Learning How to Learn

January 19, 2013

One of the most valuable skills in life is the ability to learn on your own. It’s not a skill that is taught in most schools. In some respects it’s not even a skill that can be taught.

The College Frying Pan

College is the first time many students have to learn how to teach themselves. It certainly was for me.

I grew up in rural Tennessee where my high school had a 50% dropout rate and highest teen pregnancy in the state. The academic bar was low to say the least. I did quite well without trying very hard. Not straight A perfect, but I did graduate 11 out of 399. I can count the number of times I did any work or studying at home on my fingers. During the day I listened in class, focused on assignments, and generally tried my hardest. At home all I did was play Counter-Strike and Asheron’s Call.

Then college happened. My first physics class kicked me in the face so damn hard and I never saw it coming. Lectures moved at blistering pace and entire chapters were covered in just one or two class sessions. I remember going into the first big test and thinking I did well. I got a grade so low the teacher pulled me into his office and asked if I belonged. He said I should strongly consider dropping the class. It was an eye opening embarrassment.

That’s when I realized I needed to learn how to learn. Listening to a lecture wasn’t enough. I needed to learn how to take the textbook outside of class, break it down, ask questions when necessary, and master the material without guidance. It was a painful process but my scores slowly improved with each test until I tied for highest score on the final.

Learning vs Work

Some would argue that I just had to learn how to work. I don’t believe that’s true. I knew how to put in a solid work rate. Prior to college I was an Eagle Scout and I played on the high school soccer team. Both required countless hours of sweat and elbow grease. Learning how to learn absolutely requires work and effort, but I think it’s a stand alone skill the same as any other.

Strangely Beautiful

I consider “learning how to learn” to have two parts.

  1. Developing the skill to learn.
  2. Having the intrinsic motivation to use that skill.

The part, acquiring the skill, can be taught to a certain extent. In my experience it is not taught at all in schools. It certainly wasn’t for me. But it could be. There are countless guides, blogs, and books on the subject. How to study, how to break down material, etc. These resources can’t train you outright. They can only assist. Different people learn in different ways and it’s up to you to discover what works best for your lizard brain.

The second part, having intrinsic motivation, by definition can not be taught. You can not give someone intrinsic motivation. If you do then it’s no longer intrinsic, it’s extrinsic! I find that strangely beautiful.

Through high school your hand is held. Teachers have a mandate to drag students forward — kicking and screaming if need be. Colleges are more hands off. If you fail then you fail and it’s your fault. Grades, scholarship requirements, and spending vast sums of money per credit hour serve as a pointy stick of motivation.

In the real world you’re on your own. No one cares if you stagnate and stop learning. Honestly, that’s what most people do. Any continued education has to be built on intrinsic motivation. It’s up to you and you alone.


The ability to learn on your own is a mandatory skill if you want to stay at the top of your field or simply continue your education after school. The smartest workers are always learning in their own time, no matter the industry. Working on side projects, reading blogs/research papers, discussing trade secrets amongst peers, etc.

This post is my personal tale. Your tale is likely to be different. By sharing mine I hope that it can help others in some small way. Good luck fellow learners.

  1. I remember mostly due to the bitter defeat of missing top 10 by one.
  2. Due to my early test scores my final average was still a B. Best B I ever earned.
  3. The semantics get a bit blurry here I know. It’s not exactly a formal, peer-reviewed definition.
  4. Written text and pictures are great for me. Verbal lectures are awful. For many folks it’s the opposite.