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Published on October 21, 2020

4 Reasons Why You May Be a Slow Learner

4 Reasons Why You May Be a Slow Learner

With the current world conditions forcing us to stay longer indoors and alter our routines, you’ve likely tried to pick up a new skill or learn a new subject. If you are not an active learner, you may feel like it’s taking you too long to pick up that new skill or memorize the new knowledge. You might even think that you are a slow learner.

But slow learning often has more to do with our ability to focus, our mindset, and our attitude towards learning than our innate ability to learn.

Let’s take a look at four reasons why you may be learning slowly and what to do about it.

1. Lack of Focus Makes Learning Slow

Focus is key for learning. If you are not paying full attention to what you are trying to learn, it’ll make learning more difficult and slower. So, while you may believe you are a slow learner, you are most likely just a distracted learner.

Once you improve your focus, you’ll be surprised by how much faster you can internalize new knowledge and skills. How can you improve your focus? Here are a few things to help you.

It’s Easier to Focus in a Quiet, Distraction-Free Environment

Have you tried reading an article in a noisy place? Or have you tried reading a book while texting back and forth every few mins? It’s almost impossible to concentrate.

So, the first and simplest strategy to improve your focus is to get rid of as many distractions as possible. Choose a quiet environment to do your learning and make sure you won’t be interrupted.

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It’s Easier to Remain Focused Than to Refocus

Multitasking, as we’ve come to think of it, doesn’t exist. Our brain can’t do two cognitively demanding activities at the same time. What we think is multitasking is most often task switching. We go back and forth between one activity and another.

Some people are better at task switching than others, but overall, task switching is inefficient and makes us lose focus. It takes our mind several minutes to refocus once distracted, especially to refocus on things that demand a lot of mental energy, like learning. Therefore, we are better off avoiding any form of task switching (or even mental wandering) in the first place.

A good way to do this is to block time to learn and make sure to zone out of everything else. Once we schedule a time for something, our mind is free to turn off all the “mental” notifications (“gotta send that email,” “gotta prepare for that meeting tomorrow,” etc.) and let us focus on the task at hand.

It’s Easier to Focus When Our Body and Mind Are Rested and Healthy

Poor nutrition, dehydration, sleep deprivation, and unhealthy habits affect our ability to focus. We tend to attribute our learning capabilities in a given day to our reasoning powers or our memory. But our physiology also plays a major role in learning and internalizing new knowledge and skills.

If you want your brain to focus and be in top condition to learn, you need to keep your body in top condition as well. With a good night’s sleep, improved diet, less alcohol, and better hydration, your brain will reward you with more focus and more effective learning.

2. Mindset and Beliefs Have a Strong Influence on Learning

In the book Mindset: The new psychology of success, world-renowned psychologist Carol Dweck explains the influence our attitude can have on our growth.[1]

People with a fixed mindset—the belief that we are born with attributes that cannot be changed—tend to think in terms of “you either have it or you don’t,” which in turn can create a mental block that hinders their progress.

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But people with a growth mindset—the belief that we can develop and improve our abilities through passion and perseverance (what Psychologist Angela Duckworth calls “grit”[2])—are motivated to stretch their capabilities and work harder to improve.

As Henry Ford once said, “whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.”

And this is true when it comes to learning. If you believe learning myths like “you either have it or you don’t” or “old dogs can’t learn new tricks,” you will create a negative placebo effect (AKA nocebo effect) that can make your learning slower or worse, make you want to quit.

3. Unrealistic Expectations Make Us Believe We Are Slow Learners

Whenever we want to pick up a new skill or learn a new subject, we assume that the learning process will go smoothly. But the reality is that learning is sometimes frustrating, stressful, and slow.

We forget this reality because, as adults, we don’t often get into new fields we know nothing about. You are likely already good at your job and the different things you’ve been doing for a while. So, you probably forgot what it feels to go through the learning process from scratch—and how much time and energy it really takes.

The bigger problem comes when we do not meet our unrealistic expectations of how fast we should be learning, we blame ourselves. We think we are slow learners, that we don’t have any talent, or that we are not as smart.

Our expectations about the learning process and our learning speed are, to a large extent, what makes us feel like slow learners—even if we aren’t.

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So, just as we should be aware of our mindset, we must also keep our expectations in check and make sure we talk to people in the field (teachers, advanced students, etc.) to have a more realistic perspective of the time and energy commitment required to learn what we are going into.

It’s also important to note that learning is a long term process. Some people go faster through the beginning stages but then slow down later on.

For others, it is the opposite: they learn slowly at the beginning stages but faster at intermediate and advanced ones. The point is that a fast or slow start is not a good predictor of your capabilities as a learner.

4. Previous Learning Affects Learning Speed

Who do you think will learn snowboarding faster, someone who is already a good surfer and skater or someone who has never tried board sports?

Previous learning affects how quickly we learn something new. The person who’s already a good surfer and skater has a foundation of board sports to transfer into snowboarding, which will make him learn the new skill faster.

In an oversimplified way, our mind works as a scaffold—everything we have already built serves as a base to build on top. Here’s where comparing ourselves to others can be misleading. We don’t know their background or what they’ve learned in the past.

We may think we are slow learners when we compare ourselves to classmates and colleagues, but they may already have knowledge and skills that allow them to pick up the new learning much quicker.[3] The strategy here to become a faster learner is to never stop learning. The more we learn, the faster we can learn new things.

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Closing Thoughts

For the most part, people are not inherently fast or slow learners. It’s not a matter of their capacity to learn but how efficiently and effectively they use that capacity.

Think of it this way: Imagine you want to move a wheel from point A to point B. But let’s also imagine that instead of rolling the wheel, you lay it on its side and push it. You’ll make the wheel move and take it where you want it to go, but that is not the best way to do it. It will take you more time and effort to get it from point A to point B.

How fast and easily you make the wheel move has everything to do with how you are using it and little to do with the wheel itself.

The same goes for your brain. You may think you are a slow learner, but most likely, you just need to learn how to use your brain more effectively. By improving your focus, mindset, and understanding of the learning process, you’ll realize you are a much faster learner than you thought.

More Tips on Learning Better

Featured photo credit: Kyle Gregory Devaras via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Nick Velasquez

Bestselling author of "Learn, Improve, Master."

6 Science-Backed Tips To Learn How To Learn 4 Reasons Why You May Be a Slow Learner

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Last Updated on November 27, 2020

How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques

How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques

Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes effectively.

I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

And if you focus on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

What to Write Down

Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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1. Dates of Events

Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

2. Names of People

Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

3. Theories or Frameworks

Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

4. Definitions

Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

5. Arguments and Debates

Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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6. Images

Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

7. Other Stuff

Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

8. Your Own Questions

Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

1. Outlining

Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

2. Mind-Mapping

For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

Here’s the idea:

In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

3. The Cornell System

The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.[1]

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About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

The Bottom Line

I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

More Note-Taking Tips

Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Cornell University: The Cornell Note Taking System

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