Are you currently enrolled in an online course, hoping to learn a new language, or planning to take up a musical instrument? Although we all have our own preferences when it comes to learning, the way the brain processes, stores, and retrieves information is the same for all of us, and the more you understand about how your brain works, the easier it will be to learn and improve in just about every area of your life.
So based on current research, here are 20 things you can do to make your learning more efficient.
1. Eat these foods
What you eat directly impacts your cognitive function, and research shows that the right kinds of food can improve focus and memory, and may even help reduce brain injury.
Nutrients that have been shown to be particularly beneficial for brain function include Omega-3 fatty acids and folic acid, which can be found in foods like salmon, sardines, walnuts, spinach, broccoli, avocados, celery, and blueberries.
2. Avoid these foods
Just as eating the right foods can boost brain power, the wrong types of food can impair learning and memory, and a number of studies have found a correlation between diets that are high in refined sugars and impaired brain function.
With this in mind, it’s best to avoid eating highly processed foods or those that contain a lot of sugar when you’re planning to study. This includes things like doughnuts and cookies, of course, but also foods that you may not necessarily consider unhealthy such as white bread, margarine, or fruit juice.
3. Stay hydrated
Your brain is composed of about 73% water, so it’s no surprise that when you don’t drink enough, your brain can’t function at its full capacity. Even mild dehydration can affect your ability to learn, and research shows that by the time you feel thirsty, a 10% cognitive decline may already be present. So don’t wait until you feel thirsty to get yourself a glass of water. If you have trouble remembering to drink water throughout the day, make a habit of carrying a refillable water bottle with you and taking a sip every so often.
4. Chew gum
If you’re feeling a bit sluggish, a simple way to get a quick boost of brain power is to chew gum. A study from the University of Northumbria found that when subjects chewed gum, their ability to remember memorised words improved by 35%. Another more recent study from St. Lawrence University found that when students chewed gum before a test, their performance on recall and memory tasks was briefly improved. The effect was strongest right after chewing the gum, and dropped back to normal levels after about 20 minutes.
The researchers speculate that the chewing motion increases the heart rate, gets more blood flowing to the head and warms up the brain. Just keep tip number two in mind and choose sugar free gum.
5. Sleep on it
Sleep and learning go hand in hand, and numerous studies over the past decade have shown that sleep is important for everything from consolidating learning and memory to boosting creativity.
Harvard researchers have found that dreaming may reactivate and reorganise recently learned material, which improves memory and boosts performance, and one German study showed that even quick 6-minute naps can improve memory. So don’t underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep or even a well-timed catnap.
6. Try collaborative learning
Research shows that working together with others to solve problems and share knowledge not only improves communication and collaboration skills, but also promotes student engagement, leads to a deeper understanding, and benefits long-term retention.
Of course, there are many benefits to independent learning too and studying with others may not always be the right option for you. But if you’re lacking motivation or feel like you’ve hit a brick wall with your learning, collaborating with others could help you gain a new perspective. Some great tools for online collaboration include Google Drive, Mind Meister, Piazza and, of course, Skype or Google Hangouts.
7. Kill your stress
Stress is known to impair the brain’s ability to learn, and one study from the University of California-Irvine shows that even short term stress that lasts just a few hours can impair brain-cell communication in the areas associated with learning and memory. This may also explain why your mind seems to go blank right before an important test or presentation.
With this in mind, it’s extremely important to calm your mind and find ways to relax before you sit down to study. There are many different stress-busting techniques, from physical activity to meditating to breathing exercises, and you may have to experiment a bit before you find one that works for you.
8. Reward yourself
If you’re lacking the will to study, putting a few small rewards in place will not only boost your motivation, but may even help you better remember what you’ve learned, especially if you have the luxury of taking a quick nap afterwards.
A study from the University of Geneva found that rewards or positive reinforcement can seal information in the brain during learning, and these memories can then be reinforced by a short nap immediately after the learning period.
9. Get moving
In addition to reducing stress, physical exercise can also boost brainpower and some research even suggests that exercise can stimulate the growth of new brain cells. Neuroscientists from Cambridge University found that running stimulates the brain to grow fresh grey matter. The new brain cells were found in the part of the brain that’s responsible for forming and recollecting memories, which is why regular aerobic exercise can improve our ability to learn.
Another study from the Radboud University Medical Centre found that people who completed a high intensity workout four hours after learning retained more information two days later. However, people who worked out immediately after learning retained 10% less than those who waited for four hours, so if you do plan to work out after a study session, give yourself at least a few hours of inactivity in-between.
10. Listen to music
We are often advised to avoid listening to music and instead seek out a quiet environment when studying, but research shows that some types of music may actually help us concentrate. One study led by Stanford researchers showed that music activates areas of the brain associated with paying attention and making predictions. Researchers from the Universite de Caen Basse-Normandie in France also found that listening to music made students more receptive to information. Those who listened to a lecture where music was played in the background scored significantly higher on the quiz than those who listened to the lecture with no music.
Of course, since both of these studies used classical music, it’s unclear whether other types of music would have the same effect. So if you want to play some music during your next study session, you’d probably be better off choosing classical music over Kanye West or Justin Bieber.
11. Make it relevant
When what you’re learning seems relevant to your life in some way, you’ll be far more motivated and engaged, because you’ll be able to see how that new information will benefit you in the real world.
Research shows that some of the best ways to establish relevance include looking for ways to apply theory in practice, relating subject matter to everyday applications and finding applications in current newsworthy events. If you want to find out how to make your learning relevant, this article is full of advice on doing just that.
12. Avoid multi-tasking
Most of us have become accustomed to doing things like texting, reading and streaming media simultaneously, but when it comes to learning, all this busyness isn’t doing us any good. Research shows that multitasking reduces the brain’s ability to store new information, so if you’re constantly switching between tasks, all that information will likely be going in one ear and out the other. If you often open your laptop to study only to find yourself distracted by emails or news sites, website blocking apps such as SelfControl or Anti Social can be useful for preventing this type of multitasking. But studying offline, at the library for instance, can also be a good way to avoid online distractions.
13. Try chunking
Chunking is a memory technique that involves grouping smaller pieces of information together in larger chunks, which can help us to connect random bits of information and make them more memorable. For instance, if you were memorising a list of seemingly random words such as spoon, pencil, sharpener and bowl, you could make it easier to remember the items on your list by organising them into groups. The bowl and the spoon would go in one group and the pencil and sharpener in another. Of course this technique doesn’t work for all types of learning, but it can be very effective for those times when you need to memorise a particular set of rules or information.
14. Test yourself
Your first instinct when learning something new might be to read the information over and over in order to commit it to memory, but practice testing is far more effective as a study technique. One study found that students who took retrieval practice tests after reading for ten minutes retained around 50% more information a week later than students who used techniques such as concept mapping or cramming.
Even if you don’t have access to practice tests, you can still test yourself by writing down everything you remember after each new chapter or frequently asking yourself questions about what you’re learning.
15. Take up a musical instrument
Although in recent years the credibility of popular brain training games and exercises has been called into question, there is still one very effective way to enhance your cognitive abilities. One study by researchers from the University of Zurich found that regularly playing a musical instrument can change the shape and power of the brain. In fact, the researchers note that learning to play a musical instrument can increase IQ by seven points in both adults and children. Changes in the brain were even noticeable in people over the age of 65 after just four or five months of playing a musical instrument for one hour each week.
16. Think about teaching someone else
Have you ever heard the saying “While we teach, we learn?” A study published in the journal Memory and Cognition found that students who thought they would have to teach the material they were learning to someone else who would be tested on it engaged in more effective learning strategies. So if you’re learning something new, think about how you would explain the topic to someone else. Even if you never end up teaching it to anyone, approaching your learning in this way can help you pick out the most important information and organise it more effectively.
17. Take notes by hand
Very few students still take notes by hand, but research shows that when we write by hand our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, and the movements involved in writing with a pen or pencil play an important role in letter and word recognition and recall.
Another benefit of taking notes by hand is that you’ll be less likely to be distracted or engage in multitasking, because your visual attention is restricted to the point where the pen hits the paper.
18. Inject some humour into your learning
Although learning is no laughing matter, research shows that humour can enhance learning by increasing student engagement, reducing anxiety and increasing motivation. One study found that when a statistics lecture was interspersed with jokes that were relevant to the topic, students were more likely to recall what they had learned. Another study that looked at humour in online learning showed that students logged in to the online system more frequently and were more likely to enjoy the course when it included jokes, cartoons and top 10 lists.
19. Use the 80/20 rule
The 80/20 rule, popularised by productivity guru Tim Ferris, says that you get 80% of the results from 20% of the work. So what does this mean when applied to learning? Quite simply, focusing on the most important 20% of what you’re trying to learn will actually help you learn 80% of what you need to know. Of course, the exact number doesn’t matter, the takeaway is that it’s important to focus your energy and use learning strategies that will provide the biggest return on investment, or get you the best results for the time you put in.
20. Use feedback effectively
We already know that specific and timely feedback can improve student achievement, but a new study from the University of Surrey found that how students engage with the feedback they receive is just as important as how the feedback is delivered.
The researchers reviewed numerous studies published since 1984 and found that learner engagement with feedback is often poor. Students frequently failed to look at written feedback or look at it only once and then fail to do anything with the advice they receive. The researchers note that the key message is that students must look at feedback as a dialogue rather than a one-way communication.
Of course if you’re studying informally and don’t have the support of teachers and trainers it can be more difficult to get that all important feedback. But there are still ways to do so, from talking to friends or family members to getting advice and support from online learning communities.