8 Techniques, Proven by Research, to Help You Learn Most Efficiently
From a young age we learn. Rarely, if ever, are we taught how to learn. It seems like such a simple concept that was overlooked at school, a skill that if acquired, could supercharge our learning abilities.
Recently I took a course on Courera.org from the University of San Diageo on ‘Learning How to Learn’. The course has been very interesting and provided a number of strategies on how best to learn effectively and more efficiently.
The final assignment involves: ‘educating others in a significant and meaningful way about at least 3 of the topics covered in this course’. I thought to myself, what better way to do this than writing a blog post.
8 Techniques Proven by Research to Help You Learn Most Efficiently
The following 8 techniques can optimise your learning, allowing you to work more efficiently, spending more time doing the things you love:
Lack of sleep has been proven to cause depression (1), headaches and heart disease. Any of these ailments will hinder your learning (2), however even if you are not affected by them, a lack of sleep will have a detrimental effect on your ability to learn. Sleeping, allows your body to wash away the metabolic toxins in your brain. Without sleep, these toxins remain, making it difficult to concentrate and focus.
Respect what your body is telling you. By pushing through when you are tired, you are not learning effectively. Go to bed, get some sleep and continue studying the next day.
By reviewing material before you fall asleep, it increases the chances that you will dream about the problem you are working on, giving the diffuse (creative) part of the brain, an opportunity to work and form connections. This strengthens areas you may want to remember, as your brain erases the less important memories as you sleep.
Chunking is the mental process of grouping pieces of information together to form an idea. For example when you learn to drive a car there are many learning chunks involved including: the gears, turning the steering wheel, operating cruise control as well many other processes. All these chunks come together to allow us to drive.
Chunking helps your brain run more effectively. Once you are able to chunk an idea, you don’t need to remember all the details, it comes naturally.
The key to chunking is to understand it. Chunks are created in the brain with the use of focused practice and repetition.
Once a chunk is formed it can be interwoven and used in other disciplines and learning. For example, French cuisine has 5 ‘mother sauces’ (3) from which all other sauces can be derived. Once you know how to make these sauces (a chunk) you can apply this knowledge to other sauces with small alterations.
3. Metaphors and Storytelling
Humans naturally have visual minds that respond well to metaphors, that glue ideas into your long term memory. You are much more likely to remember an image you can visualise compared to text in a book.
You can tap into your visual memory by creating a unique and personally meaningful memory which is related to the concept you are trying to learn. This may take a little time to compose, but it will save you time in the future, as you struggle less with remember and learning the concept.
To take visualization further, you can imagine yourself in the metaphor or story.
4. Practise, Practise, Practise…..Over a Number of Days
The key to learning is practice. Practising causes the neurons in our brain to link together to form a memory, enabling us to learn chunks. The key to practising, is to do it deliberately, focusing on areas that you do not know well and breaking up your practising over a number of days.
We are all guilty of procrastination, leaving our study until the last minute, however by practising over a number of days, it is more likely that the memories are solidified over the longer term.
5. Reduce Procrastination
One of the simplest techniques to learn more, is to procrastination less. One technique to overcome procrastination is to use the pomodoro technique. The pomodoro technique involves working in 25 minute, focused blocks. The thought of working for 25 minutes isn’t too bad for most people. I often find that I end up working for longer than 25 minutes when I get in a state of flow. After 25 minutes, you can reward yourself with a 5 minute break, making a coffee or allowing yourself to browse one of your favourite websites. This reward, acts like a hit of dopamine, helping you to continue the war on procrastination. There are a number of apps that you can download to help in using the pomodoro technique, this is one that I use myself.
When you are stressed, angry or afraid, you lose the ability to make connections between the different parts of the brain. This can adversely affect your ability to learn. Meditation and breathing exercises have a physical effect on the mind, allowing you to relax, destress and learn more effectively (4). I meditate for between 30/60 minutes a day, and have found that it my attention and focus have increased dramatically.
Exercise is one of the best things that you can do to help you with learning, according to Dr. Terrence Sejnowski from the University of California (5). By including exercise in your study routine, it allows your brain to disconnect from the focused mode of thinking, resulting in the diffuse mode to be activated. This helps to spark new and creative approaches to ideas and creates connections within the brain.
Recalling what you have studied, is one of the best ways to learn. Recalling, helps to solidify the neural pathways in your brain, as well as helping to highlight your ‘illusions of learning’, something I will talk about below:
5 Illusions of Learning
Our study time can be sabotaged by illusions of learning. Just as Jerry and Elaine from the hit TV show Seinfeld were tricked into thinking a fat free ice cream was healthy, people often do the same with their learning. To make the most efficient use of your time, ensure that you are cognisant of these 4 techniques that can trick us into thinking we are learning:
1. Reading the Material
We often deceive ourselves into thinking we understand something after we have read about it in a book. It can be satisfying to flick through a book and marvel at how much we have read, focusing on the end product of finishing the book, instead of the process of learning. Recalling what you have read not only help you to learn the material but it will also helps to see any blind spots in your learning.
Taking a highlighter to a text book and marking the key points is very satisfying. The fact that your hand is moving over an important section of your textbook, can often give the illusion that we are taking in the information. Again, test your self at the end of each chapter on the things that you have highlighted to make sure that you didn’t blindly highlight without actually learning the material.
When we memorize a fact or an idea, we often think that we know it. However, memorization can fool us into thinking that we actually understand something. The difference between a computer and a human is that a computer can regurgitate facts, however it can not understand like us humans do. Avoid being a brainless computer and instead try to really understand a concept, doing so will help you to not only learn that idea but also interweave it into other areas of your learning.
4. The Einstellung Effect
The Einstellung effect (6) is a form of cognitive bias that results in people using a habitual way of solving a problem despite there being better technique available. If you are an expert in your profession, you can become ingrained into doing things a certain way. When people with new ideas suggest alternative ideas or strategies , you may reject them in favor for what you have always done. By keeping an open mind, you open yourself up to learning more. Be humble, be curious, be kind.
Recalling and teaching others is one of the best ways to learn. Instead of just reading this post, try and recall what you read and pass on what you learned on to a friend or family member. By taking these techniques into account when you learn, it can help you become a more efficient and quicker learner.