I’ve been getting a lot of answer requests on Quora recently that revolve around learning something complex in an unreasonably short period of time. There have also been a bunch of questions sent my way asking about how to memorize faster in order to get ahead/pass exams/etc.

These types of questions tell me that there are some serious misunderstandings when it comes to what learning is and how it can (or should) be applied.

Rather than repeat myself a million more times, here are some fundamental ideas that apply to all of these types of questions:

What is Learning?

When most people think of learning, they make the mistake of thinking it is a one-shot, first-exposure phenomenon. For example, when someone gives you a complex demonstration of how to properly throw a punch, you might believe that you’ve learned how to do it yourself. You might even drill it a few times that same day so the instructor can correct your errors, reinforcing the idea that you’ve learned a new skill.

But that’s not quite right. On the one hand, you can learn from single experiences - you don’t need to put your hand into a flame multiple times to learn that it’s not a good idea. But single-exposure learning like that is usually derived from experiences that provide a high degree of salience, and it’s often based on simple stimulus-response relationships (hot fire = burning skin).

The kind of learning most people are interested doesn’t fit into that mold. Instead, we’re primarily looking to build useful skills that will allow us to more easily navigate environments and accomplish goals. These skills require deliberate effort of some kind, which comes from experience and practice.

Not many people are going to be surprised by the idea that practice and experience develop skills. But what might be eluding you is the fact that learning is not defined by what you’re currently exposed to or practicing. Instead, researchers use retention as the true measure of learning. This is measured by forcing learners to take time away from a task and then checking their ability after the break.

Because of this misunderstanding, it’s common for people to sabotage their skill development by believing that initial performance is the most important indicator of learning. To use the proper punch example from before, you could spend hours and hours refining the punch in that first session and believe that you have a proper understanding of how to throw a punch. Here’s the problem: if you don’t test that knowledge later, you won’t know how much you actually learned.

I see this in martial arts classes all the time. An instructor will show a complex set of movements, then everyone in the class is expected to drill and try those movements out for themselves. The instructors will walk around and correct as needed, then they’ll move on to another move (or to sparring).

There’s nothing intrinisically wrong with teaching this way. The problems surface in two different forms:

  1. Students are often overconfident about their level of learning, and only practice a few reps. Once they “get” it, they believe their learning is complete.

  2. The set of movements is not revisited in subsequent classes, which would be the real test of learning. There’s a very high chance that they won’t be able to utilize that set of movements in sparring or in subsequent classes because they aren’t revisiting it to check understanding.

It then becomes easy for a student (especially a new student) to say something like “I learned how to do an armbar today,” even though they haven’t gone through a retention interval. It’s highly unlikely that they actually know how to do that armbar because multiple exposures are required to let learning sink in.

An effective rule of thumb for teachers (of any kind, not just martial arts) then becomes clear: testing retention in subsequent training sessions is critical. Without these intervals, it’s impossible to determine how well learning has taken hold. It’s also very difficult to correct holes in understanding when these tests are not in place.

A Note About Timing & Judgement

Another interesting wrinkle to consider is that learners often don’t understand or aren’t capable of recognizing the most effective learning formats. The classic example comes from the 1978 study by Baddeley and Longman, which measured how the performance of a typing task changed based on practice schedule.

Common sense might dictate that the most frequent practice schedule would offer the best learning - but it actually offered the worst results! But what’s more relevant to this particular discussion is how the learners felt about the different schedules. The most frequent practice schedule was the most popular among the learners, even though it offered the worst results. The most effective practice schedule (spacing out learning) was likewise very unpopular with learners.

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It makes sense when you think about it: people like to feel like they’re making progress, and taking breaks (especially long breaks) between training sessions is bound to feel like slacking off. Strangely, it doesn’t seem to matter much if the students are actually making more progress with a lighter schedule.

This is worth keeping in mind whether you teach others or are only teaching yourself. It can be tempting to believe that you’ve learned something after one exposure, or that the most jam-packed practice schedule will be the most effective. The reality is that you aren’t very good at making this judgements, and you’re better off trusting what researchers have known for decades.

Learning Quickly

Everyone wants to learn as fast as possible. It makes sense and doesn’t merit much of an explanation - being able to learn faster than others is the single biggest advantage you can possess over other human beings. The problem is that meaningful, useful learning takes time, and trying to skip the bottlenecks involved is usually a waste of time.

I was recently asked on Quora if it was possible to learn machine learning in 400 days. The person asking had a large, elaborate roadmap for learning this deep, difficult subject and even had a clear goal (building a game bot).

On the surface, this seems reasonable - 400 days is over a year, and it should be feasible to learn something in that timespan, right? Plus, they’ve mapped everything they need to know. They’re organized, and that means something, right?!

Sadly, no. The problem (as I laid out in my answer) is not that they’re disorganized or lacking motivation. The problem is that they’re focusing on what they’re going to learn, and not how. It’s a common mistake, and it highlights how little widespread understanding there is of the learning process.

Learning is tightly coupled with memory (remember how important retention is to learning?). You really can’t have one without the other. And the most critical aspect of memory to understand is that it takes time to build into something useful. You need to create a large library of memory chunks that can be associated with other chunks quickly and efficiently, and this whole process takes quite a while. By default, this means that learning will also take a significant amount of time.

It can be faster for people with large pre-existing knowledge bases, but for someone starting from scratch it’s destined to be a long road. It can be optimized and turned into something that won’t suck up your entire life, but there’s no getting around the fact that there’s a baseline for time and effort that must be expended. And the more complex the skill or subject, the larger that baseline will end up being.

Long story short: Learning takes time, but it doesn’t have to take forever. Effective and efficient learning comes down to understanding this and creating a system that reflects how your brain actually works. Wishful thinking and unrealistic expectations will only bog you down and make the process more painful than it needs to be.

Why Should You Learn?

Something that I think gets missed by the people who ask about learning really quickly is that learning can and should be a positive and beneficial experience in and of itself. When someone asks what they can learn in 2 minutes that will be useful for life, I die a little on the inside because it means the person asking places zero value on the process of learning. They’re just looking for some half-assed “lifehack” that can make them look or feel smarter. Meaningful learning doesn’t come in two minute bites, no matter how much we might want it to.

There’s an intangible satisfaction that comes from the process of developing deep expertise, and the “humming bird attention span” attitude about learning is that it’s just something there to be used. Learning is not - and should not - be purely instrumental.

Yes, it should be used to help you build a better life for yourself, get ahead in business or whatever else you want to accomplish, but why stop there? Why not use it to make your inner life deeper and more interesting? To use it purely as a means of impressing others strikes me as a complete waste of natural resources.

More importantly, what does it say about society when so many people feel this way? In particular, what does it say about the way young people interact with education when their only learning-related desire is figuring out how to memorize or “hack” their way through exams? To me, it says that people have lost sight of the benefits of learning.

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Yes, you can memorize a whole book of accounting terms if you want to. It could give you an edge in your race to work at Goldman Sachs and buy a yact by the time you’re 25. But wouldn’t you also like to gain an understanding of something amazing, like how your brain works? The former is simply a set of facts that might make your bank account bigger, the latter provides insights and life-long satisfaction that cannot be purchased.

Again, I’m not saying that instrumental learning is bad. Everyone does it (including me), and learning should be used to create competitive advantages. That’s the way of the world and it should not be ignored. But what I am saying is that we should take a long, hard look at why we learn what we do and ask ourselves if there’s any balance there.

When you’re absorbed in purely instrumental pursuits, you’re bound to miss out on the most meaningful and important aspects of learning (and life).

-Ace