How to Learn About a New Subject

February 10, 2021

Almost everything is online, but nothing is organized. If you want to learn about a new topic, I recommend having a good framework in place before you start. Having a sense of how things relate to each other by reading in a systematic, deliberate way will help it stay in that gorgeous noodle of yours for the long haul.

Learning requires building a good framework for the area you want to learn about, recognizing patterns, and maintaining a sense of intellectual humility: owning the fact that we all have blindspots. And you don’t know what you don’t know.

1. Read very basic texts in the area you’re researching: intro books are your friend. Get an overview. Remember: the area of a subject you’re interested in is just one tiny area of it. Divide a pie chart into several pieces: Social Psychology is always going to be just one area in psychology. It is not 95% of psychology. If it feels like one area represents the bulk of a discipline, that’s because your reading habits are lopsided.

2. Find a syllabus for a class in the more specialized subdivision that you’re interested in. (You can restrict Google searches to education domains for better results.) Try a well-known university and a few less-known ones. (Professors are people with personal, idiosyncratic tastes, after all. They’re understandably biased towards their own line of research.) Read. You can often find free sources online.

3. Know your living sources. Get intimately acquainted with Google Scholar, which lets you see how many times a paper has been cited and how influential it is.

4. Get over your fear of going straight to the source. Identify key peer-reviewed journals in the area that keep popping up. Go there. Read. Read papers and abstracts that interest you. Sign up for email alerts when new articles are published. Brain and Cognition. APA Journals.

5. Review articles and journals are a great way to read about trends from the past few years and theories that link current studies. Review of General Psychology. Annual Review of Psychology. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. These are all things that I love.

6. Identify key researchers in this area. Sign up for alerts on Google Scholar to find out when they publish new articles. Better yet: visit the website of a lab or researcher you’re interested in. Reading how they describe their work, and how their papers have evolved over the years, is a wonderful way to see how ideas evolve over time.

7. Test yourself! Write blog posts and papers. Take quizzes. Reading alone doesn’t mean that you’ll retain all of the information, but it’s a great start.

8. If you ever find yourself saying “now you’re just complicating things,” or “that’s ridiculous, you’re just splitting hairs,” back up. That’s a sign that you’re missing enough context to understand why something is important. (It’s also a sign of defensiveness because treasured opinions and worldviews are being questions.) Things really are complicated.

9. Researchers are people who have their own cognitive biases. They’re not perfect. The process of collecting data, getting funding, and publishing a paper are all run by humans with their own motives and agendas, even if they’re not aware of what they are. Leave your ego at the door. Stay interested in learning for the sake of learning, rather than learning in order to back up a hunch or idea.

10.  Just because multiple people agree says nothing about how accurate those beliefs are. It’s possible for everyone to be wrong at the same time. (See: what we believed a few decades ago.) Science progresses one funeral at a time.