How to Really Learn Something

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“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.”

— Mortimer Adler

When I was in high school, I took a number of science related courses. They were hard. The information I needed to take in was huge. The concepts were sometimes alien. But it all fascinated me, even if I didn’t exactly get it. Science still fascinates me today.

When I would get home from school, my mom would, pretty much without fail, ask me if I learned anything interesting that day. I’d launch right into a summary of what I’d learned in my science classes. Often times, I found that after explaining it to my mother, I had a better understanding of it. Other times, I realized just what it was that I didn’t get all that well because I had a hard time explaining it so that she might understand it.

I was convinced that these sessions with my mom were what helped me get through those classes with any kind of aplomb. If she didn’t ask me that important question for some reason, I’d start the conversation on my own.

In college, I took a psychology course titled, “Behavioral Science Taught Behaviorally.” It further helped to refine my ability to learn something well by offering up “SQ3R.” It means: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review.

By following those five steps, I was assured that I really understood something. It helped in the “Recite” phase if I had someone to recite it too, but it wasn’t essential. Sometimes just saying something out loud helps by slowing you down and having to make real sentences.

Just today, I ran across an article on Pocket. That’s the service that Mozilla provides that suggests articles to me that I might like to read. This one mentioned Richard Feynman and his four step process to really learn something.

Feynman was famous for saying that knowing a word for something is not the same as knowing that thing. Or something like that. Jargon gets in the way of true understanding. So if you can’t explain a thing to a person who has little knowledge of the subject and do that in simple everyday words, then you probably don’t really have a good grasp of it either.

So what are his four steps for learning something?

  1. Choose a Concept
  2. Teach it to a Toddler
  3. Identify Gaps and Go Back to The Source Material
  4. Review and Simplify (optional)

The author of the article, Shane Parrish, went on to elucidate and broke it down this way:

Teach it to a Child

When you write out an idea from start to finish in simple language that a child can understand using only the most common words, you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level and simplify relationships and connections between ideas. If you struggle, you have a clear understanding of where you have some gaps. That tension is good –it heralds an opportunity to learn.


In step one, you will inevitably encounter gaps in your knowledge where you’re forgetting something important, are not able to explain it, or simply have trouble connecting an important concept.

This is invaluable feedback because you’ve discovered the edge of your knowledge. Competence is knowing the limit of your abilities, and you’ve just identified one!

Organize and Simplify

Now you have a set of hand-crafted notes. Review them to make sure you didn’t mistakenly borrow any of the jargon from the source material. Organize them into a simple story that flows.

Read them out loud. If the explanation isn’t simple or sounds confusing that’s a good indication that your understanding in that area still needs some work.


If you really want to be sure of your understanding, run it past someone (ideally who knows little of the subject). The ultimate test of your knowledge is your capacity to convey it to another.

I’ve seriously simplified what Parrish wrote. But I think it still gets the point across.

Sometimes you get lucky and learn something important at a young age (like how to really learn something). Other times, it takes a while. And really, the best thing is to keep learning all through your life. Anything that makes that easier is a blessing.

Published by Dianne Lehmann

I'm a writer. But I'm also a wife and a mom to a couple of fur babies. You could call me a cook (but never a chef, I'm not that good) and provisioner as well. Laundress? Yeah. Probably. I design jewelry and I crochet. But mostly I love to write. I love words and how they sound. I love their meanings and origins. I love stringing them together. And of course, I love to read. Thinking about it just now, I realize that what I love most is life and the people around me with a special place set aside for my wonderful husband, our adorable dog and our inscrutable cat. It's the world and the people in it that fuels my writing. So thanks to you all for being the amazing beings that you are.

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