Advertising
Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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

Trending in Learning

1 7 Reasons You Won’t Start Studying Until It’s Too Late, And What To Do About It 2 10 Methods To Acquire Knowledge Effectively 3 The 10 Best Online Dictionaries 4 The SQ3R Method: How It Maximizes Your Learning Comprehension 5 9 Effective Reading Strategies For Quick Comprehension

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on February 11, 2021

7 Reasons You Won’t Start Studying Until It’s Too Late, And What To Do About It

7 Reasons You Won’t Start Studying Until It’s Too Late, And What To Do About It

For most of us, the experience of studying for an exam can be captured in one word: panic. You’ve got 18 hours, exhausted, and sitting there staring at an equations sheet full of gibberish. Why? Why didn’t I start earlier?

Believe it or not, there are forces acting against you, pulling you away from starting early enough so that you can comfortably learn new material. Here are 7 of the most insidious reasons why you don’t start early, and what you can do about it.

1. You’re anticipating hard work

Procrastination is generally viewed as this guilt-ridden character defect shared almost universally by all students. The problem is, this is exactly what we should expect to happen from an evolutionary perspective.

Humans are known to be cognitive misers:[1] we conserve mental resources whenever possible, especially when facing tasks not viewed as “essential to our survival.”

In other words, we put off studying until the last minute because (1) we know the work is hard and will require a lot of mental energy, and (2) until there’s the threat of actually failing the exam (and therefore potentially being humiliated publicly) we’re not in enough emotional pain to motivate us to start studying.

Additionally, when your brain anticipates multiple outcomes that are all viewed as “painful” (the pain of studying vs. the pain of failing out of college) you become immobilized, unable to choose the lesser of two evils, and push off the work even further.

Schedule in time for yourself first and then fill in the gaps with study time.

As Niel Fiore discusses in bestselling classic, The Now Habit, part of the reason you procrastinate is because you see no end in site.

Think of the difference between a 100 yard dash and a marathon. In the first case you’re able to give maximum effort because you can see the finish line and know it will be over soon. The marathon runner is not so lucky. They know there’s a long road ahead filled with pain and exhaustion, and subconsciously conserve their effort to ensure they can make it through all 26.2 miles.

This is all to say, if you know you get to go hang out in your buddy’s dorm room and goof off for an hour after you study, you’re much more likely to want to invest that energy.

As a side benefit, you end up taking advantage of Parkinson’s Law. Because your work expands to fill the time allotted, by scheduling less time for studying, you actually become more productive and focused.

Advertising

2. You’re sleep deprived

Who in college isn’t pounding the caffeine?

Students who force themselves through weeks upon weeks of 4-6 hour sleep nights, are significantly deteriorating two aspects of their mental performance critical to studying for exams: motivation and vigilance.

Studies show that poor sleep negatively impacts motivation.[2] But really, no one needs a study to tell them how much worse your outlook on life is when you’re low on sleep.

And vigilance,[3]the ability to maintain concentrated attention over prolonged periods of time, is also significantly reduced during a period of either acute (staying up all night studying), or chronic (cutting sleep short for multiple days) sleep deprivation.[4]

Set yourself an end-of-the-day alarm.

Yes, studying more consistently for shorter chunks will allow you to spread it over a longer period of time; therefore, preventing the need to deprive yourself of sleep just to get your coursework done. But really, it’s a psychological issue.

There are a million things we’d rather stay up and do, than go right to bed after a full day of classes, only to have to get up and do the same thing over again. This is a chicken/egg problem: if I don’t get sleep I procrastinate studying, but if I go to bed I’ll just have to get up and study. Again, lose-lose. We need to break the cycle.

Set yourself an alarm. But not in the morning. Set your alarm for 45 minutes before when you should get to sleep and allow yourself to sleep for a full 8 hours. If you adhere to that you’ll be surprised how many hours of free time seem to materialize.

Study time + free time + sleep = happy and successful students.

3. You have a false sense of security

You may think you’re being a diligent student, sitting there in the lecture, listening intently, copying down page after page of notes from the professor. You might even be following along and raise your hand here and there. But there’s a big difference between feeling like you understand something, and actually being able to reproduce it on a test.

This is what we call passive learning, and it’s the best way to ensure that you’ll spend a lot of time and effort trying to learn new material, without actually being able to retain any of it.

Advertising

Quiz yourself.

Don’t be fooled by your professor’s overly logical explanations. This dude already knows the material, so it’s easy for him to explain it in a way that others find understandable. The real challenge is whether or not you can do the same.

If you’re wondering if you actually understand something, quiz yourself. Or better yet, explain it to someone (or yourself, but be warned: people tend to stare).

As Einstein liked to say, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

By routinely quizzing yourself, you’ll get a dose of reality of whether you actually know the material or not, instead of what most students do: assume they know it until the night before the test, when they proceed to freak out because they can’t do any of the practice problems.

4. Not all study time is created equal

Fact: seven hours of studying over 7 days is much more effective (more learning per time spent) for understanding new material than 7 hours of studying in one chunk. This is especially true for technical courses with new jargon you have to internalize.

Chunk your study time.

The brain uses a ton of energy (20% of our resting metabolic rate), and there’s only so much you can expend per day. To maximize your retention of new material, you want to take advantage of both active learning and recovery.

Because the brain consolidates new neural pathways during sleep, particularly during REM sleep, the more sleep cycles you intersperse between your study hours, the more likely it is that you will retain the material and be able to whip it out on test day.

This also allows you to take advantage of spaced repetition. Instead of having to constantly review your material to keep it in the forefront of your memory, you can follow a cycle of ever-increasing time intervals between review sessions (the “forgetting curve”), decreasing the overall amount of time needed to re-learn material you might have forgotten from the beginning of the semester when the final rolls around.

5. The planning fallacy

Humans systematically overestimate what can be accomplished in the short-term, and underestimate what can be accomplished in the long-term.

Ironically (and sadly), we only have this problem evaluating our own tasks – providing a pretty accurate picture of how long things will take when evaluating someone else’s situation objectively.

Advertising

Use the 50% rule.

Estimate as conservatively as you can, how much time it’s going to take to study for your exam, assuming you start early and work consistently.

Done?

Okay. Now add 50% to that estimate.

This will give you a more accurate picture of how much time you really need to allocate to starting studying.

6. You think you have more study time than you do

141025-study-definition

    Pull up your Sunday schedule. What do you see?

    Oh looks like I’ve got a big chunk of free time from 4pm to 10pm. Perfect, I’ll just squeeze in 5 or 6 hours of studying and then call it a night.

    Try again. It’s more like 2-3 hours.

    This is another type of planning mistake: overestimating how much productive time we can extract from any given period.

    Things we tend to forget: we need to eat; we need to sleep; there will be interruptions (yea right like you’re actually going to shut off your phone).

    Advertising

    But another thing we fail to account for: the body goes through 90-120 minute activity cycles (called the Ultradian Rhythm). So even though you may be sitting there, highlighting your textbook for 3 hours straight, you really only have the ability to absorb material for 1.5 to 2 hours before you need a period of rest.

    Cut your estimated hours in half.

    If you think you have 8 hours on Sunday after the game to study, forget it. You actually have 4 or less when you take out time for eating, breaks, and normal daily activities.

    7. You can’t get motivated or focused

    A lot of us tend to sit around and wait…

    Waiting for the wave of motivation to strike us to finally get started on the homework assignment due in 24 hours, or studying for the midterm.

    Here’s the problem: motivation comes and goes, but the demands of school and learning and everyday life don’t. And if you’re relying on your motivation to keep you focused, everything you’re doing is going to be in a perpetual state of lateness and last-minute-ness, because there’s never enough motivation to go around.

    Focus on the process, with the end in mind.

    Why are you in school? Why do you want a degree? Get clear on exactly what your motivations are.

    But thinking about the future is not enough. That vision of the future that drives your emotional intensity needs to be linked to your daily activities. (e.g. “Each day I study for Calculus brings me one step closer to being a doctor and making a difference in people’s lives.”)

    What is the one set of activities each day that will virtually guarantee success in your coursework?

    And what can you do to organize your day, set up incentives, quit things that don’t matter, etc. to virtually guarantee you will do that one set of activities day in and day out, despite motivation?

    Featured photo credit: Melanie Deziel via unsplash.com

    Reference

    Read Next