Once you’ve left school you might not study anymore, but chances are you still spend a lot of time learning. Getting ahead in your career or just improving your skills requires constant learning of new techniques, new technologies, and even completely new skills.
Since we’re all trying to juggle lots of responsibilities, it can help to understand what makes learning most efficient so you can get more done in less time. Try these three approaches next time you’re learning something new.
1. Imagine you’ll have to teach someone else
It might sound strange, but we tend to learn better when we’re expecting to have to teach someone else what we’re learning. It seems we all know how to learn efficiently—we just don’t put those strategies into practice unless we’re tricked into it.
A study tested this by having two groups of participants learn some new information. One group was told they’d be tested on the information later, while the other group was told they’d be teaching the information to someone else.
In fact, both groups of participants were given the same test—none of them ended up teaching anyone else the information. But the expectation that they’d be teaching someone else led those participants to perform better on the test.
The researchers suggest this is because when teaching others, we make an effort to remember the most relevant information and organize it in a way that’s easy to remember and understand. This is highly beneficial to us as we learn, but if we believe we’re only learning for our own sake, we fail to tap into these strategies.
Teaching others has also been shown to improve how well you understand something, so if you can go that far, try teaching a colleague or friend about something you’ve just learned. Having this expectation in mind as you’re learning and taking the time to actually explain what you’ve learned so someone else can understand it will aid both your own understanding and memory.
2. Use spaced repetition to boost your memory
We’ve all had that experience of cramming for an exam, passing the exam, then later realizing we’ve forgotten everything we learned. Cramming can help in a pinch, but it’s not an effective learning approach.
What works much better is to split up your learning over time. As you work to recall information you’ve learned, that effort in recalling is actually strengthening those memories, so recall is an active part of learning. And the harder you work to recall information, the more you strengthen those pathways in the brain, so you can recall the information more easily in future.
Robert Bjork, director of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab, says this works because recalling memories isn’t like simply replaying them:
When we access things from our memory, we do more than reveal it’s there. It’s not like a playback. What we retrieve becomes more retrievable in the future. Provided the retrieval succeeds, the more difficult and involved the retrieval, the more beneficial it is.
To get the optimal result, you want to wait long enough after a learning session that you can only just remember the information you learned. If you can’t remember the information at all, even with lots of effort, you’ve waited too long and won’t get the benefit of spaced repetition.
So work hard to recall the information, then wait for another period until you can only just remember it again. Each time that wait period should be longer, because your memories of the information are stronger. If you keep repeating this process (it’s known as spaced repetition), eventually you can go for very long periods before you need to work hard to recall the information again.
As Bjork says, we don’t truly forget any information that we learn. We simply make it less accessible in our brains, in order to make room for more relevant information. “People tend to think that learning is building up something in your memory and that forgetting is losing the things you built,” he says. “But in some respects the opposite is true.”
Bjork proves this with a clever example: though you might not be able to remember the phone number of your childhood best friend right now, which makes it seem like you’ve forgotten it, if you were reminded of it now, you’d remember it much more easily tomorrow than if you were told to remember a random set of digits instead.
In fact, your childhood friend’s phone number is still in your memory. It’s just very hard to access now. You’ve spaced out repetition of the phone number too long, since it stopped being necessary to remember it. But as a kid, you probably recalled that phone number several times a week, strengthening the memory every time you did so.
3. Use deliberate practice
What many of us call “practice” tends to be, more often, just play. We sit down at our desks and write the same style of poetry we’re already good at. Or we play songs we already know on our musical instruments. Or we design side projects that match the experience and skills we already have.
This is fun, and worthwhile, but it’s not really practice. It’s play. We’re doing what we’re already good at. To practice something and get better at it, we need to stretch ourselves. Most of us don’t do this because it’s uncomfortable, but it’s the best way to learn and improve.
Deliberate practice is the process of practicing what you need to improve, rather than what you’re already good at. Geoff Colvin, author of Talent Is Overrated says deliberate practice must be hard work, must be repeated a lot, and should be focused on improving something specific.
So rather than putting in hours every week “practicing” by doing what you already know, try creating a learning plan. Figure out what aspects of your skills or knowledge are weakest, and focus your practice sessions on those. Choose practice work that tests you, and you’ll get a lot better than if you simply work on what you’re already good at.
What are your best tips for learning something new? Let us know in the comments.