It is never too late to learn. Learning new things challenges the brain, revitalizes us and keeps us sharp.
Our brains are lazy by default. They will constantly attempt to automate as many processes as possible, so that it has to work as little as possible. In order to stay mentally fit, we have to challenge the brain and keep it active. Learning is one of the very best ways to do this.
However, we all know that learning can be very difficult at times and that it is easy to forget what we have just been told or read. Therefore, in this blog post, we will summarize the best ways to study based on concrete scientific evidence so you can train yourself to learn better. These tips can improve learning across all ages, whether you are a student at a school or university or simply interested in learning more about a subject on your own.
The process of learning can be divided into two crucial stages. Firstly, you have to actually take in the information – we will call this initial learning. Secondly, you have to review and refresh the information, hard-wiring it in your brain so you can recall it at a later point in time – we will call this long-term learning. You can actively train both stages of learning, thereby training yourself to learn better.
Training Initial Learning
When you attempt to learn something, the first impression is very important for how well the information is coded into your brain. You can train yourself to be more attentive while taking in new information, thereby training yourself to learn better. Make sure there are no distractions around you. Multitasking has been found to be very destructive for the learning process, so keep focused on what you’re attempting to learn. If you catch yourself thinking about something completely different while reading, try to catch up from where you were last focused.
Sleep is Crucial to Learning Well
One of the most important factors for how well you learn is as simple as sleep. Firstly, the amount of sleep you get determines how well you are able to stay attentive and thereby learn efficiently. If you do not sleep, you will not be able to focus while attempting to learn. Secondly, the brain uses the time when you sleep to sort out all the scrambled thoughts and pieces of information that you collected during the day. For that reason, you will often find that you can better remember something the day after you actually learned it.
Relate New Information to What You Already Know
A great way to etch new learning into your brain is to try and relate the new information to something you already know. Memories are often triggered by a context. Therefore, if you can make connections from your current knowledge to your newly acquired knowledge, you will have a much larger chance of being able to recall it.
For example, if you are learning about Winston Churchill, you might connect this new learning to the things you already know about the United Kingdom, the Second World War or the time in which he lived. The next time someone mentions the United Kingdom or indeed the Second World War, you will highly likely be able to remember the thoughts you had about Winston Churchill. Train yourself to learn in this manner whenever you really want to remember a piece of information.
Involve Senses When Learning Something New
You can build on these connections by involving different senses in the memory. For example, instead of just reading about a subject, try talking to a friend or relative about what you have learned. The more interconnection in the brain you can create about a subject, the more likely you will be to remember it later.
Training Long-Term Learning
Once you have created the initial learning memory, the challenge is to make it stick. In a recent analysis conducted by Scientific American, which included material from over 800 studies, psychologists were able to select the very best methods for training yourself to learn long-term, based on currently available scientific evidence.
Review Learning Regularly
The first method for training long-term learning is to review acquired information. A memory will only stay in the brain if it is stimulated repeatedly. Therefore, reviewing acquired learning is the only way to make new learning stay with you for longer periods of time. However, it is very important that you do not cram the reviewing sessions into a short space of time. Instead, you should try to spread them out. If you review what you have learned every day for a week, you will only be able to remember it for a short period of time. If you review once a month for 12 months, you will be able to remember it for a very long period of time, even if you no longer review the information. That way, you will have truly learned something instead of simply memorising it for a couple of weeks.
Quiz Yourself on What You Have Learned
In addition, the analysis by Scientific American found that one of the most effective ways of training yourself to learn is to quiz yourself on the learned information. When you learn something new, write down keywords or questions to the learned information. Then ask yourself questions about the learned information and try to answer them. The quiz doesn’t have to be long and it doesn’t have to look like an actual test. It will still be highly effective in training yourself to learn. It requires very little additional time to do and is therefore very much worth the effort.
In one study quoted in the Scientific American analysis, participants were asked to study Swahili-English word pairs. One group of participants was asked to plainly review the word pairs, while another group was quizzed on the word pairs. The group that reviewed could remember 36 % of the word pairs on average, while the group that had been quizzed could remember a full 80 % of the word pairs on average. The theory is that quizzing yourself activates a mental search which goes through all related information, thereby forming more connections between the memory and already-known knowledge. This process, as we mentioned earlier, makes it much more likely that the memory will be triggered again in the future.
How Not to Train Yourself to Learn
The Scientific American analysis did not just identify the best ways to study, however. It also made surprising discoveries about some of the most popular methods for studying. As such, the analysis found that re-reading texts and highlighting important points were ineffective methods for training to learn information.
Re-Reading Texts is Inefficient
Re-reading texts can be very time-consuming and provides very little depth of knowledge. It has been shown to provide some benefits on fill-in-the-blank tests requiring basic facts, but is not very effective when compared to the previously mentioned methods. Therefore, you would be better off spending your time training to learn in a different way.
Highlighting Important Words is Ineffective
Using a highlighter to mark important words was deemed “ineffective” by the analysis, meaning it had no effect no matter how long the text was or what subject was being taught. One study even suggested that highlighting actually hinders learning, at it draws attention to individual elements of the text and not the context in which the elements should be understood. Highlighting can still be a good tool, for example if you mark keywords to quiz yourself in. But highlighting on its own is not a good use of your time.
Stay Curious, Stay Mentally Fit
We of course hope that you can use these tips to train yourself to learn. Your brain needs a challenge in order to improve and stay fit. Being curious and learning new things will provide such a challenge. In fact, a Canadian study from 2005 found that people who are curious are more likely to stay mentally fit. The study also found that it was never too late to start. So get out there and learn – and remember to use the techniques in this blog post to train yourself to learn.
At Brain+, we want to help your brain stay fit and we encourage you to keep training and to keep learning.