Learn to learn better in 3 steps

With three, brutalist green triangles because they’re memorable.

Set goals. Think. Reflect. Learn

How can we get better at getting better? How can become more efficient learners? This model offers a useful starting point.

Ulrich Boser sets out three ways we can get better at learning in his Learn Better book.

1. Set goals

Boser argues that at heart learning is often a type of project management, and if we treat it as such – with clearly defined, specific, time-bound tasks – we have more chance of successfully completing the learning “project.” Imagine trying to take on a huge task. For example, trying to teach yourself JavaScript. It can seem like an impossible task, but if you spilt this herculean feat into much smaller, discrete steps such as first completing an introductory online course, secondly replicate a project on Medium etc. it becomes much more achievable and you’re less prone to negative thinking. Afterall, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

2. Think about thinking

Also known as metacognition, thinking about thinking is about introspection and asking ourselves: have I really understood what I’ve just learned?

When it comes to learning, one of the biggest issues is that people don’t engage in metacognition enough. They don’t stop to ask themselves if they really get a skill or concept.

Ulrich Boser

We can adopt routines and behaviours to force ourselves to do this. For example, can you summarize from a lesson or your reading the salient points in simple language. Could you explain it to your grandmother? This is the Richard Feynman learn-by-teaching technique. When I was studying A-level physics, for each module I honed into a routine of copying out the key learning objectives and the syllabus and wrote out the answers in full against each one. I then condensed the notes onto 5 or 56 sheets of A4 and then condensed them once more onto flash cards. Throughout this condensing stage I would be testing my learning by working through past exam papers. I’m not saying this is the golden technique but it worked well for me, and worked relatively quickly.

3. Reflect on your learning

Get some time and space away from your learning to process it. Again a period of introspection, but less focused than step #2. Look to set aside a moment of reflection when calm. This is what good rest and sleep is all about. Often our best breakthroughs are when we’re not confronting a problem straight on, but obliquely in the shower or on a walk when our mind is wandering.

Watch out for

Boser’s work is underpinned on the principle that learning can be learned -learning is not an innate skill. And there’s research to back this up. For example, Marcel Veenman found that focusing on how we understand is more important than intelligence at achieving mastery.

…intellectual ability uniquely accounts for 10 percent of variance in learning, metacognitive skills uniquely account for 17 percent of variance in learning…

Marcel V. J. Veenman & Bernadette H. A. M. Van Hout-Wolters & Peter Afflerbach


Bosner, U. (2017). Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or How to Become an Expert in Just about Anything. Rodale
Bosner, U. (2018). Learning Is a Learned Behavior. Here’s How to Get Better at It. Harvard Business Review
Veenman, M., Van Hout-Wolters, B. & Afflerbac, P. (2006) Metacognition and learning: conceptual and methodological considerations. Metacognition Learning. Springer

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