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How to learn intensely

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

In this series, we are using neuroscience to help learning. One of the key inputs of learning is a lot of brain stimulation - this happens when we are engaged. Curiosity is fuel for learning and can be enhanced by positively reframing the work ahead as valuable, interesting and necessary. The other components to create stimulation are attention and intensity. With these three components embedded, learning for the long term will be much faster.

Bad learning practices

We’ve all done it. You are trying to learn something by reading and re-reading notes. It's not too taxing and you can devote some time to it. However, reading notes is considered one of, if not the most passive way to learn – i.e. it stimulates the brain very little. Low stimulation leads to poor outcomes.

Why is reading notes so ineffective?

1) It is done passively - you go through the motions without much engagement

2) Because we have read it and understand it, we think we know it - but that is a poor sense of how much we will actually recall when needed. Reading has a very short retention span.

3) When the material hits your short term memory, it does so in a low stimulation way meaning less of it will stick in your long term memory

Reading notes leads to shallow and temporary learning, with similar results from passively following lectures or much of the media we consume whilst doing other things (like audiobooks and podcasts). Given it is the least taxing way to address material, we can see why people choose it, but much like other shortcuts, it has a very poor return on time invested. The research I have read, suggests that highlighting your notes fares slightly better, but not much. How do we more intensely learn?

Learning intensely

We learn when our brain infrastructure gets built around certain stimuli. One leading theory suggests that when a lot of electrical activity is generated, it leads to many connections being formed and a strong ability to recall material. This is bolstered further by emotions and chemicals. A passive experience is neither electrical, nor emotional nor chemical and hence the odds are stacked against it being learnt.

A very cool thing that came out of some recent research by Andrew Huberman (I throughly recommend his podcast), is that frustration of getting things wrong, or struggle to recall things, is actually very important to feel so that when you do get to the right answer it becomes more memorable. Learning is not meant to be smooth sailing.

The 6 principles of intense learning

1. Practice directly

It might sound obvious, but when you are revising for an exam, or learning for practical use, practice how you want to perform. The more similar your practice is to the thing you will be doing the better. An example of this is getting better at golf (a sore subject at the moment). If you expect to get better at golf by reading about it, you will be sorely mistaken. It takes direct hitting of balls to develop that fluency that characterises a good golf shot.

2. Get feedback

One of the main problems with methods that don’t involve recall, is that you have no idea how you are actually faring. Getting feedback provides more intense learning as it alerts you when you are wrong - giving you the incentive to focus on your weaknesses. Generally feedback that is immediate, clear and actionable is the best way to know when you are right and wrong and provide feedback as to where to focus.

3. Use your own words

Describing ideas in your own words makes the ideas more memorable and highlights any gaps in your thinking. To do one better, make notes in your own words. Writing things down is a great way to find out if you really understand something or not, by committing it to paper, you have to make it coherent and coherent is more memorable. When you put it in your own words, you can simplify the language and make it connect better to your existing knowledge base.

4. Make it multimedia

We are in a very special time. We have an incredible array of online learning, podcasts, audiobooks. We should use that breadth. I find youtube lectures or ChatGPT very useful to get definitions and a basic understanding of things. That understanding could be helpful to write in my own words, and then get feedback via email from a friend. Things are more memorable if we can touch, smell and see things, much like a science experiment or going on a field trip.

5. Ask yourself questions

Recall is about responding to questions. Constantly ask yourself questions like 'what on this page is important' or 'why is this relevant?'. Write your notes as questions followed by an answer. Framing things as questions helps prepare your mind for recall later.

High intensity practices - some examples

1) Well structured notes: Good set of notes in your own words that cover the material as set out in the syllabus

2) The Feynmann Technique: How would you explain this topic to a 5 year old? Using simple language and no jargon, how can you describe what is going on. This really take advantage of the learning intensity generated by putting things in your own words.

3) Blurting: Before diving into a topic, jot down key concepts to capture the fundamentals. Try and work out where they connect and which gaps are important for you to fill

4) Flashcards: Ask yourself questions on one side of the flashcard and have the answer on the other side. This low tech high intensity activity is thought to be very effective.

5) Asking a friend to test you: If a friend asks you pointed questions about the subject you are likely to find that someone else focuses slightly differently on the material. It helps you potentially expose some blind spots.

The importance of attention

Imagine a laser that was not focused. It would be completely useless. Your focus and attention if divided will just mean you get less out of your learning. Do not multitask, do not put yourself in a situation where you are distracted and get the phone plus any other noisy wearables way out of reach. My blog on attention has my thoughts on the topic (Own. Your. Attention. (

So what?

Here are three take-aways before we pick it up next week:

1) Higher intensity learning is a much better return on time spent (albeit more effort). We need high intensity practices to help us get a lot of activity in our brain. The more electrical, emotional and chemical activity we have, the more likely we will change our brain to remember it.

2) Reading notes, and listening to lectures are low intensity activities. High intensity practices are generally: Direct, have feedback, use our own words, are multimedia and test our competence.

3) Preparing a good set of notes, being able to explain ideas to a 5year old, blurting, flashcards and being tested by friends are examples of high intensity practices.

Thank you for joining. Next blog in the learning series - 'Learning with intensity'. Sign up to the subscription list on Blog | Deciders (

Other blogs in the learning series:


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