How to learn smarter and faster

So, what are the best ways to retain information when learning – and what’s the practical advice from the experts?

“Understanding your own learning style is crucial when trying to retain information,” says Teresa Folkes, Associate Director, Professional Development at the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM).

“This means whether you engage visually, logically, aurally or verbally. It can help you to link your knowledge to practical application rather than just memorising,” Folkes explains.

Understanding your learning style

“When you’re learning new material, it can be overwhelming when you think about how much time you need to truly understand it all”; knowing whether you’re a written or a visual learner helps you absorb more and saves time.

Studying in chunked sessions can help this, Folkes adds. “It’s often the case that people learning need to study less, but study smart. If you can engage with a learning style that works for you, and set aside specific amounts of time in which to learn, this can help when recalling the information at a later date.”

Find the technique that works best

“Make a story out of it,” says Dan Kelsall, Founder at Vonkel, a digital recruitment app. “This helps you remember how seemingly disparate things sit well together. It’s hard to store tiny bits of information; you only have so much capacity. So remembering what links things together is more important.” You can be imaginative with this, says Kelsall; “create a storyboard. This can literally be a whiteboard that you put pieces of information onto and turn into a narrative.”

It will help you “see” information – “you don’t have to remember the minute details, but you will remember the story.”

Justin O’Brien is Co-Director of Student Experience at Royal Holloway, University of London. Based in the School of Management, O’Brien agrees on the power of storytelling.

“Brian Eno, one of the music industry’s most creative artists, uses playing cards to encourage his collaborators to look at challenges in a different way.”

For O’Brien, “extending this into a kind of ‘forced recombination’ – finding a narrative that links two random ideas or elements, e.g. shampoo and bald man – can be both entertaining and powerful.” You might prefer to do this in your imagination rather than on pieces of paper – “try linking ideas to objects in rooms of a ‘house’ that you walk through in your head.”

Other suggestions

Mind-mapping is very useful,” O’Brien says. Developed by psychology author Tony Buzan, this involves creating a branch diagram that is designed to use all cognitive parts of the brain.

The key is to find the tool that works for you. “You could record yourself and listen to it – make the information into a rap or song. And perhaps tap into bath time or travel time to stimulate subliminal learning.” Another tip is “to try teaching someone else. The master-apprentice relationship is widely heralded as powerful.”

Many of these techniques are variations on mnemonics. Mnemonics are simply devices you might have for remembering a sequence, like “Every Good Boy Deserves Football” for example when being taught music at school. In finance, we use similar phrases – “SWOT” for “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats”. You can create your own, to help you retain particular pieces of knowledge.

Using the information effectively

Having learnt techniques for retaining information, it’s how you use this retained information that’s important – to do well at synoptic assessments, you need to turn information into insights.

“Whilst being able to identify and extract useful data is an undeniably useful skill, it is not the only important talent business professionals need to acquire,” says Folkes. “In today’s world, employees must have the capability to process and understand data in order to extract value from it. Indeed, professionals handling data should also be on the lookout for exceptions rather than rules, when it comes to large volumes of analytics.”

Information that is out of place can often be the most useful,” Folkes adds. “Those using data should also be clear in knowing whether they are viewing the information from a problem-solving or research perspective, as this can aid their interpretation of the data.”

Memory retention: top tips

1.Build a narrative around what you’re learning.

“Make clear connections between your knowledge. If you find something uninteresting to you, link it to something you care about,” suggests Teresa Folkes.

2. Take regular breaks.

“It’s counter-effective to believe you have to press on all day without pause,” says Dan Kelsall. Research shows that we can only concentrate to full capacity for around four hours, “so you need to completely take your mind away from the work for a while. Do a few hours, and then do something different. Consider how if you get away from the work for a while, the answer that’s been eluding you can pop into your head the next morning – this is not a coincidence.”

3. Have a structure to your learning.

“Set key times to recall information to test your retention,” Folkes says. “Switch your focus every so often to something new, and don’t force yourself to remember new information quickly. Stay attentive and change your surroundings if your focus slips.”

4. Make sure the data is turned to insight.

‘The importance given to rote learning and recall testing in our society is diminishing over time,’ says Justin O’Brien.

“Many institutions are gradually moving away from handwritten examinations and towards more practically oriented coursework, encouraging students to engage more deeply in their own research-led learning.” By moving away from memory downloading and towards more vocationally useful assessment techniques, “we have the potential to address the long-standing graduate employability skills gap.”

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Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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