How To Learn Concepts Quickly: A Step-by-Step Guide

Published Jan 21, 2020

Maybe you have the notes you took from class last Tuesday.

Maybe you watched a pretty good Youtube video on 2x speed.

Maybe you found an article that explained your concept well.

But still… what in the world is calculus?

So… the new concept isn’t sticking. The pieces just don’t fit in your head for some reason.

In this article, I explain my method of learning new concepts and compartmentalizing them in my head. Since there is an infinite number of concepts in the world (the term “concepts” is even up in the air), I made this as general as possible.

Your question could be as general as: how do computers work? This is my concept.

Or your question could be: how do I design a 9-stage pipeline processor with a low branch misprediction penalty? This is my concept.

Essentially, your question, or concept, can be anything.

Let’s get started!

Step #1: Find your starting point

We always need to have some starting point. Focus first on what you know.

Find where your knowledge ends and utter confusion begins.

This is important because we will need a concept to fall back to, a way to restart when things get rough. If what you’re learning becomes too overwhelming, you come back here and go step-by-step through what you know until you reach what you don’t know.

For most concepts, this step is pretty quick. It simply requires thinking. No websites. No videos. Just your brain organizing its information.

Ask Yourself These Questions

  1. What older concept is this newer concept building off of?
  2. Do I understand enough about the older concept to confidently learn more?

Step #2: Find your ending point

Okay, we have our starting point. Now we want the ending point.

Before you start learning anything specific, make sure you know why you’re learning this concept.

Please don’t say, “For school.”

But rather, find the purpose of this new concept within the scope of your starting point.

How does this new concept relate to your starting point?

This step may involve a quick Google search for a definition or maybe a Wikipedia article. But don’t gloss it over or skip it. Solidify this purpose in your mind. It’ll give us structure and direction in our learning process. We’ll never feel too lost because we’ll always know what our goal is.

On a high-level (very abstractly), have a sense of where you’ll end up. In one phrase, what will you know by the time you finish learning?

We can make that more practical: what will you be able to do once you learn this concept?

Ask Yourself These Questions

  • What is the purpose of this new concept with respect to my starting point?
  • In one phrase, what will I know by the time I finish learning this concept?
  • What will I be able to do differently once I learn this concept?

Step #3: Find multiple perspectives

So we have a general structure of our learning process. At this point, we know what we know and where we want to go. We should have a very general idea of what this concept is and why it exists. Nothing technical at all but just an understanding of its purpose.

This is when we start diving into more technical aspects of the concept.

Identify your main source of information. Is it class notes? Youtube? Blogs? Books?

Whatever it is, don’t focus on just those notes or just that video.

The key to learning effectively is to have different people explain the same concept to you.

You could read the best article on your topic, but if it’s not expressed in a way that you, personally, can understand, then it’ll be a useless article.

That being said, you’ll always get something from each information source. That is why you have to find multiple sources of information on your topic. These are generally the most reputable mediums (there are exceptions, of course):

  • Books
  • Academic Journals
  • Professor’s Notes or Your Notes
  • Articles and Blogs
  • Youtube

The most popular sources aren’t always the best, so be sure to look around. On Youtube, watch the most viewed video on your topic all the way down to the least viewed video. Once you’ve done that, supplement it with online articles on the subject or online PDFs of related books.

Step #4: Take notes on the common ground

You have your starting point and ending point as well as potential sources of information.

Now, when you watch these videos and read these books, don’t do it blindly. The idea is to relate all the information to each other.

On your first video or first book, jot down high-level concepts and lower-level concepts that it reviews. Try to break down the concept into sub-concepts if possible (this is more geared towards computer scientists).

On every subsequent source, add to this structure you’ve created in your notebook. Add to the same sub-concepts. Create new sub-concepts. Keep building.

And yes, it is true that writing interacts with different parts of our brain (compared to reading). It forces our brain to organize our thoughts in a way that is more difficult when simply reading.

That being said, I would suggest writing pen and paper, or at least Apple Pencil and iPad if that’s your preferred choice.

Step #5: Write to your future self

This was very important for me in college.

Even for the most technical computer engineering classes that I took in college, I would write notes in the margins to my future self. I wrote as if I was talking to future me directly in plain ol’ English.

Not every idea needs an extra sentence by me in the margins. These extra notes are more for clarity and function as reminders.

This also helps solidify our knowledge through time since we’re literally reminding ourselves about some idea.

Conclusion

Learning is different for everyone, so I don’t expect everyone to be satisfied with this “guide”.

It’ll be too broad for some, maybe too specific for others, or just completely unrelated and useless for others.

Either way, this is how I approach every problem I face. Every new concept introduced into this brain of mine is forced into this process.

Let me know what you’re trying to learn and how you’re trying to learn it! 🙂


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