Intentional learning is what you need to resolve the problems you are facing. Intentional learning emphasizes the consciousness of learning and focuses on reaching the goals of learning.
Learning itself is a skill. Unlocking the mindsets and skills to develop it can boost personal and professional lives and deliver a competitive edge.McKinsey Quarterly
This guide will present you with a concrete 5-step plan on how you can achieve intentional learning, which will help you learn anything new quickly and effectively.
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Step 1: Set Clear Learning Goals for Intentional Learning
Before you start diving into the ocean of knowledge, you should understand first why you are learning the knowledge. This is the first step to intentional learning – you need to first identify your goal by understanding why you are learning in the first place.
The reason and motivation behind your learning, whether it is for a test, or for resolving a practical issue you are facing in life, will guide you through what exactly you need to look for.
Here are three questions that you should ask yourself before you start:
- What is the reason and motivation behind this learning journey? Are you trying to acquire new knowledge, understand different perspectives, or find answers to specific questions in mind?
- Is there any deadline that I need to meet?
- What do I want to achieve after this learning journey?
Always remember that you can grow, expand, evolve, and change, just as the growth mindset suggests. Your intelligence and capability are not fixed, but they are traits that you can cultivate. Adopting the growth mindset will help you believe that you are able to grow through your learning journey.
After understanding your motivation and goal, you can refer to this as guidance as you start the steps below.
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Step 2: Build Your Knowledge Framework
The key here is to look at the big picture and understand the key components of the topic you wish to learn.
This can be done in the following ways:
- If you have a textbook or book that acts as a base for the topic, you can take a look at the content page of the book. This will usually provide you with a glimpse of different areas and aspects that the topic will involve and touch on.
- If you are just starting from scratch, you can do a quick search online to figure out what people usually talk about that relates to the topic. This will help you sort out a few keywords that you need to do further research on.
- If you are very new to the topic, another way to get a brief overview is to talk to someone who has relevant knowledge and experience. They will usually be able to provide insights as to what are some key areas that you need to be aware of.
After getting a brief idea as to what the topic involves, it is time for you to build your knowledge framework.
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Step 3: Research on The Sources of Information
Creating Your Learning Master List
First, after grasping the basic framework of the knowledge, you can start a new document or note on the topic to create your own outline. Here are a few steps you can do:
- Start by making an outline of the topic. For example, I like to start by making a table with the left column stating the different areas and components of the topic, and the right column to be filled in with the list of reliable sources that I will need to study.
- Research the reliable and high-quality resources for each sub-topic. You can start by (1) doing a quick online search on the relevant sub-topic, (2) finding a list of books, articles, videos, podcasts, online courses, or reputable websites that cover the sub-topic comprehensively, and then (3) going through the content page of each source to see if they indeed cover what you wish to learn.
- Fill in the outline with high-quality resources that you have picked after completing the above step in the right column.
Example of a Learning Master List
Let’s take parenting as an example:
This is how I create my learning checklist. After making this knowledge framework, I will know clearly the following by looking at just one table:
- The list of topics I need to explore in order to fully grasp all the information I need to reach my learning goals
- The list of books/podcasts/videos/websites that I need to go through in order to complete my learning journey
- My progress in my learning journey (this can be done by ticking off the information I have read after completion)
Putting Your Digital Note-taking System in Good Use
If you do this on your second brain (e.g. Evernote or Notion or any note-taking app that works for you), you can make this even more convenient by linking the relevant source to the relevant note.
For example, I like to start a new note for each book/podcast/video/website, so that I can easily refer to what I have learned and the notes I take for each source. In effect, this learning framework is my master list on the topic.
Here’s my learning master list on Evernote:
Here are some key strategies when making my master list:
- Linking internal notes: Using the Evernote function of linking to internal notes, I make sure to start a new note for every book I read and link these notes to every note.
- Checklist function: I use the checklist function to tick off books that I have already completed
- Naming system: For books that I have read, I will name the note starting with the date of completion (e.g. 2023.08.31 – [Name of the book]).
- Prioritizing information using highlighting and tagging: I go through the content page of each book and find the books that I believe would be most helpful and constructive to my learning goals. For these books, I will highlight them in yellow in the master list and tag the relevant book notes so that I can find out which books I should read next under the tag.
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Step 4: Practice Active Learning and Take Effective Notes
Learning would not be effective if you are just mindlessly going through all the information without intentionally picking up what you need to learn in order to achieve your goals.
Your basis of learning
Your goals formulated in Step 1 form the basis of your learning and the mindset that you have to carry through your learning journey.
Your learning master list which you have created in Step 2 and Step 3 serves as clear and concrete goals which you have to go through.
Steps to Active Learning
With these in mind, you can start engaging with your materials actively.
- Go through the resources in your master list and pinpoint information that is useful for you as you read and learn.
- Highlighting the important information that is relevant to your learning goals and annotating it on your materials.
- Extract your notes into your second brain or notebook.
Effective Note-taking System
The key to note-taking is to always focus on the information that you need. Your notes wouldn’t be helpful if it is a full transcription of the online lecture or long paragraphs extracted from your book.
Intentional reading involves reading with focus, purpose, and active engagement. Taking notes is a good way to start cultivating your intentional reading habits.
Here are the steps on how you can take effective notes:
- Use the content page, headings, and fundamental concepts as a starting point. By skimming these, you will be able to start a skeleton of your notes. For example, I like to list out the key headings of the book in my notes before I start reading.
- Be selective in choosing what information to put in your notes. Part of intentional learning and active reading is to train your ability to focus on capturing the main ideas, key concepts, supporting arguments, and examples that are conducive to your learning goals.
- Use your own words and way of presentation that is most helpful to you. Instead of just extracting quotes or copying directly from your source, try to organize the information and express it in a way that you can easily refer back to later when you need it.
- Organize and highlight information in your notes strategically. Your notes should be your bible. It should be organized the way you want to, and the information you need should stand out to you. Your headings and highlights should reflect what is most important to you which will help you find specific details later on.
An example of how I take notes after reading a chapter on The Montessori Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Nurturing Your Baby with Love, Respect, and Understanding:
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Step 5: Reinforce Your Understanding and Generate Output
Intentional learning would not be effective unless you have digested what you have learned and applied it to your learning goals.
In order to practice and apply the knowledge, you can:
- Use visual aids to present what you have learned, e.g. using PowerPoints, slides, charts, mind maps, diagrams, etc.
- Generate actionable steps and action plans based on what you have read and learned
- Incorporate practice exercises, quizzes, or hands-on activities
- Prepare a list of follow-up questions and supplemental reading to help you solidify the knowledge you have learned
- Engager in conversations where you can discuss with others what you have learned
- Generate output, e.g. by writing blog posts or sharing with other people the key takeaways you have gained throughout your learning process
- Regularly review and revise what you have learned and make connections between different pieces of information
Step 5 is all about putting the things you have learned into use. It is through application and review that you can reinforce the knowledge you have gained and add value to what you have learned. Through application, you will be able to find genuine interest and curiosity for what you are learning, which is crucial to intentional learning.
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All in all, intentional learning should never be painful. Your learning journey should be an enjoyable process for you to acquire new knowledge that is useful for you and the people around you.