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.


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]


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.


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]


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


[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] 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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Last Updated on August 11, 2021

23 Killer Sites for Free Online Education Anyone Can Use

23 Killer Sites for Free Online Education Anyone Can Use

Whether you’re five or ninety five, the internet has a lot to offer. Particularly when the topic is education, the resources on the internet are endless. Best of all, many high quality sites are completely free. From history to coding, excellent, free online education awaits on the following 23 sites.

1. Coursera

Coursera is a website that partners with universities and organizations around the world. This brings a wide variety of topics and perspectives to one searchable database.

Coursera is a powerful tool for free online education and includes courses from many top universities, museums and trusts. This gives the site an extremely wide range of in-depth courses.

Coursera is extremely useful if you’re looking to study many different topics, or want courses from different schools and groups. However, the free courses are now quite limited, so you’ll have to

2. Khan Academy

Partnering with many post secondary schools, Khan Academy offers a useable, well-organized interface. Also curating many courses from around the web, Khan Academy offers impressive depth on many different subjects.

Among the more well-known educational sites, Khan Academy is also incredibly user-friendly, which may make it easier to keep learning goals. If you’re looking for a free online education, you can’t go wrong with Khan Academy.

3. Open Culture Online Courses

If you are struggling to find exactly the material you are looking for, try Open Culture’s listing of free online education courses. The page highlights 1000 lectures, videos, and podcasts from universities around the world.

The site features a lot of material found only on universities’ private sites, all in easy-to-browse categories. This means you can find hundreds of university courses without having to visit and search each university’s site.

Open Culture’s list features courses from England, Australia, Wales, and many state universities around the United States. It’s a very helpful resource for finding many courses in one area of study.

4. Udemy 

Udemy’s free courses are similar in concept to Coursera’s but additionally allows users to build custom courses from lessons.


Working with many top professors and schools, the site mixes the customizable platform of other sites with a heavy emphasis on top-quality content. This is another site, however, that mixes free and paid content.

5. Lifehack Fast Track Class

Lifehack believes in skills that multiply your time, energy, and overall quality of life.

In this rapidly changing world, traditional education skills just don’t cut it anymore. You can’t afford to take years learning a skill you’ll never really practice. Besides offering some paid courses that will help you become a better self, it offers a list of free courses which aim to train some of the Core Life Multipliers including:

These are cross-functional skills that work across many aspects of life.

6. Academic Earth

Another site with courses from many different schools is Academic Earth. Much like the three sites above, Academic Earth brings together top notch courses from many different sources and focuses on offering a wide variety of subjects.

Academic Earth lists courses by subject and school, so it might be easier to find what you’re looking for.

7. edX

Another great option for free online education is edX. Also bringing together courses from many different schools, the site has impressive, quality information for everyone. edX covers a great range of topics from universities such as Harvard, MIT, and Berkeley, meaning a high-quality, free online education is entirely possible here.

8. Alison

Unlike the previous sites on this list, Alison is a free education site offering certification in some areas. Alison offers courses mainly in business, technology, and health, but also includes language learning courses.

It’s a great option if users need a professional certificate for their learning, as Alison also offers school curriculum courses.

9. iTunesU Free Courses

A very convenient place for free online education is iTunesU, because it integrates seamlessly with your iPod or any app-ready Apple mobile device. On an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, users download the iTunesU app.


Desktop users can access iTunesU on the upper right hand corner of the iTunes Store. iTunesU is also convenient because the store is categorized much like iTunes.

Users can search learning materials in many different ways, including by genre and topic. However, courses are often a mix of free podcasts or videos and paid content.

iTunesU does include courses on a variety of topics, but it does not integrate with Android, Google or Windows mobile devices.

10. Stanford Online

Your hub for all the online offerings from Stanford University, Stanford Online offers self-paced and session-based courses. While Coursera features some courses from Stanford, many classes are only available via other hosts. Some courses require iTunes, but most are completed in your web browser.

Stanford Online is a great site for high-quality courses, though the topics are somewhat limited compared to sites partnered with more than one school. If you’re looking for free courses, make sure to mark the “free” option on the left-hand side.

11. Open Yale Courses

Open Yale Courses echoes Stanford Online, in that it offers only courses from Yale. While the site is similarly limited to topics taught at the school, Open Yale Courses offers a lot of videos of actual campus lectures. The availability of videos makes the site a great option if you’re looking for quality courses but learn better by watching than by reading.

12. UC Berkeley Class Central

Much like the other schools on this list, UC Berkeley has a variety of free online education options. The school has slightly fewer courses than the schools above, but it includes some supplementary lectures, webcasts, and RSS Feeds, making it easy to keep up with the topics you choose.

13. MIT OpenCourseWare

Similarly, MIT offers a variety of free courses. The school has a comparable number of courses to the schools above, and it includes very in-depth course materials on the subjects available. MIT also offers free RSS feeds, a convenient way to continue learning.

14. Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative

Carnegie Mellon’s free online education site is comparable with the other school’s on this list. However, Open Learning Initiative also covers a smaller range of topics, but for the topics that are covered, impressive, in-depth material is available.

15. Codecademy

Codecademy is a website dedicated specifically to teaching coding. Where other coding sites follow an example/practice session workflow, Codecademy includes a live practice window. This means you can practice coding while still viewing the lesson material.


The courses at Codecademy are well-written and easy to follow, and the website is organized very nicely. Codecademy features a centralized dashboard where you can monitor your progress, and it organizes lessons into complete modules. This lets you learn an entire language without needing to pick the next course manually.

16. Code

Code is another website focused on coding and app writing. A site with high-quality courses, Code also features learning options for kids.

In addition to kid-friendly courses, Code offers free online education classes on a wide variety of technology topics. These classes include app writing, robotics, and Javascript.

Most of the courses are also geared in a such a way that they can be useful in a classroom setting. This makes Code a great resource for harder to find coding topics, as well as various learning settings.

17. University of Oxford Podcasts

The University of Oxford features many different podcasts. Most are public lecture series or lectures from visiting professors, with several different recordings available.

The advantage to this particular site is that podcasts are organized into series, making it easy to subscribe to multiple lectures on one topic. This is another great site for thoroughly in-depth lectures.

18. BBC Podcasts

For the more casual learner, the BBC offers a wide variety of podcasts on many different topics. Most podcasts are updated weekly and focus on everything from finance, to sports, to current events.

Through the World Service line of podcasts, there are also many in different languages. The focus of these podcasts are less in-depth and theory based, which may be more accessible to the average person.

19. TED-Ed

Another great destination for more general learning and free online education is TED-Ed. From the same people that brought you the all-encompassing, motivational web series comes a site chocked full of educational videos. Most include impressive animation, and all are ten minutes long or less.

Not only is TED-Ed an excellent site for the curious, but it also includes supplemental materials and quizzes on the videos. This makes the site extremely useful in formal education settings, as well as in entertaining ways to brush up on new discoveries and topics.


20. LessonPaths

LessonPaths is another great tool for those looking for a more usable and convenient way to access learning material. On this site, users create link playlists of their favorite learning materials from other sites. Users then rank these collections, making it easy to find many different high-quality, accessible sources on a given topic.

21. Memrise

Another impressive free online education site offering ease of use and convenience is Memrise. Available both on desktop and as an app, Memrise is a particularly powerful tool if you are studying a language. The site encompasses many other topics as well, though some of the course material is user generated content.

Part of what makes Memrise special is their integration of games into the learning materials, mixing learning with entertainment.

22. National Geographic Kids

The kids site for National Geographic is another site that makes free online education applicable for younger users. For those looking for kid-friendly education, a large variety of games, puzzles, videos and photos keep kids interested on this site.

National Geographic Kids doesn’t organize learning into courses, making materials available by topic and medium instead. This makes National Geographic Kids a good option for those looking for a more casual learning environment.

23. Fun Brain

Fun Brain is another great option for kids looking for free online education, as it focuses on games and fun puzzles. Particularly focused on math and reading, Fun Brain’s game-based approach can be valuable if the child in question struggles to pay attention.

Fun Brain offers rewards and challenges as well, and it is another site aimed at a casual learning experience for kids K-8.

The Bottom Line

With so many amazing free online education resources, everyone has the ability to boost their skills and knowledge. Whether you’re interested in picking up some interesting trivia for your next party, improve your resume with some coding or business skills, or become a more well-rounded person, these resources are perfect for you.

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Featured photo credit: Dai KE via

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