How to Become an Expert Learner

By Adam Dube, Head of School

A great education isn’t simply being presented with relevant or meaningful information to learn; a great education presents this information in a way that encourages you to learn it...and learn it well. And while each of us, having been students ourselves, have ideas about what works best for learning, myths and ineffective strategies abound. Every year students spend hundreds of hours employing low-value study strategies, often at the urging of their teachers, parents, or peers. There are several reasons why these ineffective strategies persist.

The Illusion of Knowledge

Although re-reading texts or class notes can be rather time-intensive strategies, they remain popular because we recognize the material when re-reading it. Highlighting material has a similar effect. The fluency illusion causes us to feel we have a greater understanding of a concept or material than we might actually have, simply because we’ve seen it before. However, when asked to recall the material, we often struggle.

Persistence of Learning Styles

The idea that each of us has a particular way in which we learn has been around for years. Nevertheless, there is little evidence that learning styles actually exist. While there may be modes of learning that we enjoy more or less, there is no correlation with improved performance when students studied according to their preferred learning style.

Cramming Works (Sort of)

Massed practice (a.k.a. cramming) can work in the short-term. Oftentimes students will plan to do all of their preparation in a very short timeframe, perhaps the night before a big test or quiz. While this sometimes leads to success in the short-run, students rarely retain the information in the long-run. The result might be a good grade, but the question of whether or not they actually learned anything remains. In fact, when retested on the same material just weeks after the test, many students fail to recall the information.

What’s the solution?

A wealth of research exists about which strategies are proven to be effective when it comes to learning. Additionally, there are a number of books and other resources available to guide students in becoming expert learners. One of the highest-rated and most popular online courses of all-time also covers this topic. In order to become an expert learner, there are a few things to keep in mind:


Struggle is Good

The process of forgetting and then working to recall information is actually a good thing. Some high-value strategies take time and effort, which dissuade us from using them; however, it’s because of the struggle that they are better in the long-run.

Time + Effort = Success

One of the best strategies to use is spaced practice, as opposed to massed practice. Spending a little bit of time each night studying and learning material is far better than spending longer study periods over a shorter period of time. Although we may find we forget some information in between study sessions, that’s o.k.! The process of having to recall it will only improve long-term retention.

Test Yourself

There are a variety of different ways to do this. We can ask a friend of someone else to quiz us over the material. Flashcards are a great tool for self-quizzing (there are even apps for that). Just avoid simply reading through your notes again.

What do great teachers do?


At Columbia Independent School, we recognize that students often employ low-value study strategies. Our teachers are encouraged to promote the use of high-value strategies at all age levels. We believe this is so important that all sixth students take a class, Learn to Learn, that specifically focuses on:

  • Recognizing low-value strategies

  • Replacing low-value strategies with research-based strategies

  • Developing organization, planning, and prioritizing skills to successfully implement high-value strategies

Additionally, students can receive small group tutoring through our Student Success Center, where each teacher/tutor has been trained in helping students maximize their studying.

While there are a variety of high-value strategies students can employ (check-out the resources linked to this article), they won’t work if they don’t use them. So take a few minutes to review current strategies and compare them to the high-value strategies. If you’re not sure, students can ask a teacher for advice. Good luck!