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Published on March 11, 2019

7 Most Important Cognitive Skills for Fast and Successful Learning

7 Most Important Cognitive Skills for Fast and Successful Learning

One of the biggest problems with the traditional education model is it works on the premise that one size fits all. As we now know, a one size fits all does not work well in a universal education system.[1] Everybody learns differently.

At the basic level, there are 4 learning types: visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinaesthetic and each of us are dominant in one or more of these types.

  • Visual learners learn better in an environment where there are a lot of visual stimuli. These people often have what is commonly called “photographic memories” where they see an image or a page of text and from the visual cues memorise whatever it is they see.
  • Auditory learners learn best when they can hear and listen to the subject they are learning. These people thrive in lecture halls, using podcasts and audiobooks.
  • Reading/writing learners find reading and writing out what they learn a better way to learn.
  • Kinaesthetic learners need to be doing. Tell teaching or textbooks do not stimulate their brain’s learning centres, instead, they need to be doing whatever they are learning. These people do well in school science labs or in the art or woodwork rooms. Here they can practice what they learn in real time.

However, on top of these basic learning types, there are also cognitive skills which are related to the way our brain processes information. There are 5 primary cognitive skills: reading, learning, remembering, logical reasoning, and paying attention. Each of these can be utilized in a way that helps us become better at learning new skills and developing ourselves.

Understanding where we are strong and where we are weak helps us improve what we learn and how we learn. For example, most people find that when they learn something new at a workshop and don’t apply that learning to a real situation soon after the workshop, whatever they learned is soon forgotten. This is part of the cognitive skill of remembering and being able to translate what you learned to a practical situation (logical reasoning).

One of the advantages we have over our ancestors is the almost limitless access we have to free education. Websites such as ted.com, YouTube and millions of web pages on Google give us limitless possibilities. You can learn anything from how to polish shoes and tidy your house to quantum physics, and applied mathematics.

No matter what it is you want to learn, you can learn it. However, with those almost limitless possibilities, you will not learn anything effectively unless you know and understand what kind of learner you are.

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So, to help you become more effective at learning, here are 5 ways you can use your natural learning type with cognitive skills:

1. Discover Your Dominant Learning Style

This will appear obvious once you start to think about the way you naturally learn.

For example, whenever I want to learn something new, I will begin on YouTube. I am a very visual person and I need to see how to do something.

Recently, I have been learning how to fold clothes the Marie Kondo way. I regularly have an item of clothing on the table and Marie Kondo on YouTube ‘showing’ me how to fold. What I am doing is taking my naturally dominant visual and kinaesthetic learning style and applying the cognitive skill of logical reasoning to learn the best method for folding clothes.

A two-minute video of Marie Condo folding a tee-shirt while I am following the instructions ensures I am internalizing and applying the correct method to fold a tee-shirt.

2. Experiment with Different Channels of Learning

If you are not sure what kind of learner you are, then experiment.

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Take a subject you want to learn and start off by reading around the subject. Then watch a video or lecture on the subject. After that, apply the knowledge you have learned.

For example, if you were to improve your presentation skills, you could do a simple Google search for an article about the top ten ways to improve your presentation skills, read that, and then do a similar search on YouTube. After you have read the article and watched the video, apply your new knowledge to your next presentation. That way you reinforce the knowledge you learned and internalise your new skill and you also discover which learning points you remembered more readily.

3. Practice Focused Work

One of the weakest cognitive skills for most people is the ability to pay attention. In a world where we are being distracted and interrupted multiple times a day, it is very difficult to stay focused on what we need to stay focused on. Teaching ourselves to be comfortable with our phones turned off and all the notification on our computers off is one of the best ways to strengthen your attention skills.

You do not have to go all day with your phone and notifications off. All you need do is turn everything off for set periods of time each day. Likewise, if you are in a meeting or training course, turn off your phone completely while you are in a session. These days, facilitators understand the need for people to be in contact with the outside world so there are regular breaks for you to catch up with messages and important emails.

Learn more about practicing focused work in this article:

17 Ways Deep Work Will Help Wipe Out Modern Distractions and Refocus

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4. Seek as Many Different Ways You Can to Take Advantage of Your Preferred Learning Style

To help reinforce your new knowledge, do not rely on just one way to practice your new skill.

For example, if you have spent some time learning how to write better emails, then apply your new learning by writing a journal, or writing a blog. Both a journal and a blog do not have to be published, you can keep them private. What you are doing is applying your new writing skills in a variety of different ways which strengthens your brain’s capacity for flexibility and allows for a larger scope where your new skills can be applied.

5. Reinforce Your Knowledge by Reviewing What You Learned in Your Less Dominant Learning Style

While we all have a preferred learning style, it is wise to review your new skills in a different way. If you are a visual person and you have devoured every chart, image and infographic you can about your new skill, then find a written article or book on the subject and read that.

The more ways you study your new skill, the faster you internalize the skill itself. Doing this helps your brain to ‘fill in the missing gaps’ of what you have learned and strengthens your knowledge.

While our dominant learning style will always be the best way to learn, we still need our less dominant way of learning to help with the retention and deeper learning required to really master a skill.

6. Apply Your New Knowledge in a Practical Way

This works on the principle that if you don’t use it, you lose it.

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Think back to your foreign language classes at school. Most people very quickly forget the new language if they do not use it consistently after they have learnt it. Even with your native language, you might learn a new word or phrase, but if you never find a need to use that word, you soon find you cannot remember it.

Our brain’s neurones need regular exercise. Without it, like a muscle, they shrivel and die.

7. Use Your New Skill as Quickly as Possible

Imagine you were to attend a sales training workshop. On day one, you learn about meet and greet and asking questions. At the end of that first day, practice what you learned. On the way home, start a conversation with a stranger on the bus or train. Alternatively, if you call at the supermarket on your way home, talk to the cashier and practice asking them questions.

The important part of doing this is you are strengthening the learning process. What your brain has now done is taken something you learned in theory and applied that to a real situation in a practical way. You can adjust the theory to fit better with your personality and very quickly asking questions becomes almost natural.

This strategy works with almost any new skill you learn. When I learned to drive a car, my instructor taught me to hold the steering wheel at the ten minutes to two position. I found that position uncomfortable and after passing the test, I found myself more comfortable holding the steering wheel at fifteen minutes to three. Much more comfortable for me. Changing the way I hold the steering wheel does not prevent me from driving in the correct, but it just works better for me.

The Bottom Line

When you apply the science of learning to the skills you want to learn, you increase the chances of succeeding at learning. It also speeds up the learning process as you are naturally developing the parts of your brain that learn the fastest.

Over time as your skills grow, you can deepen the learning by reviewing different ways of developing the skill.

More Resources About Effective Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?

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Carl Pullein

Dedicated to helping people to achieve their maximum potential through better time management and productivity.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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