How to Learn


It's almost funny.


Most of us spend 13 years working toward high school graduation. Thirteen years of trying to master the basics of language, history, government, mathematics, and science. We spent countless hours studying, memorizing, writing papers, solving problems and completing projects. And yet most of us are not taught how to learn.


We make our way through our years of schooling despite this obvious and significant omission. And, like nearly everyone, we forget almost everything that we learned. Usually just days after we're last tested on it.


Can't we do better?


Yes we can, but it requires discipline, strategy, and time.


Part of the problem is that schools (I'm thinking of high school) are not set up to maximize learning. Furthermore, many (perhaps most) teachers don't teach in a way that maximizes deep learning and retention. It's not because they don't want to. Some just don't know how. Others have ideas as to how to improve learning, but they are unable to put those ideas into practice. Need an example? Personally, I'd rather teach less material over the course of the year, and cover that material in more depth. Yet state law dictates what is to be covered in the classroom over the course of a year. And it's a lot of material.


Okay, so we're working in an imperfect system.

But what can you, as a student, do to improve your own learning?


Some of the things I'm going to recommend are easy to implement. And many are not. But at least you'll know.


First. Get adequate sleep. Yes, you're busy. Yes, you're a teenager and you like to stay up late. That's normal. But you should aim to get at least 7 hours of sleep every night. Maybe even more. The exact number of hours needed to avoid cognitive decline varies by individual. Some people need more sleep, and some need less. But don't think you're special. You need lots of sleep. It will benefit you in at least two ways. First, you will be more alert in class, which will lead to enhanced learning. Second, some research suggests that the brain needs sleep in order to fully process information learned the previous day. On a related note, try not to take a mentally-taxing class right after lunch. Most people get a little sleepy after lunch, especially if they are forced to sit in a chair and listen to someone talk. Too bad high schools don't have nap time.


Second. Exercise at least a few times per week. Aerobic exercise is best. A simple 20-minute walk is enough. It's ironic -- you might think you'll get smarter if you study when you could be exercising. But that's generally not true. You will experience significant cognitive improvement from the exercise, due to the increased oxygen flow to the brain. Exercise also reduces stress and increases alertness. If you want to enhance your learning, you have no choice. You have to exercise, at least a little. (Added benefit, regular aerobic exercise reduces your odds of getting Alzheimer's disease by more than 60 percent. Seriously.)


Third. Stay engaged in class. If the material is not inherently interesting to you, find some connection to it. Get curious. Ask questions. Think about what is being said. Put down your phone. If you are bored, you will not be able to pay attention, and you will struggle to learn anything at all. Yes, it's very helpful when the teacher makes an effort to make the material interesting. But even if he or she doesn't, you're not off the hook. It then becomes your job to find a way to stay engaged. And if the material is too easy for you, and that's why you're bored, ask for more-challenging material. Your teacher might faint, but that might be the only way to stay engaged.


Fourth. Study smart. This means actively engaging with the material that you're studying. If you're asked to read a chapter from a textbook, don't just read it! You may walk away thinking you understand the material, but you almost certainly don't. And don't think you're the exception. Passive reading is just not an effective means of learning something. Furthermore, don't bother highlighting or underlining text. Studies have shown that it offers no benefits. It is a complete waste of time to highlight words in a book. Here's what does aid understanding and retention. Periodically stop, while reading, and mentally summarize what you've just read. Then ask yourself a question or two over the material, and try to answer the question(s) without looking at the text. And if you're reading physics, you nearly always should be practicing mathematical calculations as you go along. If you read about a technique for solving a certain kind of problem, get out paper and a pencil and practice that technique.


Fifth. Don't multitask. (This is an extension of "Study smart".) While many people take pride in being able to multitask, they are fooling themselves. Research clearly shows that we cannot pay attention to multiple things at once. When you are listening to a class discussion or reading a book at home, and you stop to look at your phone or watch a video on the Internet, your brain disengages from the class discussion or book. You may quickly revert your attention to the original material, but that switching back and forth is an impediment to deep learning. Multitasking has also been shown to increase mistakes, be it at school or a business setting. Okay, look. Let's get personal. I like my smart phone, and you like yours. If I get a notification on my phone, I want to look at it right away. Furthermore, if I'm sitting at my computer, I'm often tempted to check Facebook and other random sites. You're probably the same way. It is really hard to study for very long without becoming distracted. But it's something you need to work at. Here's what you might do: Study in a secluded place, with your phone hidden, for 30 minutes. Then take a 10 minute break. Walk around, check your phone. Then return to your secluded place and study for another 30 minutes. But do NOT constantly go back and forth between your phone and your homework.


Sixth. Repeat information you want to remember. Cramming for a test is a good way to remember nothing a few days or weeks after the test. (Yes, cramming often leads to decent test grades, although not in physics! But even if cramming gets you high test grades, do you really want to leave high school knowing little more than when you entered? I hope not.) Cramming does not lead to long-term memory of the material covered. That's not how the brain works. In order to remember something, it either needs to elicit a powerful emotional response (like being in a car accident) or you need to repeat it to yourself multiple times in deliberately spaced intervals. If you have a test coming up on Friday, review the material perhaps three times during the preceding week. If you want to remember the material for years, you'll need to review it a few weeks later, then every couple of months for a while, then perhaps yearly.


Seventh. Don't try to memorize the equations. This pertains to physics, specifically. Many students that do very well in biology and chemistry will struggle in physics. Why? These subjects tend to emphasize memorization of information.* And most students (including you, most likely) tend to be good at memorizing information, with a little effort. This doesn't work in physics. There is little information to be memorized. Rather, physics is more of a process than a body of knowledge. You don't memorize a process. You learn to do a process. I'm speaking from personal experience here. Many students politely ask to be told everything that they are to know for some upcoming test, so that they can memorize it. But what they're asking for is facts. And facts are rarely tested. Rather, tests (and quizzes and homework assignments) are designed to see if you understand how to DO something. This is tough. It's much easier to memorize a list of facts than learn how to build and manipulate mathematical models. But learning physics is so worth the effort! I promise you. And regarding all of the equations you'll be introduced to in the class, memorizing them without understanding them is certain to lead to failure. Now this is where physics differs from math. In many math classes (but certainly not all), you learn how to solve a particular type of equation, you practice solving it by doing a bunch of similar problems, and then you replicate the procedure on a test. Physics is different. The problem on the test may look nothing like the ones you solved in class. How is that fair? The problem on the test is designed to be solved by a student that really understands the equation; that is, understands that the equation is not just a formula that you plug numbers into but a statement about how certain properties of the world are related. Memorize the equations if you wish, but make sure you really understand them. If you do, you probably won't be able to forget them even if you tried.  *This is a simplification, of course. Both areas of study can involve lab work.


Eighth. Get help early. If you find yourself struggling to understand material, don't wait until the day before the test to seek help. Ask someone (a classmate or the teacher, most likely) for help as soon as possible. Be proactive. I'd also recommend a study group, but make sure your group members don't bring you down. If you find that your group study session has become a gripe session, where you spend most of your time complaining about the difficulty of the course, then find a different person or group to study with. Find someone that doesn't find the class as difficult. Even if you're not griping, but each of you tends to get stuck in the same places on the same problems, find a different group. This said, I understand that many students do better to study alone. That's fine. Do what works for you.


Finally, and this is more a piece of advise than a strategy for enhancing your learning, ... don't be too hard on yourself. Physics cannot be learned in a day, just as Rome was not built in a day. It takes time to become proficient at physics. (But don't think that time alone will make you skilled at it. You must study and work smart. Practice doesn't make perfect. Practice makes permanent.) Do NOT expect to understand everything covered in class immediately. THIS IS HARD FOR MANY OF YOU! So many students (are you one of them?) expect everything to make sense the first time they hear it. If that doesn't happen, frustration quickly sets in. In many cases, you must allow yourself time to reflect on what you've heard before you'll really understand it. The time to reflect may arise in class, but you may have to find it at home. Please, enjoy the process. Because physics will be one of the most interesting classes you ever take.







Consider the following schedule. Class A meets for 30 minutes. 10 minute break. Class B meets for 30 minutes. 20 minute break involving exercise. Class C meets for 30 minutes. 10 minute break. Class A meets again for 30 minutes. 10 minute break. Class B meets again for 30 minutes. 1 hour for lunch. Class D meets for 30 minutes. 10 minute break. Class C meets again for 30 minutes. 10 minute break. Class D meets for 1 hour. 20 minute break involving meditation. Class A meets again for 30 minutes. 10 minute break. Class B meets again for 30 minutes.


I'm not saying this is the ideal schedule. (I just made it up.) Although there are aspects to it that are scientifically proven to aid retention. Namely, repeated exposure to information in spaced intervals aids retention. But suppose evidence builds that supports a schedule similar to this one. Could a teacher implement this schedule? Of course not. We must work within the system.


Ahh, so what to do?










photo by Thomas Leuthard

Short article on studying smarter:

Re-reading is inefficient. Here are 8 tips for studying smarter. - Joseph Stromberg,


A secret


I've learned something over my years of teaching. The best way to learn something is ... to teach it.


I began teaching physics after years of practice in pursuit of a degree in the subject. But as well as I understood the material at the start of my teaching career, I now understand the material more deeply as a result of thinking of ways to explain it to my students.


If you can find any opportunity to explain or teach the course material to someone -- a parent, sibling, friend, or as a tutor -- you will almost certainly walk away understanding physics more deeply.

You're not a lion. Don't let your pride hold you back.

Many smart students avoid challenging themselves for fear of making a mistake and looking less-than-brilliant in from of their peers and teacher. As a teacher, I have more respect for students that push themselves as far as they can go than students that play it safe and act like everything is just so easy.

Learn more about learning with this free online course:

Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects 

available on the Coursera platform.