For those who have asked, here's the PDF version.
“If knowledge is power, learning is a superpower” - Jim Kwik.
In a rapidly evolving world with abundant information, those who can learn rapidly will have a huge advantage over those who cannot. And yet, none of us are ever taught how to do it. Most of us rely on ‘intuitive’ techniques such as re-reading, note taking, highlighting, summarising and highlighting to scrape through our exams. But, as the growing body academic research shows, these techniques are, for the most part, ineffectual. Thankfully, there is an emerging class of ‘study youtubers’ who disseminate high-quality, evidence-based study techniques that they have used to excel in school. Chief among these is Ali Abdaal, a junior doctor and prolific content creator, whose youtube channel has grown from zero to almost 600k subscribers over the last three years. I recently completed his Skillshare course on how to study effectively and couldn’t recommend it highly enough. This article is a selection of my key take aways from the course but is by no means exhaustive so if you find this content interesting, you can take the course here.
Ali breaks learning process down into three areas to be mastered: (1) how to understand content using techniques like the Feynman Method, Active Recall and various note-taking strategies, (2) how to remember material with Spaced Repetition, Interleaving and various memory techniques, and (3) how to maintain focus while studying, from developing the motivation and discipline to do the work, to taking appropriate breaks and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
Understanding“If you have a broad framework, then you have a place to put everything . . . So, incremental knowledge is so much easier to maintain in a rich way . . . At first it is very daunting but then as you get the kind of scope, then all these pieces fit in.” - Bill Gates
Understanding is the first and most important step in learning new material. Without a solid mental model of how the chunks you are learning fit together, it will be harder to retain them. To this end, there are a number of techniques Ali prescribes to aid understanding.
The Feynman Technique
Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman understood the difference between knowing something and knowing the name of something, and it’s one of the most important reasons for his success. Most of us focus on the wrong type of knowledge. The first type of knowledge focuses on knowing the name of something — what it’s called. The second focuses on actually knowing something — ie. understanding something.
There are four steps to the Feynman Learning Technique:
1. Choose a concept you want to learn about
2. Pretend you are teaching it to a five year old.
3. Identify gaps in your explanation and go back to the source material to better understand it.
4. Review and simplify (optional)
Ali uses this technique when reading through new material- pausing periodically to ask himself: “Does this Make sense? Could I explain it to a five year old or a friend that doesn’t study medicine?”
This technique forces you to drill down to the essence of he material and express it in its simplest form- revealing any gaps in your understanding.
It is the mark of a charlatan to explain a simple concept in a complex way. It is the mark of a genius to explain a complex topic in a simple way.- Naval
Taking Notes in Class
“The pen is mightier than the keyboard”
College students typically type lecture notes at a rate of about 33 words a minute. People writing by hand manage about 22. In the short run, using a laptop pays off. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis in 2012 found that laptop note-takers tested immediately after a class could recall more of a lecture and performed slightly better than their pen-pushing classmates when tested on facts presented in class. Any advantage, though, is temporary. After just 24 hours, the computer note takers typically forgot the material they’d transcribed. Nor were their copious notes much help in refreshing their memory because they were so verbose. In contrast, those who took notes by hand could remember the lecture material longer and had a better grip on concepts presented in class, even a week later. The process of taking them down encoded the information more deeply in memory, experts said. Longhand notes also were better for revision because of their brevity.
"The very feature that makes laptop note-taking so appealing -- the ability to take notes more quickly - was what undermined learning," - educational psychologist Kenneth Kiewra.
Handwritten notes are, of course, harder to store and search through than their digital counterparts. To get around this, Ali advises scanning your notes onto One Note or, if you have an iPad Pro, using Notability to write notes by hand with the Apple Pen.
Note Taking MethodsAs to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles is sure to have trouble”- Harrington Emerson
A good note taking system will go beyond the mere transcribing of information and force you to put the material into your own words. As a rule of thumb, you want to be working as hard as possible in class to understand the material so that you have to revise it less afterwards. The following are some of the most effective techniques:
1. The Outline Method
The outline method is based on hierarchical bullet points. To take outline notes, create top-level bullet points and lower-level bullet points under each one. The focus on brevity engenders more effortful consideration of the material than copying down everything the teacher says verbatim.
2. The Cornell Method
Developed by Walter Pauk in the 1950s, The Cornell Note-Taking System divides notes into three columns. Namely: class notes, cues, and summary. During class you take notes in the note-taking column but immediately afterwards you write down cues or questions for when you’re studying the material in the future as well as a summary of the lecture to test your understanding of what you’ve just consumed. The sole act of reflecting on what you’ve just learned is itself powerful as so much of effective study is, of course, the art of elimination. Taking just 30 seconds to discern the most important information from an hour-long lecture is an act of interpretation, prioritisation and decision-making. For Notion users, there is a Cornell Note-Taking System template that aids this process.
3. The Flow Method
This method was created by Scott H. Young, most famous for his completion of the MIT Challenge in which he got through the entire MIT Computer Science
Undergraduate Degree in just one year. The point of this system is to learn as much as possible while you are sitting in class. As you take your notes, your goal is to create an original document that represents your mental image of the subject, not to record verbatim what your professor or online instructor said.
4. The Write on the Slides Method
If your professor, as most professors do, allows you to download the slides before class it can be useful to print them off or download them to Notability and write extra notes on the slides as they go through the material.
5. The Zettelkasten Method
The Zettelkasten or ‘box of notes’ method was developed and used by Niklas Luhmann to write over 70 books and 400 academic articles on a wide variety of subjects, connecting sociology with such diverse topics as biology, mathematics, cybernetics, and computer science. This becomes even more impressive when you realise that he used only pen, paper and a type writer to craft his work. Luhmann’s fecundity has earned him a mythical status among academics and his method is enjoying considerable vogue as of late within the personal productivity community after being profiled in the book ‘How to Take Smart Notes’ by Sonke Ahrens. Ahrens recommends the following 4 steps when taking notes:
A. Make fleeting notes
Fleeting notes are quick, informal notes on any thought or idea that pops into your mind. They don’t need to be highly organised, and in fact shouldn’t be. They are not meant to capture an idea in full detail, but serve more as reminders of what is in your head.
B. Take Literature Notes
Take notes on anything you don’t want to forget or think you’ll use later in your writing or thinking. Ahrens offers four guidelines in creating literature notes:
1. Be extremely selective in what you decide to keep
2. Keep the overall note as short as possible
3. Use your own words, instead of copying quotes verbatim
4. Write down the bibliographic details on the source
Writing the notes in your own words forces you to deeply understand what you are reading and keeping them brief makes them easier to review later.
C. Make Permanent Notes
Permanent notes are the third type of note, and make up the long-term knowledge that give this method its value. This step starts with looking through the first two kinds of notes that you’ve created: fleeting notes and literature notes. Ahrens recommends doing this about once a day, before you completely forget what they contain. As you go through them, think about how they relate to your research, current thinking, or interests. In Ahrens’ words:
“Learning should not be so much about saving information, like on a hard disk, but about building connections and bridges between pieces of information”
D. Review and Repeat
This approach is most helpful for crafting essays rather than learning new material but is so powerful that I felt compelled to include it here. Thankfully, in the years since Luhmann’s death, new tools have been invented that are much better suited to this system than his old slip box. Roam Research, with its focus on bi-directional links, is best suited to the zettelkasten system.
6. Using a Mind Map to Scope Out the Subject
To avoid ‘losing the forest from the trees’ as Ali describes it, he advises that students make a mind map to ’scope out the subject’. This allows you to take a birds eye view of the subject and appreciate how all the facts you’re learning fit within it. This can be done either on a large sheet of paper or by using the toggle feature on Notion or Roam.
Understanding alone is, of course, not sufficient. Just because you see it or even understand it, doesn't mean that you've actually internalised it. You can’t just consume content and expect to master it, much like you can’t eat your way to winning a Michelin Star. Only by testing your self on and finding practical applications for the knowledge you’re learning will you create the neural patterns that underlie true mastery. Ali provides the following techniques that we can use to go from understanding something to uploading it into our long term memory:
1. Spaced Repetition
Spaced repetition involves spacing out your revision of a topic at increasing intervals to interrupt the forgetting curve. The forgetting curve, coined by Herman Ebbinghaus in his 1885 book ‘Memory: a Contribution to Experimental Psychology’, shows how information is lost over time when there is no attempt to retain it.
When we first learn information, we forget it at an exponential rate. Importantly, each time we recall the information our memory of it returns to 100% and it takes longer for us to forget it the next time.
This will be old news to those well versed in the science of learning. More interesting is the power of using spaced repetition within the same study session. A 2011 study involving four groups of students who were tasked with trying to learn words in Swahili found that recalling information even within the same session had dramatic benefits. In the study, one group only studied the words once and unsurprisingly didn’t produce impressive results. The second group, who saw each word once and then had to recall a word once before being tested, outperformed the first. The third group, who recalled the same words multiple times, produced similar results to Group 2.
However, most interestingly, the final group, who saw each word, recalled it, then had a gap of a few more words before recalling the first word again (in other words, they spaced their recall), remembered almost 80% of the words they’d been given.
Source: Ali Abdaal
The students in the last two groups were doing exactly the same work – the only difference being that the fourth group’s recall was spaced out compared to groups 2 and 3. This study not only emphasises the power of active recall but also provides firm evidence of the power of spaced repetition and how we only need to restructure our revision slightly to obtain a substantial improvement in our ability to remember and recall information.
This can easily be adopted into our studying. For instance, let’s say you studied Topic 1 and Topic 2 one morning and planned to move to Topic 3 and Topic 4 in the afternoon. The results from this study demonstrate that you should go back to Topic 1 and write down – through active recall – what you can remember before moving onto Topic 3. You would then repeat this for Topic 2 after having studied Topic 3 and so forth.
In essence, spaced repetition over days and weeks as well as reviewing content on the same day, can both be extremely helpful for improving our learning.
Implementing Spaced Repetition
Again, there are many methods for applying this principle for effective studying. What follows are some of the most effective:
Designing a study timetable with spaced repetition in mind
Ali rails against the pervasive habit among students of designing a ‘prospective’ revision timetable. Instead, he uses Google Sheets (now a Notion Table but the app is unimportant) to create a ‘retrospective’ one. The approach involves making a sheet for each subject and then in the first column of each spreadsheet, you list all the topics for that subject. Every time you study a topic and, critically, actively recall information from that topic, then you write the current date in the column along in the spreadsheet. Marking a date is not just when you have read a chapter in the textbook – that is too passive - you can only mark a date when you have actively recalled information, facts, quotes or essay plans. After having studied other topics and repeated this exercise, you build up a list of repetitions as well as a table which enables you to keep track not only of when you last studied that topic but, by colour coding each topic based on your comprehension, you can also start to rank how confident you are on each particular topic. This provides a very visual distinction between the areas you are comfortable with, and those which need work. Below is an example of one that he used in his Third Year in Cambridge.
Alternatively, you can incorporate spaced repetition prospectively by making a note in your study journal or setting reminders in your calendar every time you study something new to revise it again in a day, three days, a week and a month’s time. For Roam users, this can be done using the date picker feature.
Anki has a spaced repetition algorithm built into it. This algorithm is so effective that, if you use it consistently for a long period of time, anything that’s uploaded to Anki should gradually be uploaded to your brain. Unfortunately, Anki has a rather steep learning curve, which means that simply recommending it is not enough – some introduction is necessary. So, to get started with Anki:
1. Figure out what you want to learn with it.
2. Go to this page and read Introduction section up until The Basics section
3. Navigate to https://apps.ankiweb.net/, download the program, and install it on your computer
4. Watch this video, which provides a good demonstration of Anki's learning process.
5. Create a couple of cards on a subject you’re studying right now or simply about things you want to remember. The best things to make cards on are isolated facts rather than large quantities of information.
6. Explore Anki app as needed! It has a ton of features and you’re going to be overwhelmed by it all the time at first. Don’t despair, learn slowly, and remember to look at Anki’s manual when needed.
7. Tab Snooze this superb essay by Michael Nielsen Augmenting Long-term Memory (so that you you’re already familiar with what using Anki feels like when you read it).
Some caveats for using Anki:
- Only make a flashcard for something if you absolutely have to. ie. for something that’s proving difficult to memorise.
- Anki works best if you use it consistently throughout the year and is not suited to short-term cramming. If your exams are fast approaching, the Google Sheet Flashcard Method may be more effective.
The Google Sheets Flashcard Method
Google Sheets can be used as a flashcard alternative. The process involves writing all your study questions on a particular topic in the first column of the Google Sheet and writing your answers in the next row in white so you can't see them when revising. If you get the question right, fill it in green, get it wrong, fill it in red, and so on. This traffic light system allows you to focus on the most challenging questions when revising the material.
2. Active Recall
We should avoid, at all costs, any illusions of competence. There are many ways in which we can make ourselves feel like we have “learned” a concept. For example, looking at a solution and thinking that you know how to arrive at that solution. Highlighting or underlining are other techniques that often lead to this illusion of learning.
“Rereading and massed practice give rise to feelings of fluency that are taken to be signs of mastery, but for true mastery or durability these strategies are largely a waste of time.” - Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, Mark McDaniel, authors of Make it Stick
Indeed, the most effective techniques feel the least productive. They create a sense of dis-fluency.
“Where more cognitive effort is required for retrieval, greater retention results.” -Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, Mark McDaniel
In order to avoid or break through illusions of competence, you should test yourself as you’re encountering new material. Recall is a simple example of this mini-testing. It’s not important that you pass these tests without making any mistakes but mistakes (and correcting those mistakes) are an important step towards solidifying your learning.
Interleaving is a process where students mix, or interleave, multiple subjects or topics while they study in order to improve their learning. Blocked practice, on the other hand, involves studying one topic very thoroughly before moving to another topic. If, for example, you’re studying calculus and are doing a series of quotient rule questions you they will become easier as you do more of them. This is because we know what method to apply and do not have to the difficult work of discerning which one to use. When you’re studying, mix up the types of questions you’re doing to make it harder for yourself. By doing a variety of question types you will be forced to identify which type each one is and to apply the appropriate method. In essence, you will learn when to apply what you’re learning instead of just how.
4. Memory Hacks
Humans are not very good at remembering abstract things and ideas, but are much better at remembering images. It can, therefore, be useful to link abstract information with more tangible things and vivid images that we can remember more easily. The following are some of Ali’s favourite techniques for doing this:
A mnemonic is a system, such as a pattern of letters, which assists in the memorisation information. Famously, children remember the sequence of colours in the rainbow with the mnemonic ‘ROY G BIV’. I used this technique extensively for my leaving certificate exams. For example, when studying Biology, I used the mnemonic L.O.R.D as an easy way to remember that the left side of the heart is oxygenated and the right side is deoxygenated. As a rule of thumb, the more outlandish the mnemonic, the easier it will be to remember. Ali does warn, however, that mnemonics and all such memory hacks shouldn’t be used at the expense of understanding.
The Peg System
The mnemonic peg system, invented by Henry Herdson, is a memory aid that works by creating mental associations between two concrete objects in a one-to-one fashion that will later be applied to to-be-remembered information. Ali first came across the technique in the summer before his First Year in university in the book ‘How To Develop a Super-Power Memory’ by magician Harry Lorayne and used it to memorise the publication dates of the references he used within his exam essays.
The peg system gets its power from the phonetic alphabet. This is an organisation of the consonants in the English language such that they are paired with the 10 digits in the Arabic numeral system.
Here is the alphabet:
1 = T, D
2 = N
3 = M
4 = R
5 = L
6 = CH, J and soft G (as in logic)
7 = K, hard C (as in call), hard G (as in cigar)
8 = F, V, Ph
9 = P, B
0 = Z, S, soft C (as in cedar)
Why double up the letters? The reason for this is that these consonants are grouped by how they are made with the mouth. T is similar to D, except it is produced with more force. The “ch” sound in chug, isn't too different from the J sound in jug. P and B are made with almost the same mouth position as well. Having multiple consonants (especially ones that are produced similarly) paired to the digits makes it easier to use the peg method, as it gives you more options when forming words.
To remember which letter goes with which number, Lorayne provides the following suggestions:
1 = T, D – Remember than a “T” has one downstroke
2 = N – Remember that an “N” has two downstrokes
3 = M – Remember that an “M” has three downstrokes
4 = R – Think of the word “fouR”
5 = L – The Roman numeral for 50 is L
6 = J – Think of J as being a slightly incomplete, backwards “6”
7 = K – You can actually make a letter K with two sevens (the
second, rotated downward)
8 = F – Think of a handwritten lowercase f, which looks
similar to the number 8
9 = P – Think of a mirror-version letter “P”
0 = Z – Remember that zero starts with Z
The next step is to convert all of your consonants to words. You'll notice that there are no vowels in the system (nor the consonants Y, W, H or Th) this is because these sounds have no value in the phonetic alphabet and can be ignored. Therefore you can use them to create different words
that have the same numeric conversion.
CAME – CaMe = 73
COMB – CoMb = 73 (you don't pronounce the b in comb)
KIM – KiM = 73
COME – CoMe = 73
Once you have words, you can then form these in memory by using the chain method which works by forming bizarre mental images between two different concepts
to link them in your mind. For example, to remember the year of a publication by Robinson in 1934 (TPMR), you could imagine Robinsons' barley water flowing from a tap protruding from a mirror.
The Mind Palace
Popularised by Sherlock Holmes, the mind palace technique (or the method of loci) is a strategy of memory enhancement which uses visualisations of familiar spatial environments in order to enhance the recall of information. This technique is most useful for remembering lists. In the course ‘Learning How to Learn’, Barbara Oakley gives the example of remembering a grocery list go milk, eggs and bread by using her living room. She imagines the milk on the couch, the bread on the window sill and the egg falling off the coffee table and cracking. You should imagine yourself walking through a place you know well, combined with shocking images of what you’re trying to remember. This technique will be slow at first but can have dramatic results over time. One study showed that an individual using the memory palace technique could remember more than 95% of a 40-50 item list after only 1-2 practice ‘mental walks’ where the items were placed on the ground of the local university. The ultimate goal of this approach is to have a palace in your mind made up of familiar rooms where you’ve stored familiar chunks of information.
Permeating the aforementioned steps is the ability to focus and do deep work, a skill that is- according to Cal Newport- simultaneously becoming more rare and more valuable. Ali offers the following tools, tricks and mental models to beat procrastination, avoid distraction and find a healthy work-life balance.
”Motivation is a Myth”
“We only need motivation to do the things that we don’t want to do . . . things that require a short term pain in order to get a long term gain” Ali says. We should, he says, remove the word motivation from our vocabulary and replace it with ‘discipline’. Motivation, broadly speaking, operates on the erroneous assumption that a particular mental or emotional state is necessary to complete a task. Discipline, by contrast, separates action from moods and feelings and thereby circumvents the problem by consistently improving them. If action is conditional on feelings, waiting for the right mood becomes a particularly insidious form of procrastination. If you wait until you feel like doing stuff, you’ll find yourself stuck in the dreaded procrastinatory loop.
Motivation, according to Ali, is an infantile illusion. We don’t need to feel like doing something in order to do it, we should just do it anyway. This is easier said than done of course. Accordingly, Ali describes a number of “hacks” he uses to motivate himself when his discipline wanes.
Pleasure & Pain
When you have a gun to your head, there’s pretty much nothing you won’t do. If you were offered a million euros to do your homework, you would do it gladly. In the first case, the punishment for not doing the thing is so great that you’re forced to comply. In the second, the outcome is so pleasurable that you’ll happily do the work. These are the psychological levers we can pull to hack our motivation.
To make studying more pleasant, Ali uses classical music, fancy coffees and pretty looking highlighters. Anything that makes the experience more enjoyable for you is worth doing as it will increase the likelihood of you sitting down to do the work.
On the other side of the equation, we can turn human loss aversion to our advantage to increase the consequences for failing to make good on our commitments. Ali gives his housemate £1,000 and tells her she can keep it if he skips the gym without good reason. This can also be done via websites like Beeminder where you agree to pay them if you flake out on your habits.
It’s important to remember that even high-achieving students like Ali feel the urge to procrastinate. We all do. The difference between students like Ali and the rest of us is that he gives in to it less.
We should also note that the pain of doing a task is in the anticipation of it and not in the the task itself. In other words, once you actually summon the activation energy to get stated and do the work it becomes enjoyable. In the words of Barbara Oakley:
“We procrastinate about things that make us feel uncomfortable. Medical imaging studies have shown that mathphobes, for example, appear to avoid math because even just thinking about it seems to hurt. The pain centers of their brains light up when they contemplate working on math. But there’s something important to note. It was the anticipation that was painful. When the mathphobes actually did math, the pain disappeared. Procrastination expert Rita Emmett explains: ‘The dread of doing a task uses up more time and energy than doing the task itself.’
There are a number of things we can do to summon this energy. The most famous being the Pomodoro technique which involves working in 25 minute intervals with 5 minute breaks. This may not be long enough for some, but it’s a good way to get started studying for the day as 25 minutes is not so daunting that it will prevent you from getting started. Once you have a few of these under your belt, you’ll be in the flow and will be able to do longer sessions of uninterrupted study. To quote Isaac Newton: “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion.”
Low Hanging Fruit
Once you’re doing the work, your primary challenge will be to avoid distractions. There is a lot of low hanging fruit here that, if eliminated, can profoundly impact your productivity. It’s easier to change your environment than to rely on willpower. Try to create friction for bad habits and reduce friction for good ones. For example, while studying you should leave your phone outside the room and put it on airplane mode. On your phone, you should bury apps that you’re prone to procrastinate on deep in a folder of apps that you rarely use. To reduce the friction around exercise, get a standing desk.
These techniques are based on a study done by Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein of Columbia University and London Business school on the impact of your environment on your behaviour. The researchers collected data from 11 countries in Europe showing the percentage of people in each country who had selected to be an organ donor. The following chart shows the differences in organ donors by country.
Source: James Clear
What could account for such a drastic difference? Are the people in Denmark just more selfish than the people in Sweden? As it turns out, the people in Denmark aren’t more selfish than the people in Sweden. The difference in donation rates was due to the type of form that each country sent out. The countries with low rates of organ donors sent out a form that said, “If you want to be an organ donor, check here.” In other words, the form required people to opt–in. Those with high rates sent out a form saying, “If you don’t want to be an organ donor, check here.” so action was required to opt-out. The researchers summarised the impact of the environment design by saying, “In most cases, the majority of people choose the default option to which they were assigned.” In other words, most of us respond the same way to the cues that surround us. If you are sent a form that asks you to make a tough decision, you will probably go with the default option. If you keep your phone on your desk, you will probably pick it up. If you keep social media browser tabs open, you will probably click on them. Design your environment to eliminate this study kryptonite.
As important as exams may seem, most of them won’t matter in the grand scheme of things and performing well in them should never come at the expense of our physical and mental health. To guard against this, Ali has a dedicated workspace in his home and work free zones where he can go to switch off. This is an effective exercise in work-life separation. Another option is that of work-life integration which involves things like doing flashcards with friends or listening to podcasts about the exam material as you go for walks. This is an easy way of “getting in the reps” without pushing yourself too hard.
Finally, to study effectively you have to take care of the fundamentals: sleep, diet and exercise. Exactly how you should optimise these is beyond the scope of this essay and will be covered in future posts so I won’t dwell on them here- only to say that they must not be neglected.
To recap, to study effectively you need to first understand the material and then upload it to your long term memory by testing yourself at increasing intervals. Memory techniques such as mnemonics, the peg system and the mind palace can be used to make your study even more effective. Finally, to do all of this you will need to work deeply and avoid distractions which you can achieve by remembering that discipline is superior to motivation, hacking your motivation if needs be and optimising your environment.
By adopting these study techniques, you'll be able to learn more in less time. I’ve been applying Ali’s techniques to my own study for months now and have seen my exam performance skyrocket, I only wish I’d discovered him sooner. I highly recommend taking the course which delves into these topics in greater detail and, aside from Barbara Oakley’s Learning how to Learn, is the only resource you’ll ever need to improve your ability to master new material.
I hope you enjoyed this summary and wish you all the best on your learning journey.
Thanks for reading,