Best Books on Learning: Earn Awesome Grades Without the Frustration

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Let me shout at your screen for a sec…

YOU SHOULD READ A BOOK ON LEARNING AT LEAST ONCE IN YOUR LIFE.

It’s non-freakin-negotiable.

Reading one of the best books on learning faster is perhaps one of the best time assets you could make for your career.

After reading one of these books, you’ll be able to get more out of the others.

And once you integrate all their strategies into a single, coherent system, you’ll be able to master hard things quickly—even difficult subjects.

Couple that with the fact that knowledge builds upon prior knowledge, and you have an upward spiral of becoming so good people would think you’ve “always been this smart.” (What an insult, am I right?!)

After reading these books, you will be able to:

  • Learn difficult subjects and/or skills fast—a huge asset in this new economy
  • Understand complex information at a deep level (without needing to read them 3 times)
  • Set yourself up for your dream career
  • Start personal learning projects that accelerate your career
  • Rapidly become more knowledgeable than everyone else

But you don’t need a long-ass list of 50+ books on learning.

Many of them will be redundant. Instead, you want to learn from books that give a different perspective than the others.

That’s the goal of this post.

You’re also going to learn which of them is best for YOU, as well as where to start.

In fact, here’s a shortcut:

The “Shortcut” Approach to these Books and Resources

If you’re in high school or college and just want some actionable strategies that you can implement one-by-one, get How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport.

If you’re a student who wants to know how the brain learns and remembers information and do NOT have any background with effective study strategies, I suggest you start with Learning How to Learn first.

If you only have personal learning projects — for example, learning a new programming language to transition to a new career — then Ultralearning will be your best bet.

And finally, you can learn how to apply all of these books in an integrated way in a email course I made called How to Study Effectively.

Inside, you’ll learn how to understand deeply, guarantee strong retention, and enjoy more free time — using a study workflow. Click the button below to learn more.

Here’s the table of contents for faster navigation:

Contents

Best “Big Win” Books That Will Change How You Think About Learning

If you just think the usual way about your study system, about your biases, about your memory, about “efficiency” — you’re just going to run around in circles.

So if you can take just ONE book from this ENTIRE list, pick one from these big wins. (Unless you’re looking for a shortcut, which I already included above)

For example, in my experience, when Anki users feel like “Anki takes so much time,” they use these strategies:

  • Avoiding to read textbooks or take notes so they can “create more time for Anki”
  • Taking every line from each lecture slide/textbook and make a Cloze/Image Occlusion flashcard for every detail that seems important
  • Looking for the “perfect spaced repetition algorithm” (which doesn’t exist)
  • Obsessing over “ease factors” instead of making the entire study process better
  • Constantly looking for more Anki add-ons

When in reality, they’re just not processing information properly. They’re too stuck in Anki, they think that it’s their WHOLE study system, when in fact, it’s just 1/3 of it.

So it’s a counterintuitive solution that you won’t find without mental models.

With that said, these are (uncommon) books that changed the way I thought about learning forever.

1. Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows

I specifically put this in #1 because if you don’t know how to think in systems, you’ll fall into a lot of thinking traps many students make about studying:

They think that learning effectively means either MORE “hard work” or MORE hacks and tools.

Which just isn’t the case.

Learning effectively means working with the memory’s system!

See the “Multistore Model of Memory” to learn more about this system.

Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win. Having a system is what matters. Committing to the process is what makes the difference.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits

And it’s hard to work with systems if you’ve been using our brain’s “default software” for thinking, which is a linear (rather than nonlinear) way of thinking.

You need to learn the concepts of “bottlenecks, constraints, feedback loops” — I promise they’ll help you see how you learn differently.

And once you learn it, you can’t unsee it.

2. The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker (or Lean Thinking by James P. Womack)

Shows you how you’re not supposed to just make everything faster; it’s only by eliminating waste that you become truly efficient.

For example, when we eliminate “re-studying,” we are effectively removing 30-50% of the wasted time.

Therefore, being able to guarantee your retention is a must. And again…you can only do that if you work with the memory’s system.

3. Antifragile by Nassim Taleb

Mine is an Incerto version and it’s small AF

I’m not yet finished with this thick AF book, but suffice to say that it has already changed how I think about systems (as I mentioned above) and stressors.

For example, that retrieval effort is a necessary stressor for improving your memory.

There has to be the right amount of retrieval effort — and you can manipulate that in two ways:

  1. Improving the “rooting” of each idea you learn, i.e. better processing
  2. Passing time between retrieval instances, i.e. spacing

If you increase this stressor so much, you tend to give up consistent Spaced Repetition.

If you don’t have retrieval effort, then you won’t strengthen your retention as much.

But of course, the benefits in thinking goes WAY beyond learning.

Best Books and Resources That Have Actually Made a Difference to My Learning Workflow

My study workflow (and the one I teach) consists of three sub systems, but let me just separate this into two categories — Processing and Permanence.

My email subscribers will know deeply what these two mean, but at the surface:

  1. Processing is performing the process of Encoding and Storage to turn new information into knowledge
  2. Permanence is simply knowledge maintenance (short-term and long-term) through retrieval

Best in “Processing”

Here I don’t think you’ll find a lot online, mainly because whatever I teach for better processing is based on my own experience and reflection.

For example, in the course, there’s the Bracket Reading Strategy, Bento Box Thinking, and “Scaffolded Memory Techniques”.

So instead of that, here are a few that helped me start.

  • How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport. This was my first exposure to practical study techniques. There isn’t much “scientific evidence,” in case you’re looking for one, but I’d argue that you don’t need to wait for a study to implement something that works. (Hence, the value of street smarts)
  • Art of Memory Wiki. Because of the lack of “retrieval paths,” isolated facts tend to be forgotten quickly. However, as proven by memory champions, we can somehow manipulate this through the process of association. This is where I learned how to do things the “memory champion” way. (And it’s free)

Best in “Permanence”

Not much comments here, because Spaced Repetition and Active Recall are simple ideas to implement effectively. (Implementing them efficiently is a different story…see my post on Using Anki Efficiently)

Instead, the purpose of these articles is to change the way you think about them.

They’re NOT magic pills, and yet when you go on Reddit you’ll see that Active Recall and Spaced Repetition get recommended for EVERYTHING that involves studying. (Not kidding)

Like I said, PROCESSING is important for Active Recall methods to work.

  • Spaced Repetition for Efficient Learning by Gwern.
  • Augmenting Long-Term Memory by Michael Nielsen.
  • How to Write Good Prompts by Andy Matuschak. Question quality is important!
  • Ali Abdaal’s Google Sheets Method. This is perhaps the easiest way to do Active Recall, coming from the guy who popularized the idea. I saw it with my own eyes, too — Ali was just starting out in his channel and I learned about this Google Sheets technique from him because he (apparently) got overwhelmed by Anki cards in Med school.
  • Make it Stick. You can read the summary at the latter parts of the book and “get the juice,” but you’ll appreciate the “study mistakes” more in the chapters themselves.

10 Best Books on Learning that’s Mainstream AF — probably NOT for people who have heard a lot of study advice

Below are books I’ve already read, that aren’t “groundbreaking” but when taken seriously, could give you tremendous results.

Just think about it in terms of book writing, man.

Authors are literally living and breathing versions of their books.

So you’d best bet they’ve simplified what the heck they’re talking about.

I’ll give you a little glimpse of each book, and whom they are best for so you can make a decision on which to purchase.

The list isn’t in any particular order of importance, but if you’re not much of a reader, just read the first two and you’re all good.

Learning How to Learn – Perhaps the most important one in this list

Just recently, I made my little sister read this. It’s specifically made for teens and adolescents, so it’s incredibly easy to understand; the concepts were really easy to visualize.

If you want an all-in-one book that covers learning, productivity, and mindset, then this is the one you should get. In fact, this book will get you really far even if you don’t get the others on this list.

Ultralearning – Get this if you want to accelerate your personal learning projects

INSANELY PRACTICAL. If you’re interested in self-learning, or more appropriately, becoming an autodidact, then you should probably get this book first.

The principles in Ultralearning are quite well-tested in the real world—Scott, the author, used it to learn a whole 4-year CS degree in just 12 months, learn how to draw realistic portraits in just 30 days, and speak different languages in record time. I sure hope I learned about Scott sooner.

It contains the 9 steps you should take to teach yourself any skill or subject you want.

Mindset – The book that makes you realize you can become smart, too

“I’m not smart enough for this.”

“College made me discover just how stupid I am.”

“Maybe I’ve chosen the wrong degree.”

If you’ve ever uttered those words, then this book should help.

Perhaps the best idea that I found in this book is “Effort changes the brain” and it completely turned around how I thought about talent.

Turns out, talent is something you could develop, not something you’re born with.

Dr. Carol Dweck will also persuade you how the smartest kids don’t end up being the smartest adults.

Everything you do is influenced by how you think. Don’t you think a growth mindset will make you grow as a person as well?

Though, I’m of the opinion that if you don’t like to read long-ass experiments or stories so much and would like a variety of new ideas, then do yourself a favor and just watch a book summary. (But make sure to take the idea seriously)

How to Become a Straight-A Student – Perhaps the most specific for excelling in school

Well, here it is again.

I don’t see it as mainstream, though. But the author kinda falls into the category.

(And you can tell I’ve fallen in the “confused” category)

Up to this day — and I’m taking my Master’s degree as of this writing — I still use the principles in this book! Especially the scheduling part.

It’s incredibly actionable and is filled with anecdotes from ACTUAL straight-A students from different universities.

You KNOW it works. It’s not some theory-based book that tells you “Oh, studies show that being sad leads to bad emotional outcomes” — none of that crap. It’s ALL proven and tested.

I might be biased for recommending Cal Newport’s books because he’s one of the guys I really look up to.

Anyway, if you’re a student—whether in high school or in college, this book will give you extremely specific advice on how to learn more while spending less time studying.

The mindset shifts are incredibly valuable, too.

Cramming, trying to do everything, not knowing how to prepare for specific tests—these are some of the problems that this book.

A Mind for Numbers – How to Excel in Math and Science (Even If You’ve Flunked Algebra)

A Mind for Numbers is actually the more “dry” version of Learning How to Learn, but it’s the OG.

It contains a more detailed explanation of the science behind learning techniques presented in Learning How to Learn, so expect it to be a much longer read.

For example, in the book, Dr. Oakley says that thinking too hard for a solution is actually more counterproductive in getting “unstuck” — and calls this phenomenon, Einstellung. This isn’t directly discussed in Learning How to Learn.

But what do you know, she recommends Anki in the middle of the book!

I personally have used Anki to learn information faster and then store them into my long term memory. If you’re interested in using that app, I have a free Anki tutorial here on the blog.

Anyway, if you think you suck at math, you’ll love the book. The author herself flunked Algebra but went on to obtain a doctorate in Engineering. How crazy is that?

It takes more mental effort, and it takes time to get better—but not as much as the ineffective methods for learning we’ve been taught at school.

Similar to Make it Stick, some parts of A Mind for Numbers will debunk the ineffective methods we’ve been told when we were a child.

Brain Rules – For me, it’s like a cheat sheet of learning tips

I found it practical as a set of reminders but for building a strategy? Nope. It’s just a handy book to keep around if you feel like you’re “missing the basics.”

Nothing revolutionary, but is an excellent “stop-and-go” type of book. My opinion, of course.

Deep Work – If you want to realize why you need to learn faster

Deep Work is actually the first book I’ve read on this list.

In the “new economy”, Cal Newport states that the only ones who can thrive are the ones who are able to cultivate the skill of working deeply. And it’s because doing Deep Work allows you to rapidly learn new skills and produce valuable work that is hard to replicate.

If you don’t learn how to cultivate this skill, however, there’s a chance you could get replaced by AI. (Or so it seems)

One example is ad writing.

A hundred years ago, only the best salesmen knew how to write advertisements.

They read all these books, and winning headlines.

But now you can find an AI write a complete sales page for you. It’s supposed to be a “creative” task, and now it’s automated by AI.

In case you didn’t know, the ones who write sales pages are one of the highest-paid writers in the world—they help companies make more money, after all.

Anyway, Deep Work is really a book on productivity, but it just persuades both “heart and mind” that you will WANT to learn faster after reading it.

Essentialism – Makes you realize that you can learn anything, but not everything. And it’s a good thing.

Essentialism is another book on personal productivity that I love(d). Productivity books and learning books really shouldn’t be far from one another because they talk about the topic of cognition.

Anyway, if you feel like you have too much to learn but having too little time, this book will give you a different perspective.

It’s not that you have too little time, but you have too many unnecessary thoughts, decisions, and actions.

Some hard-to-swallow truth pills I’ve learned from this book:

  • If you don’t live by design, you live by default. If you don’t choose the important things to learn first, you’ll end up trying to learn everything.
  • Essentialists can do anything, but not everything. You simply can’t do it all. You’ll get stretched too thin. Using that logic…you can learn anything, but not everything at once.

There are plenty more golden nuggets in the book—so much that I wanted to ingrain the concepts deeply into my life. That resulted in me reading this book at least 3 times.

The Lean Startup – If you’re also the entrepreneurial type who likes to learn, just apply its idea to your own studying

Without feedback, there’s no way to know if you’re learning or not.

This book isn’t actually for learning, though. But I found that the concepts found in The Lean Startup apply perfectly to learning.

For example, the book demonstrates why experimentation and striving to get immediate feedback is far better and leads to less waste than a plethora of business plans.

Applying this concept to learning, the importance of getting feedback on your weaknesses and then improving upon them is invaluable.

Without testing, there’s no way of telling if you’ve actually done a great job.

Just because you had an “aha!” moment does not mean it’s going to do great. That’s what this book made me realize.

And perhaps the greatest idea that I’ve learned from The Lean Startup:

Always try to shorten the time inside your feedback loops to accelerate your learning process.

Again, this isn’t for everyone. I’d say that this book is only for you if you have an entrepreneurial mindset and would want to become a founder in the future—because this book will help you start.

Unlimited Memory by Kevin Horsley – If you’re interested in quick memory techniques

You often encounter useful facts you’d want to remember, but because of them being more isolated than a freaking thermos bottle, you find yourself having a hard time remembering them.

What’s the solution? Memory techniques.

Kevin Horsley discusses how you can access the most practical techniques found in the memory championship world—the same techniques that normal people use to memorize incredible amounts of information at a single glance.

The Memory Palace technique—or what he calls “The Journey Method” in his book, is perhaps the most powerful thing you’re going to learn in this book.

Other books on learning with best reviews online

Full Disclosure: Below are Amazon affiliate links, so if you make a purchase through those links, I get a small commission at no extra cost to you.

I haven’t read these books yet, but they seem to have good reviews online so I thought I should include them just to give you more options.

(As though the above isn’t enough — what are you thinking, anyway???)

I made sure, though, that they were really about learning; how information sticks to our brains or how we can absorb information faster.

Some books here will be for learning skills, and that totally falls in the criterion of learning faster so I included them.

Here are the rest of the popular titles on learning:

  1. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey
  2. The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence by Josh Waitzkin
  3. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler → I’ve actually read this long after I wrote this post, but it’s too dry and you can use a summary from Farnam Street.
  4. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
  5. Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It by Gabriel Wyner
  6. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by K. Anders Ericsson → I just listened to this one, and man, it’s so inspiring.
  7. The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything…Fast by Josh Kaufman
  8. The Talent Code: Unlocking the Secret of Skill in Sports, Art, Music, Math, and Just About Everything Else by Daniel Coyle
  9. The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life by Timothy Ferriss → This is oft cited as a “skill learning book”
  10. Mastery by Robert Greene
  11. Grit by Angela Duckworth

Best Free Resources for Learning How to Learn

I personally went through all of these, and I can attest to the quality of the information in there (especially the Learning How to Learn course).

…and definitely don’t go to my blog if you want free content that you can immediately apply in University. (wink wink)

You now know the best books on learning…but how the heck do you apply everything?

Alright, hold up a sec.

There’s SO much information in here! How the heck are we supposed to put all of these into practice?

After all, information is just a tool for thinking, deciding, and acting better, right??

Not to mention, there’s SO MUCH free information out there yet only a few people seem to get real, permanent results with their study process.

You’re either left hanging with ZERO guidance, or you’re more confused than ever.

How many people you know spend countless hours looking for the latest “best study hack video” that will give them ALL the results without effort…

…yet always end up needing to go back to what they’ve already learned?

Drawing a blank on the exams?

Still not living a well-rounded student life?

That’s because they’re at a point where the only thing holding you back is NOT “more information” but better implementation.

And this is the point where most students are TODAY.

We’re ALREADY DROWNING in information.

It’s time to make a change. So I made a free course just for you.

Discover how to apply the most important points from learning books in a single, coherent process

I want to share with you a free course I made called How to Study Effectively with a Study Workflow.

This free email training reveals the exact process for getting high exam scores repeatedly — without all the frustration.

Because when you have the right process, you’ll be able to work hard AND have the results to show for it.

  • Get on top of class without being a young, beardless hermit with sunken eyes
  • Finally make your grades reflect ALL of your hard work without missing out on your social life
  • Make your parents happy with your grades

I’ll let you discover the rest. 😉