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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)

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Published on April 13, 2021

How To Find Motivation To Learn Anything Outside of Comfort Zone

How To Find Motivation To Learn Anything Outside of Comfort Zone

One of the best ways that we can make sure that we grow and develop as people is to keep learning as much as we can. Learning teaches us some new knowledge and new skills, and it also keeps our brains alert and active. Learning is great, but sometimes you can lose the motivation to get on and study. This can be all the harder if you learn something outside of your comfort zone or something that you wouldn’t usually think to learn.

The important thing to remember when it comes to learning, whether within or outside of your comfort zone, is that motivation is yours to find. But how do you get the motivation to learn?

Here are 10 ways to help you find the motivation to learn anything outside of your comfort zone.

1. Find Out Why You Are Procrastinating

Procrastination is one of the biggest reasons why people don’t have the motivation to learn. So, working out why you are procrastinating and putting your learning off is one of the first steps to finding your inspiration.

There are a variety of reasons why you may be placing it on the back burner. Here are some examples:

  • You are worried that you are going to fail.
  • You are finding the learning boring.
  • You are waiting for the perfect time to start.
  • You are feeling overwhelmed.
  • You are not sure where to start.

Once you know the reasons why you lack motivation, you can start to work on fixing it and getting back out there.

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2. Find Out Why You Are Doing It

As well as finding out the reasons why you keep procrastinating when it comes to your learning, you also need to remind yourself why you are doing it in the first place. Having this end goal in mind can be all the motivation that you need to get there in the end.

Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to learn, and you cannot say that yours is the same as someone else’s. This means that you need to think about what matters most to you.

It could be simply to develop yourself, it could be to take the next step on the career ladder, or it could be to retrain and be something else totally. No matter what reason you have for learning, finding out why you are doing it can motivate learning that you may find you need, helping you to get where you want to go.

3. Break It Down

Sometimes, you may lack motivation because you feel overwhelmed by how much you need to do. It may sound obvious, but one of the best things you can do is break down the material into more manageable chunks.

Think about how much realistically you can fit into one chunk and then assign a period to it. This could be one day or one week, depending on your end deadline. Once you break it down, you will see that it is not as daunting as you were worried that it would be and that you can get it done.

The important thing to remember is that you are in control of your chunks, which means you can decide how big they are and how often you focus on them.

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4. Choose a Reward

We are simple creatures by nature, and when we feel that we have done well, we will want some kind of reward. It doesn’t matter what the task is or what we want to do, if we reward ourselves, we will be much more inclined to try harder next time. This can help us to greatly improve our motivation to learn.

The reward doesn’t have to be anything huge. Sometimes, it can just be your favorite chocolate bar, some free time to read a book, or perhaps even a short session to soak in a nice hot bath. Whatever it is, you will want to try hard if you know something positive is in the future.

5. Stick to a Routine

The idea of sticking to a routine might not sound like an exciting way to get you motivated to learn, but the truth is that having a pattern can actually be one of the most valuable approaches to take.

The thing about routines is that they are something that we can get used to. When you do the same thing and the same kind of time or in the same order, then you will start to think of it as a habit that you do rather than something that you need to put a whole lot of thought into. While you need to focus on your learning, not having to think about the task at hand means that you won’t need to find excuses not to do it.

6. Seek to Understand, Not Just Memorize

When it comes to learning, most of the time, you will feel somewhat like a sponge, trying to soak all the knowledge up and keep it in your brain. Of course, this is in part true, but you must try your very best always to understand what you are learning.

Not only will this help you to succeed in your learning, but it can also help you focus if you are trying to make sense of the topic, rather than just reading through it and trying to memorize it. You will find it much more interesting, which, in turn, helps you stay motivated and push towards your end goal.

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7. Keep It Short and Sweet

The chances are, you are going to find it hard-going to study for long periods of time, especially if you have lots of other things in your life to focus on. This means that one of the best things that you can do to maintain motivation for learning is to keep it short and sweet.

When you study in a short burst, you will be allowing your mind to focus on that task and then have a break. This will help you stay motivated, and you can have multiple shorter bursts of learning but spread them out throughout the day.

8. Realize That You Can’t Stay Motivated All the Time

While you should do whatever you can to stay motivated, you also need to remember that sometimes, you are just not going to feel it. No one—not even the most successful people out there—will feel motivated all of the time. This doesn’t mean that they are any less dedicated to whatever they want to do or that they stand less of a chance to get there.

When you recognize that it is okay not to be motivated all the time, you can start to understand what you can do to get that motivation back and drive yourself forward.

9. Study With Someone

You may find that being lonely and studying alone is what is behind your lack of motivation to learn. We are social beings, which means that we need to be around others to feel the best.

This is not only in friendships but also in learning. Having someone else to study with makes you feel much more motivated for learning. Not only will you look forward to your time together, but you can also bounce ideas off of one another. You will also feel somewhat obliged to study with them, which means you will want to learn and want to find out as much as possible.

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10. Look After Yourself

When you want your brain to work the best that it can, you will need to make sure that you are taking proper care of it. Looking after yourself may sound like the simplest thing, but it can be really worthwhile.

When you look after yourself, you are thinking about your mental health, physical health, and any relationship issues you may have. There are so many ways you can take care of yourself, and you should know some of the basics if you want to focus on your extra work.

The main things that you need to remember to do are to eat well and drink plenty of water and other hydrating drinks. You also need to stay active and exercise as much as you can as being active is known to really positively impact how well you focus.[1]

You also need to make sure that you are sleeping as much as possible because tiredness never goes well with learning. It can make you feel sluggish and lose concentration.

Final Thoughts

It really is down to you to find your own motivation to learn. So, what are you waiting for?

Think about what you are studying, how much time you have, and how you can make things that little bit easier to manage. Then, you can start to ensure that you reach those end goals, whatever they are.

More Tips on How to Find Motivation to Learn

Featured photo credit: Chris Benson via unsplash.com

Reference

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