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Learning is a skill that you can master and use to improve every part of your life. We can learn how to learn better, faster, easier and more efficiently and effectively.
When we learn, our brain literally changes. There’s a whole science dedicated to it called neuroplasticity.
There’s also science and studies dedicated to how we learn. I’ve gone through Dr. Barbara Oakley’s popular course, Learning How to Learn as well as many other resources with extensive fact-based research on learning.
The following tips, techniques and methods will help you learn better, easier, and faster. Learn how to learn with more efficiency and effectiveness.
1. Have the right attitude and mindset
It is very possible to change and become skilled in areas that you don’t think you do very well in. If you only work on and follow what you are already good at and what comes easily for you, you are severely limiting yourself.
It’s important to be kind, compassionate and patient with yourself. You’re going to make mistakes. But not only that. You want to make mistakes. It’s how you learn.
If it’s something that you don’t necessarily like or it doesn’t interest you that much so it leads you to procrastinate, the discomfort eventually goes away when you start.
Having the right mindset is what separates those who succeed and those who don’t. Those who try and don’t let mistakes or failure set them back.
Not intelligence. Not being naturally gifted. Not luck. But the mindset and attitude to make it happen.
If you don’t believe in yourself, if you don’t think you will succeed in learning a new skill or subject, you won’t.
The best thing you can do for your brain is exercise. Studies show that getting your heart pumping enhances learning ability.
During the learning process, your brain creates new neurons. Exercise helps new neurons survive. Exercise is more effective than any drug available in helping you learn better.
Exercise is important for overall brain health as well. There are numerous studies on the beneficial effects of exercise on our entire being.
3. Get enough sleep
Sleep can seem like such a waste of time, especially when you’re trying to learn as much as you can in a limited time.
Your brain doesn’t operate to its full potential when you have lack of sleep. Interestingly, the longer we stay awake, the brain starts to form toxins in the brain. When we sleep, our brain gets rid of poison and toxins.
Our brain is not the same when we wake up after a night’s sleep or even a nap. Sleep upgrades it, literally.
So if you’re trying to learn, study or take a test on what you’ve been learning with too little sleep, you’re actually trying to do these things with toxins in your brain which makes it harder to think clearly.
But sleep doesn’t just eliminate toxins in your brain. It’s actually a crucial part of the learning and memory process. When you sleep, what you’ve been learning and what your brain deems important, cements itself.
Your brain also solves problems for you while you sleep.
4. Eat well
How and what you eat significantly affects your brain and mental health.
Food is fuel for your brain and body. You’re not going to perform well or think clearly when you haven’t been eating well. The right food and eating habits will give you energy and mental clarity for high performance.
Memory championships, brain experts and psychologist recommend getting your omega 3 intake whether it be through fish oil pills or eating foods that are rich in it, like fish.
5. Ask questions
Asking questions shows curiosity and interest.
This is especially helpful if it’s something that seems boring or not that interesting. It tricks your brain into thinking it’s interesting or at least important.
Show curiosity by asking yourself questions. Try to focus on asking questions that interest you, but are still important to the material you’re trying to learn.
Asking questions helps you focus on what’s interesting to you and it can help delve into a more interesting discussion than the lecture you’re listening to or the text you’re reading.
6. Make it fun
So aside from asking questions, do things that will make the material you are learning more interesting.
You can do this by making it fun. Have fun with what you’re learning in whatever way you can think of or look up.
You can also make it a challenge and get excited about it. The challenge itself can be fascinating or excited.
7. Don’t just show up – participate and engage
You learn more by active engagement than by passive listening.
You learn better by actually doing and practicing than by just reviewing, reading, watching, or listening.
This is even if you think you’re learning during this passive learning. The brain tricks you into thinking that you know and understand because it’s right in front of you. This is called illusions of competence.
You want to involve yourself in work and actually do it. Work through it yourself. See if you can recall it. Experiment. Practice it without help.
This may seem obvious, but in reality, many of us do the opposite.
We’ll study for a test by reading our notes and going over problems that have already been worked through instead of testing ourselves or actually working through practice problems without answers.
Or we’ll read a book or listen to a lecture and consider ourselves to have learned what we read or listened to when a few months or a year from now we’ll barely remember what we “learned.”
8. Take your time and be patient
Learning takes time. It doesn’t happen instantly. It’s important to have patience with mastering a skill. Learning takes consistent and deliberate practice over time.
This is why you should never try to cram material or try to learn a lot in one sitting. It may stay with you for a day or two, but it’s less likely to actually stick with you in the long term.
It’s like going to the gym. You wouldn’t expect to get fit and make gains just from going to the gym once and working out really hard for a long time. You have to go to the gym consistently over time to see results.
The same applies for learning. This is why cramming is ineffective.
It takes times to assimilate new knowledge. There will be times when what made sense before can suddenly become confusing.
This is completely normal and all it means is that your brain is restructuring its understanding of the new knowledge and building a more solid foundation.
You’ll find that after these moments of temporary confusion, your understanding will have a surprising growth spurt.
9. Take breaks often
Since you want to take your time with learning, it’s important to take breaks often. Taking breaks helps to keep your focus sharp since humans are not capable of staying highly focused for long periods of time.
To take breaks, it’s helpful to use the pomodoro technique. This actually doesn’t just help with procrastination, productivity, and focus, but it also helps with learning and understanding better and often.
Set a timer for 25 minutes to learn or study. Then take a break for 5 minutes
Learning by trying to cram material will become all jumbled in your brain. It will create a very poor foundation. It’s likely to get confusing and likely to only be temporary information in your memory so you’re less likely to remember in the long term.
10. Spaced repetitions
If you repeat what you’re learning and trying to remember in one sitting, it won’t last. It’ll stay in your working memory for a limited time, but it won’t last. You want to move it from your working memory to your long-term memory.
You can do this by extending your practice, studying or learning over several days. You’ll learn better taking 10 minutes a day over the course of a few days than one hour in just one day.
11. Learn socially
Learning with another person or a group can really help you catch things that you would’ve otherwise missed. It can deepen your understanding of the material that you’re learning.
One study found that rats with an enriched environment, meaning they had other rats to interact with and things to do, learned better.
There’s this myth of the isolated genius. You actually learn and think better when you have people around you. Another reason you learn better socially is because you have others to share and bounce ideas off of.
12. Take time to relax
Continuing to try and try harder without taking a break can make it more difficult to learn and solve problems.
When you’re stressed, it becomes harder for your brain to make connections and think clearly, especially learning and holding onto information. Your brain doesn’t work right when you’re angry, afraid, or stressed.
13. Use different learning modes
When people think about learning, they usually think that learning is intense focus, but that’s just one mode of learning.
What few people know is that there are actually two different types of learning modes: focused mode and diffuse mode.
We’re most familiar with focused mode which is when you focus intensely on something you’re trying to learn or understand.
The second mode of learning is the diffuse mode and is just as important to learning as the focused mode, but few people intentionally use it.
The diffuse mode is a relaxed thinking style where you broadly look at things from a different, bigger picture perspective and your thoughts are free to wander. This is more related to a set of neural resting stages.
To learn with the diffuse mode, go for a walk, engage in a mindless activity like watching cartoons, take a bath or shower, or sleep on it. Think about what you’re learning while you’re more relaxed and be open and free with your thoughts.
14. Use metaphors and analogies
Never underestimate the power of metaphors and analogies.
Metaphor and analogies help you to understand and really grasp things by turning abstract concepts into concrete things.
For example, the analogy I used earlier in the article that learning is like weight lifting. It takes time to learn something as well as consistency, just like a weightlifter building muscle.
This analogy that learning is like weight lifting turns learning, an abstract concept into weight lifting, something concrete which you can actually visualize.
15. Seek examples and stories
Having examples and stories is why I believe books are so valuable. Yes, big ideas are important, but what good are they if they don’t stick?
I love podcasts, blogs, articles and videos because they introduce me to concepts and big idea, most of them being from books.
I love books because they help me to truly understand and grasp the concepts.
There is usually many examples and stories behind every idea that can truly allow those concepts and ideas to not just make sense, but to actually stick and deeply understand the how’s and why’s.
Examples not only help us understand, they help us remember and make the ideas stick.
You often get the “aha” feelings from examples and stories or the “ohhh” of truly grasping and deeply understanding.
Stories and visualization used with metaphors are even more helpful.
As strange as it sounds, the more sexual, violent, or weird the metaphors, analogies, examples or stories you use are, the better. The brain is hardwired to remember things that are violent, sexual or weird.
16. Open your mind, look at things with a different set of eyes, Change your perspective
When learning, it’s important to keep an open mind and stay curious. This allows us to not only learn, but to understand what we’re learning.
Two people could be learning the same exact thing, but learn it and understand it in completely different ways because of their different perspectives.
This also allows you to become creative with what you’re learning and possibly develop ideas.
17. Make it visual
Whenever I finish reading a book, I like to watch a video summary after it. These videos often have illustrations of the concepts and big ideas from the book which helps to really make the ideas stick and sink in.
This ties into the analogies and examples tip. The better you can visualize and see it, the easier you can learn it. And remember, the more sexual, violent, and weird you can make it, the better.
18. Write and take notes
Writing is much more likely to stick to memory than just listening. This is especially true if you write down what you learn in your own words or summarize what you learn.
Writing helps you organize your thoughts and what you’ve learned. It also tells your brain that it’s important and should be remembered when you write it down.
It also helps for clarity and clearing your brain if you do sort of like a “brain dump” of what you’ve learned. You don’t risk forgetting something you’ve learned for good if you can always go back to your notes.
19. Use different sources & methods
There have been many times where I’m trying to learn something in class from a teacher and I’m having trouble understanding it.
And then I go on YouTube and watch a video of the same thing and it’s so much easier to understand and learn the material or concept. Or I have a different teacher that covers the same thing and they teach it in a completely different way that is much more helpful and easier.
Sometimes all it takes to really finally grasp something is a different perspective or a different teacher or way of learning.
20. Test and recall
Testing and recalling is something that is extremely important in learning and making the material stick in the long-term.
It’s very easy to think and trick ourselves that what we’ve learned and know something when we’re reviewing it and it’s right in front of us.
Test and recall doesn’t just help you test yourself and find out what you know and don’t know, it actually helps the learning process.
What it does is it tells your brain that this information is important and should be remembered.
You’re more likely to learn something faster and for the long-term if you use test and recall.
21. Schedule time to learn
Scheduling time to learn makes you intentional and proactive about your learning. It also helps with productivity.
If what you’re learning is truly important to you, for whatever reason, you will make time for it.
And it is so much easier and better to make time for something when you actually schedule it and put it in your calendar.
Make it a priority in your life by scheduling your learning and studying time.
Just make sure you’re following your calendar and actually sticking through with the commitments and plans you make with yourself!
22. Don’t multitask
You might think that multitasking is possible or that maybe you’re even good at multitasking, but it’s literally impossible for our brain to multitask. Of course, it’s possible for you to do multiple things as once, but our brain is always focused on thing at a time.
What happens when we multitask is that our brain just switches focus rapidly which leads to lower levels of focus and energy spent switching and refocusing. This makes it harder for us to actually learn.
23. Keep distractions to a minimum
This might seem self-evident, but it’s important to note.
Focus is essential to learning.
Did you know that even just having your phone in the same room as you, even if you’re not using it, decreases productivity?
Instead of trying to have self-control and resist temptations of distractions, why not make life easier for yourself by reducing distractions ahead of time?
Minimize distractions by:
- Making your environment quiet or going to a library or coffee shop
- Letting people know ahead of time that you will busy and don’t want to be disturbed
- Keeping your phone in another room
- Turning your phone off
- Turning airplane mode on
- Turning on the Do Not Disturb feature
- Turning off notifications
- Doing a brain dump beforehand
- Closing out of all other distracting tabs
- Turning on app or website restrictions
- Using software that limits or tracks your screen time
- Not having music or tv on in the background
- Keeping as much noise to a minimum as possible
24. Deliberate practice – focus on what’s more difficult
Focusing on material you find more difficult is called deliberate practice.
When you only focus on what’s easy, it becomes likely that you will fall into illusion of competence which makes you feel as know you know the material when you just only know the easy stuff.
Deliberate practice helps you to truly master material rather than just gain basic knowledge of it.
25. Go over what you learn before you take a nap or go to sleep during the evening
Going over what you learn before you sleep can actually help you learn. It stays at the forefront of your mind before sleep so your brain is more likely to get to work on what you learned. You’re also more likely to remember what you focus on before sleep.
This is especially helpful if you’re working through a problem and trying to figure something out. Your brain can actually solve problems for you in your sleep.
Set the purpose in mind that you want to dream about the material. Or that you want to solve and figure out the problem or what you’re trying to learn.
26. Don’t forget about unlearning
When learning, it’s especially important to unlearn as well. Certain ways of thinking and beliefs can hold us back from learning and understanding something new.
It’s important to realize that everything that we’ve learned may one day not be true. Knowledge and science evolves.
Most of science discoveries and advancements are made possible because of things being disproved. If scientists never unlearned anything, we would barely have any advancement.
This is also why it’s so easy and fast for children to learn because they don’t have much to unlearn and when they do have to unlearn, they are quick to do so.
27. Seek new experiences
Having new experiences can help you learn by helping you make connections to the real world. This can help with creating examples and analogies.
Expanding your worldview, experiences and environment helps with the learning process as well. It’s harder to learn when there is too much isolation or all learning only takes place in one location. It can even become hard to remember what was learned outside of that location.
28. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes
Making mistakes is a big part of the learning process.
Expect to make mistakes. Expect to not be great at it in the beginning (because no one is). Expect to “fail.”
And be okay with it.
If you’re too afraid of making mistakes or failing or sucking at something, it’s going to be a lot harder to actually learn and become good at what you’re learning.