Ask HN: I feel incapable of learning

By lethologica - a day ago

Showing first level comment(s)

This is completely anecdotal, however, I find I don't feel like I absorb any information unless I can apply it to something. With more mathematical topics, I need to work through problem sets. With literature/history I need to draw parallels to other events. Figuring out how to put information in context is what helps me retain information. It is a struggle because this requires a lot more time and attention than wrote memorization but as with anything there is trade offs.

jklein11 - 21 hours ago

It is hard to say what is really going on, but I can tell you the best way I've found to remember things. It isn't really easy and I too fall out of the habit, but it should be a goal.

1) Read the chapter before your professor lectures on it.

2) During lecture stay engaged. Ask questions. Expand on things that you were confused about. You're there to learn. The professor is there to teach. You aren't taking up any one else's time. And HAND WRITE NOTES. Don't just copy either, explain, reword. Make it YOURS. This is much easier to do if you aren't seeing the material for the first time.

3) Before you go to bed, reread that chapter/section.

4) A week later reread it again.

5) A month later, again.

By this time it should be in your long term memory (if not before). It is extremely important to be engaged. If you aren't engaged then nothing will stick. You're telling your brain it isn't important. And if you don't have repetition then you're reinforcing this behavior. Studying is a skill, and not an easy one. I've seen a lot of dumb people get high quality degrees and be very successful. The difference is that they have to work a little harder. And don't forget that people frequently under play (and over play) how much studying they do. No one is really honest about it.

godelski - a day ago

No you’re not Dumb.

One of the big harmful failures of mainstream education lies in its framing learning as being successful at said education. Learning as memorizing information which can be tested and measured to meet the needs of the institution. The fact that students need to be forced and threatened in order to go through the process, and that this process kills interest and intrinsic motivation don’t seem to alarm the institutions about their approach, and are accepted as a fact of life.

Similarly, academia seems to try to prepare people for ... academia.

The best advice I’ve heard about college is to focus on creating connections and lasting relationships so you end up having a lot of connections in the industry of your choice. This can be tremendously helpful in highly collaborative professions like filmmaking or software.

As for learning, I invite you to see it as a process of becoming and adapting, not as a process of memorization. Adapting to school and academia (grades, tests, reciting back information) is helpful to the institution but not necessarily for you.

Often the real learning happens on the job, in an apprenticeship context, where you adapt to the job itself. Some career paths, like medicine and law, require unusual amounts of memorization but people who are not this type of learners get weeded out early in the process.

Lastly, I recommend Sir Ken Robibson’s Ted talk on schools and creativity. An eye opener.

andrei_says_ - 19 hours ago

Some good points by others on this post. I want to focus on something more latent. Are you sure there are no other distractions in your life?

Try to find out if there is something deeper than surface level that is bothering you. Such distractions can be of any type: lack of interest in what you do (or rather, the constant desire of doing something else), homesickness, heartbreak, financial hardship, issues with family or friends, etc. If there are any such reasons, you should try addressing them first. Either solve them, or get some help in coping with factors you cannot solve.

aecs99 - a day ago

So distractions, learning disorders, depression, note taking techniques have all been covered already but not interest.

Does the subject matter just bore you? Do you not know why it matters? Do you have only a vague handle on how it fits into the big picture? Does it seem like the subject 'doesn't affect anything?' Perhaps you just need to get excited about learning the subject or have a concrete application of it before you can learn it effectively. I know that subjects in physics which I love (e.g. astronomy and optics) I would just plow through and test well in, but subjects which seemed less interesting to me were a struggle. In some subjects I just needed to know why they mattered, like economics seemed totally boring and irrelevant until right around the 2008 housing crunch and then suddenly I couldn't stop reading and learning about it!

Even if one of the other problems discussed is your primary obstacle it may still help to talk with your Professors and Tutors and see why they are passionate about the subject. Ask them, why does the subject matter? How does it fit into the big picture? What are interesting applications you can inspect, measure, mess around with etc?

nyokodo - 21 hours ago

Based on the problem solving skills demonstrated in your attempt to help yourself learn better, you're definitely not dumb.

I second the note about getting tested for ADHD. Another reason could simply be performance anxiety or imposter syndrome.

Have you tried joining a study group ? If you can find a positive group of people to study with, you might feel less anxious about it.

Perhaps also consider talking to your professors. It sounds like you're trying and they always want to help.

dadoola - 6 hours ago

I was going to suggest the new Learning How to Learn book, but I am not sure how different it is from the online course.

One other book I would suggest is The Evelyn Wood Seven-Day Speed Reading and Learning Program.

tmaly - 19 hours ago

It might be good to get a neurological checkup if your uni has a clinic that could do that or refer you out for one just to rule out anything obvious. On the practical side of things, Cal Newport ( has written extensively on study strategies. Unfortunately he was just a toddler by the time I was in college so I can't directly attest to whether they work but his writing on deep work did resonate well with me.

gcheong - 21 hours ago

> I'll hear numbers and terms and phrases and it kind of feels like they all just "bounce off" of my brain.

I'm not a doctor, but this sounds like ADHD. I have the condition and will barely retain anything if I don't have the treatments for it. You should seek out someone who can test you for this.

dabockster - 17 hours ago

Are you taking notes digitally or on paper? Handwriting notes has been shown to improve recall.

Also, are you getting enough sleep? That can have a major impact on memory.

cimmanom - a day ago