A Theoretical Framework on Accelerated Learning & Improved Memory
Fancy title, right?
I spent about 3 hours trying to think of it. I settled on this title because it reflects the following realities behind what I’m going to share with you:
- It’s a theory (in the sense that it’s something born out of a mixture of thought, study, and action) that hasn’t been fully replicated with other experiences (which is actually why I’m sharing it, and I’ll explain that below)
- It’s a framework (it has 3 main “phases” that intersect at varying points, building on top of one another but also uniquely defined on their own)
- Its focus is on accelerated learning (not to “skip steps” but to streamline the approach of learning while tailoring it to personal preferences)
- It improves memory retention (because methods of learning are tailored to the individual, which is the cornerstone of the theory)
- And it sounds cool. Suck it, uni profs. I know big words too!
Without further adieu: my learning framework theory.
I had been wrestling with the challenges of learning, specifically why we can spend hours with a subject and retain nothing (something that plagued my entire university career, with my grades showing for it), how I could best help my younger friends struggling to learn subjects and balance their extracurriculars, how to retain & utilize all the subjects I’ve learned throughout my life, and how we can exemplify the lessons of Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and Deep Work by Cal Newport (both integral resources in the development of this theory). Eventually, all the moving parts and ideas collided in my head, and this framework was born out of the chaos of my thoughts.
The purpose of this framework was to direct the thought process of how best to learn & retain information, while allowing for enough flexibility that the learning can be tailored to the individual. It is based on the core theme that I have seen repeated over time: that it’s only when people engage with the content they’re exposed to actively, making sense of it in their own way, that they truly understand it.
The reason you’ll often see me refer to this framework as a theory is that, truthfully, it hasn’t been proven yet. It’s based on the amalgamation of research on the very subjects of learning, skill development, and memory: and the common patterns I have seen in myself and others. I’ve been using it for a little while now, but it still requires tremendous amounts of testing (especially from other people). But, I believe it can be a benefit to you, especially because it’s based on the research of thought leaders, psychologists, and academics (as well as the few who have elevated these skills to an art form.)
So, without further adieu. Let’s jump into it!
Phase #1: The Foundations
This phase lays the bedrock of the learner’s “process” moving forward. The purpose of this phase is to test and determine the best methods of learning that the individual can utilize. This is as much an art as it is a science. There are plenty of cases for specific types of learning (with research to back them up), but truthfully the best way to learn is to find the ways that you learn best. That differs for each person. Some of us learn better by intensely studying in silence, uninterrupted. Some of us need to study with a group, reviewing content. Some of us need to wear red-heeled shoes and pace back and forth, reciting the learning experience in order to solidify it (I knew someone who did this). Ultimately, we have many ways of learning a subject, each one resonating with us to a higher or lower degree. This phase is to identify the many methods of learning, hone in on the methods that resonate with us best (we know by their results and by our enjoyment of the process, as it aligns with our unique qualities), and remove any methods that don’t resonate with us.
This step requires a decent amount of time dedicated to it, as it does require you to try various methods of learning, along with reflection, to determine which ones fit you best. However, it doesn’t require as much extra effort as we anticipate. When you study, tinker with small changes and try to track which subjects and methods you use that retain your knowledge (and which methods go right over your head).
I came across this realization in my own life after noticing that one of my highest exam grades was the result of only 2 hours of studying with a friend of mine in the class. One of us would sit in a chair, read through our notes, and quiz each other. If we got it right, we’d move to the next. If we got it wrong, we’d stay with that concept until the one being quizzed until they got it right or they bookmarked the subject and came back to it later. This is in direct contrast to my days in the library studying on my own in complete silence (or with my headphones in). I remember absolutely nothing of those days. I still remember some of what my friend and I discussed (for those wondering, we were studying for our Development & Underdevelopment class, which was on the complex structures that limit some countries from developing, including exploitation from developed nations).
To give you some clarity, here are some of the learning methods that I honed in on for this phase:
- Studying with friends and discussing the subjects and quizzing each other is the best way for me to learn. If I’m on my own, then I need to write in my own words (so no copy-paste style note-taking).
- When taking notes, I need to do the following: rewrite the content into my own words to better understand them, reorder them into new groups and themes, and use active learning principles such as reflective questions to help me structure a reviewing process (I got this from the Cornell Method of note-taking. The video outlines multiple methods of note-taking, clarifying the Cornell Method in the latter half of the video. Thanks CrashCourse & Thomas Frank!)
- I work best on a whiteboard with space to pace while making sense of subjects.
- I’m a visual learner, so visualizing content helps me retain it. This is why I use the Memory Palace exercise. I can tap into my imagination to play out the information in my head.
There you have it. That’s phase one, where we lay the foundation that we’ll build on. We’ve now tried multiple methods of learning, figured out which ones work best for us, and discarded the ones that don’t. We have an arsenal of methods to use when learning a subject.
Phase #2: The Acceleration
For our second phase, we’re going to put these methods together into a flexible & streamlined process that we’ll run subjects through. By “flexible process” I mean something that is subject to change based on what you feel is best, but still organized in a way that it takes the guesswork out of learning and allows you to tackle a subject in a way that’s comfortable for you. The goal of this process is to create a step-by-step method of making sense of a subject: taking it from initial exposure to retain in your head & at your disposal to apply (whether in an exam or at work).
With this phase, your goal is to “stack” them, creating a step-by-step process you can push a subject through. What this allows is for you to utilize multiple methods of learning that creates an engaging, unique, and active learning experience.
Here’s the process I use when approaching a subject:
- Note-taking: I use a variation on Cornell-style note-taking, creating guiding questions, summaries, and important points. This ensures I interpret the subjects in my own words, and condense them into their core principles to help with memorization. During this process I reorganize the subjects into a system I understand.
- Whiteboard: I’ll take all my notes, read through them, and then throw ideas & concepts at a whiteboard (typically using a mind-map, but I’ll basically freestyle this), connecting concepts, mixing new and old ideas, challenging ideas that the books share, clashing ideas they don’t share, etc. This gives me ample time to digest the complexities of the various resources.
- Rewrite: after the note-taking & using my whiteboard, I’ll reorganize the contents based on how my brain has laid them out into a new set of themes & groups.
- Memory Palace: after I’ve taken notes, put ideas together, and organized those ideas in a new structure overall, it’s time for me to solidify them in my head. I’ll use a memory palace, which is a visual method of learning where you imagine yourself walking through a familiar setting (e.g. your childhood home) and visualizing the ideas you’re memorizing as if they’re coming to life. The more dynamic your visualization is, the more likely it is to stay in your head. A quick “walk” through your memory palace, and viola! All ideas come right back to you. This allows you to tap into subjects quickly.
This is the process I used to memorize the lessons from 3 books that pertain to my work in Communications: Words That Work by Frank Luntz, Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff, and Contagious by Jonah Berger. I used parts of my university campus for the setting, aligning the information I got from the books into groupings that I could place on my imaginary campus.
So, that’s the accelerated phase. Once you’ve aligned your preferred methods of learning, you can then connect them together to take subjects through your preferred processes, bridging the gap between “this subject makes no sense” and “I have a solid grasp on it”.
I’d like to make a note that this “process” truly is flexible: you’ll notice I didn’t include any steps where I discuss subjects with others. That’s because I’m in a phase of self-education, where I’m independently teaching myself subjects. If this were university, there would inevitably be a point where I’d discuss with and quiz friends, as we would have shared classes. Leading questions would be utilized more in the learning process. Apply based on what’s reasonable for you at the time of learning.
Phase #3: the Integrated Phase
This phase is the most fascinating, and the oddest of the others. The principle behind this phase is one that I learned from studying Mastery by Robert Greene, specifically on the chapter outlining the Dimensional Mind.
A common pattern I’ve seen in great learners and teachers is their ability to find similarities between the subject they’re currently studying and a subject they’re extremely well-versed in. This method of relating allows the learner to make sense of the new subject through the lens of another, one they have a much better grasp on. You’ll notice this when people say things like “it’s just like riding a bike!” or “it’s like how you train your pet” or “it’s not much different than sequential mathematics” (okay I confess, I made that last one up).
These metaphorical styles of learning utilize one subject to interpret and explain the other. And it’s this process that informs this final phase. Now that we’ve established two phases of learning that will aid us in our attempts to internalize a subject, we can use this newfound knowledge to branch into new territory.
I will note that the gap between phases 2 and 3 is a large one, and requires both time and experience. It’s one thing to memorize a subject: it’s another to integrate it so it comes so easily to us. Only when we fully embrace and internalize a subject can we utilize it to make sense of other ones. So this integrated phase comes with a warning: it won’t work until you have spent time with a subject, mastering it over time.
Once we have a solid grasp on a subject and a solid understanding of its inner workings (which can take several months to several years of study, application & review), we can use the first subject as a new foundation to relate to the new one. When you are studying the new subject, you’ll find ways of referencing the original subject: where they relate, where they differ, how they define each other and how they confuse each other. You’ll run the new subject along with the old one, simultaneously learning the new subject while tying it to the old, thus making new connections and uncovering new information and experiences.
Now, I won’t claim I’m an expert on this phase at all. I’m only recently experiencing it myself in the last 3 years in the realms of social psychology, leadership, politics, and martial arts. I have seen hints of this phase in the lives of others, and the concept is one that has slowly appeared as a pattern in the past few years of my life. So take this final phase with a grain of salt, and see where it applies and where it doesn’t for you!
If I was stretching it, I could argue that I’ve applied this in my life, albeit unaware: my years practicing Martial Arts helped me understand human physiology in a much more intimate way (as I experienced and learned first hand how my body moved, where I was weak, why, etc.). This made me pick up program design in weight training much faster (as I learned about how different exercises affected the body), which made it much easier for me to understand my study of effective speaking (as training programs often operate with some form of hierarchy, i.e. specific exercises are important because they’re multi-joint and hit the most amount of your body in one go, while the other exercises complement it… And presentations need the main lesson, with supporting points that strengthen it).
But, that’s a stretch, and one can argue fairly easily against it. I don’t want to claim that I’m an expert on this phase; just that I see it exists, I’ve dipped my toe in it, and I’m learning more as I enter it.
So that’s that. My theory on learning explained for the first time. Its true purpose is to reorient your approach to learning so no matter what subject you’re exposed to, you have a basis you can tackle it with. Its goal is not to “hack” learning in any way: quite the opposite. The goal of this framework is to direct individuals along the path of effective learning & memorization that actually works, removing needlessly wasted time on methods that don’t work for the individual while creating a culture of learning that is dynamic, active, and enjoyable. That will inevitably accelerate the learning process, reduce time spent learning, increase memorization, and aid in the application of knowledge. It is my hope that this helps shed a light on the subject of learning for its own sake, as it is one I believe the world needs more of.
Let me know what you think.
And as always,
Carpe diem, kids.
- The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
- Deep Work by Cal Newport
- Mastery by Robert Greene
- Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Mastermind by Maria Konnikova
- Thomas Frank & College Info Geek
- How to Develop a Superpower Memory by Harry Lorayne
- My highschool teacher Mr. Woodwood, who taught me that “school is meant for you to learn how you learn”
- My less-than-ideal academic performance, where Woodwood’s lesson still stings due to my inability to accept it until way down the road
- My years as a Martial Artist, where I learned of my own capabilities and embodying the principles I learned