You have a big presentation, a job interview, or an important meeting with a customer coming up. You need to learn everything you can about the topic or the company so as to be prepared for any questions or challenges that come your way. So you look up material online, download articles and reports and videos and podcasts, and jump right in, absorbing as much information as time allows.

You've just skipped an important step that could help make your learning sessions much more efficient--making a detailed plan for how you're going to learn and which resources will be most valuable to your study. That's the result of a fascinating experiment at Stanford that tested how metacognition--the practice of thinking about thinking--can help people learn.

In the experiment, two groups of students in an introductory statistics class received a study prompt about a week before they had to take a test. One group simply received a reminder that the test was coming and that they should prepare for it, and a question: What grade did they hope to achieve? The other group received the reminder and the question of what grade they were aiming for, along with a 15-minute survey to fill out. The survey asked them to think in advance about how they would study, and which of 15 available study aids, ranging from lecture notes to the professor's office hours to practice questions, they would use to prepare for the test. They were asked why each of the resources they chose would be useful, and how they planned to use it. By the time they were done filling out the survey, they not only knew they had to study for the test, they had created a plan of action for exactly how they were going to do it.

There were no differences between the two groups of students in terms of their performance in the class thus far, or their high school GPAs. They were both equally motivated, and indeed, there was no statistical difference between the grades the surveyed students and non-surveyed students said they hoped to get on the tests. In fact, other than filling out the survey, there were no meaningful differences at all between the two groups. But those who filled out the survey and thus put some thought into how they'd learn the material performed better, on average, by one third of a letter grade (for example, an A- rather than a B+). 

Though the research was focused on students, it's likely that a similar technique will work for you too, because scientists have long known that metacognition is a powerful aid in learning information and retaining what you've learned. It doesn't take much to engage this tool--for instance testing yourself with a series of questions and then checking the answers calls up metacognition because you'll wind up asking yourself how close you were to being right and whether you really knew the answer or just guessed.

Next time you have something to learn, take a few minutes to plan before you start. Write down exactly what resources you'll use, why they're the best choice, and how those resources will help you. The time you take to do this will more than pay for itself when you learn better and remember more than if you had just jumped in.