How to choose the best learning methods (and avoid the bad ones)
Scouring the internet to find the ultimate language learning method is no mean feat.
Around every corner, there is something new trying to seduce you. And most of the time you give in. “Why not”, you might think, “It sounds reasonable”.
You don’t even notice when this search turns into a bizarre blind-folded tasting.
One time it’s an acorn. Other time it is a piece of crap.
What’s even worse, almost every person swears by his own method. “Listen, I learned Japanese by yodeling. I am telling ya this is the way to go!”
It is all confusing and disheartening.
That’s why I want to show you how to evaluate learning methods.
Hopefully, upon reading this article you will learn how to navigate those murky waters and make more educated decisions about your learning.
But let’s start with a question I have heard many times.
Why bother with choosing the right method?
1) It saves time
Nothing is our in this world but time – Seneca
You should treat the choice of a potential learning method as an investment.
Would you ever open a newspaper, close your eyes and just pick some stocks randomly?
I don’t think so.
That’s why I would suggest that you approach choosing a language learning strategy the same way.
Don’t behave like a happy-go-lucky hippie.
Spend an hour or two to think it through.
It will pay off, I promise.
It really makes a difference.
Very often 10 minutes of a good learning method might be worth an hour (or even more) of a crappy method. (* cough* Duolingo *cough*).
Imagine what you could do with all that saved time!
Of course, pondering over this decision for too long is no good either.
Don’t think too long.
Simply evaluate a couple of methods against the guidelines found in this article, choose the right one and move on.
2) It boosts motivation
I don’t believe in motivation. I believe in habits and systems.
But there is no denying that motivation is a force to be reckoned with.
Especially when you take up a new learning project.
However, there is one big problem. Motivation is a capricious mistress.
One day she is lovely and charming, while the other day she goes berserk and kicks you right in the nuts. That’s why relying on motivation is not a good long-term strategy.
Nevertheless, choosing a right strategy will help you notice results of your learning much quicker.
And in my experience, there is nothing better to fuel your motivation.
3) It solves most of other learning problems
Probably you already know it but just in case – most of your learning-related problems stem from the wrong choice of learning methods
Can’t keep more than two languages in your head at the same time?
Wrong learning methods.
Keep on forgetting words?
Wrong learning methods.
I hope that by now, I have convinced you that choosing the right learning method is not a waste of time.
The next thing on the agenda – learning fallacies.
The Most Widespread Learning Fallacies
There are a lot of people who offer you their advice in good faith, even though they themselves are ill-informed.
It’s equally important to know, not only what works, but also what doesn’t work and why. At least if you want to be a good “b*shit” detector learning-wise!
Here is the list of the most important learning fallacies you may fall subject to.
Fallacy #1 – My method works
There are not many people strolling around and saying, “My method sucks and guarantees no results whatsoever. Use it!”.
Everybody is convinced that their learning method is great and that the other guys suck (confirmation bias, anyone?). Here is a corker – they are all right.
Absolutely all learning methods work.
It comes as a shock, right?
Pick any method you want. If you stick to it long enough, you will see some effects.
If you just keep plugging away, eventually you will learn what you have set out to do.
Even the worst of the worst methods work.
I am the best possible example of this. My default method of learning English years ago was to
- a) write down every word I didn’t know
- b) rewrite it from a dictionary
- c) read it
In other words, I was rewriting a dictionary.
I really do hope that I was fed with a lead spoon as a child.
At least I would be able to justify myself just a little bit.
I have managed to write away 12 A4 notebooks this way. Pure madness and the hands down the crappiest method I have ever heard of.
Yet, I managed to learn English fluently and get all the Cambridge Certificates.
I just kept plugging away at it. Many hours per day. Until I succeeded.
You can see learning as rolling a big ball from point A to point B.
Your learning methods decide how heavy the ball is and thus how much time it will take to get it to the finish line.
The heaviness of the ball doesn’t make it impossible for you to achieve your goal. It just takes longer to do it and it is more difficult.
Main takeaway – just because a method works doesn’t really prove anything unless you measure the average results which it gves you.
Fallacy # 2 – I like it (aka personal preferences or learning styles)
Months ago I wrote in one of the articles that learning styles don’t exist. The hell ensued.
I got plenty of angry e-mails. Some people started behaving like an upset stereotypical Brit, “Iconoclastic heresies, my good chum!”. Others would gladly spit into my cereal if they got a chance.
No wonder. I have found a lot of statistics saying that over 80 or even 90% of teachers believe it to be true. Thor only knows how many students have been infected with this idea.
And this is why so many people have a very strong opinion about it.
However, let me repeat for dramatic effect.
Learning styles don’t exist*
* You can read more about it here. It’s not perfect but it should dispel most of your doubts.
Most of the time when people use this term, they mean “personal preferences“.
They prefer to see information visually, orally or in some other way.
PREFER is the key word here.
It doesn’t mean that learning this way is more effective. It means you like it more.
An author who enjoys music the most will think that the music is the best way to learn.
Another one will try to convince you that spending more time outside is the ultimate solution.
But there is some silver lining here.
Liking a given method makes it more sustainable. You can use it longer than some other methods without feeling fatigued.
It certainly counts for something and you should always have such enjoyable learning methods in your arsenal.
Main takeaway – just because you like a method doesn’t make it effective memory- and time-wise. It does, however, make it more sustainable.
Fallacy #3 – Everybody learns differently
Everybody learns differently is just a special case of the snowflake syndrome.
I get it, you are without the slightest doubt special in your own way. However, don’t make a mistake of thinking that
learning differently =/ learning effectively.
Let me explain why we are not so special and so different when it comes to learning.
We are the product of the evolution. Our brains are in many ways very similar.
- Your working memory capacity is probably the same as mine. Surpass it and you can say goodbye to remembering things.
- You learn most of the things better by doing.
- Your attention is very limited.
- Your brain needs regular breaks during learning.
- You learn better when you space your learning.
The list goes on and on.
So yes, you are special in many ways. But not in the ways your brain acquires knowledge.
Main takeaway – our brains absorb information in a very similar way.
Fallacy #4 – It’s based on science
I know what you are thinking. How the hell is this a learning fallacy?
Is it not important for a method to be based on science?
Yes, it is crucial.
However, there is one problem with that.
People love numbers, statistics and quoting research papers.
It makes everything more believable. You can come up with any crappy theory and method, back it up with some research paper and people will buy it.
There are a lot of companies which do exactly that.
They apply flaky results of some fishy research paper(s) to their learning method and sell it for big bucks.
At least twice per month, I get requests to write a review of some “revolutionary” software.
Most of the time the only revolutionary thing about it is spaced repetition.
Obviously, spaced repetition algorithms are amazing. But it doesn’t justify paying for it 20-50$ per month (you know who you are!). You can go ahead and just download ANKI for free.
That’s why this is the trickiest fallacy of them all. Don’t buy into some method just because it sounds sciency. I can guarantee you that almost every method is based on some research paper. Whether its creator knows it or not.
Main takeaway – just because a method is based on a research paper it doesn’t make it effective.
Fallacy #5 – There is one method
There is no perfect learning method.
You can’t build a house with only a hammer. You need other tools as well.
Learning is too complicated to approach it from only one side. It doesn’t matter how good this method seems, be it mnemonics or anything else.
That’s why you should always aim at creating your own personal toolbox.
Main takeaway – there is no perfect method. You should always have at least a couple of them in order to learn effectively.
Important factors in choosing right learning methods
Although I would love to give you a perfect recipe for success in learning, I don’t think it is possible. What’s more, I will restrain myself from suggesting the methods I use personally or teach my clients.
Instead, I will show you which criteria you can use to evaluate the general effectiveness of different methods.
A good method should
a) be based on science
“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
As Aristotle once said
“The fact is our starting point.”
The more “science boxes” your learning method checks, the better.
b) sustainable (easy to use)
Although not every learning method has to be sustainable, it is good when at least one of them is something that you can do for a long time and you find it pleasant.
But remember – first, do the real work and then have fun.
c) be engaging
The Marines have a great motto
Learn how you fight
Make sure that your learning method resembles real-life situations as much as it is only possible.
d) be tested
Whenever it is possible you should test a strategy you are planning to use long term. Don’t trust somebody just because he says that his method works.
Most people don’t challenge their assumptions.
I get requests to consult or collaborate on some language course all the time. The email exchanges usually end when I ask
“So how exactly have you tested your learning system/method and what is it based on?”.
And then crickets. There has been just one exception to this day.
That’s why design your own experiment to prove a method right or wrong.
Want to switch to another method? Test them against each other.
e) give you feedback
You don’t want to do something without knowing whether it is right or not. A good method should always provide you with some amount of feedback.
Choosing the best learning methods is definitely not easy. It might take some time and experience in order to tell the chaff from the wheat.
Nevertheless, it is always worth the effort. The amount of time and frustration you can potentially save is really gigantic.
Question for you – are there any methods you are currently using that you would like me to analyze? Let me know in the comments. Feel free to include your own analysis.