How to become a more effective learner

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Learning should be a pretty straight-forward process but sometimes learning from your laptop at home, as opposed to a classroom with a tutor and surrounded by like-minded students, can be tricky.

How do you know, for instance, if you will retain what you have tried so hard to absorb and whether all that cramming and revision will pay off? Peter Brown, co-author of Make It Stick, which explores the best ways to become a more effective learner, tells us his top tips to succeed when studying by distance.

1. Build on your existing knowledge

All new learning should, according to Brown, be built on a base of existing knowledge and relate to what you already know. If, for example, you already speak one foreign language, it should be easier for you to learn another one as you already have the mental framework and skill in place to do so.

“A common misperception exists that one learns by working to get new knowledge or skill into the brain, for instance through hearing lectures, reading texts or seeing demonstrations,” Brown explains. “The implication is that much of learning is a transitive activity in which knowledge is imparted by an instructor.” It is, however more about getting new knowledge or skill out of the brain and recalling through memory to explain how it relates to what one already knows, and apply the knowledge or skill in different ways.

So focus on connecting what you’re learning to real-life scenarios and understanding how each new concept works with those you’ve already learned. Make a point of explaining what you’re learning to other people. By being able to describe something to someone else in a way that they’ll understand, you’ll reinforce your own understanding of the concepts.

2. Keep it up

The act of learning itself is a skill and should be an ongoing cycle, says Brown. “The more one learns, the more points of connection one has for further learning,” he notes. “Practice strengthens interconnections of knowledge, and over time these take the form of mental models and underpin conceptual understanding.”

So ensure that you complete one chapter and move onto the next, finish one unit and move onto another, knowing that constant learning will make it easier for your brain to learn new information. Ongoing study will allow you to more effectively connect one topic with another, developing greater retention of the information.

The brain then needs time to consolidate the new knowledge into long-term memory. Giving your brain time to absorb what it has learnt is a vital part of learning – which is why cramming is often so ineffective.

“Over subsequent hours (and perhaps days), the brain rehearses the new material, making sense of it by connecting it to what one already knows, filling in gaps, and identifying the most important concepts, gradually moving the knowledge to the parts of the brain that store long-term memory. Scientists call this process consolidation,” he says.

3. Keep it short and sweet

Learning in short, sharp bursts of time can be just as effective as spending hours poring over your books as the brain should, in theory, be consolidating what it has already learned automatically at later intervals. You must, however, make sure you understand it properly in order to ensure it is retained and consolidated. “Learners should be challenged to explain new material, and to practice retrieving it from memory and applying it,” says Brown. That could mean finding a study buddy or colleague to talk through what you’ve been learning about and be quizzed on it.

4. Quiz yourself

One common problem, whether you’re learning at home or in the classroom, is the inevitable lapse of concentration, when you find yourself thinking about what to have for lunch or the film you saw at the weekend. “All learners face the challenge of mind-wandering, and this can be especially true when sitting at a computer,” says Brown. To combat this, try quizzing yourself about what you’ve learned so far. “When frequent low-stakes quizzing and other forms of retrieval are built into distance-learning courses they reduce mind-wandering and strengthen the grasp and retention of new content,” Brown explains.

5. Buddy up with a friend or colleague

Try and keep it fun and find a buddy or colleague you can study with and get feedback from going over what you have learned with them to make sure you understand it and can explain it clearly. This should help consolidate what you already know.

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Georgina Fuller is an award winning freelance journalist and editor.

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