Updated on 04.25.11

Accelerated Learning

Trent Hamm

When I was in college, I took a semester course in organic chemistry. It was only a three credit course and I needed to take a lot of courses to move toward the two separate college degrees I was working toward, so I loaded my schedule down with twenty credits that semester (where twelve is considered a full time load).

It turned out that organic chemistry was the hardest class I’d ever taken. It hit me like a freight train. I wound up dropping it.

A year later, I gave organic chemistry a try again. I knew it was going to be hard. I also knew that I was going to be similarly loaded with credits. Thus, I knew that I needed to approach it in a very different way.

I got a B+ (that would have been an A with slightly better reading comprehension on the final).

Even more impressive, even now, fifteen years on, I still remember lots of elements of that organic chemistry class. I still remember what a Grignard reagent is and why it’s useful. I can still draw the structures of quite a few organic compounds from the name, and vice versa.

Since then, I’ve used the same set of techniques whenever I’m trying to absorb a large body of knowledge. I’ve done it with personal finance, with economics, with Western philosophy, with genetics and genetic algorithms, with several different programming languages, and that’s just for starters.

What was the difference? Why did I fail so badly the first time and yet learn so well the second time?

Obviously, the difference in these two patterns is a key part of succeeding in an information economy. If you’re able to absorb a lot of things quickly, then you’re more useful at almost every desk job under the sun.

Here are the seven central pieces to my plan.

1. Like what you’re learning.
This is key. You should enjoy the subject for what it is, not for what it gets you. If you have no interest in learning about the topic except that you’re told to learn about it or that you’re supposed to learn about it, it’s very hard to absorb and retain a signficant amount of knowledge. You can always cram, of course, but it’s hard for that information to have lasting power if you’re not interested in truly learning the information.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have goals with your learning, but that if you’re not enjoying the process toward achieving those goals, you might want to find a different aim for your learning.

2. Find a place where you’re comfortable yet undistracted.
It’s hard to learn if you’re constantly distracted by a ringing cell phone or the ding of your email program. Seek out a place with minimum distractions and an environment where you’re comfortable. I do my best learning in the rocking chair in my office, for example. I’m very comfortable, I’m not sitting in front of the computer, and I feel happy and ready to learn.

3. Chunk it.
People tend to remember the start and end of their lessons the best, so I simply chunk my learning into small bits. I’ll study something for fifteen minutes or less at a time, then I’ll put it down and do something else for a while. Almost every day, I’m learning something using this exact method.

You might learn more over a long period of study than a very short one, but you learn less per minute spent studying. If you want to maximize an hour of learning, you’re far better off breaking it into four fifteen minute or five twelve minute chunks spread out over several hours instead of studying nonstop for an hour.

4. Jump into the deep end of the pool.
It seems obvious that if you’re new to a topic, you should start with beginner’s topics. I find the opposite to be more effective. I jump right into the deep end of the pool, reading something very advanced or trying something very difficult. I see what I can absorb from that advanced topic, then I go back and fill in the holes in my learning with simpler material.

I tend to look at learning more as building a scaffold, then building the structure around that scaffold. That’s what happens when you start with advanced topics and then patch it with the areas where you’re confused.

5. Apply what you’re learning as quickly as you can.
If you learn a new idea or new technique, try to use it quickly. For example, if you’ve just started learning about a particular computer programming technique, go try it. If you’ve learned about a new time management technique, go try it. If you’ve learned a new set of rules about naming organic molecules, go try them.

Try the new things you’ve learned several times. Doing this really helps make the information stick in your head.

6. Try different methods of absorbing information.
This is actually just an extension of the above tactic. Try listening to talks about things you want to learn about. Try reading about it. Try talking about the information with someone who already knows about the topic. Watch a documentary or a video about the topic.

Different learning styles work differently for each of us. I tend to learn different things from different educational methods, so mixing them up results in the ideas being strongly reinforced in my head.

7. Focus on patterns.
Almost everything that we learn about is filled with patterns. Languages. Philosophies. Sciences. Skills. They all include many, many patterns. Seek out and identify those patterns and you’ll learn more quickly.

For example, if you’re learning Spanish, knowing that many words in English that end in -tion are the same in Spanish except they end in -cion and you’ve vastly increased your vocabulary. If you’re learning computer programming, the pattern of an if-loop is essentially the same in every computer programming language – and your abilities in all languages have grown. If you’re learning how to play a musical instrument, the chords (and elements of them) repeat themselves over and over throughout songs – and you’ve got the tools for an infinite array of musical pieces.

Learning itself is a valuable enterprise, both in the process and in the results. The more you learn and the more skills and knowledge you acquire, the more valuable you become, not only in the marketplace, but as a person.

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  1. Johanna says:

    “Focus on patterns.”

    This times a million, especially for organic chemistry. For years, I’ve been saying to anyone who will listen that if you think organic chemistry is all about memorization, then you’re doing it wrong. It’s actually about developing your chemical intuition, and patterns are a big part of that. There are a lot of common features in all those reactions and mechanisms that they have you learn, and if you can really internalize that, you start to see the reactions and mechanisms not as a collection of unrelated information, but a system that makes sense. Studying then becomes so much easier. I don’t think I studied for any of my organic chemistry exams for more than a couple of hours, and I aced both semesters.

  2. Allison says:

    I would also add that you shouldn’t go it alone. The people who did well in my organic class were those in study groups. Instead of trying to work through the problems alone and banging their heads against a wall when they got stuck, they brainstormed together and helped explain things to each other. There’s only so much explanation that a professor can do in class. Guess which strategy I took :(

  3. chris says:

    Patterns…that is the key to all advanced study. It is a more involved study skill, but identifying patterns and applying them to your learning and testing is most important of all the elements listed here.

  4. Stephan F- says:

    I think this is why a lot of products and companies fail, the first time you make something is almost all learning experience, and when you are done you would have done so much differently that it would be a whole ‘nother product.
    But most companies ship it and it ends up taking a huge amount of resources to keep up. And there never is a good version 2. Look at Microsoft it usually takes them 3 tries to get it right when they make a big change.

  5. Ryan says:

    This was a timely post – I’m almost failing my algebra class. Which isn’t an option since I need 2 more math classes for my accounting degree.

    I despise math – I have no motivation.

  6. con says:

    #5 Ryan

    Are you sure you want an accounting degree if you despise math?

    However, my older brother was TERRIBLE in math in high school and then my parents got him some self-help booklets and now he is the head of finance at a major hospital here. Go figure. Something just clicked.

    Not saying that’s your case, Ryan, maybe you’re good at math but despise it just the same. :)

  7. Ryan says:


    So far, I haven’t had trouble with the accounting side of things. It’s mainly 4 function math with a tiny bit of algebra.

    Stuff like factoring and radicals trip me up. AFAIK, accounting doesn’t really use those.

    I like/understand real world math. I just can’t envision a scenario where a client or supervisor asks “I need these polynomials factored by 5. Thanks”.

  8. AnneKD says:

    This is timely, I’m starting school for another degree (engineering this time) in the fall.

    I loved organic chemistry when I took it, everything clicked. Wish I could say the same the first time I took physics. Engineering physics will hopefully be a bit harder- I’ll dig into it more.

  9. Riki says:

    Ryan . . .

    There’s a great website I use with my students:
    brightstorm dot com.

    Hopefully it will help.

  10. KD says:

    HA! I got a chuckle out of you post. Organic Chemistry was the only class I ever got a D in. And the reason why I decided not to go to vet school! I had to take a second class. Didn’t help that the professor was terrible. I applaud you perseverance

  11. Dano says:

    Nice post, Trent. Very solid breakdown of the learning process.

  12. David says:

    There appears recently to have been a vast outpouring of theories to the effect that success in life is not actually a function of “talent”, or genetic predisposition favouring such tasks as kicking a football or memorizing the properties of halogens. Instead, success is a function of “hard work”.

    What I want to know is this: suppose one is not genetically predisposed to work hard. Is one doomed to failure?

  13. Ryan says:

    Thanks Riki!

  14. I really liked chemistry in school, and I think studying it in chunks and applying it right away definitely helped.

  15. Evita says:

    Good tips, Trent!
    I studied finance for a degree while working full-time as an adult.
    I found it very helpful to 1) always prepare my classes by reading the material beforehand and 2) write a very short summary of each class (formulas to remember, definitions, etc.). While reviewing for exams, I would read over my summaries and make sure I understood and remembered everything. It worked very well.
    Hope this helps!

  16. MARY says:

    When I was a sophmore in pharmacy school, I took organic. After hearing horror stories about it freshman yr,I got an organic chemistry book from the library the summer before and tried to learn the basic concepts. Basically, you have to study consistantly because 1 concept builds on another. You can’t cram for a test in a night if you haven’t been studying it! Study groups are a big help,also.

  17. Leszek Cyfer says:

    I use succesfully one more technique – every time I learn something knew I pretend as if I was explaining it to my friend or to a child. Works every time :)

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