The behaviors and skills of models in many geoscientific domains strongly depend on spatially varying parameters that lack direct observations and must be determined by calibration. Calibration, which solves inverse problems, is a classical but inefficient and stochasticity-ridden approach to reconcile models and observations. Using a widely applied hydrologic model (VIC) and soil moisture observations as a case study, here we propose a novel forward-mapping parameter learning (fPL) framework. Whereas evolutionary algorithm (EA)-based calibration solves inversion problems one by one, fPL learns a more robust, universal mapping. fPL can save orders-of-magnitude computational time compared to EA-based calibration, while, surprisingly, producing equivalent or slightly better ending skill metrics. With more training data, fPL learned across sites and showed super-convergence, scaling much more favorably. Moreover, a more important benefit emerged: fPL produced spatially-coherent parameters in better agreement with physical processes. As a result, it demonstrated better results for out-of-training-set locations and uncalibrated variables. Compared to purely data-driven models, fPL can output unobserved variables, in this case simulated evapotranspiration, which agrees better with satellite-based estimates than the comparison EA. The fPL frameworks can be uniformly applied to myriad other geoscientific models. We contend that a paradigm shift from inverse parameter calibration to parameter learning will greatly propel various geoscientific domains.