6 Practical Tools that You Should Use to Improve Learning

In the past year I’ve radically improved my ability to learn and memorize information, and you can too, by using the following six practical tools to simplify and diversify the required repetitions.

Improve Learning

Learning

What is learning?

Whenever we learn something new synapses in our brain connect to each other to form a neural pathway. If you were to look at neurological movies you would find that it looks a lot like two tentacles becoming entangled with each other.

What is remembering then?

The act of remembering or memorizing something is to maintain that same neural pathway we formed before by re-using it every once in a while.  This means that we have to do repetitions.

One of the basic slogans of the neurological community is that neurons that fire together wire together. To relate this to the topic at hand, it means that the more repetitions of something we do the stronger the corresponding neural pathway becomes and the easier it becomes for our brain to do that same thing again. It is also important to do repetitions on multiple levels – reading, reviewing, writing, speaking, watching, and summarizing.

In this post I’m going to briefly outline my framework for learning – my method for getting these neurons to fire together more efficiently – and how I have been able to radically boost and speed up the amount of information that I can learn and memorize.

The first practical tool that you should use to improve learning is to study history.

1. Study History

Why should you study history?

Because the brain learns through associations, and studying history provides you with a ton of associations. Your brain will find similarities between things that happened before in history and the things that are happening RIGHT NOW.

For example: I recently read Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged, and the battle between the looters and the men of the mind is very close to the philosophical battle between Socrates and the Sophists in Ancient Greece. If I hadn’t studied history I wouldn’t have been able to make that connection – and my capacity to learn and memorize wouldn’t be as potent as it is. I wouldn’t have made that association and it wouldn’t have been as easy for me to remember keys things about the book.

2. Note Taking with a Multi Colored Pen

Learning with a multi colored pen

The second practical tool you should be using to improve your learning is taking notes with a multi colored pen.

After a lot of experimentation, the best way that I’ve found to take physical notes is by using a multi-colored pen. The reason why I recommend doing this is because it teaches your mind to think in terms of hierarchies and priorities when reviewing a text. When you review your notes it will be SO MUCH easier than if you had been using only one color and had to struggle and think, “Which part was the most important part here?”

Here’s my method for using the multi colored pen to take notes:

  • Red is the most important color. I use it only for the most important things and to highlight.
  • Green is the second most important color. I use it for subheadings and mostly in the margin.
  • Black is the third most important color. I use it for new words, concepts, or to draw models.
  • Blue is the least important color. I use it for the normal text.

Improve Learning with a Book summary

3. Book Summaries

The third practical tool that you should use to improve learning is to write summaries. I suggest you keep a book summaries book.

The reason why you’d want to do this is because it teaches you to simplify and to distill the core message of the book. Try keeping your summaries to 1-4 pages depending on the size of the book you read.

4. Keep a Journal

The fourth practical tool that you should use to improve learning is to keep a journal.

Why should you keep a journal?

There are a number of different reasons why, and you should really consider why before you start in order to get the most out of it. Here are a few good reasons:

  • To improve memory you could write down everything that has happened throughout the day.
  • To get better at summarizing you could write down the key lessons that you learned today.
  • To improve your self-reflection you could write down how you reacted to things that happened to you and what you will do the next time these things happen.

Or, if you’re ambitious, you could do all three together.

In either case, keeping a journal is an excellent reason to form the habit of writing consistently – and writing makes you smarter and helps crystallize your thoughts. Writing is a great tool for improving your focus.

5. Keep a Commonplace Book

The fifth tool that you should use to improve learning is to keep a commonplace book.

Keeping a commonplace book is a hugely powerful tool to improve your learning, creativity, and thinking. I simply cannot overemphasize how important it is. Please read this post that I dedicated specifically to explaining why a commonplace book is crucial to learning.

For the purpose of this post there are two main reasons why keeping a commonplace book is essential:

  1.  It is extremely scalable.  Let’s say you watch one video of TED Talks per day and take notes in a folder you call TED Talks in your commonplace. That adds up to 365 notes per year.
  2. It is easy to organize by categories and search within. You can quickly retrieve information you have written before, this makes reviewing notes quick and easy.

A commonplace is like your own mini-version of Google. Everything you write down and learn should be stored here. All information is then easily searchable; and it adds up a lot over time if you write down things every day; perhaps you would like to start keeping a quotes section?

All the things I’ve mentioned so far can be combined in the commonplace book if you use Windows Onenote or Evernote. You can also sync it to your cell phone so that you can access the commonplace, edit it, or write notes on the bus or the train.

6. Film Yourself with a Video Camera

The sixth and final practical tool that you should use to improve learning is the video camera.

Most people will not dare to use the video camera because they think it’s too uncomfortable or too much of a hassle – or maybe they will say that they don’t like the sound of their own voice.

By filming yourself you can easily see what you do well and what you need to work on. Using a video camera is an excellent tool for objective feedback.

There are a few unconventional means for using a video camera as well.  Personally I shoot video logs of myself for 10 minutes every day where I speak about random topics, usually related to something I have learnt that day. This enforces yet another repetition and boosts learning and memory. When I do video logs out in the public people tend to react in two ways:

  1. They think I am a celebrity and become very interested.
  2. They think I am a weird guy with serious psychological issues.

It’s quite polarizing.

Conclusion

To conclude my framework of learning, here’s how it works:

The more repetitions you do of something the stronger the neural pathway becomes and the longer and more easily you will remember it.

If you read something that’s one repetition, if you write it out that’s two repetitions, if you review your notes that’s three repetitions, if you shoot a video log or speak about it that’s four repetitions, then if you write in your journal and do a book summary that’s six repetitions.  And you can store it all in your digital commonplace book.

Remember to do repetitions on multiple levels – reading, reviewing, writing, speaking, watching, and summarizing.

 To make this process easier you can, and should, make use of the six practical tools:

  1. STUDY HISTORY – Accumulate a bank of past events to associate with the present.
  2. TAKE NOTES WITH A MULTI COLORED PEN – Teach the brain to think in terms of hierarchies, simplify reviewing of notes.
  3. BOOK SUMMARIES – Learn to summarize and distill the most important things from a book. It is a useful skill.
  4. JOURNAL – improve memory or reflect on things that happen to you. Use it as an excuse to write, writing makes you smarter.
  5. COMMONPLACE – Keep everything you do and all your information in your commonplace as a personal library so that you can easily search for information. Small things add up, the commonplace is very scalable.
  6. VIDEOCAMERA – film yourself to get excellent feedback. Speak – you don’t know something well enough unless you can speak about it or teach it to somebody else.

What are some of the tools that you use to speed up your learning process?

About the Author

Ludvig Sunström

Ludvig Sunström runs the practical self-development blog Startgainingmomentum and has written the book Breaking out of Homeostasis. Apart from self-development and writing, he is passionate about learning, reading, philosophizing, eating healthy and hitting the gym. Connect with him on Twitter and Google+.

Start Experiencing Your Breakthrough!
Get My FREE 5-Day Personal Development Crash-Course. Enter your email and Take Control, Ignite Your Motivation and Improve Your Focus in 5 Days:
Click here to learn more. 100% Privacy - I will never spam you.

28 Comments

  • Leonard

    October 27, 2013

    That’s a very ambitious method. I myself am quite serious about learning but I certainly haven’t taken it to this extent.

    From checking out your own post about keeping commonplace Ive decided that Im going to start that. Got any specific tips regarding that which might save me time in setting it up?

    As for the video camera I am too scared to do it, heh.

    The book summary & colored pencils ive been doing for years. Definitely recommend it to others.

    Another thing ive found to work well is to study/learn things in the morning before breakfast.

    ReplyReply
  • Zach David

    October 27, 2013

    Long read, but some ununsual and cool tips nevertheless. It makes sense that this would be a smart thing –> to make a system, or as you call it – framework to learn stuff.

    But it just seems incredibly time consuming.
    Maybe it is just me who is lazy, but I prefer just reading something cool every once in a while and then if i want to learn more I google that thing for hours + watch vids on YouTube. Thats my way anyway :)

    ReplyReply
  • Myrko Thum

    October 27, 2013

    Many of the techniques you have here really deepen the level of how we understand and internalize knowledge. Especially journaling, reviewing and, for me personally important lately, videoshooting, give us focus and depth.

    Thanks Ludvig for a great guest-post!

    ReplyReply
  • Ludvig Sunström

    October 27, 2013

    @Leonard:
    Glad you liked it Leonard.

    About the commonplace. Well, I mention most of what I think about it in my post. But for me it comes down to time mostly, which is why I choose to keep a digital commonplace book. There are people who dislike the idea of a commonplace not being physical, because they think that it ruins the creative ‘touch’ of it; they think that it SHOULD require a lot of effort because that’s going to make it more likely to stick to your memory.

    On one side I agree with them. OTOH it would simply take up too much of my time to do that so it’s a matter of choice. Plus if you use Onenote/Evernote you can link it to your cell phone.

    I suppose the first thing you need to consider is exactly WHAT you will use the commonplace for. Personally I store almost everything in mine. I have a lot of different categories.

    ReplyReply
  • Ludvig Sunström

    October 27, 2013

    @Zach David:

    Hey Zach,
    Yeah, it makes a lot of sense to create a framework for learning :) I look at it as life-long investment and something that has to be optimized and tweaked whenever I find a new and better “tool” to use. I’m a bit of a pragmatist in that manner.

    And yes. It does consume a fair amount of time. But I like learning new stuff so I don’t consider it boring or a waste of time. If you think it’s boring then it’s probably not going to work in the long-term anyway. If you method words, stick to it by all means.

    ReplyReply
  • Ludvig Sunström

    October 27, 2013

    @Myrko Thum:
    Thanks Myrko!
    I agree. I’m also getting into videoshooting; will probably have to get a better camera & tripod soon because the ones I’m using now are very cheap.

    Speaking about videos, I think it takes a bit of time learning to become acquainted & comfortable with speaking to a video camera. Especially when you want to shoot a video for others on E.G Youtube. Speaking into a video camera is kind of an art form in itself, wouldn’t you say? :)

    ReplyReply
  • Leonard

    October 27, 2013

    Thanks for the tips on setting it up.

    I actually spent the past couple of hours reading about this and have now decided to go with OneNote like you…. I think Evernote is overrated, in my social circle there are a lot of people who use it (and defend it) merely from reading Tim Ferriss blog, but they havent tried any alternative so it is not like they would know..

    ReplyReply
  • Myrko Thum

    October 28, 2013

    I discovered Evernote just recently for me and use it intensely now on all my devices. Syncing everything instantly makes it convenient.

    @Ludvig Sunström: regarding video. The secret as so often is: do it and then do it again. The more you shoot video, the better you become. Eventually you “see the person on the other side” and you can focus solely on bringing your message across. The rest becomes more and more automated as you get more relaxed.
    I dont think its necessary to have the best equipment as possible to make great videos. In fact you can do great videos with an iphone. I personally used a Canon 60d with a tripod and a Shotgun-Mic/Sticky Mic, which is more than enough for most cases.

    ReplyReply
  • Ludvig Sunström

    October 28, 2013

    @Leonard:
    No problem, happy to help.

    That’s funny about Tim Ferriss.

    ReplyReply
  • Ludvig Sunström

    October 28, 2013

    @Myrko Thum:

    Cool. I tried Evernote but somehow I didn’t like its design that much. The design and interface really matter to me when I spend that much time in it.

    You make a couple of good points Myrko. It’s a matter of consistency, I agree.

    I also agree about “picturing the person on the other side”.

    ReplyReply
  • Andrew

    October 28, 2013

    There is also one thing that helped me, when I read something, doesn’t matter either book or newspaper, I always try to retell what I read. And it’s a very helpful thing.

    ReplyReply
  • SJ Scott

    October 29, 2013

    Ludvig,

    I like how your book summaries, multi-colored pens and reading history all teach your brain to gain the patterns of learning.

    I do a lot of this, but perhaps not to your level. I love the organization behind this. Specifically the multicolored pen hierarchies. I just have one old highlighter. I might have to steal that idea for sure. I see a lot of practical use in that one.

    More videos is something that I need to work on too. It is a direction I want to go in, yet still an area I know I need to work on.

    Anyhow, thanks for a great article.

    -Steve

    ReplyReply
  • Kintobar

    October 29, 2013

    Good article. Well-written. It behooves you to follow this advice.

    I’d say this Ludvig guy is almost like a young Anthony Robbins. But with muscles instead of lard.

    ReplyReply
  • Sebastian

    October 30, 2013

    Great post Ludvig!! It’s always nice to read something from someone who obviously not only KNOWS what he’s talking/writing about, but also practices it.

    ReplyReply
  • Ludvig Sunström

    October 30, 2013

    @Kintobar:
    Thanks for the kind words. That’s exactly how I consider myself as well!

    ReplyReply
  • Ludvig Sunström

    October 30, 2013

    @Sebastian:

    Thanks Sebastian!

    ReplyReply
  • Ludvig Sunström

    October 30, 2013

    @SJ Scott:

    Hey Steve,
    Some people, like my mother, like highlighters, I don’t. It’s all about finding a system that works for oneself.

    PS: I just checked out your website. VERY cool.

    ReplyReply
  • Ludvig Sunström

    October 30, 2013

    @Andrew:

    Andrew,
    Yes, that’s a great strategy. I do the same thing, sometimes on autopilot, other times I do it purposely by steering the conversation into something I think is interesting just so that I can talk about it and see if I am able to explain something I just learnt.

    ReplyReply
  • Tania

    November 11, 2013

    Really good ideas and explanations on your methods. Will have to share this with others.

    Sincerely,
    Tania

    ReplyReply
  • Ludvig Sunström

    November 16, 2013

    @Tania: Thanks Tania, please do!

    ReplyReply
  • Arif

    November 21, 2013

    Thanks for sharing very effective idea, it would be help to me.

    ReplyReply
  • Ludvig Sunström

    November 27, 2013

    @Arif:

    Glad to be of Help Arif!

    ReplyReply

Leave A Response

* Denotes Required Field