Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Scott Young of ScottYoung.com.
In high school, I rarely studied. Despite that, I graduated second in my class. In university, I generally studied less than an hour or two before major exams. However, over four years, my GPA always sat between an A and an A+.
Recently I had to write a law exam worth 100% of my final grade. Unfortunately, I was out of the country and didn’t get back by plane until late Sunday night. I had to write the test at 9 am Monday morning. I got an A after just one hour of review on the plane.
Right now, I’m guessing most of you think I’m just an arrogant jerk. And, if the story ended there, you would probably be right.
Why do Some People Learn Quickly?
The fact is most of my feats are relatively mundane. I’ve had a chance to meet polyglots who speak 8 languages, people who have mastered triple course loads and students who went from C or B averages to straight A+ grades while studying less than before.
The story isn’t about how great I am (I’m certainly not) or even about the fantastic accomplishments of other learners. The story is about an insight: that smart people don’t just learn better, they also learn differently.
It’s this different strategy, not just blind luck and arrogance, that separates rapid learners from those who struggle.
Most sources say that the difference in IQ scores across a group is roughly half genes and half environment. I definitely won’t discount that. Some people got a larger sip of the genetic cocktail. Some people’s parents read their kids Chaucer and tutored them in quantum mechanics.
However, despite those gifts, if rapid learners had a different strategy for learning than ordinary students, wouldn’t you want to know what it was?
The Strategy that Separates Rapid Learners
The best way to understand the strategy of rapid learners is to look at its opposite, the approach most people take: rote memorization.
Rote memorization is based on the theory that if you look at information enough times it will magically be stored inside your head.
This wouldn’t be a terrible theory if your brain were like a computer. Computers just need one attempt to store information perfectly. However, in practice rote memorization means reading information over and over again. If you had to save a file 10 times in a computer to ensure it was stored, you’d probably throw it in the garbage.
The strategy of rapid learners is different. Instead of memorizing by rote, rapid learners store information by linking ideas together. Instead of repetition, they find connections. These connections create a web of knowledge that can succeed even when you forget one part.
When you think about it, the idea that successful learners create a web has intuitive appeal. The brain isn’t a computer hard drive, with millions of bits and bytes in a linear sequence. It is an interwoven network of trillions of neurons.
Why not adopt the strategy that makes sense with the way your brain actually works?
Not a New Idea, But an Incredibly Underused Idea
This isn’t a new idea, and I certainly didn’t invent it.
Polymath, cognitive scientist and AI researcher Marvin Minsky once said:
“If you understand something in only one way, then you don’t really understand it at all. The secret of what anything means to us depends on how we’ve connected it to all other things we know. Well-connected representations let you turn ideas around in your mind, to envision things from many perspectives until you find one that works for you. And that’s what we mean by thinking!” [emphasis mine]
Benny Lewis, polyglot and speaker of 8 languages, recently took up the task of learning Thai in two months. One of his first jobs was to memorize a phonetic script (Thai has a different alphabet than English). How did he do it?
“I saw [a Thai symbol] and needed to associate it with ‘t’, I thought of a number of common words starting with t. None of the first few looked anything like it, but then I got to toe! The symbol looks pretty much like your big toe, with the circle representing the nail of the second toe (if looking at your left foot). It’s very easy to remember and very hard to forget! Now I think of t instantly when I see that symbol.
It took time, but I’ve come up with such an association for all  symbols. Some are funny, or nerdy, or related to sex, or something childish. Some require a ridiculous stretch of the imagination to make it work. Whatever did the job best to help me remember.”
The famous British savant Daniel Tammet has the ability to multiply 5 digit numbers in his head. He explains that he can do this because each number, to him, has a color and texture, he doesn’t just do the straight calculation, he feels it.
All of these people believe in the power of connecting ideas. Connecting ideas together, as Minsky describes. Linking ideas with familiar pictures, like Lewis. Or even blending familiar shapes and sensations with the abstract to make it more tangible as Tammet can do.
How Can You Become a Rapid Learner?
So all this sounds great, but how do you actually do it?
I’m not going to suggest you can become a Tammet, Lewis or Minsky overnight. They have spent years working on their method. And no doubt, some of their success is owed to their genetic or environmental quirks early in life.
However, after writing about these ideas for a couple years I have seen people make drastic improvements in their learning method. It takes practice, but students have contacted me letting me know they are now getting better grades with less stress, one person even credited the method for allowing him to get an exam exemption for a major test.
Some Techniques for Learning by Connections
Here are the some of the most popular tactics I’ve experimented with and suggested to other students:
1. Metaphors and Analogy
Create your own metaphors for different ideas. Differential calculus doesn’t need to just be an equation, but the odometer and speedometer on a car. Functions in computer programming can be like pencil sharpeners. The balance sheet for a corporation can be like the circulatory system.
Shakespeare used metaphor prolifically to create vivid imagery for his audience. Your professor might not be the bard, but you can step in and try them yourself.
Visceralization is a portmanteau between visceral and visualization. The goal here is to envision an abstract idea as something more tangible. Not just by imagining a picture, but by integrating sounds, textures and feelings (like Tammet does).
When learning how to find the determinant of a matrix, I visualized my hands scooping through one axis of the matrix and dropping through the other, to represent the addition and subtraction of the elements.
Realize you already do this, just maybe not to the same degree. Whenever you see a graph or pie chart for an idea, you are taking something abstract and making it more tangible. Just be creative in pushing that a step further.
3. The 5-Year Old Method
Imagine you had to explain your toughest subject to a 5-year old. Now practice that.
It may be impossible to explain thermodynamics to a first grader, but the process of explanation forces you to link ideas. How would you explain the broader concepts in simpler terms a child would understand?
Mind-mapping is becoming increasingly popular as a way of retaining information. That’s the process of starting with a central idea and brainstorming adjacent connections. But mindmapping is just the skin of the onion.
Creating diagrams or pictures can allow you to connect ideas together on paper. Instead of having linear notes, organized in a hierarchy, what if you had notes that showed the relationships between all the ideas you were learning?
5. Storytelling to Remember Numbers and Facts
Pegging is a method people have been using for years to memorize large amounts of numbers or facts. What makes it unique isn’t just that it allows people to perform amazing mental feats (although it can), but the way it allows people to remember information–by connecting the numbers to a story.
Pegging is a bit outside the scope of this article, but the basic idea is that each digit is represented by the sound of a consonant (for example: 0=c, 3=t, 4=d…). This allows you to convert any number into a string of consonants (4304 = d-t-c-d).
The system allows you to add any number of vowels in between the consonants to make nouns (d-t-c-d = dot code). You can then turn this list of nouns into a story (The dot was a code that the snake used…). Then all you need to do is remember the order of the story to get the nouns, consonants and back to the numbers.
The Way We Were Taught to Learn is Broken
Children are imaginative, creative and, in many ways, the epitome of this rapid learning strategy. Maybe it’s the current school system, or maybe it’s just a consequence of growing up, but most people eventually suppress this instinct.
The sad truth is that the formal style of learning, makes learning less enjoyable. Chemistry, mathematics, computer science or classic literature should spawn new ideas, connections in the mind, exciting possibilities. Not only the right answers for a standardized test.
The irony is that maybe if that childlike, informal way of learning came back, even just in part, perhaps more people would succeed on those very tests. Or at least enjoyed the process of learning.
Scott Young is a university student, author and head of an online service designed to teach you rapid learning tactics. The program is currently sold out, but you can sign up here to get announcements when it reopens.