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Seven brain hacks to learn faster

Old dogs, new tricks

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Whilst, that may or may not be true – it’s totally irrelevant to humans. We certainly can learn new tricks throughout life. Yes, kids seem to learn new information more quickly than adults but we have to remember that children spend all day learning new things. Mastery of new skills is largely a function of how much time we spend, each day, trying to pick up new tricks. By challenging your brain regularly to learn, it will re-learn the mode that makes absorbing information happen more efficiently. So, your brain actually pumps resources into rewiring the pathways to make learning happen more rapidly. Quite simply – invest in learning and you will see high returns.

Pretend to teach

According to a study conducted by Washington University, St. Louis the expectation that you will teach as opposed to just learn changes your learning approach so that you engage in more effective learning approaches.  John Nestojko, a postdoctoral researcher in phycology and co-author of the study states that “when teachers prepare to teach they seek out key points and organize information into a coherent structure,” Nestojko writes. “Our results suggest that students also turn to these types of effective learning strategies when they expect to teach.”

Use a pen and paper

Laptops may be more efficient at recording information but they are generally very inefficient devices to use if you wish to understand the subject matter at hand. In three studies researchers at Princeton University and UCLA. found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions in comparison to students who took notes longhand. Co-author and Princeton University psychology professor Pam Mueller states “We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.” When students took notes by hand, they listened more actively and as such were able to identify important concepts in comparison to those who transcribed on laptops.

The power of imagination

Numerous experiments have been carried out over the years with people practising new skills, varying from sports to playing musical instruments. What has become apparent, is that whether or not someone physically practises a skill or instead they vividly picture doing it – after  a few days, marked changes occur in the brain. Incredibly, changes in those who had only imagined practicing were almost as significant as those who had practiced for real!

Water the lawn

Benedict Carey, author of How we learn: The surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens is an advocate for – practice distributed learning. Carey uses the analogy of watering a lawn to describe this learning process. “You can water a once a week for 90 minutes or three times a week for 30 minutes,” he said. “Spacing out the watering during the week will keep the lawn greener over time.” To retain material, Carey suggests – it’s best to review the information one to two days after initially studying it, as repeating the information sends a stronger signal to the brain that it needs to retain the knowledge.

Study naps

According to a new study published in Psychological Science, sleeping in between study sessions can boost your recall up to six months later.

In an experiments carried out in at the University of Lyon, France participants were taught the Swahili translation for 16 French words during one morning and one evening translation session. Participants were divided in half with one group being allowed to sleep between their morning and evening translation session. On average, the group that slept recalled 10 of the 16 words, whilst those who hadn’t slept recalled only 7.5 words. Scientist Stephanie Mazza of the University of Lyon comments “Previous research suggested that sleeping after learning is definitely a good strategy, but now we show that sleeping between two learning sessions greatly improves such a strategy.”

Treat studying like a workout

If we exercise the same muscle groups everyday we see far less results than if we focus on different exercise regimes throughout the week. A new study conducted by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that participants who practiced a slightly modified version of the task they were attempting to master during the learning process, increased their retention in comparison to participants who repeated the same learning method. Pablo A. Celnik, suggests that “if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually lean more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row”.

Study interval training

Experts at the Louisiana State University’s Center for Academic Success suggest dedicating 30-50 minutes to learning new material. “Anything less than 30 is just not enough, but anything more than 50 is too much information for your brain to take in at one time.” It is advised that between these intervals you take five to ten minutes breaks before you start your next session, this allows your brain to approach the next interval feeling refreshed.

For more information on this check out Fast Company’s useful blog on faster ways to learn anything and Dr Jack Lewis & Adrian Webster’s book on the intricacies of the human brain – Sort Your Brain Out.