Essential Skills: How To Learn

What is essential to know?

There is a cultural disagreement in our society of which the resolution is long overdue. What should our kids be learning in school, and who exactly should be teaching it?

“Taxes? That’s for your parents to teach you, so go home and ask them about it.”

“Taxes?! You should really be focusing on the story of The Scarlet Letter. I loved that book. Now go do your homework.”

Do you see the problem here? A perfectly good question goes unanswered by our society’s two primary teaching institutions. What is the family expected to do as caregivers of our society’s future citizens? What are teachers to do?

Now consider the fact that not all families are functional, regulated, healthy environments for learning. That’s to say not all parents are loving, caregiving parents with a plan to teach essential skills. Actually, even if they are loving and caregiving, that does not mean they will teach essential skills.

Then consider that the public education system, the only other place to learn such skills teaches specialized knowledge like thermodynamics and 2D motion – things that are important but major studies. Someone who wants to be an accountant like their mom or dad will genuinely have no use for the breakdown of the cell or which presidents had a formal education as the answer to a true/false question.

Since neither our system nor our kids can determine what they want to do with their lives, it should suffice to teach the student the skills they need in order to live well and to learn on their own to become what they choose to be. Don’t teach them to know the answers. Teach them to ask the questions.

With this error in communication, this definitive failure of systems, young members of society grow up without the basic knowledge they need to eat well, to cook, to pay taxes, to get a job, to communicate effectively, to be emotionally intelligent, to keep healthy habits, to think critically, to have healthy sexual relationships, to be information literate, to plan, to study, and to learn. 18, 19, 20, and 21-year-olds are thrust into the adult world without a clue of what to do.

How does credit work? Insurance? What’s a 401K? How much water should I drink in a day? What are my macros today? How do I interview for a job? These are questions that young adults graduating with their high school diplomas and college degrees are still asking and they shouldn’t be, should they?

Whether we talk about the overall happiness of our society or the overall success, we can estimate that there exists, given the essential skills and knowledge, a basic level of human happiness which can then be expanded upon by the individual. I believe that we happen to live well below that level, and that the foundation of such knowledge and skills to achieve basic happiness or basic success falls to our systems.

The best systems operate with the least amount of resistance and without any friction at all, but we are inflamed with it. Trying to persuade parents change our public education system is a farce and relying on education higher ups to change the system feels like a waste of time and energy as both are tied up in politics and in quarrels over time, money, energy, manpower, responsibility, tradition, and values. 

Today the internet and the individual have more power than ever before. It’s through the internet that our kids are and have been learning what is needed to be a functioning member of society to the abysmal indifference of the school and the family unit.

So once and for all, I will give you the first of many essential skills you should have started learning when you were 11 years old.

The Essential Skill of Essential Skills


The first essential skill of essential skills is how to learn. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? I believe you can be anything you want to be within your physical limitations if you can plan your own course of study in life, if you can learn how to study, how to research, if you can practice information literacy, and if you can think critically.


What kind of learner are you?

This is not necessarily the first step to learning, but there is research that suggests that understanding what kind of learner you are can help you learn how to learn to be a learner. (We’re having fun.)

For example, understanding whether you are a visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic learner can set you up to think of ways to receive information that work best for you. The VAK model of learning offers methods to understand and explain people’s preferred ways to learn. It’s important to remember these models are just to give you a sense of direction. It is not written in the stars that you are any one of these in particular.

Another way is to learn what type of intelligence you have using Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner’s theory of eight different types of intelligence can help reveal your individual strengths for learning. Try this free multiple intelligences test.

The types of intelligences are:

  • Logical-Mathematical – These learners are good at pattern analysis, scientific reasoning and deduction, problem solving, math, and understanding cause and effect. They can also do mental math, measure something difficult, understand the parts of a machine, create processes, use strategy, and assess value.
  • Linguistic – These learners are good with words and language, written and spoken; They’re instructive through language, they understand relationships between communication and meaning. They are communicators, teachers, commentators, and can find angles for stories.
  • Musical – These learners are musically talented. They appreciate the use of sounds and can recognize tones and rhythmic patterns. They understand the relationship between sound and feeling.
  • Visual/Spatial – These learners are visual. They prefer to learn with images and enjoy visualization, interpretation and creation of images. They’re imaginative and expressive. They derive meaning from images and the relationship between space and effect. They can design and interpret. They create and brand and have a sense of direction for projects.
  • Bodily-kinesthetic – These learners have body movement control, manual dexterity, physical agility and balance. They have good eye and body coordination. They can demonstrate sports techniques and can mime physical movements to  explain something. They like working with their hands.

Study Strategies


Probably one of the most important skills we can learn as part of learning is how to study, something that is figured out as you go along in today’s education system. Here are a few of them.

Study Multiple Ways

Find ways to rehearse auditorially, visually, and verbally. Mind maps and teaching to a friend are great ways to study. Using multiple study methods helps cement knowledge in your mind. Consider the words of Judy Willis, an author, teacher, and neuroscientist of learning.

“The more regions of the brain that store data about a subject, the more interconnection there is. This redundancy means students will have more opportunities to pull up all of those related bits of data from their multiple storage areas in response to a single cue. This cross-referencing of data means we have learned, rather than just memorized” (Willis, J. Brain-based teaching strategies for improving students’ memory, learning, and test-taking success. Review of Research. Childhood Education, 83(5), 31-316, 2008).

Look Up The Answer

Wow! Look at that. The longer you spend trying to remember the answer to a question, the more likely you will forget the answer. Trying hard to remember learned information and failing can result in learning the state of error instead of the correct response. You’re usually better off looking up the answer.

Make Practice Tests For Yourself

Yet another study says that taking tests helps you remember. The study revealed that students who studied and then tested themselves after had long-term memory of the material, even for information that was not tested for. Students that had more time to study but were not tested had significantly reduced recall. Taking tests can also help prepare you for test anxiety and reduce the number of distracting thoughts that hinder your performance during an exam due to an effect called contextual variability. (Contextual variability is when you match the environmental circumstances of your study session to your exam session. For example, if you study drunk, you will have better recall if you take your exam drunk… though that would not be my first choice of circumstance. At least, not anymore.)

Distributed Practice


Distributed practice distributes study over a period of time. These little sessions are better than long cram sessions. First, take thorough notes. After, add details and ensure accuracy. Do this once or twice soon after. Begin with once per day and eventually move to three times per week. This is highly effective as it focuses motivation on short bursts of work.

Dr. Sean Kang, Director of Cognition & Education lab at Dartmouth College found that distributed practice sessions spaced out over time are most effective for long-term memory storage when studying the same material. Distributed practice may not work well for different material. (e.g. Studying a different chapter on each day of the week instead of all of the chapters on the same day.) Distributed practice is effective because of study-phase retrieval theory, meaning that when you remember the first time you saw the piece of information from an earlier study period, that memory becomes stronger and more resistant to forgetting. Distributed practice also works thanks to contextual variability. To apply distributed practice properly you should be aware of how much information there is to learn, how much time is left until your test, and what each learning session consists of.

Basically, distributed practice is when you review information a few days after you’ve studied it. When spacing out your study sessions, it can also help to take naps in between them.

Feynman Technique

The Feynman technique is named after Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, who was once called the the smartest man in the world and one of the greatest teachers. The technique is four steps.

  1. Write the name of the concept you’re learning at the top of the page.
  2. Write down an explanation of the concept on the page using plain, 6th-grade level English. This highlights what you understand and what you don’t.
  3. When you get stuck explaining, review what you don’t know and repeat step 2.
  4. If you use wordy or confusing, specific words, simplify them it as if you’re teaching to a 6-year-old. The words you use should be one or two syllables maximum. If it’s too hard to explain, use an analogy or a story that can explain it.

The Feynman technique has been said to be the best way to learn general concepts, but it’s not great for memorization of a lot of detailed information.

Practical Experience

For a lot of us, learning usually involves a lot of reading, lectures, and time spent on the Internet. While transcribing information is useful, actually putting knowledge and skills to work is one of the best ways to learn. To acquire a new skill, focus on practical experience. Perform the activity associated with it. Practice the task associated with it and surround yourself with immersive experiences. Observe experts with the skills you want. Take time to read about the skills you are interested in. You can find practical experience by preparing questions for real-life experts. You can also create a reading list for the topic and choose two to three books to dive into. (Remember: if you don’t like the book, don’t finish it. Drop it and move on.)



Stephanie Vozza wrote an article on Six Hacks To Learn Anything Faster. She says,

Sleeping between learning sessions greatly improves retention”. Learning something right after you wake up and right before you go to sleep is a great way to learn. Thomas Frank, productivity enthusiast, says that information is best retained at these times.


 Acronyms can be very helpful to remember information. There’s a whole list of them for the days of the year, carpal bones, arithmetic, and any mnemonic can be generated for the spellings of words online.


Mind Palaces

This is what memory champions use to remember the decimal places of pi to 111,700 digits. It takes some practice but can be effective. Here is how to do it:

  1. Choose a location that you are very familiar with, something you see everyday and something with objects in it.
  2. Number the objects in the location. The order of the numbers is the route you will take (mentally, of course) through the location.
  3. Take a piece of information that you want to remember and associate it with a crazy, ridiculous image that you imagine like a purple banana with a sombrero and sunglasses on. The crazier the image the better.
  4. In order of the objects you’ve numbered in your mind palace, take the associative image you’ve created and put it with the object. Continue to do this for all pieces of information you want to remember. It’s better to stay within the subject that you are learning when creating mind palaces.
  5. Should you need to learn another subject, simply create a different mind palace using another location that you’re familiar with.



Knowing how to take good notes is crucial to all learning. Here are some note-taking strategies.

Taking notes with pen and paper has a transformative effect and allows information to be remembered easily. There is the benefit of speed when taking notes with a laptop but research shows that this encourages rote learning. With pen and paper you can capture the important concepts quicker and save yourself from carpal tunnel.

Develop a system of symbols and abbreviations to save time – Dr. Annette F. Timm for the Department of History at the University of Calgary in Canada suggests these symbols to use for effective note-taking.

Effective note-taking Deep Patel from Entrepreneur says notes should be thorough and accurate. According to Patel, you can “gain a deeper understanding of the topic and develop meaningful learning skills,” with effective notes. Effective notes are in your own words. Leave spaces between main ideas so you can add details later. Write in phrases, not complete sentences while still making sure you can understand what you mean later. Be able to focus on the important concepts when taking notes.

Effective note formatting –  These strategies have been developed for college and highschool students, but it’s hard to find a better golden standard. When in doubt, simplicity works best. You’ll want to try each of these to see what works best for you.

  • The Outline Method – This is perhaps the most popular method of formatting your notes. This is how I take notes on my phone when I read Daniel J. Levitin’s A Field Guide To Lies: Critical Thinking In The Information Age. You write down bullet points for main topics and subtopics with indentations. The bullet points highlight key points of what you learned and cut down on reviewing and editing time. The outline method is not great for subjects like chemistry and math which require drawing pictures and working long-form formulae. If you use the outline method every time you learn something you should also try a new method of note-taking to exercise a different way of remembering information. (Which also boosts retention!)
  • The Cornell Method – The page is divided into three or four sections starting from one row at the top for title. At the bottom there is another row along with two columns in the center. 30% of the width should be kept in the left column and the remainder for the right column. Notes go into the main note-taking column on the right. The left column is for comments and questions about the actual notes. After you first take notes, summarize the main ideas of the page in the section at the bottom which will speed up your review. This is effective because people already remember and digest the information while summarizing. These notes are quicker to take, to review, and to organize. Summarizing all the information in a system helps retention. This strategy can help you extract main ideas while reducing time spent during review. The only caveat is that pages need to be prepared ahead of time if you’re attending a lecture. This method requires some time for summarizing key concepts.
  • The Boxing Method – All notes that are related to each other are grouped together in a box. A dedicated box is assigned for each section of notes which cuts down the time needed for reading and reviewing. This method works best for classes split into sections that are still related. This method organizes notes so that you can focus on one box at a time while reading. This helps you memorize the relationship between notes in a visual way. This is not suitable for everyone and doesn’t work well if no overall topics can be assigned to a group of notes.
  • The Charting Method – It is an ideal method for notes that involve a lot of information in the form of facts and statistics, that need to be learned by heart. The information will be organized in several columns, similar to a table or spreadsheet. Each column represents a unique category which makes the rows easily comparable. This is also one of the most-effective note-taking methods for college students when it comes to jotting down heavy content which includes stats and other information. It also works great when you want to cut down on the amount of time you spend on editing and reviewing during test time. We suggest using the method when you need to memorize a lot of information but don’t recommend to apply it during classes or lectures. Creating charts with the charting methods takes time. It makes sense to use this method when summarizing whole lectures as a preparation for exams or during intensive study sessions. The information is clearly structure, great for reviewing, easily comparable, and can be memorized quickly. It’s time-consuming, and doesn’t make sense to use when the content is clear before-hand, doesn’t work for information that can’t easily be categorized.
  • The Mapping Method  or Tree Method – The mapping method works best for dense content. It helps organize your notes by dividing them into branches. You start with the main concept written at the top of the page, then for every subtopic of the main concept you create branches leading down the page. For details of the subtopics, you create more branches. This technique works best when there is a lot of content and you need to organize it in something visual and structured. The Tree Method can also be used when you don’t know much about the material to begin with.
  • The Sentence Method – Each line on the page is a separate key concept written as a single jotted sentence. The header for the entire page is labeled as the whole topic of study.
  • Create an indexing system – Tim Ferris says that when you’ve completed a page of notes in your notebook, write the page number in the top right corner and add it to the index you create on the inside cover and a few words to describe the content. This will help you stay organized.

Myths of Studying


Highlighting and rereading notes are much less effective study strategies. Better methods are distributed practice, making practice tests, and teaching.

Pitfalls of multitasking – Kendra Cherry says “Research now suggests that multitasking can make learning less effective. In the study, participants lost significant amounts of time as they switched between multiple tasks and lost even more time as the tasks became increasingly complex.” A study published on PMC finds that a difference was found in people who multitask in grey matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC is the part of the brain that is responsible for impulse control. (It’s also the part that is underdeveloped for brains with ADHD. Here’s my solution!) Multitasking harms academic performance and distracts from focused learning.

More essential skills of learning coming soon.

In order to master this essential skill of essential skills, we should understand our learning capabilities, take time to learn about and practice studying, research techniques, critical thinking, and information literacy, which I can’t wait to write more about.


What helps you learn?




Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Distributed Practice

5 thoughts on “Essential Skills: How To Learn

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s