In this article, we explore seven ways in which you can help yourself to learn more effectively, whether you are learning a skill, concept, technique, activity or language.
We have all struggled at one time or another to pick up something new. Have you ever wished that you could plug in and download a new skill immediately, like Neo and Trinity in the Matrix? Be able to instantly speak fluent Spanish as you land in Mexico for your holiday, or become a super-chef just before you cook Christmas lunch for the whole family. Well, it would certainly make things easier, but you would also miss out on the many benefits of learning, including gaining confidence, improved mental health and making lifelong friends.
So, while we can’t help you to learn something new at the click of your fingers, we do have some tried and tested suggestions for how to help yourself learn more effectively.
7 suggestions to help you to learn more effectively
1. Stay curious
Ask questions to fully understand whatever you are learning. Remember to also question why you are learning it. In doing this, you become an active learner, as opposed to passively receiving information. You will be far more likely to not only understand but also remember a new idea or concept if you question it critically. Consider the context of new information and if possible, make connections, relating it to your everyday life.
2. Take care of yourself
You will learn most effectively if you are in good physical and mental health. Your well-being directly affects your ability to concentrate, comprehend and learn. Therefore, in order to learn more effectively, make sure you are having enough sleep, drinking plenty of water, getting regular exercise, daylight and fresh air and connecting with other people. Learning with others, either with colleagues as part of a team or in a supportive cohort, can help you to stay accountable and look after yourself in this way.
We also have a free printable drastically different to-do list that can help you manage your well-being.
3. Make mistakes
Making mistakes (and correcting them) will help you to learn more effectively. Think of learning a new language. As adults, we might feel embarrassed or ashamed to make a mistake and say the wrong word or mispronounce something. However, young children make linguistic mistakes constantly and learn at an incredible rate as a consequence of this. Perhaps it would help if we found accent quirks and language errors as endearing in adults as we do in children (I know I do).
Whatever the reason, as we grow older, many of us try to avoid making mistakes. This can lead to a more passive style of learning, or (even worse), only choosing to learn things which we feel confident that we will be able to do. Try to counteract this by using the “derring effect”, an unusual technique where you deliberately give an incorrect answer, and then correct it. Research has shown that this is a powerful way to learn from failure.
Embrace making mistakes. Learn from them. Spend time understanding why you made a mistake in the first place and then correct it. This will lead to a deeper understanding.
Learning requires you to focus and concentrate on new information in order to fully understand it. Avoid multitasking in order to learn more effectively. Multitasking (either doing two things at once or rapidly switching between tasks) is detrimental to learning because it reduces both comprehension and attention.
If you find it difficult to focus on one thing completely, try the super simple pomodoro technique (a version of distributed practice where you concentrate on learning for a short period of time, then take a break before another short session of focused learning). Turn off distractions like phone and email alerts, clear your workspace of everything except what you are learning and get cracking!
5. Switch up your learning style
There are many ways to learn (visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinesthetic). Often we tend to favour a single learning style, but learning in more than one way can help you learn far more effectively. Think about engaging all your senses as you learn. Try aromatherapy with rosemary oil (a recent study found that rosemary significantly enhances our quality of memory and increases mental alertness) while learning. Use sketchnotes to help you learn in a visual way. If you’re not sure what a sketchnote is, or how to create one, consider taking one of our Visual Thinking courses, which require no artistic skill or knowledge. Listen to a podcast for some auditory learning. Try handwriting your notes instead of typing them. Quickly pick up a language through a gamified app like Duolingo. Learn by doing; practice shooting hoops, playing a song on the piano, embroidering a sampler, repairing the dishwasher or creating a bespoke party invitation using your new design software. By doing the thing that you are learning, you will not only learn far faster but gain a deeper understanding too.
6. Teach what you are learning
In order to teach someone else what you have learned, you have to fully understand it. This is a great way to test if you have full comprehension of what you are learning, or if there are gaps in your knowledge that require more focus. Find a way to share your new knowledge or skill in your own way. You might give a performance to your family, or a presentation to colleagues, write a blog, share a diagram, join the discussion in a forum, or create a podcast.
7. Don’t stop
Whenever and whatever you learn, your brain is constantly forming new neurons (neurogenesis) and making connections. It will continue to do this as long as you continue learning. However, if you stop learning and practising a skill, it will eventually be forgotten or ‘pruned’. That’s why it’s so important to keep practising what you learn. Otherwise, that new information will be ‘dumped’, just like in this scene from Inside Out…
Learning has helped me to make the best kind of friends (at university, baby massage class and even a first aid course), find work that I enjoy (WordPress and graphic design), feel more confident and calmer when giving birth (hypnobirthing) and feel more comfortable in my body (yoga). I am sure there are countless other examples of life-changing learning! What have you learnt recently and what positive impact is it having in your life?
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