The word learning on an index cardI’m obsessed with learning new things! Whether it’s a foreign language, a new Yoga position, or database design, I’m a bit of a learning junkie. Unfortunately, I’m a pretty slow learner and I don’t have much extra time in my day. So, over the years, I’ve tested a bunch of different ways to improve my own learning process, a few of which I share below.

Organize concepts: A car is a collection of its parts

Look at the following list of words for 10 seconds:

book, asterisk, thimble, lobster, hole, panther, desk, coffee, pickle, yarn

Now, close your eyes, and try to recall them (no cheating please!). How did you do? My memory isn’t so good, so for me that would have been difficult.

Now try the same exercise with the following list of words:

hood, windshield, windshield wiper, dashboard, driver, back seat, seat belt, trunk, exhaust pipe

How did you do? I bet that this time around it was much, much easier. Why is that? In this case, all of the objects were connected to something in your brain called a “car”. Since our brain loves to organize and categorize things, grouping concepts together will greatly increase our chance of recalling them in the learning process.

Grouping concepts together will greatly increase our chance of recalling them.

In web-based courses, a lot of this organizing is done for you, and you just have to actively make note of it. For example, on this page, did you notice that each section is separated by a bold-faced title? If your own web-based course uses webpages to present material, then chances are pretty high that it uses lists. Make a note of any feature used to separate out the material and use it to help organize the concepts of the course.

Learning is repetition…Learning is repetition…

When I start learning something new, the material feels like a nebulous cloud inside of my mind. Connections are tenuous and concepts are fuzzy. But, something interesting happens each time I go back to look at the material. I literally can feel my brain creating stronger physical connections. The day after I learn something I always spend a few minutes reviewing what I’ve previously learned. Then the next day, I spend a few seconds going back over that material once again. At this point, I can literally sense the new pathways that my brain has made.

This technique works especially well in an eLearning environment. Typically, the learner has access to their learning modules, which can include either video or written information. If it includes a video, just fast-forward through the major sections and remind yourself what you learned. And, if you have access to a document module, just scan the document for the major points.

Back to basics: stay rooted in the fundamentals

Recently, to satisfy the inner-geek in me, I wanted to learn about data structures, and I found this free, online set of lectures on Youtube.  Because it was an eLearning video course, I was able to rewind the video anytime I needed to (which was a lot!). And, every few days, I would rewind to start of a given lecture, going back to the basics of a given concept. And, after solidifying my foundation, the more challenging concepts seemed easier.

Talk it out

japanese-1206509_640When I teach a course, I tell my own learners that if they can talk about a concept, then they really own it. If you are learning in a traditional course setting, you can get a study group together, order some pizza, and see if you can explain the major concepts to each other. If you find it difficult to talk out the concepts, then you don’t yet own the concept.

In an eLearning environment, you can use forums, Skype, or some other screen sharing tool to “meet up” with your fellow students, and take turns explaining the concepts to each other. And though in online courses, it may be more challenging to find a time that works for everyone because of differing time zones, you’ll find that the effort is worth it in the end.


As a learner, if we take a step back and think about how to learn most efficiently, we’ll see that there a lot of tools at our disposal to make the learning process go as smoothly as possible. And if we enjoy learning things on our own, or through an eLearning environment, it’s that much more important to think about how we learn since we’re expected to own much of the learning process.

And of course, if you’re the instructional designer, think about ways to build in these features for the learners in your courses.

Share This