How to learn new things as an adult

Have you ever studied phrases for a trip abroad only to find yourself drawing a blank when you’ve gone to use them?

Or failed to name the capital city of a country when competing in a pub quiz?

Learning new things as an adult can feel remarkably frustrating and much harder than when you were younger, not least because you’re also juggling work and life commitments. While it’s easy to think this has to do with our ability, more often than not it’s actually because we’re using the wrong learning methods.

“The key thing is that people are very individual and the combination of factors that doesn’t work for one person might be absolutely essential for another,” says Stella Cottrell, author of Skills for Success.

Structured or flexible learning?

Students need to consider whether they work better with a structured schedule or flexibly with freedom to choose their pace and schedule. You can use tools like this quiz to help identify your ideal study method.

“The beauty of a structured programme is that I [the tutor] can control your learning journey very clearly. That’s its benefit but also its downfall,” says Stuart Pedley-Smith, Head of Learning at Kaplan.

If you’re someone that likes to see a concept come to life from the page, enjoys discussion of ideas and likes a set plan then a structured program could be best for you.

If you have a busy work schedule, enjoy studying outside of a classroom in a café or a park, and want to work at your own pace, a flexible course might be better suited.

“With a flexible course you can move through the material at your own pace. That’s the positive. The disadvantage is that people can procrastinate so don’t move through it very quickly,” he says.

You need to weigh up the pros and cons of both options to make the right choice for you. Be really honest about your time, your ability to self-motivate and the kind of space you enjoy learning in.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’ll suddenly have different learning habits from what you’ve had in the past – if you really dislike a classroom then that’s unlikely to change. Similarly if you procrastinate easily then working flexibly to your own schedule might be unrealistic. Don’t change who you are, choose learning that suits your style.

Learning styles

Knowing your preferred learning style – whether you process information better through seeing and reading, listening and speaking or touching and doing, can help when planning your study approach. However be cautious about restricting your learning to one style over another says Pedley-Smith.

“The very idea that there might be one ‘good way’ to learn remains controversial. Understanding about learning styles is about creating more choice and flexibility. If one method isn’t working, then change to another,” he says.

“Imagine you are sat there at night reading and re-reading a chapter in a book, clearly getting nowhere, becoming more frustrated at your own abilities. What if you stopped reading to yourself and begin reading out loud, thus changing a visual internal auditory style to a visual external auditory one,” says Pedley-Smith.

Cottrell agrees.

“It’s really about being prepared to be very flexible and very self-aware in order to be able to identify what works for you in general, what works for you in different personal situations, and what works for you for different types of task.”

For accountancy students, this could mean working in a group for a slow-moving task, or requiring quiet for a complicated tax problem.

Rather than seeking a quick-fix, learning to study well is about changing your mindset and “thinking I can bring my study under my control,” Cottrell adds.

“Listen to your own preferences. Go with your instincts because they’re probably quite good.”

How to study more productively

Graham Allcott, author of ‘How to be a Productivity Ninja’, believes that studying well is as much about wellbeing as working hard. He shares some key tips to make your study time as productive as possible.

Find your attention zone

Have you ever sat down to study and found that that it’s taken hours to understand one idea, but that on another day you’ve breezed through it in half the time? This is probably because your attention level wasn’t right for the task.

“One of the things that people often overlook is how they manage their own attention,” Allcott says.

“One of the big gains of controlling and directing your learning in a more autonomous way is about how you recognise those different levels of attention,” Allcott says.

There are three types of attention:

  • Pro-active attention – when you have a lot of energy and are highly engaged with the task.
  • Active attention – when you’re working through your tasks methodically but are easily distracted.
  • Inactive attention – when you stare blankly at a screen or book and churn over ideas again and again struggling to understand them.

We can’t be on all the time, always in the pro-active attention zone. But by being aware of this and saving complicated learning for this time and simpler tasks for when you have active attention then you will save time and increase your productivity.

What to do during different attention levels

Proactive attention

  • Learning a new concept
  • Taking a greenlight test

Active attention

  • Flashcard revision
  • Identifying tricky areas that you need to follow up with your tutor

Inactive attention

  • Making a study plan for the week
  • Creating flashcards you can revise with later

Give your brain the rest it needs

Your pro-active attention zone will shift depending on how well you’ve slept, whether you’ve got worries on your mind and how many distractions are around you.

“You really do need to practise self-care and self-discipline in terms of how many hours you do to get to that point of having the right levels of attention,” he says. Studying crazy hours and being exhausted will work against you.

Allcott compares brain function to switching a computer off and on again when it begins to run slow. He recommends meditation to help you rest and focus your mind.

“It’s a very practical little skill to develop. I did an extreme productivity experiment a few years ago where I meditated for ten minutes at the top of each hour and I found in that month that my level of attention and focus was just through the roof because I was constantly resetting.”

Time yourself

One of Allcott’s top tips for time management is to use the Pomodoro technique, named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer.

It requires setting the timer to study for 25 minutes and then taking five minutes break to do something completely different.

“What that often means, certainly in the early part of the day, where your attention span is 40-45 minutes, is that you’re cutting yourself off before your attention starts to wane,” he said. “This actually sustains proactive attention.”

Your unique learning style can make all the difference to your success. Take this quiz to identify what kind of learning style suits you best.

Browse the full range of AAT study support resources here

Kaplan is the UK’s leading global provider of diverse education and training.

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