Ineffective Learning is Highly Avoidable

May 01, 2020
Created by the author — original image from Pexels


We’ve been learning all our lives, so why does it still feel so hard?

Many people use the same techniques they used to study for exams at school. Clearly, we all loved studying for exams so much. These old methods got us through so we don’t try to change them.

Yet learning is becoming even more important. The world is changing so rapidly and it can be hard to keep up.

Neuroscience has come a long way in understanding what works and what doesn’t for learning effectively. It’s crazy when I look at what has been proven not to work and compare it with how I see most people learn!

Dr. Barbara Oakley created an online course, ranked the 5th best of all time, precisely to help us. The course experts recommend we stop doing these 10 things backed by extensive studies.


1. Being Passive

How many times have you read something and forgotten it moments later? Think about the last article you read, can you remember all the main points?

It’s not your fault, our brains aren’t designed to work in this way. Reading is a cognitively easy task for confident readers. We do it because it feels easy and our brain likes this.

Our brain will not speed a neural pathway if it has no reason to. We will keep the information in our short term memory to engage with now. This is only recognizing the information, not remembering it.

Passive reading is the same as going to the gym and doing an exercise you can barely feel and calling it a workout. Some people boast about reading a thousand books a year. Yet how much do they remember?

Studies have proved recall is more effective. Whenever I read something, I make my notes from memory then check if it’s correct. If not I try again! This jolts our brains. It knows to strengthen this pathway because we need it.


2. Highlighting Everything

If everything is important then nothing is important.

We are sold highlighting at school as a way of emphasizing key points. Ask yourself, why do your notes include items which are not key points?

When reading on a computer, we doom highlighted text to the memory wasteland when it is never returned to. I’ve seen many highlights on my writing and I wonder if readers go back to them. They highlight text because it matters but do they even remember it?

The act of highlighting is not cognitively difficult. It doesn’t trick your brain into making a faster connection with this piece of information. Used moderately, it can stimulate your visual senses. This stimulation can help if the experience is repeated enough times.

It’s much better to chunk information together and test yourself on this. The test is to use a single highlight as a prompt for a topic. Through practice, you can reduce the number of prompts you need to recall everything. Done well, each highlight is the tip of an iceberg of knowledge you’ve mastered. What advice do you remember about “being passive”?


3. Not Solving Problems

What is the point of your learning? Is it to say you’ve read a book or course or have the expertise to deal with problems?

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, uses a model of the brain with two systems. System 1 is rational but requires effort. System 2 is based on instinct and is fast.

System 2 tells us we can handle it to save System 1 effort. Why strain ourselves if we don’t have to? So System 2 shortcuts and looks at the answer and tells us we know this, we don’t have to solve a problem. Of course, it’s easy to believe with the answer in front of you!

We love patterns and find them even when they don’t exist. Our brain can recognize the pattern of a solution but it’s distinct from being able to recall the steps ourselves!

I know it’s uncomfortable but there’s no alternative to tackling problems and finding faults in your learning. By failing we know our weak spots and what we need to go back and study again.

Karate is a great example of this, you can learn to evade but until you test it in sparring, you don’t know how effective you are!


4. Last-minute Cramming

Some of us discover we can learn at the last moment and get away with it. We’ve still lost though.

The brain needs repetition to commit information unless there is a strong emotional attachment. It’s why I struggle to remember yesterday’s lunch even though it was so recent. I can remember how to code because I’ve practiced it many times despite being more complex.

You might keep what you learned long enough in your short term memory. When you want to keep the lesson for the long term this won’t do. Temporary learning like this means we take one step forward then one back and never march forwards.

Treat your brain like a muscle. It works best when you test your mind regularly and each time pushes yourself a little further. When you want to run your fastest time, you wouldn’t save all your training for the last night then hope for the best.

Spaced repetition beats recency for recalling information effectively. You can’t space your repetition in one day. It’s best to familiarise yourself with the topic way in advance then keep testing your recall regularly up to the time you need the information.


5. Doing the Same Problems

Do you want to be able to fix a specific problem or understand the topic?

I learned French and Spanish at school. Do you know what I remember? The basics because I had to answer “I’m good, thank you, how are you?”, all the time. I can do one problem exceptionally but my skills are poor overall.

Usually, we want the breadth of knowledge to tackle a wide variety of problems for the skill to be useful. In coding, problems in the real world are not usually to make a page with “Hello World!”.

To learn effectively you need to do problems outside of your comfort zone and be prepared to fail. If you never make any mistakes you are either exceptional in the field or your questions are too easy.

When learning, getting a problem wrong isn’t a big deal. I take pride in doing so because it means I have a new opportunity to grow. A new summit to climb.

Don’t get stuck in a routine where you ignore the problems you faced in the past. If you don’t practice those problems what once seemed easy can become difficult again as our mind thinks we don’t need it anymore!


6. Chatting Instead of Studying

You don’t have to be a monk in the mountains to be an effective learner. Yet it’s hard to see how any learning will happen when gossip or Netflix talk dominates.

I confess I was awful at this. I studied hard early morning and late evening and used the middle of the day for more laid back work. The problem was others labeled this same chatty period as hard work.

8 hours in front of books with 6 hours talking about other things is only 2 hours of real learning.

I’d much rather spend guilt-free time with friends after we’d reached our targets than the worst of both worlds at once. Learning with a friend, who can be distracting (like me!), slows you both down. Study separately then catch up as a treat afterward. Arranging to meet someone for a certain time is a great way to stop procrastination.

If you have a focussed friend who you can bounce ideas off then even better. When you keep to the topic, different perspectives help both people grow.

Remember in a group, it only takes one person to distract everyone so be careful! Surround yourself with people who help you grow.


7. Starting by Improvising

In a fit of arrogance, some like to dive in and see what happens. Yet in most cases knowing the basics could save you a lot of time in trial and error. We don’t need to burn ourselves to know touching fire is a bad idea.

Some self-help gurus glorify unneeded failure. I don’t subscribe to the idea of only learning from personal mistakes. Thomas Edison found 10,000 ways not to create a light bulb. Now we know society knows how to create a light bulb, what would you gain from repeating those 10,000 experiments?

Our minds work best by understanding the big concepts then focussing down onto the small details. It’s worth taking the time to understand the big picture to save yourself a lot of heartbreak when attempting to master the small details.

Impressive polyglots such as Scott H. Young are often misquoted. He may throw himself into crazy challenges but he promotes learning the core first. He quickly works out the structure of what he needs to learn and isn’t reckless.

Improvisation which relies on the kindness of others can be selfish. Why should they help you when you’re too good to do the same basics they did?


8. Not Asking Questions

There aren’t any stupid questions.

The whole point of learning is to grow and find out new information. It is not to impress people with how much we already knew. In Japanese culture, this is called Shoshin which translates to a beginner’s mind. A beginner will try and make mistakes because there is no ego to hold onto.

Questions and clarifying what we don’t understand are essential parts of learning. As a college professor, Dr. Barbara Oakley says she is more concerned about students who don’t ask questions. We aren’t perfect and trying to act so just slows us down.

In the modern world, we always have Google to check anything we aren’t sure of. We can quickly find many sources, one of which will hopefully crack the misunderstanding. There’s no good reason for being confused and not doing anything about it if it matters to you.

Anxiety is a huge problem in students and part of it is the pressure of feeling like we need to know everything. Accepting it is ok to ask others for help can go a long way in relieving this.


9. Getting Distracted

Is it just me or does everyone feel they are the exception to this rule?

We know other people should focus but we can handle distractions. I can admit I’m wrong, I hope you can too.

Our minds have limited short term memory slots, on average four. One slot to pick the next song on Spotify, one slot to think about dinner, and one slot for checking your phone. Only one slot to take in what you are learning.

When we multitask we are only using a small percentage of our capability on what matters to us. An hour at 80% is better than 3 at 20%.

If we could instantly put our full minds back into focus this wouldn’t be so bad. Part of our brain lingers on the previous task giving us the multitasking cost. Every time you look at your phone you lose more than those few seconds.

So why split those on less important things? We need to focus to strengthen the bond between the neurons that form our memories.

Treat your learning with respect. You wouldn’t like it if a teacher kept taking the slides off the screen to check their Facebook!


10. Not Sleeping Enough

I cringe at extreme routines with 4 hours of sleep. If a CEO said they jumped off a cliff and didn’t die, would you do it? We don’t know how much more they would have achieved if they looked after their brains better.

Being awake creates toxins in your brain fluid. Don’t be scared, this is perfectly normal. When we sleep, our brain cells shrink and waves help this fluid flow away removing toxins. There’s a reason nasty characters use sleep deprivation on prisoners. We shouldn’t be doing it to ourselves willingly!

Your subconscious mind becomes more powerful during sleep. It makes connections between different parts of the brain and strengthens neural pathways. You miss out on this key part of memory building when you don’t sleep enough.

I’ve given up on problems then gone to sleep. Overnight my subconscious mind continues working and in the morning I’m able to do the problem!

If you struggle to sleep despite trying your best, it is worth seeking medical advice. I wouldn’t wish sleep-deprivation on anyone.

You aren’t superman and you need rest for sustainable growth.



Here we have been through 10 ways to learn ineffectively. These ideas originate from teaching expert Dr. Barbara Oakley and I have avoided them with great results in my own life.

  1. Being passive — Most people can’t vacuum up information. It takes active focus and repetition.
  2. Highlighting everything — Making a mark with our hand does not commit it to memory.
  3. Not solving problems — Challenge yourself to apply your knowledge. Without using the knowledge, what benefit does it serve?
  4. Last-minute cramming — Our minds need time to store information in our long term memories. Just because you’ve got away with it, doesn’t mean it’s sustainable!
  5. Doing the same type of problems — Solving one type of problem makes you good at solving one type of problem. Rotate for more powerful skills.
  6. Chatting instead of studying — Separate casual time with friends from studying time. That way you get the best experience in both!
  7. Starting by improvising — Don’t waste time by ignoring proven accelerators.
  8. Not asking questions — It’s better to be wrong now than wrong when it matters.
  9. Getting distracted — Our brain has limited working memory slots and it takes time to shift our focus. Both slow down our learning!
  10. Not sleeping enough — Sleeping clears toxins in our brains and allows the subconscious to process what you’ve learned.

Thank you for reading and have a wonderful day!

Amar's Letter

Real talk on driving impact as an imperfect human.