learning again:

  • VALUE: We must want to learn in order to learn. We have to see the skills and knowledge as valuable, and create meaning.
  • TARGET: When starting out, focus is key we have to set goals and targets to learn.
  • DEVELOP: Some forms of practice are better than others, so in this stage people need to hone their skills and use the right steps to improve.
  • EXTEND: At this point you need to go beyond the basics and apply your learning to create more meaningful understanding.
  • RELATE: Here is when you see it all fit together, how one piece of the puzzle interacts with all the others.
  • RETHINK: we need to review, reconsider, and learn from our learning.

These skills aren’t always sequential. Learning is a process, method, system. And we can learn to learn.

Barry Zimmermann, who helped start the field of learning to learn in the 80s, stresses how people need to direrct theiri own learning.

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