I’ve already posted a research round-up on becoming an expert at anything. That was focused on the big picture of how to master something over a period of years.
This time let’s get less macro and focus more on the nitty-gritty of what you need to do when you sit down, roll up your sleeves and try to learn something new.
Yeah, It’s Gonna Take Effort
No, I’m not going to lecture you like Grandpa about the virtues of hard work, but your brain takes in a lot every day and remembering everything isn’t realistic. Research consistently shows effort is how you let your grey matter know something is worth retaining.
The more effort you expend, the better you learn:
…undergraduates in the study scored 29 to 63 percentage points higher on tests when they used study techniques like recording complete notes, creating comparative charts, building associations, and crafting practice questions on their screens.
You’re not going to learn much passively. Re-reading material four times was not nearly as effective as reading it once and writing a summary. Even just writing by hand is beneficial. More effort, better results.
There is a system for developing a near-photographic memory and it works, but takes some practice.
The two key things to remember here are testing yourself and spacing out learning over time.
- Testing yourself is essential. Even if you fail the tests it helps. Even deliberately screwing up helps.
- Spacing learning out over time is key. This tells your brain this stuff shouldn’t be discarded. Cramming can help you pass a test but it’s not the way to really learn anything:
In more than two dozen studies published over the past five years, he has demonstrated that spaced repetition works, increasing knowledge retention by up to 50 percent. And Kerfoot’s method is easily adapted by anyone who needs to learn and remember, not just those pursuing MDs.
Don’t just try to drill knowledge in, connect it to things you already know. Really try to understand it, not just memorize it. This is why teaching someone else is a great way for helping you learn. If you can’t explain it, you don’t know it.
Steroids For Your Brain
I don’t want to recommend cigarettes to anyone but if you’re already a smoker, light up before you learn. Nicotine does improve cognitive performance.
We’re always looking for a magic bullet. Truth is that just as with getting in shape, fundamentals like getting enough sleep and regular exercise have far greater effects than well-marketed supplements. Seriously, naps after learning are powerful.
You need to calm down and concentrate. Turn off the music. No group studying. Stop kidding yourself — you can’t multitask. (Guys, when studying stay away from pretty girls. Don’t even think about them.)
There are lots of little tips that can help as well:
- When trying to learn something gesturing can help. Grisly photos and anything emotionally evocative cement things in your head. Talk to yourself. Pause after learning.
- To improve recall, do you best to create replicate the environment you learned the material in: same posture, same emotional state, etc. Close your eyes. Lay down to improve problem solving.
Too lazy for all this? Get a good luck charm. Seriously, they work.
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