What are the most effective learning techniques you have experienced? originally appeared on Quora--the knowledge-sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
I'm becoming increasingly convinced that "chunking" is the mother of all learning--or at least the fairy godmother. Chunking is what happens when you know something so well--like a song, or a scientific formula, or a verb conjugation, or a dance routine--that it is basically a snap to call it to mind and do it or use it. Creating neural patterns--"neural chunks"--underpins the development of all expertise. We can use metaphors (another powerful learning technique!) to help us understand these ideas.
If you look at the above image, you can see that when you're trying to figure out something new and difficult, it's like a puzzle. As shown on the left, the roughly four "slots" of working memory go into a tizzy in your prefrontal cortex trying to figure things out. But once you have something figured out, (shown on the right), that understanding consolidates into a smoothly connected neural pattern. The pattern is like a ribbon you can draw easily to mind in one of your slots of working memory. Notice--the three other slots of working memory are left free!
When you are problem-solving or taking a test, if you have "chunked" the material well during your preliminary studies, you can easily draw a neural chunk--that is, a procedure or concept--to mind. Once you've got that chunk in mind, you can then draw up other chunks you've mastered, so you can put concepts together to solve even complicated problems that you haven't seen before. (Here's a video from Learning How to Learn that explains the concept of chunks in more depth.)
If you haven't put enough of the right kind of effort into your studies, come test time, your little prefrontal cortex is like the lower left drawing--it's going crazy still trying to figure out the basics. Sometimes people think they suffer from test anxiety when they perform poorly on tests, but surprisingly often, they actually don't. They're simply experiencing panic as they suddenly realize they don't know the material as well as they thought they did. They haven't created neural chunks.
As a young person, I excelled when I used the Defense Language Institute's approach to learning languages, which emphasizes the development of well-practiced chunks that build gradually upon one another. Words become sentences become whole conversations. This helped me to learn Russian. At age 26, when I got out of the military and began studying the remedial high school algebra that led to my engineering degrees, I used the same "chunking" approach with studying math that had helped me be effective in language study.
For example, I didn't just do a math homework problem and turn it in. Instead, particularly if it was an important homework problem, I would work it and rework it fresh, spacing the practice out over several days. I wouldn't peek at the answer unless I absolutely had to. That ensured I really could solve the problem myself--that I wasn't just fooling myself that I knew it.
After I was comfortable that I could really solve the problem by myself on paper, I then "went mental," practicing the steps in my mind until the solution flowed like a sort of mental song. I could perform this kind of mental practice at times people often don't think to use for studying--like in the shower, or when I was walking to class. I found that this attention to chunking eventually gave me sort of magic powers--I could glance at many problems, even ones I'd never seen before, and know almost instantly how to solve them.
Interleaving, deliberate practice, spaced repetition--all of these important learning techniques are important primarily because they help with the development of neural chunks. As "expert on experts" Anders Ericsson has pointed out, you learn faster through deliberate practice--the special focus on what you find most difficult.
See also these Quora questions: What is the best approach to learning new things? and What is the fastest and most effective learning process? Additionally, there's lots more in our course Learning How to Learn, and in my New York Times best-selling science book A Mind for Numbers (which is actually a general book on learning, with plenty of metaphors--one of my favorite learning techniques!).
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