How to learn Tools of learning

This material is excerpted from my book " The Art of learning"


The word “learning” immediately brings to mind school, colleges, examinations and, lots of reading material. This short text is about that and more.

Learning used to be defined by psychologists as a change in behaviour that occurs as a result of experience. But changes in behaviour are not an essential outcome for learning (although it might be a desired result) nor is it true to argue that a behaviour change was just due to learning. Changes in behaviour can happen because one is tired, sick, or bored and that is hard to attribute to just learning. And one can acquire knowledge without a change in observable behaviour—knowledge does not always lead to change. The knowledge that smoking is bad for our health does not necessarily lead to quitting cigarettes. Awareness or knowledge is not the same as a change in behaviour. Therefore, a more suitable definition for learning is, “the act of acquiring new knowledge, or altering and strengthening, existing knowledge skills and behaviour.”

Learning is natural. It is something we are wired for and we learn from the time we are born. Learning is more than what we pick up in school; it constructs upon and is moulded by what we already know. More than that, learning is what makes us who we are as it shapes our habits, behaviours and choices. Given the impact and influence of learning, it is somewhat astonishing that more attention hasn’t been given to it.

When it comes to learning there is much that we do not know. We are indeed at the very beginning of our journey to slowly unravel the mystery of learning. The shroud is slowly being lifted by work that has come to us from a variety of sources, fundamental research on everything from a sea slug, to insects, small mammals and of course humans.

My advice is to look at this book, not as something that you start from the beginning and finish at the end, but as a guide that you return to as you learn. You may choose to read through it completely the first time in order to get a picture of the whole, but you will get more value when you use it as you need it. One of the first principles that you will learn is that you will retain what you learn longer the more you use it and the more you connect that knowledge to what you already know. As you progress through these principles, many of them will appear natural and become second nature. Others, such as spacing and mixing up, will seem counter-intuitive at first but try the approach and you won’t regret it.

These principles are not a set of discrete and unconnected formulas; they are part of a whole learning paradigm and the shift in how you learn. This new paradigm will feel strange at first, but when you apply it, you will see benefits that help promote and sustain the shift. The principles will bring long-term benefit to your learning and growth. The material is organized to be your learning companion as you move forward, grow, and learn. It is organized with specific ideas and guides that you can use to study and focus on whatever material that you need to become proficient in.


Rules for Learning —An Overview of What Works

Our learning happens all the time and almost always without us ever recognizing what has happened. Learning is an innate process designed to help us learn to survive and flourish in our environment. It shapes us and makes us who we are. It leads to habits both good and bad.

So let’s take stock of where we are in our learning about learning. First it is starkly apparent that learning is not a uniquely human phenomenon and the principles are consistent across species.

Learning is at its heart the intersection of attention, perception, and memory.Attention is the first step in perception and attention functions like a “spotlight” that can illuminate only a restricted quantity of material, facilitating the perception of the stimuli of interest. Attention drives perception and the perception is based on using past memory along with what is “seen” and making sense of it.

What drives attention is motivation or interest in the object of study. Motivation is apparent and essential for directed learning to occur, such as in learning to play the piano or tennis, or to study math or English literature. But you can still learn without thinking and without apparent specific motivation, such as the way in which you pick up habits.

Clearly the learning principles in general shape us but in the rest of this book I will not enter into a further elucidation of learning as the force that builds both the positive and negative elements of our personality and psychic make up. Instead my focus will be more on how to use these principles to help students learn in a way that is clearly directed and highly focused.

Rule #1 — Set Goals

Since motivation is the essential element to beginning and sustaining learning, the first set of rules will be on motivation. It begins with being clear on what it is that you want to achieve. In other words, it’s about setting goals. Start with the end in mind. The key word is mind; visualizing and developing a concrete sense of the goal goes a long way to building motivation. All learning begins with a desire. A goal is the aim of an action that a person consciously desires to achieve. Goal setting is an important cognitive process affecting self-confidence and motivation.

Goals and the plans to achieve those goals will lay a strong foundation for your motivation for learning. Visualizing goals is, in fact, the initial path to motivation and learning. After all, how can you get started if you do not know what you want to accomplish?

If we do not develop goals consciously and for our self we risk becoming adrift and the goals are a result not of our desire but because of other causes—need for acceptance, parental desire etc. Students who set a goal or work towards a goal set by others get confidence when they hit that goal. It makes them more interested and motivated in persisting with their effort to learn. They work harder and engage more to attain the next goal. This in turn promotes a virtuous cycle.

Rule #2 — Self-Organize to Meet Goals

Building this virtuous cycle with goals, motivation, and then performance requires self-discipline and organization. Having a goal is one thing but to meet goals and develop a sustainable learning cycle requires self-regulation. It requires planning, organization, and discipline to adhere to the path of directed learning.


Rule #3 — Practice, Practice, Practice

We know this principle from the work of Ebbinghaus and we all recognize that practice is a vital part of the learning process. But we may not be fully conscious of the fact that practice is not just doing the same thing over and over, but it is focusing primarily on areas in which we are least competent and less in areas we are already proficient in.

Rule #4 — Recall What You Learnt

We have known for years that just rereading material is not as good as closing the book and then trying to remember what you learnt. Testing is a form of recall. The testing effect refers to a boost in the long-term retention of information as a result of taking a test. Think of this rule as a second step to practice.


RULE #5 — Space Your Learning

How can you use repetition to your advantage? What is the most advantageous way to space your study sessions? Classical studies suggest that the best time to re-read or repeat studying is when you have almost forgotten the subject. We will explore this in detail with specific tips on when and how to repeat.

RULE #6 — Mix It Up

In virtually every type of course or sport that we study or learn there are many topics and subtopics, be it a course on the heart or the nervous system, or English Grammar or calculus or a sport like baseball.

Most of us study by first focusing on one topic then, when we complete that topic, we go to the next. It may seem that the best way to learn multiple topics is study one thoroughly before moving to the next. The process feels natural and is one that we are all accustomed to. But this intuition is a fallacy. In fact mixing up material we learn within and across subjects enhance learning.

Rule #7 — Learn with Friends

Humans have always learned from each other and from their interaction with the world around them. We know we do if we reflect on our own experience. Children can pick up behaviours just by watching videos or cartoons and, conversely, if they see punishment for that behaviour in what they observe it reduces their inclination to imitate that behaviour.

Even as adults we learn all the time by our engagement with peers and other adults in the real world and today through our links to the cyber world. How do we work with friends to learn?

Rule #8 — Learning Works Best by Connecting to Existing Knowledge and then by Extending It

When I was in medical school more than 30 years ago, the best students and those predicted to be successful would be those individuals who accumulated the most amount of factual knowledge that they could then apply in taking care of patients. This was equally true in most other fields of study. Turn to today, now we are swamped by an ever-accumulating tsunami of information that is easily accessible but difficult to put in perspective. Information is at our fingertips but how to apply it remains distant. This has reduced the value of rote memorization of facts and increased the value of the ability to conceptualize, search, analyse, synthesize and apply knowledge.

Learning today and for the future has to move beyond memorization of facts to conceptual understanding and application in collaborative settings. It is essential to build and extend knowledge by connecting to our store in the brain.

Rule # 9 — We Learn by Living

Curiosity-based exploration drives experience-dependent learning. Learn by remaining curious, discover, experience explore the world. As we discussed, this innate force that drives our learning gets squelched if we are not careful. We have to figure out a way to keep it alive and if it fades rekindle it.

Rules for Motivation and Goal-Setting

RULE #1—Set the Right Goals in the Right Way for the Right Time Period

All learning begins with a desire.A goal is the aim of an action that a person consciously desires to achieve. Goal setting is an important cognitive process affecting self-confidence and motivation. Setting goals makes the desire concrete and visible; most importantly, it makes the goal actionable. This along with the expectation that one can reach the desired goal leads to confidence as the ignition for the learning cycle. If you set an initial goal and achieve it, you get that early confidence; then you will commit, persist, and work more and harder on furthering that goal. Once you reach that goal, your accomplishment brings about a sense of self-satisfaction, a feeling of achievement and a spur to continue.

Goals that you set for yourself are more powerful than the goals that are set for you. With that in mind, when it comes to setting learning goals for yourself, remember the ABC’s of goals:

Goals should be:

● Achievable(You can do it),


● Believable (You can believe you can do it),

● Clear and Concise

Students who set a goal or work towards a goal set by others get confidence when they hit that goal. It makes them more interested and motivated in persisting with their effort to learn. They work harder and engage more to attain the next goal. This in turn promotes a virtuous cycle.

Specific Goals

One of the key characteristics of a well-set goal is that it is clear and concise. MBA students who established specific learning goals (e.g., mastering a particular subject or completing a project) later had higher scores and higher contentment with their MBA program than those who set a vague or long-term performance goal for the end of the academic year.Specific goals are measurable and therefore you know when you achieve them. A goal that is specific, such as “Complete ten problems with no errors,” is much better. Specific goals lead to better performance and learning. Let’s look at another example:

Poor Goal: Get as many answers right as you can

Good Goal: Finish 6 pages of problems today

Self-Set Goals

When students set a goal for themselves rather than be given a goal by someone else, such as teacher, they will experience a greater sense of confidence and achievement when they attain it. This confidence reinforces their commitment to continue with the course.

Goal Difficulty

There is a linear relationship between goal difficulty, level of performance, and effort involved as long as the person is committed to the goal and has the ability to attain it. The difficulty level of goals has to be just right. If the expectation or goal is too high relative to ability or acceptance or when success is slow or not as anticipated then commitment, confidence, and interest wanes.If others set the goals, then goal acceptance is very important. Indeed there is a negative relationship between goal acceptance and performance-enhancing properties of increasing difficulty of reaching a goal. That is, if the externally set goal is too difficult then the acceptance is low. Assigning hard goals may not be effective when people view those goals as threatening.

Timing of Goal Completion

Goals should not be too distant in the future. They should be in the near term. Goals that are far out in time do not easily build self-confidence since it will take a long time to achieve and you can lose interest before then.

Setting Goals in 4 Steps

1. Make the goal specific and concrete

“Study math” is not a good goal. “Solve 1 page of problems every night” is a good goal.

To better clarify your goals, ask yourself the following questions:

What is it that I want to do? Why do I need this goal? What else am I doing that can help, or may make the goal difficult?

This will help frame the goal. If the goal has many steps, make each step a sub-goal.

2. Make sure you have a yardstick

Be clear as to how you will measure your progress. Remember, numbers are better than words (i.e. quantitative measurement is more effective than qualitative).

Ask questions such as: How will I know if I am on track? How can I determine where I need improvement?

Goals need a measurement tool. For students the natural tools are the examinations that they have to take. But these tools are usually used to judge students and are not used as a way to guide and inform the students about their progress. In other words, tests are not a way to facilitate learning and motivation.

Self-testing your own ability to recall what you have learned is a very effective way of both judging how much you retained, but also a learning technique by itself. For self-testing and therefore measurement of progress timing is everything. If you are learning a new topic, repeat self-testing with immediate feedback is best. Feedback that is delayed is not very helpful. In addition, feedback that includes the right answer is helpful so that one can learn from the errors.

3.Set a time frame that is not too long. If it is long break it into small time increments.

4. Adjust the goal based on how you are progressing.

If you are moving quickly, extend your goal to something more difficult. If you are struggling to move forward, scale your goal back to something easier, or add sub-goals to build yourself closer to your original goal.

RULE #2—Self-Organize to Meet Goals

Having a goal is one thing, but in order to meet goals and develop a sustainable learning cycle you must have self-discipline and organization.

Self-discipline is tied to the ability to delay desires, or willpower. Self-discipline research deals with the general question of when and how people fail to do what they should do. We see this in all areas of life. For example, we know we need to eat healthy but when we see a chocolate cake we are not able to resist having a slice; or we know we have a test to take but cannot keep our eyes and fingers from Facebook. Is this ability to delay gratification innate and fixed, or is it something that can be acquired? This question has important consequences for various parts of our life from health, to school and work. If we are stuck and cannot change or if we believe we cannot change then our success or lack of it seems preordained. Fortunately, this is not so.

If-Then Method

A simple tactic for teaching self-regulation is called the “If-Then Method.” In other words, if “A” happens, then you will do “B”. This method is meant to develop outcome-oriented thinking, rather than reacting to our impulses.

Let’s look at some examples:

“If I see a chocolate cake then I will eat no more than one slice.”

“If I need to finish homework and I get a request for a Facebook chat I will delay going on Facebook until after I finish my homework.”

Self Monitoring

The first is being aware of one’s thoughts and behaviour (self-observation or self-monitoring). If you are not aware of your behaviour or actions, then it is difficult to change them. So for a student, self-monitoring will include an awareness of their actions and behaviours (i.e. how many hours are you studying? Are you paying attention in class?) This self-observation must be on going, however if it is not systematic or regular it may lead to building beliefs that are selective and inaccurate that may then impact the student’s ability to change and self-regulate.


Self-judgement is to use the self-monitoring to ask how you are performing, whether you are falling behind, whether the effort that you are using is sufficient etc

Self-judgement monitors progression towards your goal and plays a role in confidence development and motivation.


Self-reaction is when you adjust your actions based on self-judgement. So for example, if the goal is not realistic then revising the goal. But if it is realistic, then adjust your effort to accomplish that goal.

A Few Tips to Build Self-Discipline

Stop coming up with excuses to delay starting

Come up with a goal and a plan

Find support

Stay away from distractions

Give yourself a pat on the back whenever you hit a goal

Just a slip should not become the start of a slippery slope. Do not use this to revert back to the same problem

Learn the scenarios that keep tripping you up. Then form a set of if-then steps to use. Make if-then the routine habit.

RULE #3—Repetition Rules and Practice makes perfect

Learning and motivation are extremely important if we wish to pursue and improve any field, skill, or sport. But they won’t get you far without action that comes in the form of work and practice. As Pele said, “Everything is practice.”Many studies show that “intelligence” by itself is not a good predictor of success. The genuine development of success is the consequence of practice and repetition. There are no shortcuts. It is based on pushing oneself to do better and better. However sometimes this literature makes it sound like anyone can do it. I know of no evidence that supports that contention. Ability and capability and capacity are all important, although (as we noted earlier) not sufficient as a predictor of success. Self-discipline, which is what helps individuals push themselves to persevere, trumps intelligence and ability but still cannot predict success on its own. It is the combination of intelligence, ability, and self-discipline that leads to success.

Repetition and practice works not only for motor skills, but also for all forms of memory and learning.Innate talent only gets you so far. Beyond that it is hard work. Almost everyone who has achieved greatness in their fields worked hard above and beyond others. Many people believe that you need at least 10,000 hours of practice to become truly great. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the lives of many successful individuals and how at least part of their success was due to large amounts of practice, 10,000 hours being the golden number. He notes that the Beatles spent thousands of hours practicing and playing in Hamburg between 1960 and 1964 before returning to England with their distinctive sound. While those years were certainly not glamorous, the many hours of practice in smaller clubs and shows helped the musicians hone their craft.

There are many ways to incorporate repetition into your learning process:

1. Repetition. Repeat the same thing over and over until it is committed to memory. This is known as Verbatim Repetition.

2. Repeat the same information, but change the words slightly. This is known as Paraphrased Repetition.

3. Re-read the same material over and over.

4. Repeat, but add examples, demonstrations, illustrations, and other ways of providing contact.

5. Test yourself. Practice recall and see if you can write down what you studied.

6. Discuss your learning with others. Collaborate, work in a team environment, even just explaining what you are doing to another person will help you lock in the concept.

7. Repeat information with other perceptual modalities. For example, use sound instead of simply reading.

8. Repetitions can also be made through different learning media (text, audio, video, web discussion, etc.)

9. Employ memory techniques

RULE #3 REFINED: It is Not Just Simple Repetition, But Planned Thoughtful and Deliberate Practice that Counts

What is needed is thoughtful planned practice that is designed to improve performance. This practice has two features. The first is doing more of what gives you the most trouble; the second is to determine how well you are performing and use feedback to improve your performance.


It is not practice of what we already know but of what we do not know that well. If you are learning to play tennis and you are excellent with your backstroke but not so good with volleying then the focus of your practice should be to improve volleying. In other words the focus is not just repetition but on practicing that which is not perfect. Focus on what you need to improve while still continuing to practice what you are good at. This is the same as Michael Jordan working on his jump shot and defense till he became perfect.

Deliberate practice is also useful in preparing for the unexpected. It is important for basic development of skills and expertise, but its true worth comes in preparing for the unexpected. In other words, practice will make you ready for those rare events that will require you to execute what you have learned, even when encountered for the first time.

But I do not fully subscribe to the notion that deliberate practice alone can make you an expert. Innate ability and maybe other factors that we do not know much about are equally important

The two key tips to remember are:

1. If you are struggling with something, or do not know it as well, practice it more.

2. If learning through simulation is an option, use that approach as much as possible.

RULE #4—Practice Retrieval of what you Learnt

In Make It Stick, author Peter C. Brown tells us, “The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. Two, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future.”

In other words, practicing memory recall will give you feedback on what you might not know well, and it will further strengthen your memory of the things you do know. This brings us to our next rule.

Just as practice will help you improve a physical skill or talent, practicing memory recall in the form of self-testing will help you improve your retention and, by extension, your learning.The testing effect refers to a boost in the long-term retention of information as a result of taking a test. The whole flash card system that we use for learning is based on recall. Recall can be with or without a cue.

You might have used flashcards in elementary school: 5*6 =? on one side of the card, 30 on the other; or in high school Chemistry: Pb= ? on one side and “Lead” on the other; or in medical school, “Signs of cardiac failure” on one side and “Fluid retention” on the other side

Building flash cards


We can easily build flash card to study and we can also buy pre-set flash cards for numerous subjects from language to math and science. Flashcards use the mental process of active recall: given a question, one recreates the answer. Repetition improves the recall.

The student can design their own flash cards using many kinds of free software that test information. One card may have a question and a linked answer (including for languages pronunciation using audio, images or both). Most are easy to use uncluttered piece of software, and customisable

The Art of Learning and Memory

A: Mnemonics tools to remember facts. Words, rhymes, or a phrase

B: Remember by linking (associate what you need to remember with what you know especially if it is memorable, ridiculous or funny

C: Using a hook or peg to connect numbers to memory

Mnemonics, named after the Greek goddess Mnemosyne, refer to memory tricks or systems to remember. In ancient times, memorization was the only way to convey key information to others and was very critical even for their survival. As we know today, memory can also be crucial to our learning and performance in everything from educational to professional to social spheres.

Besides simple mnemonic devices, one of the common techniques used to remember a list is called the “link” or “chain” method. This method is usually taught in most books on memory systems. The memory method is based on linking objects one to another. The more imaginative, visual, active and bizarre the linkage the better and easier is to remember.


Say the following sequence—car, refrigerator, cat, chair, and knife—is the order to remember. One would think of a car dragging a giant fridge, while a cat eats all the food inside, then sitting down on a chair with its legs crossed, and then a knife slicing the chair. This allows a sequential remembrance and is more effective than when trying to remember without the technique. The link technique works even with a large number of objects but it has limitations. First, it only works in sequence. It does not make it easy for you to say which object was the third in the middle. Second, forgetting one object in the sequence can throw off the rest of the list; and, third, if the same object is in the list more than once it can be confusing.

“peg” or “hook” system. There are many ways to peg, the most common of which is to associate a vowel’s phonetic sound with each number and use the vowels to develop objects that can be used to link the number to the new object. This requires a list of vowels linked to numbers. The problem with this system is that you have to memorize the system and use it all the time to keep it current and available for use.


One of the most common is as follows:

1 is linked to vowel T or D (T has one down stroke)

2 is linked to N (Two down strokes)

3 is linked to M (Three down strokes)

4 is linked to R

5 is linked to L

6 is linked to J,,Sh, or soft G

7 is linked to K, C or G

8 is F or V

9 is P or B

0 is S or Z

Imagery in Learning

1. Imagery and visualization makes recall better (and easier).

2. To visualize means to attend, comprehend, organize, and connect material to pre-existing knowledge.

3. Imagery works best for short, clear, imaginable material.

4. Hearing makes seeing (visualizing) easier.

RULE # 5—Space Your Learning

Cramming for an examination is very typical. This type of repetition, called “massed practice or repetition” by psychologists, is not very effective for long-term learning. If two pieces of information are learnt for the same length of time but spread over either a very short interval (cramming) or over a longer time interval, they are remembered quite differently. In other words, the sum of learning does not equate to how long we remember. Unfortunately, this is how most students study.Spacing repetitions over time facilitates long-term remembering. So instead of cramming, if we study the same material spaced over time we will remember for a longer time. Just think, if we decide we are going to play in a tennis tournament tomorrow, yet we have never picked up a racket in our life, do you think one night of intense practice will make it possible for us to play well? We would not even think to do anything like that. On the other hand, when learning is distributed over a longer period of time the learning sticks. If we were practicing tennis every day for months we would be more likely to be able to play better in a tournament


Spaced repetitions need not be verbatim repetitions. They could be recall and or rereading. Recall is better than rereading. Regardless of the way repetitions are conducted, if two or more elucidations of the similar learning point are repeated with some sort of time delay between them, they are likely to produce the benefits of the spacing.One critical point to consider is that spacing may not produce an effect unless more than one or two or three repetitions are used. This is especially critical when difficult, lengthy, or technical learning materials are used. Let’s face it: when there is a lot to learn, or when the learning material is complex, learners will need more repetitions


So what is the ideal spacing interval? A very recent large study shows that the optimal interval between study sessions should be 10-30% of the time before a test. If the retention interval (time until, say, a test) needed is one week, the spacing interval should be one to two days. If the retention interval is 100 days, the spacing interval, ideally, should be between 10-30 days.

A Few Tips for Spacing Learning

1. Repetitions are effective in supporting learning. Spaced repetitions help minimize forgetting for the long term, while creating minor and temporary difficulties during learning. When we provide spaced repetitions on the job, the forgetting curve becomes a learning-and-forgetting curve. The additional learning can help maintain high levels of long term remembering.

2. Spacing repetitions are more effective than cramming for long-term retention. The closer in time learning is delivered to the situations when it is needed, the less forgetting will be a factor. The less forgetting, the more you will be able to remember what you learned and apply it to your work.

3. Spacing between learning sessions is particularly useful if long-term retention is the goal. Adequate gaps between sessions can minimize forgetting. Long learning sessions can create weariness, distraction, and cognitive processing that is less deep and effective than the ideal. It’s imperative to understand that the “spacing effect” denotes repetition of the learning. So, though it may be helpful to space unrelated learning sessions to avoid fatigue, the spacing effect goes beyond fatigue prevention.

4. Gradually expanding the length of spacing’s can create benefits, but these benefits generally do not outperform consistent spacing intervals. Distributing learning sessions over time, whether these sessions repeat learning points or not induce extra studying. This is especially true if learners feel that the material will require prerequisite knowledge. Learners who have been away from material may be inspired to refresh their knowledge before they go on to the next topic. They know from experience that if they don’t understand what came before, the new material just won’t make any sense.

5. One way to utilize spacing is to change the definition of a learning event to include the connotation that learning takes place over time—real learning doesn’t usually occur in one-time events.

6. The formula is to have a gap of 10 to 30% of the retention interval i.e. time interval for retaining the knowledge such as time to a test.

RULE #6—Mix It Up

In virtually every type of course or sport that we study, there are many topics and subtopics, be it a course on the nervous system, English Grammar, calculus or baseball. Most of us study by first focusing on one topic, and then when we complete that topic we go to the next. This type of learning in blocks appears very effective, but there is a far more effective alternative.

Let’s say you are learning a particular set of math problems. The typical method would be to try out the same type of problem over and over until we become proficient. The process feels natural and is one that we are all accustomed to. But this intuition is a fallacy. In fact mixing up material we learn within and across subjects enhance learning.

This mixing up works very well for learning sports that is if you are learning tennis it will be best to mix up serving with learning backhand or forehand. In fact, you learn the most when you use all the different aspects of tennis, rather than just learning one thing at a time before moving to the next. The world’s top tennis coaches agree that although there are many components required to develop the complete tennis player, it is not the individual pieces that make the player but the seamless integration of these parts.


Each of these pieces has their own methods, tips and traps but focusing on one element is not the usual strategy when you learn the game. In fact most lessons, both in the early stage and especially later on, interleave all the different elements including playing the whole game as the learning plan, a “holistic” approach.

This seems intuitive when playing sports but may seem alien when it comes to school subjects. But the same principle holds whether one is learning math, language or sports. The reason for the intuition gap is obvious: the purpose of learning is not so well defined as learning a sport.

Why study math, science and English or any other subject? Students, faculty, and teachers are not clear about why it is difficult to engage in “Holistic” learning. Systems of learning have become so focused on the parts that the sum of the parts is much smaller than the whole the opposite of what we would like it to be.

So if we want to learn, understanding why and what we want to learn helps set the goals. In turn it makes the need to not only learn different subjects but also to put them together and use them become self-evident and not counter-intuitive. This principle of mixing up and alternating different topics and problems is called “interleaving” and it works the same way as mixing up serving and volleying in tennis. It makes it clear that the whole learning experience is more than the sum of its parts.

Rule #7—Learn with Friends

Humans have always learned from each other and from their interaction with the world around them. Children can pick up behaviours just by watching videos or cartoons and conversely if they see punishment for that behaviour in what they observe it reduces their inclination to imitate that behaviour. Even as adults we learn all the time by our engagement with peers and other adults in the real world and today through our links to the cyber world.

Peer learning, in which colleagues and friends explain concepts to one another, demands clarification, elaboration, and reconceptualization of material, all of which promotes learning for everyone involved. Humans have always learned from each other. But for a long time—until the advent of the Web, Google, ITunes, YouTube and pervasive access to digital media—schools have had a real and almost complete monopoly on the business of education and learning. Our learning, both as children and as adults, is enhanced by either a professional or an experienced peer, someone who knows the space, the territory and language. But teachers and specialists are not essential to our ability to learn. Specialists are great but not always available and or needed. We should learn as much from specialists as we can when we have the opportunity but not just look or wait for them.

But through the advent of the open access to vast educational assets and free or inexpensive communication tools, clusters of people can learn together outside as well as inside traditional educational institutions. These open educational resources, MOOCs and free communication platforms such as Skype, Google Hangouts enable clusters of people to learn together outside as well as inside formal academic institutions.

Children can learn by themselves with their friends


A dozen years ago a computer scientist, Mitra, in Delhi carried out a fascinating study. He took a personal computer and placed it in a room full of children who had never seen or operated a computer. He then watched them from the outside. What he observed was a compelling story of children playing and figuring out how to use the computer even though they were not provided with any instructions. The children were learning by doing, helping each other and experimenting, a form of desirable self-learning. They learnt by discovery and by playing. In a short time they were learning to paint, play games and create documents.

Rule #8—Learning works best by Connecting to Previous Store of Knowledge and then by extending it

When I was in medical school more than 30 years ago, the best students (and those predicted to be successful) would be those individuals who accumulated the most amount of factual knowledge that they could then apply in taking care of patients. This was equally true in most other fields of study. Turn to today, now we are swamped by an ever-accumulating tsunami of information that is easily accessible but difficult to put in perspective. Information is at our fingertips but how to apply remains distant. This has reduced the value of rote memorization of facts and increased the value of the ability to conceptualize, search, analyse, synthesize and apply knowledge. Learning today and for the future has to move beyond memorization of facts to conceptual understanding and application in collaborative settings.

We begin with a fundamental aspect of learning and retention: understanding.

Learning with Understanding

The National Research Council in the US has noted seven principles of learning, which are very applicable to today’s knowledge-based world including the world of medicine.

1. Learning with understanding is facilitated when knowledge is related to and structured around major concepts and principles of a discipline.

2. A learner’s prior knowledge is the starting point for effective learning.

3. Metacognitive learning (self-monitoring) is important for acquiring proficiency.

4. Recognizing differences among learners is important for effective teaching and learning.

5. Learners’ beliefs about their ability to learn affect learning success.

6. Practices and activities in which people engage during learning shape what is learned.

7. Socially supported interactions strengthen one’s ability to learn with understanding.

Meaningful learning opens up more questions, more attempts at answering, more unknowns, and more questions that lead to creative thinking. Many trials have shown that students who are randomly assigned to conditions that encourage deep explanations do much better than when they are assigned to comparison circumstances that give the students same content, but without the need to build explanations. This works for students of all ages in these from fourth grade to college and subjects that range from science, history, mathematics, and statistics. The benefits are seen whether the assessment is just basic or factual and even more when it tests deep and fundamental knowledge. Comprehension and learning improve from training to ask deep-level questions while reading text, listening, or studying material. Once you learn that asking questions is okay, curiosity returns and questions flow.


Besides teaching how to ask questions, teaching students to think aloud, explain their thoughts, and link the material to previous knowledge and experiences produce better understanding, deeper explanations and less repetition of material. This works when you, the learner, are studying by yourself and maybe even better when you have to explain to your friends. So ask yourself questions, work with friends or parents to seek answers, use the whole World Wide Web; be curious.

The excellence of self-explanations increases when students see others provide high-quality explanations. These patterns give students guidance on how to develop better self-explanations. In many subjects there may well be multiple valid justifications, permitting students to evaluate diverse points of view and trails of reasoning. To put it simply, watching others ask questions and going to debates that elicit explanations, is a good way to learn.

Learning a concept in a concrete form makes it difficult for students to use that knowledge in a different context (e.g., to solve a problem in a related field). But, when students are introduced to a concept using an abstract depiction, they struggle slightly more to master the concept initially, but are then able to use their new knowledge effectively in an altered context. It seems that the greater early trouble in grasping abstract instruction is rewarded by a greater ability to apply the concept to very diverse situations.

The acquisition and retention of knowledge has many domains or levels of depth.

The first and the simplest are remembering and in essence refer to retaining facts. Unfortunately retaining facts without understanding is difficult and has a very limited life span. The next level is comprehension or understanding. This level is shown by the ability to re-convey in one’s own words the meaning of the information.

Understanding serves as the prelude to being able to analyse, compartmentalize or break down the knowledge; to be able to judge, evaluate, or value the knowledge and then be able apply the knowledge to a new context; or to synthesize by integrating with other information. When learning medicine or other similar domains of work, this ability to use the knowledge is critical—without it facts by themselves have limited value.

In addition, the ability to then use this knowledge to create new knowledge becomes invaluable and is a key element in the training to becoming a scientist. One element that is essential in this progression of knowledge acquisition is reasoning. Reasoning is to infer. To infer is to draw conclusions from data, information or premises. The term logic is generally used to describe the principles of good reasoning. It used to be a subject that was taught in schools but one that is now rarely formally taught but one is expected to intuit. Logic when it is informal is seen or described as critical thinking. Logic does not evaluate how people use reasoning or why they reason in a particular manner but it tells us how to reason.

One of the main principles in logic is whether the conclusions follow from the assumptions. Formal logic is the systematic application of principles of logic. Formal systems of logic are specially assembled systems for carrying out proofs. The principles of logic are universal and apply to all fields whether it is medicine, biology, or economics. There are many strands of logic but a fair amount of formal logic dates back conceptually to Aristotle. Deductive logic refers to conclusions where when all the premises are true there can be no other way that the conclusion can be false. The fundamental element in deductive reasoning is syllogism where one suggestion is inferred from two premises each of which has one term in common with the conclusion.

For example:

All plants are alive.

The rose is a plant.

The rose is alive.

If the premise is true, the conclusion is true; and if the premise is false, the conclusion is false. In medicine and in many other forms of science, deductive logic is difficult. But another type of logic, inductive logic, is more applicable. Deductive logic is absolutist. It offers black and white standards in which the conclusion either follows from the premises or it does not. Inductive logic or reasoning is not absolutist or certain but provides a quantitative range of possibilities. Deductive reasoning is seen as more top-down from a general principle to the specific whereas inductive reasoning is bottom up. Thus is medicine one makes an observation to hypotheses generation to a probabilistic conclusion.


We are by nature curious but we tend to lose our sense of inquisitiveness over time. How often do you catch yourself thinking, “just give me the answer," or, "tell me what I should know for the exam”? It seems that we have become too impatient to think.

Now how often do you ask questions like: "Tell me why? “Or, “Why not?” Who do you think asks these latter types of questions? Not college students. Not high school students. No, just little kids. Little kids are curious. They learn about the world by questioning. “Mommy what is that? Why he is doing that? How much longer? And how do we respond. "Not now," "I don't know, ask your mom," and "later." We neither answer their questions, nor do we ask them a question. We end up discouraging their curiosity and maybe in many ways reduce their learning. Instead we try to teach them words to memorize, alphabets to learn, and numbers to count. No doubt important but just not enough by itself. Sustaining their innate curiosity maybe more worthwhile.

Let’s think about why questions are important. For one thing, when no questions are asked no answers are found. Imagine a world in which no questions are asked. What would we know? Without questions there is no thinking, no search for the answer. Thinking is driven by questions not answers. The people who develop a field always start with the questions, challenge the dogma and seek answers. Without questions any field of study would never have developed in the first place. In fact, every human endeavour into new fields always starts with curiosity-driven questions for which answers are either not available or are unsatisfactory. In any field that is vibrant and alive, every answer leads to more questions. When there are no more interesting questions, what happens? The intellectual energy, interest, and growth dry up. Questions are the foundation that builds reason. Questions stimulate thought. Questions help conceptualize the material.

When a question is properly defined can generate analysis, synthesis and in fact promote creativity. Those sorts of questions commonly stem from: why, what caused A, how did B happen, what if, what-if-not, why not, how does A compare to B, what is the evidence for C, and why is D important? Questions that stimulate deep explanations are best. For example, students can ask, “Why are bees needed?” or, “What will happen if there are no more bees?” The answers make you consider underlying biological principles. This is better than asking questions that test factual knowledge.

The process of asking and answering the right questions ought to be modeled by knowledgeable peers, but these days you can see it in a number of web sites. People now turn to Google,, Wikipedia and others to simply find answers for questions. The popularity of these sites seems to imply less need to think. But a little bit of reflection shows that they raise more questions and begin to show the limits of what we know.

Questions to clarify: Tell me how does this work? Can you show me examples? What is the basis of this information? What are the assumptions? Does this work in all conditions? Where did you find this? Under this assumption will this work?

Questions that synthesize: How does this fit with what we previously learnt?

Questions that evaluate: Does this information change what we are planning? How does this relate to x? Does this affect y?

Questions that can lead to creativity: Can we use this elsewhere? What happens when we combine with this? Could it make a better widget?

There are as many ways to ask a question as there are ways to think. Our questions drive our thirst for knowledge. This is true for all kinds of learning. If we harness this sense of curiosity by learning to question we could improve learning.

One approach that has been used to harness this sense is called elaborative questioning. The key in this method is to build an explanation for an explicit fact, in other words to ask a “Why” question and answer it. The assumption is that this questioning increases learning by connecting to existing knowledge and promoting active linkage.

It may also promote assessment of the new information in terms of how similar or different it is to pre-existing knowledge. Interestingly, the studies in this area show that the larger and deeper the elaboration the greater the learning; the more it is self-generated, the greater the learning; and it is also greater if there is greater wealth of pre-existing knowledge.

The method of elaborative interrogation may be an unwieldy term that makes you think of unpleasant encounters, but it is very effective for a very broad age range of individuals. It has been tried with elementary school, middle school, high school students and undergraduate students in a wide range of settings. It evens works for learning disabled children and high achieving children.

The extent of learning is indeed related to how much knowledge you already have on that subject.

For example, Canadian students presented with facts about Canadian provinces learnt the material much better than German students; and the converse was true for German students when it came to learning about German states as compared to Canadians. Elaborative interrogation had double the effect in their own knowledge domain than it did in the domain that they had limited knowledge. The most parsimonious reason is that the more pre-existing knowledge the greater the chance they can ask the right question and generate plausible answers.


This is a similar approach to elaboration here: connectivity to pre-existing knowledge is increased by consciously explaining how one went about solving problems. In this case, the question is, “How did you solve the problem?” Self-explanation could be for very specific prompts—why did you do this? —Or could be more general—explain what this means to you.

Self-explanation is most beneficial to the learning process if you do it at the same time as you are working on a problem—by talking to yourself. The approach is useful across a wide age range and has been tried in kindergartners and in college undergraduates.

Unlike the elaboration technique described earlier, this is more useful when it comes to problem solving. It is something to try when you are trying to work on algebra, math, or calculus problems. It is even useful for playing chess and other strategy games. It is designed to improve memory but also increase comprehension and increase connectivity to prior information. Unfortunately we do not have enough information about how long the benefits last. The presumption is that it does but the evidence is insufficient with regard to long-term benefit. This approach also needs minimal instruction; the approach is explained how you went about solving a problem. The better you can explain what you did, the more you learn and probably remember. It also allows transfer of knowledge from one situation to other comparable situations.

Learning with Concepts

A very popular tool that is used to facilitate the learning process is a concept map, a map that links ideas together. This is because our brains are built to learn concepts even more than for memorizing knowledge.

From the time we are very young, even as babies, we begin to observe regular patterns within the world we see and hear. When language develops we build labels to describe what we observe. When we acquire the language of numbers we begin to assign symbols to describe the magnitude of the changes that we perceive. This early learning of patterns and objects and their nature is a discovery learning process. This is a time of great rapid and immersive learning by the child as it makes sense of its world.

After the child learns to associate sounds of word and visual symbols to objects and events, this new skill becomes the basis to expand knowledge beyond that which is directly observed. The new form of learning is mediated by language, and takes place by a process where new knowledge is obtained by exploring the world through questions and answers that link what they have discovered in the world of direct observation to the world beyond what they directly perceive.


This translation and extension of their knowledge of the world happens in the early stages by linking concrete objects and events to the new knowledge by using toys and other substitutes. Thus the child moves from the discovery learning process, where the attributes of concepts are developed directly by the child to the linguistic learning process, where concepts are developed using language.

Concepts and their links are the building blocks for knowledge in any field. In the English language there are over half a million words that can be used to describe concepts and their links. Words in language are like atoms to molecules. You can build an almost infinite set of concepts and links that make up knowledge in any domain. It allows an infinite variety of creative development, and if we need to we can create new words to extend our creativity even more.

Individual children even at an early age begin to develop interests and preferences that, combined with their environment, lead to differentiation in their knowledge and motivation. This variation can lead to a continuum in how they learn. When children are motivated and have a sufficient base knowledge they are able to learn with an understanding that is meaningful learning; and when both motivations (interest and base knowledge) are diminished, it leads to increased attempts to memorize or learn by rote.

For meaningful learning to happen there should be three conditions: one, the person should have the capacity to use language to learn, which is the essential aspect to learning; second, the new knowledge has to be linked and built upon existing knowledge; and third, the person has to have an interest in understanding the new knowledge.

One technique is to build a relational system that ties what you or they know to what needs to be learnt. Concept maps are useful for this because they illustrate how one idea relates to another on a single page. First, we need to know the basic level of literacy and numeracy skills that the individual has, then the new concept that has to be taught must link to and use the skills that the person has as a way to sequence the learning tasks. Thus more knowledge can be built by developing conceptual frameworks in a particular domain.

If it is not and the person is going to be tested on this new knowledge, they have to resort to memorization. In other words they have to resort to rote learning. An indirect influence on both increasing learning with understanding and meaning and fostering interest and curiosity is how testing strategies and also instructional methods are used.

Testing and examination strategies have an enormous influence on how learning occurs and whether the learning will stick. Most tests ask for simple knowledge and facts that encourages memorization and rote learning. In early years some of it might be of use, but even that assumption is not without its detractors. Questions that require verbatim or very particular answers impedes learning with understanding in that the newly memorized information is simply compartmentalized rather than incorporated into existing knowledge.

The art and science of building questions is not easy and requires much effort but can be very valuable in helping meaningful learning. With testing we shape what we get; and tests of facts are easier to create then tests to build knowledge. This results in more tests with facts, requiring more memorization and less learning. Concept maps and linked testing can be a guide to build instructional strategies to promote effective meaningful learning.

Sum it up

The ability to summarize comes with understanding, it reflects the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, discard irrelevant material and focus on the essentials. A good summation is greeted with cheers, but a poor one is infinitely more common. In school, teachers tell students to summarize what they learnt and that they need to summarize extend too many aspects of our life.


Summation or summarization is a device to aid understanding and remembering vast quantities of information that students have to learn. It involves finding the pearls of knowledge and distilling them into easily digestible and memorable content. Well-developed summaries provide the gist of the material, by excluding irrelevant content, focusing on the main points with clarity, resolving ambiguity and makes learning easier. A poorly developed summary is long rambling and imprecise.

Does summarizing work as a learning tool?

Summarizing and note taking has been proven to improve the performance of students more than verbatim copying. Students who simply copy verbatim have to discern the most important information in the text, but they do not have to understand, and write a summary in their own words. Those who summarize the information in their own words demonstrate a much stronger understanding of the material. Thus, putting pen to paper in the active process of summarizing and note taking produces a benefit over and above that of identifying important information.

Learning to summarize properly is skill that is worth developing

The ability to summate depends on the reading skill, writing ability and prior knowledge about the subject, so novices who are just beginning to learn a subject and young children have difficulty finding the main points and to copy from the text.

Watching others and practicing with feedback can help you learn summarization. There is a key caveat to keep in mind, however: summarizing seems simple but it is not. All too often, when students first start summarizing they usually write too much or copy verbatim, or if they are not sure they mix the main idea with the less important ones. These pitfalls can be avoided with a few mindful tips.

Some simple steps in learning how to summarize

1. Read slowly

2. Note the points that you think are important

3. Find the main idea

4. Find the ideas that support the main idea

5. Remove the ideas that are not important or not related to the main idea

5a. Erase repeat ideas or sentences

6. Start with the main idea and then pull together the supporting ideas and evidence

This is usually best done with feedback. Parents can teach their children by first asking them to say what the main idea is and then by questioning elicit the supporting ideas. Once the method is learnt it can be a useful technique.

Rule #9—Learning by Living

When we talk of learning, we usually end up talking about formal learning, conducted in classrooms. But learning happens all the time and in everything we do. In other words, most learning happens outside formal environments. Curiosity-based exploration drives experience-dependent learning. One of the best and most simple ways to learn is by remaining curious, discovering, experiencing, and exploring the world.


Humans are the most cognitively complex, adaptable and flexible of all animals. We are indeed born to learn and adapt. We learn and adapt to the specific physical and social environment into which we are born. We learn from our surroundings, the people that we interact with, and then with the tools that we acquire. We interact with the world and these interactions in turn shape our understanding of the world. We learn by seeing, hearing or perceiving the outside world and by language mediated learning process. We then make sense of the new information by placing it in the context of what we know. Thus we are constantly modifying our existing knowledge base. This in turn influences our behaviour. Our behaviour by its very nature generates new information that modifies our existing knowledge. This cycle of learning shapes who we are.

Learning in the real world is the result of continuous interaction between our surroundings and us. Learning is therefore not just acquiring simple information about a topic. It involves building, sharing, developing our thinking, behaviour and future perception. It also includes what we do, how we feel and what we see or hear. For example, interactions with diverse cultures and other people help us to learn awareness of feelings, both ours as well as those of others.

The net desired outcome of learning, whether it comes from the formal or informal means, is our ability to flourish in the environment—in the working world or in social life. Learning and memory of that knowledge is essential for us to interact with the world around us, from recognizing friends, locations or performing actions. How we interact with the world is shaped by our experiences and our experiences are part and parcel of learning. Even though we talk as if perception learning and memory are distinct they are linked.

It is through experience that we learn from how our society works. If we see and experience ethical and transparent behaviour, we tend to emulate it. If we don’t, we are more likely to follow unethical behaviour rampant in our midst. Thus the context and environment shape our knowledge and behaviour. We can gain a lot by experiencing multiple and diverse settings and environments beyond our own culture. Such experiences can broaden our outlook and enhance personal growth and tolerance.

There are different ways we can get our children to benefit more from experiential learning. A parent can exert more influence by telling his children to “do what I do” than to tell them, “do what I say, and not what I do.” After all, the cultural mores and morality that are keys to early development come from watching what others do rather than just listening to exhortations.

We should make it a priority in early education to increase the likelihood of our children experiencing cultures other than ours. They will benefit by talking and interacting with people from other cultures and social backgrounds, where possible through travels. We should encourage our children to be like Sinbad.

Sinbad the Sailor is an imaginary seafarer and the protagonist of stories that originated in the Middle East. Sinbad is portrayed as a rich merchant living in Basra (a city that still exists in modern day Iraq), during the Abbasid era. The stories are of the seven voyages that he undertook because of his quest for adventure. All the voyages are fantastical in nature. During his voyages through the oceans he has bizarre escapades going to mystic places, encountering giants, monsters, and weird wonders.


The same kinds of adventures are there in many cultures, from Homer’s Odyssey to tales in Indian mythology. All of them have one thing in common: curiosity that leads to exploration and fantastical experience.

When Einstein was asked about intelligent children he is purported to have said, ““If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” The fairy tales convey curiosity and adventure, children are awe stricken and spellbound. These stories amplify curiosity and intrigue children to explore and build their own fantasies, fantasies that could develop interest, curiosity and motivation.

The learning we all want is more than learning from books. This is not the learning that schools and educational systems emphasize but it the learning that drives and builds us as individuals who are curious innovators. In addition to the experiential learning that derives from our external world, there is so much that we can do within our personal care, habits, and routines to positively influence our ability to learn.

Remember the key principles of learning as you take action. They are simple in theory but as most things in life needs to be executed to succeed.

First and foremost is the desire to learn and having goals that are clear and near in time will set the direction to sail. Knowing where you want to go helps organize and plan a path to navigate to reach that goal. Once you set sail, practice, practice, and practice more.

Finally, explore be curious and learn by experience. Never lose the joy of curiosity. Have fun.

Created By
Ranga Krishnan


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