Updated May 13, 2019 – If you are reading this blog post, there is a good chance you are someone who likes to learn. Probably even someone who is hungry to learn, appreciates quick learning, and would like to learn more than you ever seem to be able to manage.
But what can you do about that?
Is there really any way to speed up your learning while not damaging the possibilities for retaining what you learn?
Well, yes and no.
Most learning of any substance involves at least some level of repeated exposure to whatever it is you are trying to learn. Whether this takes the form of practice, immersion in the right environment, testing yourself, or other techniques, it takes time. There’s just no way around it.
But, you can certainly stack the deck in your favor. Here are a few key practices:
There is a large and growing body of research that suggests sleep may be one of the most important factors in how well we are able to learn.
First, sleep well both before and after your learning experiences. With a well-rested brain, you are better able to focus and process new information.
And during sleep following a learning experience your brain solidifies connections it formed while learning. Activity in the brain during sleep actually mirrors activity during learning – particularly learning of new motor skills. In other words, you pretty much practice in your sleep!
Finally, sleeping between sessions of learning helps to space the learning out. Even if you are bent on learning fast, spaced learning ultimately helps to ensure better and faster learning.
If you want to make maximum use of sleep as a learning habit, you may want to check out this Lifehacker post and infographic on How Long to Nap for the Biggest Brain Benefits.
Make the effort to draw connections between what you are learning and other things. In learning-theory speak this is know as elaborative encoding.
The use of mnemonics, is one strategy you may already be familiar with for making encoding easier and boosting quick learning. Like many musicians, for example, I used the phrase “Every Good Boy Does Fine” to help me learn the lined notes on the treble clef (E-G-B-D-F).
Similarly, if I am taught about a new concept and then spend time reflecting upon and visualizing how I might apply it in my day-to-day work, this also is a form of encoding. In this case, I connect new information to knowledge I already have (prior knowledge), and in the process strengthen my grasp on both the new and the old.
In my my own experience, putting the effort into connecting the dots often doesn’t feel all that fun. It often feels like, well, work. But the amount of time you dedicate doing it doesn’t need to be large. Even just a few minutes of elaboration during or after any learning experience can make a tremendous difference in how much and how fast you learn.
If you want to move something into long-term memory, few methods are more straightforward and effective than testing yourself regularly as part of the learning process.
Occasionally, for example, I like to memorize poems. When I am trying to memorize a new poem, I read it through a few times, set it aside, and a little while later make myself try to repeat as much of it as possible from memory. Repeated attempts at retrieving what I have learned help to cement it in my memory. (I also tend to do this before going to bed in the evening – so I get extra boost of sleep as well.)
(If you would like a more in-depth, research-based discussion of testing as learning strategy, I recommend Using Testing to Improve Learning and Memory.)
As much as possible, immerse yourself in the environments where your learning will ultimately apply.
This is a well-known approach for language learning – living in a country or visiting it for an extended period of time can provide a big boost for learning its language – but it also works well in many other learning situations. Putting your learning efforts as much in context as possible can provide for a powerful combination of application and unconscious exposure to supplement your conscious efforts.
These days, putting yourself in context may not even require leaving your house – role-playing games and other technology-enhanced learning experiences can bring immersive environments right to your living room. (For more on the power of games, check out Jane McGonigal’s TED Talk.)
Okay, this may qualify as an “anti-tip,” but be sure to resist cramming – especially when learning anything complex.
While cramming may get you through an exam, if that is your goal, it doesn’t help much with real mastery and long-term retention. You do, of course, need to repeat, review, and test yourself, but try to do this at spaced intervals. Study or practice for a bit, stop, and come back to it later (perhaps, as suggested above, with some sleep in between).
Yes, this takes time, but quick learning isn’t of much value if you don’t retain what you learn, eh?
So, those are my suggestions. In spite of what numerous self help gurus may claim, I don’t think there are any miracle approaches to accelerated learning – at least not for learning that really sticks. Nonetheless, I know from my own experiences (in addition to having reviewed a great deal of research) that the techniques covered here can make a significant difference.
What about you? What approaches have you found effective for effective accelerated learning? Please comment and share.
P.S. – Here’s an interesting interactive infographic I came across: Your Brain Map: 84 Strategies for Accelerated Learning. You will have to draw some of your own conclusions about what the actual “strategies” are, but it is a very interesting tool all the same.
An interactive infographic by Open Colleges
I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.