4 Tricks Students can Learn from Startups

The Lean Startup movement, which emphasizes rapid iteration and prototyping, is based upon learning theory

Lean Startup methodology is now widely applied across Silicon Valley and around the world. It encourages businesses to use language like “what are our learnings?” when discussing their operations. Some of the strategies which startups have adapted from learning theory are very creative. In this post, we’ll consider how these startup strategies can be migrated back into the field of learning, and what we can learn from startups.



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1. Fail Fast

There’s something very, very important that many people forget when learning:

You don’t get better by succeeding. Growth comes from failure.

Success feels good. Getting an easy question right or playing a simple song on the guitar can be great for motivation, but it doesn’t actually help you much. Another way to look at this is that learning is actually the process of correcting mistakes. So if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning.

What’s more, the faster you make and correct mistakes, the faster you’ll learn. This is why the perfect practice plan includes a “breakdown” section where you focus on deconstructing something difficult.

2. The MVP

The idea of the “minimum viable product” is to get something out there and see if people like it.

It’s designed to avoid perfectionism. The key insight is that spending years creating the “perfect” product actually leads to failure. It’s generally much better to try iterate than to create one, final version. The same is true of learning: it is better to just give it a shot and then correct.

When learning a foreign language, just get speaking. When learning the guitar, just get playing. When studying something academic, start with pretesting. These are the MVP “just get going” solutions to learning that improve effectiveness.

3. Key Performance Indicators

Startups use Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs, to keep track of their progress.

The idea is to keep focused on the few numbers that really mean something. Instead of letting yourself be swayed by the day-to-day ups-and-downs of building and learning, you track a few things which you’re interested in over time. This is the basis of using goals to improve learning.

4. Blameless Postmortems

When something doesn’t work the way you expected, it is important to reflect and understand why.

A “postmortem” is a tool used by engineers at many startups. The idea is that when something goes wrong, the reasons are investigated and documented for others to learn from. The process is blameless. It’s not about pointing fingers. It’s about objectively understanding where things went wrong and making sure it doesn’t happen again.

This is the element of metacognition necessary for deliberate practice. The reflection has to happen free of judgement, so you can simply assess what was done well and what went wrong.


Startups have learned to systematize the process of learning across an entire organization. Some of their tricks can usefully be ported over to students who want to learn more effectively.

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