Read. Recall. Write.
Experiments show that the way most of us try to learn new material is inefficient. We read and reread a passage until we think we understand it. Then we are done. In fact, we learn much more effectively if we read, try to recall what we just read, and then write it down or say it in our own words.

Do it forward and backward
I usually hike through a forest preserve in a clockwise direction. I was surprised the other day how many times I had to stop to make sure I knew where I was when I tried to hike the same route in a counter-clockwise direction. Then it occurred to me that many things fit this pattern. I know my ABCs far better than I know my ZYXs. The fact that I know my 987s as well as I know my 123s tells me that I know my numbers better than I know my letters. The more general point is that to see if you really know something, test yourself not simply doing it forward, but backward as well.

Test, Retest
People often study as subject until they can get 100% right on a test of their understanding of the subject. While this is a sensible approach, it turns out that about 10% of the correct answers is composed of guesswork, short-term memory, and information not fully learned. The best approach is to study until you get 100%. Then wait a day or two and test again. The second test is a much better measure of your grasp of the material. Testing is important in another important way, in the sense of getting feedback. This can be as simple as pulling on the door you just locked to make sure it is truly locked to far larger issues. For example, Peter Drucker says that quality isn’t what you put into a thing. Quality is what somebody else gets out of it. Therefore, you can’t answer the question of whether your service is any good. Only your customers can. You don’t get to say whether you are a good parent. Your children answer that.
Even more generally, good intentions alone are not enough. Get feedback to determine whether you are getting the right results.

Get to the theory behind the fact
Many people have a self-imposed learning disability: They focus on “just the facts.” They would improve their ability to learn and to solve problems if they sought to uncover the rules behind the solutions. There is no doubt that experience is a great teacher, but it is a much better teacher when you grasp a general principle that can be reused in the future.

For example, you may believe that saving money is better than borrowing money. This belief is enriched when you understand the magic of compounding – that when you borrow money you quickly begin to pay interest on the interest on the interest and that when you save money you (not as quickly) begin to receive interest on the interest on the interest. Understanding the principle of compounding allows you to see that a very small change in the interest rate makes a huge difference over time and that when paying off a debt or saving money, a small change in the amount you add or subtract each month makes an enormous difference – pennies – in how quickly you reach your goal. Always ask yourself: What principle is at work here?

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Waddington is the author of Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work, a book that has won seven prestigious awards. To find out more, go to