Online learning options have proliferated in recent years with greater diversity and higher quality than ever before. With courses produced by content creators in addition to more traditional institutions, it is hard to find a subject for which a course has not been developed, and odds are you’re considering one if you haven’t taken one already. However, online courses and programs when consumed lend themselves to one fatal flaw — the illusion of competency. In other words, the content is often in one ear and out the other.
Students enthusiastic to learn a new subject or develop a new skill sign up for courses only to leave much of the course uncompleted or under-completed. While engaged in the course, students experience many enjoyable moments of epiphany during which the subject matter makes sense. They mistake these fleeting feelings with durable consolidated knowledge, only to be surprised and disappointed when they cannot recover their understanding without substantial cues down the road. They’ve mistaken recognition for recall.
If you suffer from this problem, you can rest assured that you are not alone. Some studies indicate that the average completion rate of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is 15%. But why is this the case?
I believe this can be explained by the simple fact that learners rarely consciously develop the skill of learning. It is uncommon for students outside the field of educational sciences to be introduced to useful models of the learning process or evidence-based metacognitive learning strategies, and rarer yet for students to actively put them into practice. This leads to massive wasted efforts for those who soldier through. For most of us, however, the initial excitement of a new course fades into the dissatisfaction of just another task on the ever-growing self improvement to-do list. Resorting to skimming the course and settling with the illusion of competency seems like an acceptable middle ground, all things considered. Even if we enjoy being introduced to a new subject, we know deep down that we are coming up short relative to our potential.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We’ll cover 7 evidence-based highly-effective learning strategies to supercharge your online learning experience and help you kickstart a powerful positive feedback loop to take you to your full potential.
Before we go any further, it is very important to have clarity about what it means to learn. It seems like an obvious answer, “I know it when I know it”, but deeper reflection shows us there are levels to our understanding. Just because I can spout off the components of a bicycle doesn’t mean I understand how they are put together to make a bike work, or that I can ride a bike, or that I can invent a new and improved variation of a bike, etc.
Bloom’s taxonomy and the SOLO taxonomy are two well known attempts to characterize and organize the levels of learning mastery. In Bloom’s taxonomy, “remembering” (or the recall of facts and basic concepts usually achieved by rote memorization) is at the bottom of the hierarchy. The next level up is “understanding” which means the student has the ability to explain concepts. This implies familiarity with the deeper organizing principles of the concepts. Higher yet are the abilities to apply or use information in new situations, draw connections among ideas, and reason with/from the information. The highest learning outcome according to Bloom’s taxonomy is the ability to create new or original works from the knowledge.
Why is this important? Models like Bloom’s taxonomy give us a roadmap to understand where we are relative to where we want to be when it comes to learning outcomes and is an essential concept to help us develop the skill of learning. With this roadmap in hand we can start to see some important truths. In the same way that we needed to learn to crawl before we could walk before we could run, we need to develop understanding before we can develop skill and these are two distinct phases of the learning process. Additionally, just like it is absurd to presume a method that is highly effective at teaching someone to walk would be effective for teaching someone to run a 10s 100m sprint, it is unreasonable to believe all learning strategies can be universally applied regardless of learning phase.
The other important concept we need to be armed with to develop the skill of learning is metacognition (or awareness about one’s own thought processes). Learning is a highly individualized process. It is critical that we utilize self-awareness about the specific learning processes in which we are engaged so that we have the necessary feedback to evaluate how we are doing and troubleshoot as we go. Fortunately, most people taking online courses have already come to the realization that they are responsible for their own education and that they need to be active participants. To the degree to which metacognition can accompany any directed effort, the better the outcomes will be.
Let’s look at a handful of synergistic highly-effective metacognitive learning strategies you can add to your toolbox and start applying today to supercharge your online learning experience. In order to maximize their real world utility we will discuss when to apply them, what benefit to expect, and why they work, as well as supporting studies for further exploration.
Developing success criteria involves clarifying specifically what you hope to achieve from your learning efforts. Taking the time to explicitly capture this objective requires very little effort relative to its benefit.
It is important to note that because understanding and skill are two distinct learning outcomes, it is highly valuable to capture your objective for each one independently. For example, you may wish to learn about frameworks and strategies to help you better understand the learning process but the information required to achieve this objective may be very different from the information required to enable you to put the strategies into practice.
Upfront before starting a new course or a major section of material to be learned.
Step 1) Reflect on what you hope to achieve from the online course you are about to undertake. Try answering the following questions:
Answers to the two questions can be in these forms respectively:
Step 2) Finally, keep these answers in a prominent location so you can continue to reference them as you go through the course.
It is important to note that when differentiating between understanding and skill objectives, test taking is a skill and should be developed as such for optimal results. Understanding of subject matter alone should be considered insufficient for receiving the best test scores. To learn more about origins of modern schooling and the significance of grades check out GPA Calculator — You are More than Just a Number
Making these objectives conscious and readily available for reference will help to act as an organizing principle for the information you are exposed to. You will find you have much greater clarity about what information is important and what aspects are valuable to focus on, increasing the leverage of your focused efforts. Furthermore, knowing your goals will increase your confidence that you are receiving the benefit you want from the course and enhance your overall satisfaction with the learning process.
The success criteria learning strategy effect size was found to be 1.13 (defined as Cohen’s d). Results come from a meta-analysis of data from 7 studies containing 13,300 prorated people participating.
While it is obvious that consciously connecting with our motivations to complete an activity is likely to drive us to complete the activity, there is a big difference between surface and deeper motivations. Surface motivations alone in many cases are insufficient and can feel externally imposed, leading students to feel that their locus of control is outside of themselves, and ultimately have a demotivating effect.
Connecting with deeper motivations allows us to remember that we are in the driver’s seat. It connects us with deeper and more powerful aspects of ourselves and can provide a huge emotional reservoir that can be pulled from when the task becomes uncomfortable or difficult. On the other hand, if we are unable to connect to deeper motivations, this may be a valuable indication that we are not optimally allocating our efforts and that we should re-examine our objectives.
Upfront before starting a new course. Ideally this learning strategy would be completed in relation to a previously identified success criteria.
While there are many ways to potentially connect with deeper motivations, one of the most powerful ways to elucidate them is by essentially playing the same “why” game that young children play.
Step 1) Start by answering the question What will having this ability (or understanding) do for you? Why is it important? Answering from the first person perspective will help you reflect on your motivations (e.g., Having this ability will allow me to get a good score on an important accreditation exam.)
Step 2) Ask this same question again but this time in relation to the new answer you provided in the previous step (e.g., What will getting a good score on an important exam do for me? Why is THAT important?) An example answer to this question may be “getting a good score will allow me to receive a new accreditation which will help me get a promotion”.
Step 3) Iteratively repeat Step 2 until you get to the root of your motivation. In this example the person may really want the promotion to have additional income so they can help their family. As you can start to appreciate, this is a much more substantial driver than simply getting a good grade on an exam.
Step 4) Now that you have the root of the motivation, those driving feelings can be amplified by directing your attention to the ideal outcome you desire. Take a moment to visualize a scene where you have attained the desired outcome. It is highly recommended to visualize yourself from a third person perspective to minimize the risk that you will become overly associated with your vision and want to stay in the fantasy instead of moving forward to make it a reality.
Step 5) Finally, connect with the feeling you get from seeing yourself in the way depicted in the scene above. What are the emotions? Where do you feel them in your body?
You should find yourself charged with the desire to move toward this vision of your actualized self. Also, in practice, you will likely find that it doesn’t take many layers of questioning before you begin to identify those deeper motivations.
By forcing you to imagine an ideal outcome AND why it is important, this technique shines awareness on what you are after and the potentially deeper reason for it. By connecting with this deeper motivation and giving you a safe way to preview it, you are able to rekindle the drive and passion you have for achieving your objectives.
The deep motivation learning strategy effect size was found to be 0.75 (defined as Cohen’s d). Results come from a meta-analysis of data from 72 studies containing 13,300 prorated people participating.
Motivation is a two-sided coin. On the one hand you have what you desire or the motivating emotion for action. On the other hand you have what you feel you can reasonably accomplish, or the resistance you expect relative to your capabilities.
For example, let’s say you really want to go to Mars but you live in a time before rockets have been invented. You may feel desire but little motivation to pursue it because it is an impossibility from your perspective. If, all of a sudden, it is announced that a rapidly reusable rocket has been developed and NASA is signing up astronauts, your motivation to take action toward your goal will skyrocket. In both situations, the desire or deep motivation is the same but your self-efficacy (or self-belief in your ability to do it) has drastically changed.
This same principle applies to learning. Extensive research has proven that our belief in our ability to achieve our learning objectives is among the most powerful determining factors in our success.
Upfront before starting a new course or before the start of a learning session. Ideally this learning strategy would be completed after deep motivation for your learning objectives has been established to ensure the spike in motivation you experience will mainly be directed at your specific learning objectives.
Step 1) Think back to a time you learned something or solved a problem. It doesn’t have to be something particularly important. Try to recount how you felt after struggling and the release that occurred when the answer or relationship became clear to you.
Step 2) Repeat step 1 until you have identified 5–10 additional memories of a similar nature. Try to find memories from different phases in your life and from as many diverse contexts as possible.
Step 3) Attempt to hold this database of reference experiences in your mind all at once and become mindful of how they make you feel. Key in on the feeling until you are feeling charged, then get to work!
Social psychologist Roy Baumeister suggests that self-concept should be understood as a knowledge structure . Others specifically define self-concept as a set of qualities (e.g., curious, generous, hard-worker, etc.) that we believe, with high conviction, do or do not belong to us . Other qualities that we have ambiguity about lie outside of this self-concept. When reflecting on our internal experience of why we believe we have one quality and not another, it is suggested that we uncover a set of reference memories or experiences that we have interpreted (likely unconsciously) to be an example (or counterexample) of the quality in question. The diversity of reference experiences and strength to which we can recall them is indicative of our level of certainty in relation to that quality.
By consciously re-engaging with your database of reference experiences relating to times you were a highly-capable learner, you will begin to re-engage with a feeling of certainty that this quality belongs to your self-concept.
The self-efficacy learning strategy effect size was found to be 0.90 (defined as Cohen’s d). Results come from 5 meta-analyses of data from 140 studies containing 53,662 prorated people participating.
 Baumeister, R. F., & Finkel, E. J. (Eds.). (2010). Advanced social psychology: The state of the science. Oxford University Press.
 Andreas, S. (2002). Transform Your Self: Becoming who you want to be. Real People Press.
The strategy to integrate with previous knowledge involves attempting to draw connections or relationships to other ideas the learner is familiar with.
Priming should occur upfront prior to beginning the course or before a learning session and the strategy should primarily be applied as you are consuming source material.
Step 1) Before beginning the course or jumping into a learning session, prime yourself by revisiting or recalling past learning that you expect will be relevant to the new material you will be attempting to learn. This can include thematically related concepts or subskills you expect the course concepts will build on.
Step 2) While consuming the course material and identifying a new concept, inquire how it relates to other adjacent concepts and how it is distinguished from them. Essentially think through similarities and differences in relation to other concepts you are familiar with.
The way we seem to model consolidated information internally is through cognitive graphs. The more meaningful connections we can form between new concepts and the existing concepts that are already established for us, the stronger the integration of the new information and the easier it becomes to recall and use. Priming is useful because it improves conscious awareness of information that is likely to be target rich for forming new connections thus facilitating the process.
The strategy to integrate with prior knowledge learning strategy effect size was found to be 0.93 (defined as Cohen’s d). Results come from a meta-analysis of data from 10 studies.
Outlining is one of the most common learning strategies we are taught in grade school whereby a student identifies the major concepts in the course material and captures them in some sequence representative of how the course was taught, regularly in the form of hierarchical bullet points. However, this technique is almost universally executed in a suboptimal manner. When developing understanding, cognitive load is important. We need to be actively engaged in forming new connections. Outlining is regularly used as a crutch to reduce cognitive load to the point where we are simply creating a copy of the source material with no reflection.
In times before the internet when there was greater uncertainty around access to information in the form of books or lectures, outline notes were significantly more valuable as something a learner could keep even when the source material disappeared. This is no longer the case and the typical note-taking process is holding us back.
Outline notes are valuable as a way to preview the source material, however. The purpose of online courses is to provide learners with the information required to develop understanding or skill, hopefully structured in a way that most optimally supports this transfer. Its primary purpose is not to be a source of suspense (there are much better mediums for that), therefore it is quite alright (and extremely useful) to jump to the end and create an outline before diving into the course material.
You may also be familiar with the Feynman method of teaching a concept to a young child. Transforming is a process whereby the learning translates the content into an alternative form, perhaps providing a new useful structure alternative to that presented in the course, or simply explaining concepts in one’s own words.
Upfront before beginning the course and as you are consuming the source material.
Step 1) Before beginning the course, create an outline of the major subject headings found through the entirety of the course (or larger section). Don’t try to understand the material yet. Instead, simply try to capture and become familiar with the high-level structure.
Step 2) As you are consuming the source material and attempting to build understanding, try to a) evaluate how the information being presented relates to the core concepts you’ve identified, b) predict the aspects of the concept before the instructor presents them, and c) explain their essence in more simple terms.
Useful categories of aspects and related questions to be mindful of while consuming the course material and evaluating/predicting/explaining include :
Attributes and tendencies:
Parts and wholes:
Similarities and differences:
Causes and effects:
Significance and implications:
Step 3) Once you’ve completed the course, go back through your notes and try to reorganize them in a way that is more useful to support your learning objectives. If your end goal is to develop a skill, the information required may be an entirely different subset of the information from the course than the one that optimally supports understanding.
By outlining upfront and previewing what is to come, you can begin to create a roadmap of the concepts that are to be covered, get initial exposure to concepts you may not be familiar with, and see how the author believes the content should be sequenced to efficiently build knowledge. This sense further helps to make useful connections when going through the course material.
By evaluating, predicting, and explaining simply, you are essentially verifying that you understand the higher-order organizing principle of the information being presented. In addition, you are demonstrating that you have synthesized some compact mental representation of the concept that enables you to efficiently derive or recall the other aspects of the idea that are meaningful intuitively (ultimately this understanding is not robust and will decay but the learning objective of understanding is achieved).
Finally, by transforming the material into a new, more useful or meaningful form you are demonstrating higher-level understanding of the course holistically (not just a single core concept). With this in hand, you are well positioned to encode key information into more permanent memory further supporting your understanding and skill learning objectives.
The outlining and transforming learning strategy effect size was found to be 0.85 (defined as Cohen’s d). Results come from a meta-analysis of data from 89 studies.
 “How to write good prompts: using spaced repetition to create understanding”, https://andymatuschak.org/prompts, San Francisco (2020).
Surprisingly, strategies involving altering the learning environment for benefit (e.g., structuring a conducive study environment, implementing time management, studying at optimal times of the day, exercising, etc.) appear to be among the least effective general types of learning strategies . However, one technique — studying in different environments — is a highly effective and fun way to passively enhance information recall to support learning objectives.
Before beginning a learning session.
Step 1) When blocking out times for dedicated learning sessions, identify a set of locations where you could study. These may include different coffee shops, coworking spaces, libraries, other public spaces, different rooms in your house, even different virtual spaces, etc. Dedicate a different space to each major course section or learning timeblock.
Step 2) Progressively change study spaces as you work your way through the course material.
Step 3) To consciously jog your memory about the context of a particular section of learning material, mentally imagine yourself back in the original location where you were introduced to the material.
In a seminal study by Smith, Glenberg, and Bjork, students were asked to study a word list over the course of two sessions then recall as many words as possible . Two different locations were selected. Half of the participants remained in their initial location while half switched between the two locations. It was found that participants who studied in varied locations recalled approximately 50% more words than those who remained stationary (this roughly corresponds to a two letter-grade discrepancy in performance)!
Our mind is exceptional at forming spatial associations and remembering locations. From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to effectively navigate space is critical for survival and, as a result, some of the oldest brain regions (namely the hippocampus) have been found to be dedicated to that function. It is largely thought that this same region acts as a means to index memories of a semantic nature.
By studying in a particular location, you are effectively telling your mind that this location holds important semantic information that you learned in that setting (similar to if that location held the semantic information of the danger from a particular predator or a critical resource but in a much less dramatic way). That information becomes much more likely to be encoded and later to be retrievable by replicating the environmental cues, either directly by going there or mentally by imagining the location.
 Hattie et al. Learning strategies: a synthesis and conceptual model. NPJ Sci Learn [Internet]. 2016;1(1):16013. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/npjscilearn.2016.13
 Smith et al. Environmental context and human memory. Mem Cognit. 1978;6(4):342–53. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.3758/bf03197465
Active recall is the basis of all effective memory practice, whereby learners strengthen the recall they practice. This is usually carried out with some form of flashcard where users self-test by giving themselves prompts and then recall the answer on the back of the card.
The problem with this method as typically practiced is that it relies on haphazard memory encoding. Because no conscious process is involved in creating a memorable association between the prompt and answer, the user has to rely on chance that seeing the relationship enough times will lead to some connection. Furthermore, because the connection doesn’t engage mechanisms to make it robust in its formation, it is likely to decay much faster, and is slower to develop good recall speed and accuracy with. Additionally, connections rarely form with well established recall pathways to enable recalling information beyond simple connections (e.g., multipart extended sequences).
The ancient Method of Loci (or memory palace technique) solves this problem by leveraging the intrinsically strong capabilities of the mind (i.e., the ability to remember and navigate locations) while making it suitable to encode semantic fact-based information.
After you have gone through the entire course and identified what highly valuable subset of the information would be useful to commit to and maintain in high-performing memory.
Step 1) Ensure you have a curated set of valuable information to memorize. Take note of how many ideas (or small groups of ideas) you have to memorize.
Step 2) Identify a journey route that you are familiar with or have access to review (e.g., the route to your nearest grocery store, a path you walk frequently, etc.)
Step 3) Along the journey route, mentally identify distinctive locations (loci). They should be far enough apart that they don’t blend into one another, but close enough that it doesn’t require extended mental effort to transit between them. Examples could include doorway entrances to buildings, specific trees, street signs, sculptures, fire hydrants, or any other distinctive features that stand out.
Step 4) Mentally traverse the route and, at each loci, create and mentally visualize an associative mental image (or short story) that represents an idea (or idea group) to memorize. Associative mental images are most memorable when they are distinctive, animated, elicit strong positive emotion such as humor, and interact with the loci where they are placed. Take note of what information is stored at which loci and the associative mental image for self-testing purposes later.
Step 5) Practice recalling the information by mentally traversing the route. At each loci, you will find you are able to visualize your associative mental image and then decode it to access the stored information. Continue to practice until the desired level of performance is reached. You should find that with practice, the need to explicitly visualize and decode the associative mental image will disappear and you are able to fluently recall the stored information by itself in the order encoded along the journey route.
Additional Step) If your goal is to consolidate the memorized information into long-term memory, practice recall in accordance with a spaced repetition system whereby the intervals between practice sessions increase over time. If you find you are unable to recall the desired information or associative image due to memory decay, the details you previously captured (e.g., loci description, associative mental image description, or idea to memorize) can be used to refresh your memory.
Some of the most astounding world records of memory (such as memorizing the order of a deck of cards in under 12.8 seconds and memorizing the first 70,000 digits of pi) have been achieved using the method of loci.
Even by minimally taking advantage of the principles that underlie the technique you will experience marked improvement in your ability to memorize information . By using the method with the essential information distilled from your online course, you will give yourself a means to consciously encode and systematically access the information in service of developing memory performance and/or long-term memory which can support your learning objectives.
The mnemonics learning strategy effect size was found to be 0.76 (defined as Cohen’s d). Results come from 4 meta-analyses of data from 80 studies with 31,305 prorated participants.
 Qureshi A et al. The method of loci as a mnemonic device to facilitate learning in endocrinology leads to improvement in student performance as measured by assessments. Adv Physiol Educ. 2014;38(2):140–4. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1152/advan.00092.2013
It is critically important to recognize that understanding is not a sufficient condition for developing skill. While it seems obvious, it is still an all too common trap to bounce from course to course acquiring all the understanding that can be found while avoiding those activities which will begin to tangibly develop skill. This is especially common for people who are adept at quickly developing understanding. The sense of accomplishment they feel from achieving the understanding level of learning outcomes is immense and they don’t want to subject themselves to once again feeling unaccomplished which occurs immediately upon transitioning focus to the next higher learning objective. In addition, the skill set required to rapidly develop skills is different than that of building understanding, so a learner may correctly identify they will have to progress through difficulty for quite some time before seeing their desired progress. This is learning as a form of procrastination.
While a detailed account of skill development is outside the scope of this article, most methods for rapid skill acquisition such as Tim Ferriss’ DiSCCC model and Josh Kaufman’s “The first 20 hours” include some form of the following steps:
Deconstruct: The learner determines the processes or sub-skills that constitute the large skill to be learned.
Prioritize: The learner identifies the essential information and/or sub-skills that are responsible for the majority of the skill. This usually follows some form of the 80/20 rule with 20% of the information or sub-skills being responsible for 80% of the larger skill performance.
Practice: The learner maximizes the amount of deliberate (high-intention) practice they are able to accomplish with a significant focus on the elements identified in the prioritize step.
While transforming your understanding during the outlining and transforming learning strategy, it is highly valuable to prioritize and structure your understanding to support your skill learning objectives.
Skill progression is limited by the weakest link or sub-skill. It is common that a major limiting factor when learning a skill is mental access to key information in a timely manner so as not to disrupt the delicate balancing act that is required for new skill execution. This weak link can be directly targeted by deliberate practice using active recall with a focus on performance for the most important key information that repeatedly comes up during skill execution. This information may include process steps, context, what to focus on, errors most likely to occur, how to troubleshoot errors, etc.
Offloading basic information recall tasks from valuable working memory frees up your mental capacity for other aspects of skill execution which has the potential to springboard you to higher levels of competency.
While the information covered here is straightforward, the benefit from these metacognitive learning strategies only comes from properly implementing them into your learning workflow. Online courses take many forms and it is not always immediately obvious how to best do that.
This is why we’ve designed Memory Maps, a software-based learning tool that implements the most effective learning strategies so you can make every course count. Users open any of their favorite web-based learning platforms directly in Memory Maps, follow the carefully designed structured workflow to build understanding, then leverage powerful built-in memory techniques (including a digital version of the memory palace technique using Google Street View) to supercharge skill development.
We believe in your innate potential for brilliance and it is our hope to equip you with the right tools and strategies to unlock it. You are absolutely a highly-capable learner so get out there and start supercharging your learning experience!
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