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Published on December 14, 2020

12 Scientific Ways To Learn Anything Faster And Smarter

12 Scientific Ways To Learn Anything Faster And Smarter

You may very well be reading this article because you’re struggling to learn something. Maybe you’re putting off studying for that exam or frustrated with how slowly you’re learning a new language. I’ve dug into a pile of scientific research to help you find ways to learn things efficiently and effectively.

You may not have a photographic memory, but at least you can take some actionable steps to speed up your learning and retain information better.

1. Try Mindfulness

Mindfulness isn’t just sitting on a yoga cushion with your eyes closed chanting “Om.” There is indeed scientific evidence that meditation improves learning outcomes.[1] It decreases anxiety levels and helps people experience the kind of clear-headedness necessary for effective learning.

But there are also other ways to experience mindfulness. You can also try mindfulness exercises that encourage you to open your eyes and see and hear the world in a non-judgmental way.

One of my favorite mindfulness exercises is called “Call It Like You Sees It” from Play Your Way Sane: 120 Improv-Inspired Exercises to Help You Calm Down, Stop Spiraling, and Embrace Uncertainty. As you’re taking a walk, simply point to things you pass and call out what they are: “Tree, grass, frog, sidewalk.” By doing this, you’re practicing being open and present to the world around you instead of being stressed out, anxious, or self-absorbed.

You can also just close your eyes and listen carefully to try to identify as many sounds as possible. Slow down and deepen your breathing to try to hear as much as you can instead of getting carried away with your overthinking.

2. Get Some Sleep

Studies also show a link between sleep deprivation and compromised academic outcome.[2] Simply put, if you’re not getting enough sleep, your learning and retention are going to suffer.

So figure out how much sleep you need each night and stick to a consistent bedtime and wake-up times each day. Your grades and job performance will thank me.

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3. Eat Right

If you’re eating a diet that’s high in saturated fat and refined sugar—think processed foods instead of fresh fruits and veggies—you’re not doing your brain any favors. Diets heavy in processed food have been linked to poorer learning outcomes.[3] Researchers found that unhealthy diets filled with saturated fats and refined sugar negatively affect the hippocampus and memory formation, which is essential to fast and efficient learning.

So, if you’re looking for ways to learn faster and smarter, put the gas station snacks down and switch to a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats—fresh over frozen, natural over factory-made.

4. Exercise

Another way to learn better and faster is to make sure you’re getting some exercise throughout the week. Just like getting enough sleep, exercising is a hippocampus booster. That means your brain will be better able to retain information.

One study with mice showed that adding exercise after over a year of being sedentary reversed degeneration of the hippocampus by about 50%.[4] That means even if you haven’t been getting exercise lately, it’s not too late. Aim for at least three aerobic exercise sessions a week that last at least 30 minutes per session to keep your hippocampus healthy.

5. Focus on One Thing at a Time

A lot of people think they’re good at multi-tasking. I hear this a lot. People think they can listen to music and scroll through TikTok while listening to an online lecture on genetics. Turns out, this is wishful thinking. If you’re looking for ways to learn faster and smarter, one of the easiest is to close all your tabs and do one thing at a time.

One way to think about this is what’s known as the cognitive bottleneck theory, which states that we cannot attend to all of our sensory inputs at once.[5] We might have the TV on and that online lecture and be listening to music while talking to a friend, but not all of those inputs can be consciously attended to. There’s a bottleneck where some of the inputs just don’t make it through to conscious thought.

In one study, the cognitive bottleneck theory was confirmed, which means that students were not able to retain as much information or learn as efficiently when they were attempting to multi-task.[6] So, keep it simple, limit distractions, and learn one thing at a time.

6. Don’t Worry About Learning Styles

You may have read about learning styles and how knowing your learning style can help you learn better. Well, it turns out there isn’t actually any scientific evidence that confirms that learning styles improve learning outcomes.[7]

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Learning styles come from Neil Fleming in the 1990s and have gained in popularity in recent decades, but that doesn’t mean the theory actually improves learning. It’s fine to know whether you prefer visual, audio, kinesthetic, or reading/writing inputs, but don’t forget that learning styles are just that—preferences.

Instead of trying to force yourself to learn everything with your preferred style, you should focus more on matching the challenge with the learning style. If you’re trying to memorize vocabulary for a written quiz, it makes the most sense to mix reading/writing with visual learning. If you’re trying to learn how to have a conversation in a new language, you may want to stick with audio and kinesthetic styles.

Don’t be too worried about learning styles. Instead, mix it up and try all different styles.

7. Try Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition can help you learn better. Spaced repetition is a system where you quiz yourself to see if you know something or not. It works great as either a physical or digital set of flashcards—when you need to learn lots of small pieces of information.

All the information you get correct goes in one pile, and the information you don’t know goes in another. You quiz yourself on the information you got wrong more frequently than what you got right. Eventually, the information you keep getting correct is spaced out more and more until it is in long-term memory. At that point, you’ve truly learned it.

Spaced repetition has been proven effective in scientific studies. It helps with memory and problem-solving skills and leads to vast improvements in long-term learning.[8] One spaced repetition system is called Anki, and you can find information online about how to make your own physical Anki flashcard system or download an app that will create a digital Anki system for you.

8. Try Mnemonic Devices

Another trick to learning faster and smarter is to try mnemonic devices. This is simply the process of chunking information by using initials or acronyms.

The classic is ROYGBIV. If you can remember the mnemonic device ROYGBIV, it makes it much easier to recall the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. The idea is that it’s easier to remember one thing than seven, and by using the first letter of all the colors, you give yourself a clue to then recall the colors.

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Research confirms that mnemonic devices help speed up retention and even improve formal reasoning—never a bad thing.[9]

9. Gamify Your Learning

Gamification is when you turn something that’s not a game into something that’s more like a game by adding game elements such as points, competition, and rewards or goals.[10]

One example of gamification is to turn a household chore into a game by racing against the clock or competing against someone to see who can clean a room faster.

You can also gamify learning. Turn it into a competition. Motivate yourself by adding a scoring system or a time limit. Studies show that gamifying learning boosts motivation and engagement, academic achievement, and social connectivity.[11]

10. Improvise

Next is improvisation. Now, I don’t just mean make stuff up as you go. Improvisation actually has principles to follow that help everyone be on the same page. By agreeing with each other’s ideas and adding to the reality that’s being established, improvisers build a level of trust with each other that has incredible benefits.

Improvising or just adding improv principles to your everyday life helps reduce anxiety and boost creativity and collaboration.[12][13] In one study, high school students wrote more after participating in an improv workshop[14]

So, you may want to try improv thinking to boost your learning, which means embracing mistakes, agreeing and adding onto ideas, and not being negative or judgmental.

11. Reflect

Another strategy to learn faster and smarter is to make reflecting part of your process. In one study, students who were prompted to reflect on their progress outperformed students who did not integrate reflection.[15]

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So, if you want to learn faster and more efficiently, make sure to reflect on your progress periodically. Ask yourself some questions and set some achievable goals. Is your current plan working? Why or why not? What are you still struggling with?

This way you won’t just keep repeating the same inefficient or ineffective habits. Instead, you’ll be able to make changes, so you can improve your learning outcomes.

12. Seek Feedback

If you want to boost the benefits to your learning more, incorporate other people’s feedback in addition to your own self-reflection. Research shows that when feedback is combined with reflection, students achieve even more pronounced benefits to their learning.[16]

So, seek out a mentor or advisor who can give you honest and productive feedback, so you can create the best plan to improve your learning.

Final Thoughts

Learning is a complex process that requires you to manage your stress, take care of your physical health, and create and refine learning plans to achieve an optimal amount of success.

Of course, there are tricks to help you speed up your learning like using mnemonic devices and spaced repetition. But at the end of the day, a more holistic approach to overall health and wellbeing will get you further than a hack here and a hack there.

More Tips to Learn More Effectively

Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Sage Journals: Mindfulness Meditation May Lessen Anxiety, Promote Social Skills, and Improve Academic Performance Among Adolescents With Learning Disabilities
[2] Science Direct: Sleep loss, learning capacity and academic performance
[3] Science Direct: A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and learning
[4] JNeurosci: Exercise enhances learning and hippocampal neurogenesis in aged mice
[5] PubMed.gov: The problem state: a cognitive bottleneck in multitasking
[6] Science Direct: Examining the impact of off-task multi-tasking with technology on real-time classroom learning
[7] Wiley Online Library: Does learning style influence academic performance in different forms of assessment?
[8] Sage Journals: Spaced Repetition Promotes Efficient and Effective Learning: Policy Implications for Instruction
[9] Taylor & Francis Online: An Empirical Test of Mnemonic Devices to Improve Learning in Elementary Accounting
[10] Play Your Way Sane: How to be more Playful: Gamify your Life
[11] Science Direct: The impact of gamification on learning and instruction
[12] Psychology Today: The Improv Anxiety Treatment?
[13] SpringerLink: The Improv Paradigm: Three Principles that Spur Creativity in the Classroom
[14] International Journal of Education & the Arts: Improv and Ink: Increasing Individual Writing Fluency with Collaborative Improv
[15] Science Direct: Effects of elicited reflections combined with tutor or peer feedback on self-regulated learning and learning outcomes
[16] Science Direct: Effects of elicited reflections combined with tutor or peer feedback on self-regulated learning and learning outcomes

More by this author

Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of PLAY YOUR WAY SANE (January 2021 Simon & Schuster)

How To Learn Effectively With Kinesthetic Learning Style 4 Steps of Cognitive Restructuring to Help You Think Clearly 12 Scientific Ways To Learn Anything Faster And Smarter 7 Most Effective Problem Solving Techniques That Smart People Use How Do Memory Vitamins Work? (And the Best Brain Supplements)

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Published on January 19, 2021

What Is Learning by Doing And Why Is It Effective?

What Is Learning by Doing And Why Is It Effective?

The list of teaching techniques is ever-expanding as there are multiple ways for us to gain knowledge. As a result, there are multiple techniques out there that leverage those particular skills. One such technique I want to share with you is learning by doing.

This technique has been around for a long time, and it’s a surprisingly effective one thanks to the various perks that come with it. Also called experiential learning, I’ll be sharing with you my knowledge on the subject, what it is deep down, and why it’s such an effective learning tool.

What Is Learning by Doing?

Learning by doing is the simple idea that we are capable of learning more about something when we perform the action.

For example, say you’re looking to play a musical instrument and were wondering how all of them sound and mix. In most other techniques, you’d be playing the instrument all by yourself in a studio. Learning by doing instead gives you a basic understanding of how to play the instrument and puts you up on a stage to play an improvised piece with other musicians.

Another way to think about this is by taking a more active approach to something as opposed to you passively learning about it. The argument is that active engagement provides deeper learning and that it’s okay if you make mistakes as you learn from those as well. This mentality brought forth a new name for this technique: experiential learning.

What Are Its Benefits?

Experimental learning has been around for eons now. It was Aristotle who wrote that “for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

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Over the years, that way of thinking changed and developed and for a time was lost once computers were integrated into schools. It’s only been in recent years where schools have adopted this technique again. It’s clear why teachers are encouraging this as it offers five big benefits.

1. It’s More Engaging and More Memorable

The first benefit is that it’s more engaging and memorable. Since this requires action on your part, you’re not going to be able to weaken your performance. This is big since, traditionally, you’d learn from lectures, books, or articles, and learners could easily read—or not read—the text and walk away with no knowledge at all from it.

When you are forced into a situation where you have to do what you need to learn, it’s easier to remember those things. Every action provides personalized learning experiences, and it’s where motivation is built. That motivation connects to what is learned and felt. It teaches that learning is relevant and meaningful.

Beyond that, this experience allows the opportunity for learners to go through the learning cycle that involves extended effort, mistakes, and reflection, followed by refinement of strategies.

2. It Is More Personal

Stemming from the reason mentioned above, learning by doing offers a personal experience. Referring back to the cycle of effort, mistakes, reflection, and refinement, this cycle is only possible through personal emotions—the motivation and realization of knowledge of a particular topic tying into your values and ideals.

This connection is powerful and thus, offers a richer experience than reading from a book or articles such as this one. That personal connection is more important as it encourages exploration and curiosity from learners.

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If you’ve always wanted to bake a cake or cook a unique dish, you could read up on it or watch a video. Or you could get the ingredients and start going through it all yourself. Even if you make mistakes now, you have a better grasp of what to do for the next time you try it out. You’re also more invested in that since that’s food that you made with the intention of you having it.

3. It Is Community-Connected

Learning by doing involves the world at large rather than sitting alone in your room or a library stuck in a book. Since the whole city is your classroom technically, you’re able to leverage all kinds of things. You’re able to gather local assets and partners and connect local issues to larger global themes.

This leans more into the personal aspect that this technique encourages. You are part of a community, and this form of learning allows you to interact more and make a connection with it—not necessarily with the residents but certainly the environment around it.

4. It’s More Integrated Into People’s Lives

This form of learning is deeply integrated into our lives as well. Deep learning occurs best when learners can apply what they’ve learned in a classroom setting to answer questions around them that they care about.

Even though there is a lot of information out there, people are still always asking “what’s in it for me?” Even when it comes to learning, people will be more interested if they know that what they are learning is vital to their very way of life in some fashion. It’s forgettable if they’re unable to tie knowledge in with personal aspects of their lives. Thus, experiential learning makes the application of knowledge simpler.

5. It Builds Success Skills

The final benefit of learning by doing is that it builds up your skills for success. Learning by doing encourages you to step out of your comfort zone, discover something new, and try things out for the first time. You’re bound to make a mistake or two, but this technique doesn’t shame you for it.

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As a result, learning by doing can build your initiative for new things as well as persistence towards growth and development in a field. This could also lead to team management and collaboration skill growth. These are all vital things in personal growth as we move towards the future.

How to Get Started

While all these perks are helpful for you, how are you going to start? Well, there are several different approaches that you can take with this. Here are some of them that come to mind.

1. Low-Stakes Quizzes

In classroom settings, one way to introduce this technique is to have many low-stakes quizzes. These quizzes aren’t based on assessing one’s performance. Instead, these quizzes are designed to have learners engage with the content and to generate the learned information themselves.

Research shows that this method is an effective learning technique.[1] It allows students to improve their understanding and recall and promotes the “transfer” of knowledge to other settings.

2. Type of Mental Doing

Another approach is one that Psychologist Rich Mayer put together. According to him, learning is a generative activity.[2] His knowledge and the research done in his lab at Santa Barbara have repeatedly shown that we gain expertise by doing an action, but the action is based on what we already know.

For example, say you want to learn more about the Soviet dictator Stalin. All you need to do is link what you do know—that Stalin was a dictator—and link it to what you want to learn and retain. Stalin grew up in Georgia, killed millions of people, centralized power in Russia, and assisted in the victory of World War 2. This technique even applies to the most simple of memory tasks as our brain learns and relearns.

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3. Other Mental Activities

The final method I’ll share with you is taking the literal approach—getting out there and getting your hands dirty so to speak. But how you go about that is up to you. You could try reading an article and then going out and applying it immediately—like you could with this article. Or maybe you could find further engagement through puzzles or making a game out of the activity that you’re doing.

For example, if you wanted to learn about animal behavior patterns, you can read about them, go out to watch animals, and see if they perform the specific behaviors that you read about.

Final Thoughts

Learning by doing encourages active engagement with available materials and forces you to work harder to remember the material. It’s an effective technique because it helps ingrain knowledge into your memory. After all, you have a deeper personal connection to that knowledge, and you’ll be more motivated to use it in the future.

With that in mind, I encourage you to take what you’ve learned from reading this article and apply that in the real world. It’s only going to benefit you as you grow.

Featured photo credit: Van Tay Media via unsplash.com

Reference

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