• Alex Vikner

Relearning How to Learn

Over the past two learns at university, I have relearned how to learn. The objective of this essay is to shed light on the methods that helped me study more efficiently, learn new things faster and master tough subjects with greater ease.

"Diffuse" and "Focused" Thinking

The brain operates in focused mode when you concentrate intently on a singular task, like solving a math exercise or reading this post. This mode allows you to learn things in depth.

In contrast, the diffuse mode is activated when you are not focusing on anything in particular. The brain makes unconscious connections that allows you to understand the bigger picture.

Think of your brain as a pinball machine...

Both modes of thinking are crucial when learning. Push yourself to the edge of your current comprehension, then diffuse. Exercise and sleep are great ways of entering diffuse mode.

Personally I found that the way I take breaks makes a huge difference. I used to take small breaks here and there to scroll through my phone but that is really inefficient... Instead, do some pushups, dance around and take walks. Getting some fresh air is the best type of break.


This is the idea of breaking down what you want to learn into small pieces that your brain can access. In that sense, chunks are like parts of a puzzlethey are linked together through meaning. You create chunks through focus, repetition and practice.

To master a concept, you need to know it but also know how it fits into the bigger picture. Hence, when studying, it helps to first skim through the material to understand the bigger picture, then look at an example or application and finally dig into the details.

I started using Notion which is an amazing note-taking app (free for university students) that makes it easy to categorize subjects and chapters in multiple layers.

Before starting to study a course or chapter, I skim through the content and create categories for each part. This gives me an overview of everything and helps me understand faster how each piece of information fits into the bigger idea or message being conveyed.

Illusions of Knowledge

I used to spend an unhealthy amount of time writing notes and rereading them before tests in hope of memorizing as much as possible. That is what everyone around me did as well.

While rereading notes and over-highlighting books are common studying techniques, they are extremely ineffective! You think that you are learning but you aren't really...

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge Stephen Hawking

Hearing this was quite a shock for me. I had being studying all wrong for over a decade... What you should be doing is only highlighting key words and phrases and writing brief notes that summarise key concepts (like what I'm doing in this post).

Another huge source of illusion of knowledge is doing exercises with the corrections on the side. You think that you understand how to solve the exercise but it's just an illusion... Instead, do the exercises without corrections and only look at them if you are really stuck.

This helped me a lot. By really thinking about a problem hard, I realized that I often times could solve it without the correction, and when I couldn't, having thought of it hard beforehand made me understand the problem-solving method in more depth.


We procrastinate to temporarily escape discomfort. One way to avoid this is to use the Pomodoro technique: focus intensely for 25 min, then take a 5 min break and give yourself a small reward. Repeat this 4 times then take a 30 min break. Repeat the entire cycle.

Invented by Francesco Cirillo

For some reason going through pomodoro cycles proved to be very hard for me. One of the main reasons was that I set "product" goals, i.e. "I have to finish X". Setting "process" goals instead, i.e. "I'll spend 25 min on X, made it easier for me to use the pomodoro technique.

Another piece of advice: plan your day the night before. This is because sleeping helps the brain prepare. Don't overload your day with a myriad of tasks. Keep it simple with only a few critical tasks. Also make sure to plan the finishing time of studying.

Boost Your Productivity

1. Parkinson's Law: work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

2. Pareto principle: for many events, around 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Combining them will boost your productivity through the roof: identify the few critical tasks that contribute the most to your goals and schedule them with very short and clear deadlines.

Effective Learning Techniques

Use deliberate practice by focusing on the things you find the hardest and doing them first.

By jumping back and forth between problems or subjects you are interleaving. This enhances creativity and creates new connections between chunks.

Spaced repetition is an effective learning method where you repeat what you have learned over increasingly longer intervals. This is what you should do if you want to memorize something.

Make use of the powerful visual memory capabilities of the brain. The memory palace technique is useful. Also try to use metaphors and analogies to remember things better.

Testing yourself is one of the most effective ways to learn. This can be done by trying to explain the material to yourself, active recalling or taking mock exams. Learning what you don't know is crucial. Learn from your mistakes.

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©2020 Alex Vikner