A couple of days ago my wife asked me: "How do you learn." She is really great at this kind of question, which doesn't seem to have an answer. At least I had no idea how I actually was learning. But my impression is that I am learning reasonably well. On the other hand, learning is something I'd be glad to improve on. So I started up my browser and searched a little about Study Techniques. Disappointingly most stuff I found was about memorizing stuff. I don't know about you, but I don't do that. I write stuff down. Instead of filling my head with phone numbers and dates of birth, I try to understand concepts. You know what, I think this is my first study technique:

Don't memorize, understand: Memorizing stuff is hard and mostly useless, when you actually want to apply your knowledge. Of course understanding stuff isn't much easier, but it uses much less brain capacity once done, and you can apply your knowledge in new areas as well. So the question is: how do you achieve understanding? Here are my recommendations:

Modify: When you read or hear something, think about what might happen if you change it a little. Let's say you are learning a programming language, e.g. Java. One of the first things you'll get taught is how to write a hello world program. Take that program and apply small changes: Add a semicolon on various places; Remove a semicolon; Change names and literals; Change the order of lines and so on. Most of these changes will result in a compilation failure. That's great, because now you experience, what kind of mistakes cause which kind of exception. For example you will see that a program needs a main method and you'll see what the exception looks like, when there is no such method.

Compare: Compare the stuff you are learning with stuff you already know. This is extremely important. If you have nothing to compare with, all you can do is memorizing. This becomes extremely obvious, when kindergarten kids ask questions about quantum mechanics or software development. For example my son asked me what all these curly braces are for when programming. Trust me, that's hard to explain to a five year old. On the other hand when I learned C, I already knew among others Pascal, so I immediately thought: 'Ok, curly braces are like begin/end, just shorter'. Often it helps to compare to something, even though the comparison falls apart when looking close enough. Consider for example  the various analogies for software development. In the end they are all wrong, but still they are helpful, especially once you understand which parts of a comparison work and which don't

Build a mental model: Chances are when learning something new, you won't understand every detail. Still build a model about what is going on, and about the purpose of different pieces.

Verify (or falsify) your model: By experimentation, try to verify your model. This will force you to modify your model, until you will have a pretty decent one.

Teach your new knowledge: When preparing a training, a presentation or a blog post about something, it forces you to really think  through it, thus deepening your understanding.

Practice: All the stuff should happen during actual experimentation, not just in your head.

The last four steps are all about what you do with knowledge heading your way. So the obvious next question is: "How do you direct knowledge your way?"

Read Books for in Depth Information: I  love the Internet, and you'll find almost any information somewhere. But lot's of it are just little pieces of wisdom (or stupidity) . The author of a good  book will put much more thought into his writing then the average blog author.

Read Alternative Sources: Once you have a basic understanding of something read additional sources, for example blogs, Wikipedia articles (possibly in different languages), other books, scientific publications. This serves as repetition, but also as a source of various opinion.

Reread your Sources: Especially with books I use little post-it index markers to mark interesting pieces and some time after I finished a book, I'll use these markers to go through the interesting pieces again.

Provide yourself with a constant stream of information about the topic of interest: A good way for doing this is to subscribe to newsletters, or relevant blogs, or following relevant people on twitter. Of course paper based magazines work just as well. It will cause you to rethink the topic over and over again, thus triggering repetition.

Keep a list of things you don't understand yet and work on reducing that list: When I hear a term which I don't know, but which might be interesting for me, I put down a note and look it up on google, wikipedia, or whatever seems appropriate asap. Just as the two points before it is a form of repetition, but it also builds a network of different but related terms, which helps in building comparisons.

Stop reading when it doesn't add value: This is a thing which I had problems with. Once I started a book, I had the habit of finishing it. Same for articles. This is stupid and a wast of time. There are so many great books, articles and sources of information out there. You won't be able to read them all. So I consider it a critical thing to identify stuff that doesn't add value for you and skip it. If that means skipping the rest of a 600 pages book after reading the table of content, that's great. By the way: you absolutely should go through the table of content and the text on a back side of a book, in order to get an impression what the book is all about.

And finally there is the aspect of your environment, which largely affects your capability of learning.

Motivate yourself: Why do little boys know so much about dinosaurs, often including all the difficult names? Yet grown ups have a hard time distinguishing a Brontosaurus from a Pteranodon. They find dinosaurs cool. They are big, they are strong, and the boys soon realize, they know more about them than their parents. That is pure motivation. So find out for yourself why you want to learn something. What will be better, easier or more fun in your life once you grappled that new knowledge? Promise yourself a little gift once you are done with a piece of your learning. For tiny steps the gift should be tiny. For me such a little gift often is a tweet, publishing my progress to the world.

Make yourself comfortable: Find a spot which you can easily access, and which offers everything you need for learning. This might include: Something to eat, to drink, music, a door to close, a comfy chair, a window with a nice view.

Use your knowledge: In my opinion nothing is so gratifying and motivating as applying new knowledge. And again, you'll find the limits of your understanding, giving you a chance to push these limits outward.

Know your preferred time for learning: There are certain times in the day where I'm more able to do mentally challenging stuff. For me the best time is the early morning. Your mileage my vary, but I am pretty sure everybody has such a time and should know it.

So these are my study techniques. What are yours?


Wan't to meet me in person to tell me how stupid I am? You can find me at the following events: