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How to Learn Without Memorizing

Photo by Edwin Stemp

Rote memorization is an inefficient way to learn. Just retaining a single formula can mean pounding the same information into your skull dozens of times. If your computer hard drive had this accuracy, you’d probably throw it out.

Unfortunately, you’re stuck with your brain. The good news is that you don’t need to learn by memorization. The vast majority of information is better stored in your head using a completely different system – learning through connecting ideas together.

A few years ago, I noticed that smart people seemed to learn differently than most other people. While most people would review the same information dozens of times, smart people only needed to review once or twice. While most people would apply ideas to problems in the ways that they had been taught, smart people used the ideas in many different contexts.

While there are undoubtedly some genetic advantages that allow some people to learn effortlessly, I think part of this difference in success comes down to strategy. While most people were trying to memorize, smart people were coming up with creative connections between ideas. These connections made the ideas easier to remember, so less memorizing was required. Additionally, the new connections made the ideas easier to understand, so learning itself was faster.

Is Your Brain a File Drawer or a Web of Ideas?

A computer stores information as thousands of electrical 1s and 0s in a linear fashion. Your brain doesn’t. Your brain is made up of billions of neurons connected together. Many people try to learn as if there brain were a computer: by memorizing the information in a sequence.

However, your brain isn’t a sequence of bits and bytes, so this approach doesn’t make sense. It makes more sense to learn the same way your brain is designed, by connecting ideas together into a web, rather than trying to store them with rote memorization.

Other Forms of Learning

What I’d like to advocate in this article is a more creative, spontaneous form of learning than the style you were probably coached for in school. Instead of repeatedly scanning the same information for minimal benefit, invest your time learning in creating connections with the information you are learning. Not only is it a more natural way to learn, it isn’t painfully boring like most memorization tasks are.

There are lots of ways you can learn creatively:

1. Learning Through Metaphor

Connect ideas together by relating them to something you already understand. Relate complex physical equations to their real life counterparts. Imagine a derivative as the speedometer on a car. See a binomial equation as a game of Plink-O.

You can do the same thing with less technical subjects. When I read the book The Prince, I related Niccolo Machiavelli‘s thoughts on politics to my own social life. If you relate an abstract example to something more commonplace it is easier to understand. You are effectively creating a bridge between what you understand intuitively and the things you struggle with.

2. Learning Through Diagram

Create diagrams showing the relationships between ideas. This is a manual way you can create connections. The importance is that you explore as many different ways to connect ideas as possible, not just repeating the same diagrams. If you have varied connections, then if you happen to forget one, you’ll remember the ideas through another.

Diagram ideas based on time and place, author or other similarities they have. If you’re learning a comprehensive subject, like chemistry or physics, why not diagram out how all the ideas relate. Many equations are counterparts or derivations of each other, so you can learn complicated formulas more easily by connecting them to simpler forms.

3. Learning Through “Like, But…”

Another way to link ideas is to relate one piece of information to another, noting their difference. “It’s like this, but it has that instead.” Using this method of understanding can link ideas together, even if you don’t have a perfect metaphor or relationship to diagram.

Examples:

  • Confucius was born around the same time as Socrates, but lived in ancient China.
  • Amortization is like an asset version of a loan payment, except there’s no interest.
  • Acceleration is like gravity, but in any direction.

The relationships don’t need to be perfect. You aren’t trying to build a perfectly accurate map of the surrounding, just a sketch. Creative connections, even if they are only 80-90% accurate are more memorable than dry connections that have 100% accuracy. If you understood the subject when you were learning it, then the specific accuracy of a metaphor won’t be as important as the connection itself.

4. Learning Through Visualization

Another way to make ideas more concrete is simply to imagine them in a visual format. When I was learning computer programming, I often tried to connect the abstract concepts of variables, functions or polymorphism into more vivid, visual descriptions. If a variable becomes a jar or a function becomes a crazy pencil sharpener, you’re more likely to remember the relationship later.

If you are a non-visual learner, you can apply the same strategy to your other senses. It may be more meaningful for you if you mentally attach sounds or sensations to the ideas you’re trying to store.

5. Can You Explain it To a Five-Year Old?

Another trick to connect ideas together is to connect a very difficult idea, to something you understand easily. If you had to teach whatever subject you’re learning right now to a five-year old, what would you do?

This exercise forces you to simplify. Instead of dealing in abstracts you now have to deal in concretes. I’m not suggesting you can teach senior level chemistry courses to a first-grader. However, if you get in the habit of simplifying things for yourself, it will be easier for you to understand it yourself. Teaching something is often the best way to learn it.

I once heard a story about a prominent university professor who was writing a paper in his field. Instead of using the normal academic speak, he decided to simplify the findings and terms of the article as much as possible. His goal was that, by doing this, the article might be accessible to journalists who don’t have academic training.

To his surprise, however, his article became one of the most cited works within his field, from other academics. It appears that the extra simplification of concepts was helpful not only to journalists, but other researchers with doctorates in his field. The lesson: we often underestimate the simplification required.

When you juggle ideas only at an abstract level, you make fewer connections. It’s like trying to weave a basket using two ten-foot pole rods, while the basket is suspended off your roof. Make connections and bring the basket down to earth so you can grab it with your hands and make more tangible connections.

6. Childhood Creativity Meets University Courses

I’m suggesting you bring back the same crayon-box imagination you had when you were five. Back then, nobody told you it was incorrect to link weird and bizarre combinations of ideas together, you did in naturally. However, at some point the system encouraged you to conform, so you started asking what the correct answer was, rather than the most interesting answer.

Don’t give up your critical thinking, just enhance it by allowing yourself to explore ideas more thoroughly before you decide what they look like. What would happen if you inserted a minus sign in the middle of your physics equation? If you had to explain the formula in terms of real world objects, how would you do it?

These aren’t time-wasting exercises, they are keys to better understanding. The smartest people I’ve encountered are often the people with the easiest time generating creative descriptions of whatever they need to learn. If you didn’t have to review every idea 5-10 times before learning it, then a creative approach would probably save you time, rather than waste it.

7. Learning With a Group

Most memorization is a solo pursuit. But connecting ideas doesn’t have to be. If you get several people together and work to try to explain a subject to each other, you get the benefit of several brains forming connections to the same topic. This is applying the wisdom of brainstorming to help you learn faster.

As with brainstorming, accuracy isn’t as important as volume. You aren’t trying to remember every specific connection you make, so it doesn’t matter if they aren’t perfect. You are, however, trying to better understand and remember the subject itself, so group exercises where you share ideas are great for this purpose.

The 70% Rule for Self-Education

Whenever I try to learn anything on my own, I strive to maintain a 70% rule. This means I try to achieve 70% understanding and memory of a set of ideas before moving forward. Even though I’m missing 30% of the information, I can cover ground more quickly. Besides, I can always come back to reacquaint myself with something that was missed in the first pass.

The reason this approach works is that it takes as much effort to learn the last 20% of information as it does to learn the first 80%. By moving forward, you can ensure you’re focusing your learning efforts on what really matters, and not the minute details of a subject.

This approach isn’t practiced in school because, for most purposes 70% is a C+ or a B. In some programs, 70% memory could qualify as an F. So following this rule to the letter probably wouldn’t result in an exceptional GPA.

However, you can modify this rule when creating connections between ideas. Understand something to 70% proficiency, then dive deeper and understand the ideas around it. Here are some examples:

  • Understand a formula 70%, and then dive into its proof.
  • Learn a philosophical argument to 70%, and then examine the counterarguments.
  • Read to understand a management theory 70%, then view it’s applications.
  • Remember 70% of the words of a new language, then practice using them in dialog.

If you use this approach to study, you can start building those connections earlier. Instead of waiting until you have something memorized before you start connecting ideas, you start exploring immediately. This reduces the burden of memorization and helps you learn faster.

When is Memorization Necessary?

Like all rules, the practice of connecting ideas has places where it doesn’t work terribly well in. When you need to remember bulk information, with no particular meaning, sometimes rote memorization is the best way to go. Human brains are meaning-makers, and learning through connections is an approach built off that function. So when you have to understand copious amounts of information that have no logical relationship, you may struggle to form connections.

I hesitate to say this, however, because 95% of information isn’t meaningless, otherwise you wouldn’t bother learning it. There is a pattern, and if you invest some time in finding it, you greatly increase the chances it will stick to the inside of your skull.

* Got any tips for retaining information that’s worked well for you? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below. See you there!

Editor’s Note: Speaking of slipping the rules, while Jeremy was editing this article, he stopped at one point, to colorfully curse out the upstairs neighbor for making loud bizarre noises. Then we both looked at each other and laughed at the irony. Another lesson learned.

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66 thoughts on How to Learn Without Memorizing

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