What’s happened to your self-improvement list since the start of a new year has come and gone? Maybe your bullet points include joining a local gym, swearing off simple carbs, and purchasing a copy of Anna Karenina. Whatever it might be, your list probably also includes learning something new, like speaking Spanish, coding websites, or deciphering American politics. But how many of us resolve to learn how to learn? To improve our efficiency and retention? To learn the skills of meta-learning?
Reliving the agony of sitting through long lectures and slogging through dense textbooks seems masochistic and perhaps futile, because really, how many of us remember trigonometric functions or the Magna Carta?
What most people don’t realize is that learning itself is a dynamic process that we can improve and whip into shape, just like our physical fitness. The neuroscience of learning seems complicated: initial stimuli must survive rigorous triaging to pass through short-term, intermediate, and working stages to reach long-term retention. However, the secret to efficient learning is simple. The more connections we attach to new information, the more easily we can capture and secure information.
The brain works in a very simple way. The rule of thumb is that neurons fire and wire together. Each time you do something—whether that’s write a sentence or take a pan out of the oven—a neural pathway is created between two parts of the brain. That’s what allows us to recall information, and that’s the reason why it’s easier to recall information that has been practiced in different ways (photo credit).
Creating Connections in Your Brain
Say, for example, that you want to learn how to code. The more ways you practice that skill, the easier it will be to recall it. Let’s think of five different ways that you could practice the skill of coding:
- Watch someone else code
- Make a video about coding
- Write a paper about coding
- Show and explain your code to someone else
- Write your code on a whiteboard
Whatever you’re learning, don’t just practice it one manner: come up with five different ways to practice the concept and reinforce it.
Learning requires context, and this is one way to give yourself context. The easiest way to gain context for what you’re learning is to ask “How does this apply to me?” Imagine you’re learning about economics, and the concept of diminishing marginal return on a good isn’t making much sense to you. The way to get your brain to connect ideas is to get the neurons to fire and wire together. Ask yourself, “How does ___________ apply to me?”
Perhaps there are things that you do that also have diminishing marginal return. One example I often use is networking—there is a diminishing marginal return to networking. The more people I meet, the more people I know, and therefore I have less of a need to meet more people.
Beyond making connections to yourself, the next best way to make connections is to do what scientists call synthesizing information. That’s a fancy term for making connections between knowledge in different domains. To start, think about approach the topic you’re learning from an entirely different perspective. If you’re learning about art, think about how a chemist would approach it. If you’re learning about chemistry, ask yourself what parallels there are to the art world.
Then try using different senses. Champion spellers write invisible words into their hands or even pretend to type them, and Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps routinely use visualization as integral parts of their training. Competitive memorizers take these strategies to the next level, using a strategy called the method of loci, which involves building a mental structure to walk through to remember the order of a deck of cards, for example. What these people are doing is synthesizing information in their brain, getting their neurons to fire and wire together, and by studying things using entirely different senses.
Of course, all of these efforts are made in the interest of long-term recall. If you’re interested in recalling information, here’s the simplest trick to increasing your memory abilities.
How to Recall Twice as Much Information
Short and long-term memory consolidation—the process by which our brains store information—takes time and rest. Our brains, just like our bodies, get tired. We learn best in brief periods of 10-20 minutes before fatigue sets in. Taking frequent breaks—as simple as shutting our eyes for ten minutes—gives our brains time to efficiently transfer stimuli into our working memory. Long-term storage depends on the number of synapses, or neuron connectors, we generate during REM sleep. Taking time to rest may leave you feeling lazy at first, but you’ll end up learning more, without ever having to pull an all-nighter.
Normally when we study, we sit down for periods of 30 minutes to an hour and concentrate on a book. Maybe we bring a highlighter. From what we learned above, we already know that it’s not great because it’s only one type of studying and it doesn’t create multiple neural pathways in our brain. We aren’t making as many connections.
When you are studying effectively—thinking about context and synthesizing information—studies have shown that it is twice as effective to study for 15 minutes, take a five minute break, and study from another fifteen minutes than it is to study for 30 minutes straight.
Taking a five minute break after fifteen minutes of studying will literally double the amount of information you recall. The break can be anything that doesn’t require active thought or concentration—sitting for five minutes with your eyes closed works just as well as taking a five minute walk. This method applies to learning across the board, from chemistry to skiing. The next time you want to learn something effectively, do yourself a favor and take a break.
Fail Early and Fail Fast
Most of you probably did pretty well in school, scoring As and Bs, so you think that you know how to learn well. But school is not designed to promote failure; in fact, it demonizes it.
Studies have shown, however, that mistakes are crucial to learning and remembering more successfully. How well can you recall the first time you wrecked your car or tried to use a terrible pick-up line you found on the Internet? Mistakes are among the best teachers. To create the optimal learning environment, follow the Goldilocks Rule: not too hard and not too soft, and strive to make a lot of mistakes. If you reach just beyond your current capabilities and test yourself constantly, your learning curve will be its steepest.
The two concrete takeaways from what we know about failure are these:
- You want to be in the zone of proximal development (the Goldilocks zone)
- Ask yourself questions without answers
The Goldilocks zone is where the most optimal and effective learning happens. If you challenge yourself too much, you’ll get frustrated and discouraged. If you don’t challenge yourself enough, you’ll get bored and move on to something else. If you notice yourself getting bored, ask yourself harder questions. If you’re getting frustrated, make the questions easier.
What really matters is the type of questions you ask yourself. Imagine you’re studying for a test about the French revolution. You need to ask questions that set you up for failure. Instead of asking When did Napoleon come to power? ask yourself How did Napoleon’s rise to power influence the way France interacted with Britain?
If you already know the answer to the question, then you don’t need to study that material. Ask yourself questions that you don’t know the answer to and synthesize information by connecting one area of knowledge to another.
Learn With a Friend
Learning doesn’t have to be lonely. Find a mentor or friend and aim to be conversant and interactive. We are naturally social creatures and learning in a social context is powerful. In a 2011 study, neurologist and education expert Judy Willis revealed that learning with peers causes the brain to release more dopamine, which is our pleasure hormone but also a chemical neurotransmitter closely associated with attention, commitment, memory, and executive function. Not only can teaching a friend help you learn, but it can also feel really good. Along the way, that person can help keep you accountable to your learning goals.
Hacking Your Education
These strategies and more are covered in depth in my new book, Hacking Your Education. To write the book, I interviewed more than fifty people who have found success without relying on the system. They are part of a new culture of “hackademics” who think college diplomas are antiquated. My book shows how dozens have hacked their education and how you can, too. You don’t need to be a genius or especially motivated to succeed outside school. The real requirements are much simpler: curiosity, confidence, and grit.
Hacking Your Education offers valuable advice to current students, as well as those who decided to skip college. My book teaches you to create opportunities for yourself and how to design your curriculum, inside or outside the classroom. Whether your dream is to travel the world, build a startup, or climb the corporate ladder, my book proves you can do it now, rather than waiting for life to start after “graduation” day.
Try these new tools and reconsider how you learn. Your marriage to the gym, divorce from baked goods, and commitment to Russian literature may dwindle, but take care to keep becoming a better learner at the top of your list this year.
Dale Stephens speaks and writes to empower learners to join the education revolution. Penguin/Perigee has recently published his first book, Hacking Your Education. He founded UnCollege to prove that education isn’t limited to the classroom, and was named a 2011 Thiel Fellow for recognition of his work in education.
Photo credit above.