Small Bites vs. Large Chunks of Learning: Which Is Right For You?


The way I see it, there are two key ways that you can go about learning something new. The first way is pretty popular today, being used in services like Duolingo and Highbrow. It allows you to learn something new in bite-sized pieces, building on each other day after day. The other way is what I like to call "binge-learning". (Yes, I did just make that up, and I absolutely love it.) That's when you sit down with a course or a book and you straight-up learn a new subject or skill in 10 hours on a Saturday. I often end up doing this by accident when I get really excited about a new course or website.

Some of us already know which of these works best for us, but I think it's worth taking a look at each. In fact, I believe that they best way to go about learning is to use a combination of the two. We'll look at the pros and cons, and hopefully by the end, you'll not only know which way is best for you, but you'll know the exact situations in which to use them.

Small Bites: The Pros

As I mentioned, small bites is the popular way to go about learning in today's culture. It allows you to fit learning into your busy schedule more easily. You can learn new vocabulary while you're waiting in line. Or practice coding problems on the train. Or get familiar with a historical figure during your morning coffee. I could go on and on, because of the crazy amounts of learning platforms that work in precisely this manner. And that's great! Don't mistake me, the easier it is to learn something new, the more likely people are to make use of it. We don't all have the time to stay up until 2am learning how to improve a website's SEO (and it's riveting, really). The first great pro is the ease at which it can fit into your schedule and make it a habit. The second big pro is the built-in study habit it promotes. More often than not, at least a minute of that 5 or 10 minutes a day is spent in review of the day before. Not only are you learning something new, you're also solidifying in your brain the material you learned in the last session. Building a habit of keeping your knowledge fresh is key in the learning game.

Small Bites: The Cons

My chief complaint with the small bites approach is that it takes forever to learn anything of real value. When you try to learn Japanese in 5 minutes a day (which I'm currently attempting), it practically takes a month just to figure out how to say hello! Maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but you see where I'm going with this. It's hard to limit yourself to 5 minutes a day when you're excited about the subject. It's also hard to stay excited about the subject if you don't feel like you're getting anywhere with it.

The other con of the small bites approach is how easy it can be to break the habit. Say one day you get busy and forget to do your study for the day. Then you wake up at 12:04 am in a cold sweat, knowing that you just broke your 96-day streak, and now you'll have to start from zero again. Maybe it's just me, but that can be really discouraging, and sometimes can keep me from going back into the habit again.

Large Chunks: The Pros

Possibly one of my favorite feelings in he world is getting so into a new subject that I just forget what time it is. When I was younger, it used to be fiction books, but as I get older, it has turned into biographies and educational websites. I'll discover the site, get signed up, and blow through 20 modules of the course before looking up and realizing that it's dark outside. Even more than that feeling of Christmas-morning-like excitement (I'm a nerd, I know) of discovering something new, is the feeling of accomplishment that comes with acquiring a new skill, or finishing a book about a subject you didn't know anything about before.

Large Chunks: The Cons

The downside of learning like this is that sometimes you can get a little burned out on the subject. Once you spend 10 hours on the same website, you might walk away from it for a couple of days. And then a couple of days turns into a couple of weeks, which rolls into the other con of binge-learning: forgetting it all. If you only spent one day on it, it only ever sat on the surface of your brain, and never really sunk in. So if you walk away from it after that one day, you'll forget most of what you learned, which effectively makes that time a waste.

The Solution

The key to all of these is that you need to know what kind of learner you are. What are your habits? Do you tend to binge on a subject and then walk away from it forever? Do you get discouraged when you break your streak of daily learning? What gets in your way? Once you figure that out, then you can start to combine the two methods in ways that work for you. If you get angry at learning for 5 minutes a day because it takes forever, spend 3 hours with it on a Saturday, and then spend 5 minutes a day with it during the week. If you get burned out on a subject after spending too much time with it, set a timer and force yourself to walk away after 20 minutes. There are almost as many solutions to these kinds of problems as there are jelly bean flavors (that's a TON, if you don't know), and everyone is unique.

What are your learning blocks? Have you figured out a solution to them? I'd love to hear from you, and maybe even help you out! Let me know in the comments below!