7 Ways to Learn More Effectively

What neuroscience tells us about how to maximize our learning potential.

Posted Dec 26, 2020

When I was a schoolgirl, my typical study routine went something like this: cram for hours before an exam, write the exam decently enough, and forget literally everything a few days later. It didn’t matter then to me, because I was still managing to do passably well in my tests, but long-term learning was just not taking place.

It turns out that this is not all that surprising from a neuroscience point of view. For studying to be effective, there are a few strategies we need to employ. Call it hacking your brain, if you will. Here is my list of seven things you can do to make learning (be it a new skill, a new language, or material at school) more effective. I wish now that I had this knowledge when I was in school or college, but hey, it’s never too late to learn, is it?

1. Break up your learning into small chunks

Studies have shown that rather than studying for long stretches at a time, giving ourselves small breaks in between can greatly enhance focus. The problem here is not that we have brief attention spans — it is that constantly paying attention to the same stimulus can cause our brains to regard it as potentially unimportant. An optical illusion called “Troxler Fading” is a good analogy for this — constantly fixating on a particular point can cause unchanging points in our peripheral vision to "fade away."

Mysid, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Troxler Fading - Stare long enough at the central dot, and the blue circle on the periphery will slowly disappear.
Source: Mysid, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The scientist who performed this study wondered if a similar principle might apply to thoughts as well — constant attention to a particular thought or group of thoughts might just cause it to disappear from our awareness. This is where taking little breaks in between learning can be useful.

One of the most practical and oft-quoted applications of this idea is the Pomodoro technique. This technique involves working for a stretch of 25 minutes, followed by a short 5-minute break. This break is important, as we have discussed, to take our minds off the problem and activate different regions of the brain from those we were using while we were focused on the task. This not only provides an opportunity to get more creative, but it also keeps our temptation to get distracted in check.

2. Sleep is essential for successful learning

Barbara Oakley, in her excellent Talk at Google on how the brain learns, coins the term “focused mode” for the parts of the brain that are activated when challenged with a familiar problem. In “focused mode,” she says, many of the neural connections are already made. But when we start to learn something completely new, another mode of the brain, the “default mode,” comes into play. The default mode network comprises a range of brain regions that are active when a person is at rest. These are probably the regions at work when we say “I don’t know how that idea came to me while I was washing the dishes. I wasn’t even thinking about the problem!” Given that it comprises diffuse brain regions, the default mode network can be useful at associating seemingly unrelated concepts or ideas.

This is one of the reasons why sleep is so important to learning. Studies have shown that sleep is essential for a few reasons — for one, the process of consolidating short-term memories to long-term ones happens in part during sleep. It has also been demonstrated in mice that sleep drives clearance of by-products of neural activity from the brain, leading to a possible restorative effect.

3. Interleaving related skills is a more effective technique than “blocking”

While teaching children new concepts, “blocking” related or similar skills has been the norm. For example, when teaching children to write, they are told to first practice writing a bunch of As, followed by a bunch of B’s and so on. However, it has been shown that interleaving skills, that is, asking them to write an A followed by a B and then a C, and then go back to writing an A, is far more effective at producing lasting learning.

Why does this happen? It could be that interleaving helps learners discriminate between similar concepts more easily than blocked practice does. Studies have also suggested that interleaving might help strengthen memory associations. Unlike blocking, which requires just the retrieval of one solution set at a time, interleaving requires our brains to be continually engaged, bringing up different solutions into short term memory and using them.

4. Teach a topic you’re learning to someone else (or pretend to do so)

I don’t remember much of what I studied in school, but the topics that I do recall very well are those that I had been assigned to teach my peers. It has been shown that this enhanced learning while teaching could possibly be the result of retrieving what we have previously learned, rather than passively re-reading the material. In other words, it is a way of testing ourselves without actually doing so.

Several studies have shown that children who served as tutors ended up having a greater understanding of the topic themselves. If you don’t have the luxury of having a study group or a willing partner to listen to your teachings, simply learning a concept while assuming you have to teach it to others can be a great way to learn more effectively.

5. Take notes in class (or while watching an online course video), but work on expanding on those notes immediately after the lesson

In his extremely popular lecture on how to study smart, Marty Lobdell tells his students how important it is to take notes in class. There is no way to remember something you have learned in class (no matter how attentive you think you were) if you weren’t jotting down notes.

But here is what he says is even more important — as soon as class is over, go back to your notes and expand on them based on the lecture you just listened to. If this is not done, you run the risk of your notes seeming incomprehensible when you look back at them after a few days.

6. Couple facts with concepts in order to maximize learning

It is inevitable, during learning, to have to memorize certain facts. Medical students, for instance, need to learn the names of all the muscles in the human body. Lobdell suggests, in the same lecture I mentioned previously, that the students would do better to learn the function of each muscle when they are learning its name.

Human memory is essentially an associative process, so we have a better chance of learning and remembering something well if we learn it in context. Rather than just memorizing, for instance, that Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in the year 1948, I’d do better if I knew already that India attained its independence in the year 1947 and he was killed just a year later.

7. Use tests as a way to learn, rather than an assessment tool

Not only are tests useful to understand how much we have learned and how well we have learned it, but they can also be excellent learning tools. This again goes back to how retrieving information makes it easier to recall it in the future, compared to just being presented with information.

Studies have shown that taking a memory test post-learning enhances later retention of the material learned; a phenomenon termed the “testing effect.” This is true even of unsuccessful tests, where a person generates wrong answers before going on to learn the correct ones. Rather than confuse a person (as most people would imagine), it seems to be that merely trying to generate the correct answer activates semantic networks that are used later to remember the learned fact better.

While it is important to equip ourselves with the tools needed to make ourselves better learners, it is also essential to remember that we are all working with depleting mental resources due to the pandemic and its effects, and to be kind to ourselves at this time.