I've spent most of my life being a self-taught learner. As a medical student, a doctor and an entrepreneur I've had to teach myself to learn lots of topics that initially seemed hard or a bit boring like the hundreds of eponymous syndromes in neurology that all seem quite similar.
When you encounter something that you feel is hard or uninteresting, the temptation is to think it's difficult because your ability is lacking and you're not smart enough when actually it's because you don't have a method for teaching yourself hard topics.
I want to show you the step-by-step process that I use to easily learn difficult topics that makes them interesting, relevant and most importantly easy to remember.
Being able to teach myself how to learn hard things is the single most life-changing skill I have taught myself. I'm going to keep this practical and combine my own personal experiences with evidence-based studies on learning and some neuroscience on how our brains form memories.
So for the purposes of showing you in detail today we're going to be learning about Bell's Palsy which is one of those eponymous neurology topics that can seem confusing and hard when you first encounter it. If you're not a medic don't worry as the principles can be applied to lots of other topics too and if you stick around till the end I also have a second example looking at how you can apply this to Maths.
Make It Relevant and Personal
The first step in the process that I use to easily learn difficult topics is to make the topic we're learning relevant and personal.
The problem with being told to learn things is that it's kind of thrust upon us. We don't necessarily naturally want to learn certain topics as, at face value, they just don't seem interesting, they are just chapters in a textbook that we've been told we need to learn. While you can force yourself by thinking "I need to learn this for an exam to get a job" that only goes so far to boosting your motivation and your interest.
The reason we find learning these new topics difficult is because we lack context, we're not deeply, emotionally invested enough to push through and figure them out and we often just don't know how to teach ourselves full stop. If you keep coming up against difficult topics or you find things hard to recall you can start to think you're not smart enough. But this isn't the case. If we look at cognitive load theory we can see that if something is uninteresting to us we won't focus our attention on it to move it to our working memory. If the information is too complex or not related to any existing knowledge we have our working memory will get overloaded as it only has a limited capacity, our cognitive load.
So the first step is to hack the attention and encoding portion of memory formation and make whatever you are learning deeply interesting and relevant to you to reduce your cognitive load.
In order to learn, when our brains encounter new information the information needs to grab our attention since our brains naturally filter out the tons of irrelevant information which we encounter every day. And we want to try and link that information to things we already know. This is what memory masters do and it's the reason why you can more easily remember things that have strong emotional connections.
So let's take this example of Bell's Palsy which maybe isn't that interesting and make it interesting and anchor it to something we connect with. A great way to do this is to head to Google. In order to encode effectively our brains need to focus our attention and then process small chunks of information which are linked to our existing memories. So I will usually go to google images first to look for any easy to understand diagrams, then I'll head to videos or youtube to see if there are any quick explainers or preferably worked examples and then I'll head to the front page or news tab to look for any interesting stories that grab my attention.
For example, for Bell's Palsy a quick google search shows some quick images of human faces so I can immediately see the signs. As this is an image it visually obvious. Scrolling down I can also see that Angelina Jolie suffered from it and this immediately links a new concept to something you already know, in this case, a famous actress. Now this has grabbed my attention and I'm genuinely intrigued because I didn't realise Angelina Jolie had this condition. If I click through I can see that this article gives a full breakdown of her struggles. And more than that, as this is a personal account it adds emotion and as the article is written as a story it provides context and anchoring way beyond if you just read a paragraph from a textbook or wikipedia.
What we're doing here is we're moving this very fact-based concept of a medical condition that we might encounter in a lecture or a textbook and giving it meaning by connecting it to something we already know. In learning science storytelling helps with learning because stories are easy to remember. Organizational psychologist Peg Neuhauser found that learning which stems from a well-told story is remembered more accurately, and for far longer, than learning derived from facts and figures. Similarly, psychologist Jerome Bruner’s research suggest that facts are 20 times more likely to be remembered if they’re part of a story.
Now I know what you're thinking. Googling things is pretty basic right? Well that's kind of the point. Textbooks and lecture slides are often written by academics and they can be overly complicated. Consumer-facing articles on the other hand are written by people who are experts at writing copy that is understandable and easy to follow. Remember Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman was known as the great explainer for his ability to explain complex topics in simple terms that his students could understand.
By reducing the complexity of new information we are optimising the intrinsic load on the brain which is the burden imposed on our short-term memory by the difficulty of the material. And by linking new information to existing, in this case via a story about Angelina Jolie, we are optimizing our germane load by better organizing the new information prior to encoding.
If it's simple, obvious and makes a hard topic easy it's exactly what you want to give you a good overview before you head to the second step in the process for learning difficult topics which is to dive deeper and get curious.
Now that we've anchored the topic of Bell's Palsy and it's got our attention with some images and a relatable story about Angelina it's time to get curious to stimulate learning. Being curious is an underrated skill. If making things relevant grabs our attention getting curious is what really drives learning and if you can get curious about uninteresting topics you'll be able to learn anything. So sticking with our example;
If the article you found piques your interest start to read around certain areas and ask questions. Why has Angelina Jolie developed a Bell's Palsy? What is the underlying cause? By being curious you begin to peel away the layers around a topic and build understanding.
If we were to just read a textbook or try to rote learn the information from the article that would be pretty superficial learning. We'd just be memorizing facts for the sake of it without much deeper understanding. Memorization of facts is at the bottom of Bloom's Taxonomy. Bloom's Taxonomy is a schema guiding your depth of mastery of a topic from simply remembering something to applying knowledge and teaching others at the top.
This is where getting curious comes in. When reading this article or reviewing images or this short video on YouTube about Bell's palsy I'm actively thinking about how it relates to my existing knowledge. I might even google something like what are the causes of Bell's Palsy or what is the history of Bell's palsy. In learning science this is something called elaborative rehearsal where you are not just looking superficially but are meaningfully engaging with the content as it interests you.
If you're not curious enough about the topic you need to go back to step one to really drive that interest but if you are really curious you can then head to step three in my process for easily learning difficult topics.
Chunk and Focus
Once you have built some context and linked the hard topic to your existing knowledge step three is to chunk up the content and focus on one or two things to learn at a time. You can do this by making a study plan or mind-map out what you need to learn. Sticking with Bell's Palsy you might want to plan to study the pathophysiology, signs, symptoms, tests and management. You can then chunk this up into a timetable and focus on one area at a time. Chunking reduces your cognitive load and allows you to stay focused on one section at a time.
One of the problems with becoming curious and interested in a topic is that it's a bit of a double edged sword. You can continue asking questions and unpeeling layers of a topic for a longer period of time which isn't that efficient when studying.
Instead if you focus your curiosity around chunks of information it is a much more efficient way to learn. For example I might focus my curiosity first on the causes of Bell's Palsy and try and understand why it happens and the disease process behind it. To stay efficient I'll set myself a false deadline since, according to Parkinson's law a task will fill the time allocated to it. At the end of this deadline, regardless of how far I've got I'll then challenge myself to summarize the causes in simple terms following the Feynman method.
But what happens if, when you're being curious and focused and chunking you come across something you just don't understand. Well we'll look at this more in the final step of the process shortly but in essence if you come up against a wall don't worry too much at this stage. It's not that you're not smart it might be that you either need a break or you need to mix up how you are learning and start embracing getting things wrong and this is what step four is about.
Active Recall and Spacing
Step four in the process moves from encoding to ensuring that we can remember the new content and moves up Bloom's Taxonomy to begin applying our knowledge. To do this we need to use active recall and spacing.
In simple terms once you have grounded the content in your reality, become curious and chunked it up you can now start to self-test.
A great way to do this is to close your books and simply ask yourself to write out as much about each of the chunks as possible. For example "can i write out all the signs and symptoms of Bell's Palsy?". You should be able to visualise the Angelina Jolie article to help with this as a mental cue. Once you have self-tested you can go back over your notes or original material and see what you got correct or incorrect. Now, as we know from the forgetting curve, we forget things. So you need to re-test yourself at the start of your next study session and at set intervals to ensure the new content sticks.
If there were some elements which you still found difficult to understand worked examples and practise questions can help to provide frameworks. This is especially helpful when learning new concepts in subjects like maths and physics with lots of calculations. Worked examples or partially-solved questions help to reduce your cognitive load while explaining things in practical terms which you can try yourself.
With spacing we often focus on the re-testing element of spaced repetition. The more you test yourself over intervals of time the better it will stick. But when learning difficult topics the space when you are not learning is equally important.
In learning science this is known as Diffuse Thinking and it's what happens when your mind relaxes, providing space for daydreaming and wandering thoughts. It's something that many people miss or undervalue — it's the fact that even when your conscious mind stops concentrating on something, your brain will continue to process, ponder and think about something. For me personally if I'm struggling with any kind of decision or can't quite figure out something I'm learning I'll take a break, go for a walk, hit the gym or do something else and let my brain work on things in the background. Researchers even found that our brain consolidates memories and solves problems while we sleep. So taking a break and coming back to the hard topic at a later date may stop you getting frustrated, giving up or thinking you can't quite get it.
Be Kind and Go Again
Step five in the process is to remember that learning isn't linear and you need to be kind to yourself. You won't remember everything first time round and you'll need to come back to the topic, look at it from different angles and self-test again to really master it. Rather than worrying about reading the original article over and over again, instead focus on teaching others and linking what you have learned to new topics. Bloom's Taxonomy reminds us that teaching and analysing are at the top of the pyramid and are indicators that you know a topic well. Sticking with our Bell's Palsy topic you might become curious about the difference between Bell's Palsy and similar conditions such as Ramsay-Hunt syndrome. You can go back to step one and google Ramsay-Hunt and guess what? Justin Bieber was recently diagnosed with Ramsay-Hunt and put out a video on instagram showing his symptoms. You can then compare Angelina Jolie to Justin Bieber and these anchored, visual cues aid both encoding and recall of information we once considered difficult.
In both cases we can really empathise with the people affected which creates more of an emotional cue when recalling the information.
To hit this home further when I revised for surgical exams around my day job as a doctor I didn't just go over practise questions once. I went over them 2-3 times focusing on the ones I got wrong in the last attempt. If I got a question wrong I didn't think "damn I'm stupid", I thought "awesome, I get to read the explanation and learn something new then get it right next time".
If you apply these five simple steps when you encounter something you perceive to be a hard topic you'll have a framework but also a new mindset where hard topics don't put you off.
Using This For Non-Medical Topics
Okay so for medicine where diseases effect real people these human example are pretty memorable. But what about things like maths. Well let's go again real quick. Let's say I have no clue about something like Pythagorean theorem.
Back to google I can see some quick images and even an 18 second video to help me reduce my cognitive load and explain things in simple terms. There is also a worked example where a quiz questions is being answered and then there is a whole host of background information about how the theorem was discovered which is pretty interesting. Following my steps I'd then dive deeper getting curious, chunk up the information put the theorem into practise by doing some test questions and then I'd go again until I knew I'd mastered it.
Instead of having to learn it I'm now actually interested in the topic.
There Are No Hard Topics
School grades and exams lead us to believe that we might not be as smart as others who seem to easily master "hard" topics. At work too, it can seem like some people can pick things up faster than others. This leads to some people feeling like they just aren't clever enough and they give up altogether.
Here are a few examples:
- When studying medicine, you think that neurology is too complicated and so you put it off and worry about it the most when it comes to exams
- When growing a business you have no idea where to begin with sales so you just don't do it
- When practising guitar you just can't get some chords so you stop practising
We consider things to be hard when they are new and we struggle to find context, interest or even a place to start to understand them so we either don't try or we feel we're not good enough. This is totally wrong. Learning is all about breaking things down into simple, relatable, and easy-to-understand chunks.
Think back to the best teacher you had. Or think about Richard Feynman who was known as the Great Explainer for his ability to make complex topics in physics understandable.
The best teachers engage us, make us curious, provide worked examples and structure to give us a clear path to learn and then they quiz us. When teaching yourself you need to be the best teacher possible.
If you're able to do this you'll be able to learn anything at school, college or in work faster and more effectively to get ahead in life while also having more time away from work and study to enjoy yourself.
The single most life-changing skill I have taught myself is how to teach myself and specifically how to learn hard things. This helped me rank first at exams while studying less than my friends and to quickly pick up difficult concepts when teaching myself how to grow businesses.