10 Unusual and Effective Ways of Learning

Take the first small step

#1 Focus on the Small Decisions for Long Term Gain

Learning something new starts with the decision to learn it. But it doesn’t end with those big decisions, like signing up for a piano class. What really matters once we choose to learn something, is the string of little daily decisions we must make, like: getting off the couch, getting yourself ready for that piano class and getting into the car. Nowadays, it’s easy to start something or make the ‘big’ decisions, because we’re excited about learning something new. But the real learning begins when, each and every day, you take those little steps which make it a routine over months and years. 

In his TEDx talk, How to Achieve Your Most Ambitious Goals, Stephen Duneier explains the tactic he used to accomplish every big goal he set himself, whether it was acing college, learning a new language or setting a new Guinness World Record. And he reminds us that we can do it too – because the tactic he uses isn’t out-of-this-world-crazy. It’s making incremental improvements on the micro level, what he calls ‘marginal adjustment’.  He starts with the easiest, tiniest action and keeps it up as much as possible each day. It might be ten minutes now, and then ten minutes again – the point is to keep it going daily, so that there is progress and momentum building.

Every skill, including cooking, has many components

#2 Learn Better through Deconstruction

Tim Ferriss, author of the Four Hour Work Week, argues that learning a new skill might be easier, quicker and more pain-free than we think if only we learn to ‘crack the code’ – or deconstruct it. In this talk, he shares his proven method of mastering any skill, condensed in the acronym DiSSS: Deconstruction, identify, Selection, Sequencing, Stakes. 

To summarize, mastering any skill requires you to 1) deconstruct the skill and identify and address hazardous areas ie. that will likely cause you to fail. 2) Selection is about isolating any one aspect of the skill and mastering that. For example, cooking involves many things from grocery shopping to working with different tools, so don’t attack all at once but set aside one aspect, such as paring vegetables and just work on that for awhile. 3) Sequencing involves questioning best practices and choosing what to start with. Ferriss gives the example of language learning, where he selected the typical grammar structure in a language and applied it to one sentence, in all 12 or 13 variations, helping him grasp the concept as it is presented in different sentence structures, giving him a model for constructing other sentences. 4) Finally, stakes maintain accountability and motivation. If there’s nothing to hold you accountable or provide incentive in learning something new, it’s hard to stick to and accomplish your goals.

Create visuals through collage

#3 Learning through the Imagination (Visualization)

We’ve all heard that ‘imagination is more important than knowledge’ (Einstein). How, then, can we apply imagination to our learning? One fun and easy way is through ‘design thinking’, where you put forward a question, goal or issue and try to come up with as many ideas and possible solutions as you can in a limited 10-minute session. It’s a brainstorming step where you allow yourself to be as wildly creative as you can in your ideas. More often than not, when you allow yourself to be a creative thinker, you will come up with workable and novel answers.

Another way to use your imagination is visualization. When working with any subject or topic, you can visualize it vividly in image, colour, pattern, shapes or movements to work it out – you might be surprised by the results! I sometimes used this as a student, visualizing a choreography or poem with my questions just before going to bed and sometimes finding an answer the next morning. You could also create a visualization board or collage, to pictorially work out a difficult question, problem or learning roadblock.


Learn from others’ work by emulating them

#4 Imitate / Emulate what you Aspire Towards

Imitation has a special place in Waldorf education with young children, but it is also an excellent way to learn and deepen in any field as an adult. I’ve heard of authors trying to pick apart and study sentences of their favourite writers to bring more of it in their own writing; graphics or design students often look for inspiration in others’ work and aim to match their favoured aesthetic in their creations. You need to try on others’ shoes as a learning exercise until your own style and work emerges. Imitation is a good way of breaking into and learning about the field, improving your craft and eventually discovering your own, polished-and-informed voice.

Express your thoughts creatively

#5 Mind Map your way to Comprehension 

Mind mapping, by Tony Buzan, embraces the quick, spontaneous and associative nature of our brain and how it really works. Mind maps help us bring our thoughts on to paper the way they appear in our minds. Starting from the centre, the main idea, we branch out into more and more specific details related to the main idea and connect them with other ideas. Using colour coding, diagrams, sketches and symbols, this method can aid the learning of any topic, accompanying the essay writing process, structuring presentations, note-taking from a textbook, or contributing to learning a new skill. Learning to mind map will help you break things down and condense complicated subjects or thick books, making them easier to digest.

#6 Review in Reverse for Memorisation

The review exercises bring the experiences of our daily lives to full awareness. By directing our attentive gaze to what has happened – whether in a single day or in whole phases of life – we kindle light in our will. Undertaking such a review backwards, in reverse sequence, or from an ‘external perspective’, requires a huge inner effort as we establish distance between ourselves and our daily experiences.

Book: Strengthening the Will, review exercises by Rudolf Steiner

The backward review is an exercise for the end of the day, which helps us to settle our inner life, like a meditation. The backward review can also be a healthy and useful tool in learning, when, at the end of the day or with regard to the previous day’s class, you think backwards on experiences or a lecture or a process. Again, this is something that can be effective when done before going to bed and works wonders for the memory. A simple example would be going over the alphabet in reverse. It’s applicable to anything sequential you wish to remember.

#7 Get to Grips with your Topic via Essay Writing

Understanding and conslidated learning comes from writing and research and simply thinking through a subject carefully and deeply. That’s why courses assign essays, because it’s the best way to tell what a student knows or thinks about a topic. Whether they’re lengthy or short, essays get you to confront your ideas on a given topic and helps gauge where you are on your learning journey, and determine which direction to take it in. 

An essay in its skeletal form is the introduction, supporting body paragraphs and conclusion. Try to write an essay on a topic or issue you want to learn or understand more about.  It needn’t be very long or complicated or even academic. What matters is that you explore your thoughts, try to articulate them and broaden your mind through research.

#8 Discussion: bring it to the table

Find a friend or colleague with whom you can discuss something you want to learn or know more about. This could look like a meet up over coffee to discuss your project, book, assignment or task. Or it could be a group meet up that’s happening in your neighbourhood, like a book club or interactive workshop. Finding ways of talking about your subject with others will enable you to grow, learn and deepen your relationships – with the subject, and with people who are connected to it. 

Explore relevant issues, share resources and problem solve, making the meeting productive, contributing to a better and fresher understanding of your interest. 

Get it into your body

#9 Embody your Subject (not just for kinesthetic learners!)

We all have different learning styles, but somehow, movement and dance can be a great way to memorise long passages of anything and make sense of something in an embodied way. If you can break it up and bring rhythm to it through clapping, stepping, jumping, throwing a frisbee back and forth, movement can be a great tool for getting something ‘in’ you. I remember preparing a twenty minute demonstration talk which involved memorizing pages of words as well as presenting movement demos. I could get it done in no other way than talking it, walking it, enacting it and placing myself in different parts of the room to differentiate different points covered in my paper. The same works well for learning long poems, stories, charts or lists -map it out in space, use your body, move it, dance it, play it.

#10 Learning through Story

Story is a broad tool that can be in visual, oral, moving or written form. No matter which you use, a narrative that breaks down simply as beginning, middle and end, can be a powerful way of learning a variety of topics.

To use story, ask yourself: can I convert this concept or chapter into character, setting, plot? Can I express this in a well-contained and detailed, descriptive story to make what I’m learning memorable? Online videos are a good example of how subjects are transformed through the storytelling medium whether animated or not, and delivered in digestible and engaging ways within a short period of time. Speakers of twenty minute (or more) talks often use anecdotes and stories to get their points and examples across in effective and enriching ways to their audience. Stories make the subject matter and learning more interesting, human and accessible.

Tools to try out: storyboard, short story or narrative, storytelling, news story.

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