How To Increase Your Learning Multifold with This Simple “Hack”

Increase Learning

Do you want to learn faster than anyone else? Do you want to retain the key information from every book you read, every class you attend, every podcast you listen, and every conversation you are a part of?

How To Increase Your Learning Multifold

If you truly want to learn more and learn faster than anyone else, here’s one simple yet crucial learning hack I have for you:

When learning, instead of passive receiving the information like most people would, take on the role of an active learner.

That means, whenever you read a book/article, attend a class/course/workshop, listen to a podcast, or listen to a conversation…

  1. Share, engage, and discuss the material with other people. This is especially true if it’s a class or conversation.
  2. Identify the lessons from the content that is being shared.
  3. Create your action steps where you apply those lessons onto your life.
  4. Act on those steps, right away.
  5. Transit from being a learner to a teacher. Share what you have learned with others who were not part of the original learning experience. Enable them to apply those lessons.

Whatever it is, don’t just receive the information passively and do nothing about it—that’s no different than being a self-help junkie. Not only does the information not get retained, it gets lost as fast as the time you spent reading or listening to it. It’s almost like not having been exposed to the material to begin with.

My Learning Experience

Back when I was in university, I was on the Dean’s List every academic year. (The Dean’s List is an honorary roll for top students in the faculty. If you’re still studying, learn how you can get on the Dean’s List as well: How to Be a Dean’s Lister (3-part series))

To be honest, I didn’t study as hard as one might think is needed to get onto the Dean’s List. I barely studied when I was out of the school campus. I spent quite a large chunk of time playing games and being occupied with my core-curriculum activities, my graphic design business, and giving tuition to kids (I had three separate tutees then). When it came to exams, I would only start revision one to two weeks before, sometimes just a couple of days.

What was enabled me to score well then? Several factors, with an active approach toward learning being one of them. Each time I attended a class, I would ensure that I read the required material and did the assignment beforehand; this way, I would pick up new insights from the professor and the students during the class rather than playing catch-up on material which could already be found in the textbook. When in class, I would participate actively, from taking down notes, to asking questions, to sharing my thoughts, to answering questions—both in discussion groups and in the class.

Because of my active learning approach, I retained much of the information that was taught; sometimes even retaining nearly 100% of it. I often got away with minimal to last minute revisions and would still be one of the top scorers at the end of the day. Active learning is clearly a 80/20 route (i.e. a highly effective route that helps me achieve great results with minimal effort).

Cone of Experience (often referred to as Cone of Learning)

I would later stumble upon this learning model by Edgar Dale, called “Cone of Experience” (it’s often wrongly referred to as “Cone of Learning”). (Edgar Dale (1900–1985) was an American educationist at Ohio State University.)

With the “Cone of Experience”, Dale attempted to illustrate the different extents to which people retain information after an activity, based on their method of learning. See below:

Cone of Experience

Here is the model translated into words:

  1. When you learn by only reading (such as reading a book or an article), you will remember only 10% of what you read.
  2. When you learn by only listening (such as listening to a podcast, a lecture, or a conversation), you will remember only 20% of what you hear.
  3. When you learn by only viewing images or watching videos, you will remember only 30% of what you see/hear.
  4. When you learn by attending exhibits or watching a demonstration,  you will remember only 50% of what you see/hear.
  5. When you learn by participating in workshops (sharing what you know and being an active part of the discussion) or designing collaborative lessons (where you process what you learn and package it to help others), you will remember up to 70% of what you write/say.
  6. When you learn by simulating a lesson or performing a presentation (where you transit from being a learner to a teacher), you will remember a whooping 90% of what you do!

While these figures have since been disputed (they were not in Dale’s original model and were only added after he died), the fact remains that learning by active means (e.g., sharing, discussion, engagement, and application) enables someone to retain more information and understand more of the material than passive learning (e.g., reading, watching, or listening without attempting to assimilate the information).

Most Active Participants = Participants Who Gain The Most

For this same reason, I often encourage my course participants to participate actively. “Share your answers (to the exercises),” I always say. “Let me know what’s on your mind,” I always urge. “Ask me any questions you want,” I always iterate. These are things I say over and over again in every course I run, be it in Live a Better Life Program, Be a Better Me Program, or the most recent Emotional Eating Course.

I have found that my most active participants are often the ones who get the most breakthroughs and achieve the most results by the end of the course. I don’t think it’s a case of them wanting to learn any more than the other participants actually; I think everyone who (paid money and) signed up have an equal desire to learn and improve on the subject in question.

It’s just that:

  1. When these participants actively share their answers with everyone, they get to review their answers in the process and see those answers in a different light. This lets them refine their thoughts further.
  2. Sharing their answers allows them to receive feedback from other participants, which in turn opens them to perspectives they may have never considered. Blind spots get revealed and new learning opportunities are uncovered.
  3. Sharing their answers also means they get to receive feedback from me. As the person who designed the course and the exercises, it lets me know whether they are on the right track. I can then guide them accordingly, such that they get the maximum results from the course.
  4. Since every course is a combination of theory and participant sharing, when participants share, part of the course becomes centered around them. My coaching is naturally directed at these participants. (I can’t coach those who do not wish to share.) Other participants often build on these participants’ examples as well. This is especially true for small group coaching courses, which are heavily centered on discussion and application, than seminars, which are more content and theory-based.

If we take this discussion beyond just courses, you will find that the same trend applies. 

  • My most active one-to-one coaching clients, the ones who actively ask questions and are engaged during the coaching sessions, tend to achieve the most results after the sessions. 
  • The most active PE forum members, the ones who leverage on the forum platform to journal about their goals, benefit greatly because they become more accountable to their goals, not to mention the positive feedback and support they receive from other members. 
  • My most active readers, the ones who actively share their thoughts and experiences on the topics that relate to them, benefit from the sharing because they get to share their thoughts with an audience (which is a step toward leadership, believe it or not), work through their thoughts (hence gaining a new level of clarity), and at times receive useful opinions from other readers (sometimes myself too).

Stop Limiting Your Learning

Here is a question to ask yourself: Whenever you read an article, attend a course, listen to a podcast, or listen to a conversation, do you take the role of the passive receiver or do you take the role of an active learner?

Most people are passive receivers. Some people try to participate to some extent, but they are still passive receivers at the end of the day, because they fail to actively integrate the wealth of knowledge they have received with their lives. Very, very, few people (probably less than 0.1%) can claim to be active learners.

How active are you when it comes to learning? Have you been unknowingly limiting your learning? How can you start applying the five steps (highlighted at the start of the article), starting with this article, as you switch from the role of a passive receiver to an active learner?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. :D

Images: Cass Sculpture FoundationWikipedia

  • Alexa

    Well isn’t this article timely, this is something I’ve actually been reading/learning about myself. =p

    I think you bring up some good points, but I’m not sure they help with every situation. For example, creating action steps is a great thing to do when giving advice or learning something that affects you every day (most of your articles, for example). It’s also something that’s a very good reason to create/keep an updated Life Handbook (which unfortunately I’ve been slacking on. DX). But with, say, a general knowledge article, this type of thing becomes irrelevant. You can gather the main points from it (not sure if it matters whether you do that just mentally scanning through an article, or do something like highlighting, or even try rewriting…), but then you’re starting to head back into a more typical study session that way. Maybe it’s what’s needed, but I’m not really sure. ^^;

    Sharing with other people is also a great idea, but again not always applicable. You may not always have an audience to share whatever knowledge you’ve learned.

    I’m not trying to say your points are bad or wrong, I think I’m just the type who keeps a lot (but not all) of what I’m reading/learning to myself and even when I want to really know it, I don’t always know the best way to go about it. For example, what’s the best amount (without putting in too much) of effort to learn an article? Should I scan through it after reading to re-read the main points? Should I highlight certain parts? Should I open up a word document to summarize? Typing this out, I realize this is probably something people have to find out for themselves…

    Anyway, thanks for the article Celes. Here’s to hoping I can discover the best way for engaging in what I learn, a way that works for me! =)

    • Celes

      Hey Alexa! You brought up some great points. It is true that the five steps are not always applicable for every situation. I think the key here is to use the principle of active learning (vs. passive learning) as the guideline though and not to strictly stick to the five steps as the “rule” to follow for every situation.

      For example, as Lina pointed in her comment below, it’d be hard think about “lessons” or “action steps” when watching shows like documentaries or history lessons. In such a case, I think what will help in storing the information (this is assuming that the individual wants to retain all the information in the show and it’s very important to him/her, say for an exam or something), would be to adopt an active approach in the learning, such as drawing a mind map, creating a flow chart, writing one’s own notes (helps with increased retention), and so on. It’s not part of the five steps, but definitely in line with the key principle of switching from passive learning (just watching and doing nothing but receiving) to active learning (taking action, in this case, writing/thinking/synthesizing information).

      I think sharing can start at the individual level. For example, in conversations with friends. :D If there’s something I really find very interesting and want to increase my learning of, I’ll usually bring it up as a conversation topic with various friends. Then, the simple act of bouncing that information around with them during the conversation will vastly increase my learning of it (be it retention of the information because I’ve shared it with others, or the additional point of views others provide).

      For example, what’s the best amount (without putting in too much) of effort to learn an article? Should I scan through it after reading to re-read the main points? Should I highlight certain parts? Should I open up a word document to summarize?

      Those are really good questions, Alexa. My personal recommendation? 80/20 all the way. For example, I scan through Forbes articles almost every day. Not all of them are important to me though. 95% of the material I read have “meh” value in my life. If so, I just scan and ditch. 5% have much relevance and value to me, either because they have related business/personal lessons I can learn from or because some of the points inspire other streams of thoughts in me. If so, I apply the five steps I shared in the article.

      If you were to ask me Alexa, I think you’re in the information absorption stage at this moment in your life, where you are actively absorbing everything you learn. I think there will be a certain point (after you read X amount of material or after Y amount of time) when you’ll suddenly have a good sense of what’s important/not important to you, what you should spend time on/not spend time on, and what are the key points/non-key points. I think part of that also comes with clarity of your top priority goals, as determining what’s important/not-important (information, for example) comes as a function of one’s personal goals/priorities.

      • juhi

        Its a great article celes. Thanks fr it as it helped me greatly to find up the lakuna that i holded in my learning process.though i lack concentrationandpatience but right from this point i will start working over both my wekness in a right way
        Thaks you celes

    • Bob

      Hi Alexa,

      “Sharing with other people is also a great idea, but again not always applicable. You may not always have an audience to share whatever knowledge you’ve learned.”

      I know someone who talks to himself as he drives along! He says that other drivers who see him must think he is crazy. I think by talking to ourselves helps to clarify and refine our ideas especially by doing a question-suggestion then making up your own examples of similar work or problems. Just by using a few moments when we are waiting for anything can really help.


  • Lina

    When I saw the title of this article in my inbox, I immediately thought: “Interesting, I really must read this”, because I love to learn new things, from various fields. I watch lots of documentaries and read books but at the end of the day I find myself remembering only small pieces of information.

    This truly bugs me considering that I wish to be one of those cultivated people who can approach any topic of conversation without fear or shame of seeming misinformed or, to put it more bluntly, stupid. So yes, I am a passive learner.

    The only problem is that many of the things which I read about or watch documentaries on are theoretical(philosophy and history for example), therefore I can’t draw lessons to apply in my own life and, as a consequence, the information fades in time. However, for more practical things – like self-help articles from around the internet or life hacks- the 5 steps which you’ve provided in this article are great.

    Thank you, Celes, for another interesting article! :)

    • Celes

      Hey Lina, thanks for your comment! :D You brought up a valid point with regards to the five steps not being 100% applicable to factual and content-heavy topics like philosophy or history. In such cases, I’d imagine the same principle still applies (switching from passive receiver to active learner), as I mentioned in my response to Alexa above:

      …assuming that the individual wants to retain all the information in the show and it’s very important to him/her, say for an exam or something), would be to adopt an active approach in the learning, such as drawing a mind map, creating a flow chart, writing one’s own notes (helps with increased retention), and so on. It’s not part of the five steps, but definitely in line with the key principle of switching from passive learning (just watching and doing nothing but receiving) to active learning (taking action, in this case, writing/thinking/synthesizing information).

      Other methods like memory association (i.e. associating the facts with related facts in your life that are already in your memory, which helps to bind new knowledge snugly to your brain) will also help too. (Again, this is with the assumption that you do want to remember the facts/information to begin with and they are of high importance to you! The 80/20 definitely still applies I’d say.)

  • Glenn

    A nice article Celes. You’re right about participating being the best way to learn. But I think just as importantly, there should always be a strong need for someone to learn about something in the first place. And that’s one area where limiting our learning would be a good idea. For example, I’ve got a few plugins that will let me create nice 3d animated titles. But if that’s something I may only ever use once or twice, then it’s probably not worth learning, as it wouldn’t be something that I would be involved in long enough to learn properly. If that makes sense?

    • Celes

      Yes Glenn, you’re definitely right. :D The article sort of assumes that the material is already something the person wants to learn about. Like you rightly pointed out, there isn’t much point in trying to accelerate learning in something that isn’t very important to someone. For example, if I’m watching Discovery, I wouldn’t really apply the five steps to the historical facts about a particular animal species or space craft. Usually I’d just sit and enjoy the finer visual details and interesting facts. :D

  • dew top

    hello celes,
    i am a student in a college in a foreign country. i loved ur note on How to increase ur learning multifold,
    i really appreciated it, yet I feel i can’t apply it in my life cuz I lack a lot of confidence. how can i put up questions to teachers when i have lil or no idea but what they are talking? And when i do have questions i lack this confidence.
    this is my first time opening to any one.
    please help. :(

    • Celes

      Hey dew. :D Thanks for posing this question. If you ask me, I think you should try to get clarity on what the teachers are talking about if you have no idea what they are saying. I think it’s rare that a teacher would be saying something that’s completely alien, especially if he/she is simply teaching the usual syllabus. Perhaps you might want to revise the material a few times before the class so you can have more context to what he/she is saying. And if you really still have no clue, then you might just want to tell the teacher straight that you have no clue what he/she is saying, and request that he/she explain about the particular area you are confused about.

      If that sounds intimidating to you, I’d encourage that you start by asking questions to your classmates then. Asking questions to your classmates is a lot easier than asking questions to teachers since your classmates would be at your “peer” level.

      Hopefully this helps. :)

      • dew top

        hey celes,
        tnx for your reply.I think you are right, i must clarify my doubts and may be put up questions. May be i should be changing my ways of learning . Any more tips for more effective ways of learning?
        and can u write about learning to make anything boring- interesting.
        and also how to avoid sleeping in classes, office, boring lectures.

        thank you :)

        • Celes

          Hi dew, I recommend you check out the dean’s list series which I’ve linked in the article. It’s a very in-depth series on how to be an effective learner and top scorer in school. Thanks. :D

  • Laurel

    Great article! I’m in school right now, so I’m definitely always looking for ways to increase my learning retention. And since I take classes online, most of the instruction is reading the textbook, which as you pointed out, is the most passive way to learn. For my more difficult classes I ended up coming up with some techniques to make the experience more active. For example: when reading a chapter I’d read the summary and the review questions at the end of the chapter first, and then read the meat of the chapter, answering the questions as I went. Thanks for the great perspective!

    • Celes

      Hi Laurel! :D You might find the dean’s lister series helpful. Specifically tips #6 and #7 with regards to learning. :D

  • Bob

    Excellent points Celes,
    Interesting I have never thought of learning like this, you sum them up and bring focus to how we can improve our skills. I like the percentage “Very, very, few people (probably less than 0.1%) can claim to be active learners” – How does this work? Are all the rest of us 99.9% somewhere else mentally wrapped up in our thoughts?
    I also stumbled across this cone of learning and was struck by the vast difference in learning and retention. I can see why so many readers have websites now. Jim Rohn echoes the similar words STUDY – LEARN -TEACH. I am thinking how I can apply these steps now!

    I have a couple of extras to help us all learn:
    1. One book on a subject – Join the Top 1% of Money Earners
    If you read only one book per month, that will put you into the top 1% of income earners in our society. But if you read one book per week, 50 books per year, that will make you one of the best educated, smartest, most capable and highest paid people in your field. Regular reading will transform your life completely. from Brian Tracy

    2. Create a Culture of Questioning
    a. Be a Model: Lead by example; constantly search for new opportunities; ask lots of “Why?” and “What if?” questions.
    b.Improve: Establish a mentality that everything can and should be improved and encourage people to ask “How?” questions.
    c. Do differently: Encourage people to challenge assumptions; run “The Best Question” contests.
    d. Reassess: Assign teams to reassess past decisions periodically: Are they still effective in a changing environment?
    e. Educate: Train people to ask effective open-ended searching questions; promote coaching by questioning.

    Celes, you already do these exceptionally well. I just thought I would share for everyone to apply as they want.

    • Celes

      Hey Bob! I like your recommendation on creating a culture of questioning. The traditional method of teaching in Asia used to be one of one-way teaching (students are not supposed to ask questions; doing so would be seen as being defiant), but it has changed dramatically in the past two decades. I think questioning and two-way exchanges are key to learning and retention.

      I like the percentage “Very, very, few people (probably less than 0.1%) can claim to be active learners” – How does this work? Are all the rest of us 99.9% somewhere else mentally wrapped up in our thoughts?

      That’s a really great question Bob. I’m not sure. I guess perhaps most people are too comfortable receiving information and not actively thinking about it or considering how it would apply in life. It’s probably related to why procrastination and laziness remain major problems among many people.

  • N8 the Net Ninja

    I tend to be one of those quiet listeners, and I find that I have had to spend a lot of time reviewing the content that I didn’t remember from class. Perhaps my learning strategy needs to be revised… Down with passivity! CHAAARGE!! :dance:

  • JJ Wong

    This is great! I learn the pyramid chart – Cone of Experience when I was in secondary school, in a seminar. Through then, I started to look into the learning process of our mind, and teaching/self action to experience really get into learning process much faster.

    Besides, sharing section is one way to boost up our learning, through sharing, we teach, share and listen from different point of views, thus increase the learning on one topic faster.

    Thanks for the post Celes. :dance:

  • Jamie

    The brain learns via novelty and repetition. I think both need to be present in order for high quality learning. Sometimes I’m playing guitar and I spend too long just going over the same thing to the point of boredom when I should be mixing it up and learning new stuff as often as possible.

  • Uncle Domdom

    Liked to the entire info on learning process.

  • Bryan

    Its very interesting but this is actually the first time I’ve actually seen someone tell me their experiences and how its helped them. granted i’ve read about this in textbooks and websites but I guess the reason why i never took it seriously is because no told me their experiences. Kinda hard to relate when they tell you whats what and not how it makes a difference. the fall semester just started for me so this is the perfect time to implement this. the only problem is how do i bring this up in conversation? its kinda weird going to my friends saying “omg i finally get why Pluto is considered a Dwarf planet!” or “my poli sci class just taught me something so amazing.” then again it might just as simple as that. thanks for the article i’ll definitely take that first step to become active ;)

  • Daniël W. Crompton (webhat)

    > Each time I attended a class, I would ensure that I read the required material and did the assignment beforehand

    I used to read all the books at the beginning of the semester, that way I only needed a refresher before I did the assignments.

More in Studies
[Manifesto] How To Be a Dean’s Lister

This one is a special manifesto for those studying. :) (Click image for larger version) Based on the popular How...