Thomas Bandt

Learning How To Learn

A few years ago, I made the decision to go back to university in my spare time. One of the first things I had to learn was how to efficiently manage and process complex subjects.

Published on Friday, 22 May 2020

It's one thing to read about some topics that you are intrinsically curious about. And it is another to study a subject where you only have limited influence on the curriculum and maybe not much interest in every aspect. Thus, becoming a "professional learner" is somewhat essential to succeed. Here is what helped me on the way.

Organize yourself

First, you should always have an overview of what topics you need to study until you reach your finish line, what you are working on right now, and what you already managed to accomplish. I've used a simple spreadsheet to manage my program's courses. That way, I also knew at all times what average grade I had at any time.

Second, before you start do dig into a new course or topic, check out the path that lies directly ahead of you. For example, for most courses, I needed to work through a study script. Those scripts always had a table of contents which I then could transform into a Trello board:

Trello Board

Read Efficiently

While creating that Trello board, I already made myself familiar with the structure of the lecture. So I could get an idea of what was waiting for me. Next, I was going to read the study script up to three times. Yes, three times.

Round 1

The first time I would briefly read into sections that looked interesting to me, skipping uninteresting parts. I would quickly scan them, but don't take any notes. Just sticking my nose into what appears to be worthwhile.

This would also give me an impression of how hard that material was to process. Because this really depends on the author(s). Some can write about their topics in a way that is really fun to read. Others fill half pages with useless words to describe things that actually could be explained in a single small paragraph.

Round 2

Next, I would read the whole thing from start to finish. Very quickly, not taking notes, not stopping when I didn't understand a part. I would do that so fast that it wouldn't take more than an hour or so.

Round 3

Now I would start over at the beginning and reread it. But carefully, highlighting parts that seemed important to me and that I would want to include in my summary later.

Use A Tablet And A Pen

Another tool I really learned to appreciate during my studies is Notability. It is available for iOS and macOS and really shines when being used on an iPad with a Pencil. It allowed me to simply drag any PDF document (including my study scripts) and make annotations. That way, I never had to use pen and paper, not even for my mathematical courses.

If you are not an iOS user, then I am sure there are similar solutions for Windows and Android as well. Go, check them out.

Write Your Own Summarizations

After reading through the script for the third time and marking essential parts, I would go through those notes and highlighted texts and transform them into my own summarization of the topic.

While studies clearly show the importance of handwriting for memorizing stuff, I gave up creating those summaries by hand (on my iPad) after a few courses. It just took me an incredible time to write down everything by hand.

Instead, I decided to use good old Word on my laptop. To stay focused and not to waste too much time with formatting, I used a Word template (dotx document) from a scientific journal. I adjusted it only once to my own needs.

Why write a summarization in the first place? Well, it has proven to be a large and useful part of my whole learning process. It's essential to write that summary in your own words and not just copying and pasting the text from the source. That way, you are actively thinking about the topic, which makes it stick.

Another advantage: While you can barely memorize scientific texts that are hard to read, you will be able to easily remember your own version.

Use Spaced Repetition

While reading the summary multiple times helped me a lot, it was not always enough. For example, when I needed to memorize facts – a lot of them. Then spaced repetition is a recommended technique.

There are many commercial apps on the market, but I used the open-source software Anki. Its algorithm is already working really well with all the default settings, but you can also tweak it to your needs.

This way, you can learn whenever you find a few minutes, e.g., during commuting or when bringing your kids to bed. It works as a stand-alone technique (for example, for learning formulas) or in addition to other approaches.

Use YouTube And Google

It's incredible what great content is buried on the Internet below all the social media crap and cat content of our days. For example, I used math lectures from other universities to learn for my own exams. Those lectures had been recorded and put on YouTube. There are also many people explaining things of all kinds in short, 5-10 minutes of videos.

Another thing I realized: The more advanced a topic, the more likely it becomes that you will find a website specializing in it. That's often personal websites of academics who made that subject their hobby. Don't miss out on the opportunity to learn from those sources as well. And if you find something really beneficial to you, don't forget to reach out to the author(s) and thank them ;-).


Learning how to learn is a vital prerequisite to succeed in your studies. Some techniques may seem counter-intuitive at first but can save you a lot of time. In general, reading professionally, summarizing, and learning through spaced repetition worked best for me. Also, I found a way to study without paper, which made learning a lot more flexible and faster.

But bear in mind that not every approach is suitable for every topic. For example, while summarizing might make sense for memorizing economic theories, you might want to choose a different method for learning mathematics.

What do you think? Drop me a line and let me know!