How to Learn Faster and Remember More

Don’t you wish you were like Neo from the Matrix…

Able plug into the computer and download all the knowledge you’d ever need?

Unfortunately, the reality is rather different…

Learning can be a slow, painful, eye-gouging process.

Despite being pumped full of information as small humans, we’re often not taught the most effective learning techniques…

Which means many people feel intimidated to learn new skills past a certain age.

The good news is that you can easily learn how to learn faster and remember more.

Learning is a skill, and once understood, can transform you into a mind Jedi.

Firstly, you must know how that smushy grey globe inside your head works.

Let’s have a look at the science of learning…

The Science of Learning

best learning strategies

Learning can be broken down into four stages

  • Attention
  • Encoding
  • Storage
  • Retrieval

Attention

Attention is the filter through which we experience the world.

Every moment you’re bombarded with inputs…dogs barking, cars revving, babies screaming, doors closing…

But your brain filters out much of this background noise to all you to concentrate only on what’s important during each moment.

Take a moment to close your eyes and listen to the noises around you. I bet there are things you didn’t hear until you started concentrating.

Important inputs are amplified.

And it’s these amplified signals that sit in our memory.

Try improving your attention with meditation.

Encoding

As information passes through your filter, it’s matched (encoded) with previously stored knowledge…

It’s probably why when you hear a baby crying on a plane, you convulsively foam at the mouth in anger.

You know what a baby is. You know what a plane is and you damn well know it’s going to be a long journey.

If you don’t have knowledge of that input, you write new knowledge to encode on your hard drive.

Imagine you’ve never heard a noise before, which is easy if you go back to the baby analogy.

Watch them trying to make sense of the world, attempting to encode all of the weird sights and noises with wide-eyed excitement.

It’s almost too much to compute.

Storage

This is where the brain assesses the new information it’s absorbed, rehearsing it and discarding the irrelevant material.

Much of this process happens during sleep, which is vital for learning and information retention.

The information retained versus that which is discarded depends on the impression made during the experience.

Consider any unusual event you see during an average day.

If you meet a dog smoking a cigar, you’re more likely to remember it, because the encoding will be stronger.

Retrieval

Retrieval closes the learning loop, but also opens it.

Whenever you need to access a memory, you retrieve the file…

It reactivates your attention before it’s re-coded again.

Therefore memory’s strengthened further.

Hallelujah.

This is where some of the techniques explained below are most important…

Because the acquisition of new skills relies heavily on strengthening the information you absorb and encoding it for future use.

How to Learn Faster and Remember More

Let’s consider a couple of points before you become a learning legend…

learn fast

Structure your learning before starting

Let’s face it…many of us are last minute, fly by the seat of our pants learners.

Unfortunately, science says this is not wise or efficient.

Plan your learning beforehand and produce a timetable, along with key areas to tackle.

A timetable means you know what you’re working on and when.

It reduces stress and frees up your working memory so you can concentrate on absorbing information.

An example of this would be creating a checklist the night before, outlining the learning points for the next day.

This liberates your brain to work on memory retention through the night.

Also, break the subject down into its key components to ensure you cover the main areas of a subject.

Break the topic down into:

  • Elements
  • Their order
  • Their connections

This will provide a clear roadmap for your learning, so you can focus on nailing the techniques below.

Work on a Study Routine

If you’re fidgety like me, you’ll look for any viable distraction.

So close messenger and step away from the cat videos.

Trying to multi task will make you less productive.

Organise your space and make that your study area.

Or if you want to name it something better, the learning lab.

Every time you sit down there, your brain will know it’s game time.

Figure out the time of day you work best, and well, work then.

Getting the basics figured out will improve your efficiency.

Why work harder, when you can work smarter?

Now it’s time to understand how your thinking shapes your learning…

Focused and Diffuse Thinking

Focused

It’s where you spend the majority of time when learning a new skill or developing a memory.

And it’s probably where learners have the most difficulty.

If you’re anything like me, your mind is similar to an ADHD riddled child when you try to concentrate.

But to solve a problem, you must laser in on the problem.

Use the focused mode of mind to practice and memorise the material initially.

When you notice mental fatigue kicking in, stop.

You need to do something else…have a shower, cook or read about melons on Wikipedia.

In other words, engage the diffuse mode of thought…

Diffuse

This is thought that goes on behind the scenes. You’re probably not aware of it.

When you can’t solve a problem with focused thinking and take a break, Eureka moments can happen.

Like when you get a brilliant business idea in the shower (and generally never act on it).

Newton got his under a tree.

The diffuse mode of thinking acts to absorb, interpret and encode the information learned during your study session.

It’s said that Edison used to go to sleep in a chair with two ball bearings in his hand.

When he fell asleep, the balls woke him by dropping to the floor and he got back to work

Because he was in a relaxed, diffuse mode of thinking, he was better able to problem solve.

It’s the mode of mind that mimics intuition.

Improving Students Learning with Effective Learning Techniques

This is a meta analysis of various studies which examine the effectiveness of various learning methods.

Here are the results, from the most to the least effective…

students in classroom

Practice testing (Highly Effective)

If you’re anything like me, you hated practice testing in school.

It only induced more nausea at the thought there’d be an exam at the end of it.

It turns out however, that practice testing is very effective.

It’s thought to improve your organisation and retrieval of information and strengthen the encoding process, thereby committing facts to memory.

Multiple choice testing works well, as do self-made tests.

Research does show that it’s more effective to aim for longer answers, however, for a comprehensive memory workout.

And instead of performing consecutive tests, make sure you leave a little time between each one in order to process the information more effectively.

Spaced Repetition/Distributed Practice (Highly Effective)

old man studying

Instead of last-minute cramming, it’s much better to your spread out your learning a month before a test.

It might seem like repeated memorisation just prior to testing would be more effective.

However, by starting earlier, you can move more information from your short-term to your long-term memory.

And this is done when you’re sleeping.

Cramming and sleep deprivation only hinder your performance on the day.

Spacing provides time to switch between focused and diffuse thinking, which encourages information absorption.

The optimum time for distribution of sessions is 10-20% of the time you want to remember the material (i.e. the time before the test).

That means if you want to remember something for a year, you should study every month.

However, in most testing scenarios, you won’t have that long…

So try to space each study session at least 24 hours apart for maximum effectiveness.

Elaborate Interrogation (Moderately Effective)

This is a method of asking yourself ‘why’ questions as you study.

It helps you cement your understanding of the material as you go.

It’s a quick, simple method that anyone can employ and makes the learning process more interactive as you actively explore the material.

However, it must be performed frequently during your reading sessions for maximum results (ideally every page of material).

Also, it works better for some topics than others.

Factual snippets of information lend themselves well to this process while big subjects with complex relationships are hard to contextualise in a simple ‘why’ statement.

Therefore you’ll be more successful if you have some prior knowledge or expertise in the topic and are able to identify pre-existing relationships.

Self Explanation (Moderately Effective)

woman learning

If you’ve ever been singled out by a teacher at school to explain a particular problem, you’re no doubt familiar with this technique…

And shudder at the memory.

Self-explanation expands on the elaborative interrogation technique and includes a more general explanation of the problem-solving process.

It includes how an answer is reached and the reasons behind the process.

As opposed to elaborative interrogation it can also be used for early-stage learners, having been shown to work both for kindergarten children and students solving complex mathematical problems.

It can be widely applied over many subjects and is useful for abstract learning.

The only downside is the time necessary for implementation, doubling the length of study sessions in comparison to a reading control group.

Interleaved Practice (Moderately Effective)

Some types of learning work best when topics build on one other to form a complete picture.

Much like constructing the foundations of a house before progressing to the walls and roof.

Interleaved practice is one such technique, and seems to have the most potential in the sciences and maths.

Languages also lend themselves to this method…

If you learn a set of nouns in week one, followed by a set of verbs in week two…

In week three you can practice conjugations while mixing in the elements you learned in the previous two weeks.

This helps strengthen the encoding process and commit the knowledge to memory.

Although research is lacking in its broader application, this technique could prove useful for a variety of subjects.

Highlighting (Low Effectiveness)

highlighting in open book

Like me, you’re probably liberal with highlighter application during your studies.

After all, it’s easy to do, takes very little time, and makes you feel productive when you peruse your multicoloured notes.

Look at all the pretty colours.

Unfortunately, results from the meta-analysis show that, as a stand-alone learning method, it doesn’t perform well.

In fact, highlight and underlining weren’t any more effective than reading alone.

But fear not brave highlighter; don’t throw away your pens just yet.

You can still highlight to identify important information to include in your practice testing, making it a useful application.

Summarisation (Low Effectiveness)

Summarisation forces you to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the material you’re learning.

However, it’s only effective in certain testing environments which focus on production rather than recognition…

Such as written exams, as opposed to closed, multiple choice style questions.

Summarising has been shown to work better than highlighting, underlining or rereading alone…

Although you have to include detailed information to make it effective.

Also, summarising with prior knowledge of the subject improves your chances of performing well on testing.

If you’re already skilled using the technique, it works much better.

For maximum effect, combine your summaries with the more effective methods identified in this article.

Rereading (Low Effectiveness)

three stacked books

You’d think that rereading would enable you to absorb more information than on the first sitting.

Although it’s partly true, it doesn’t give you the same bang for your buck as other techniques.

After all, it’s easy to go into zombie mode and glaze over if the material’s especially boring…

Which, let’s face it, a lot of learning can be.

When rereading, you’ve got two options:

Massed rereading: This is rereading the material straight after the first sitting. It’s shown to be more effective than outlining and summarising for the same time outlay.

Spaced rereading: Leave the material to sit for a few days before reading it again. This seems more effective than massed rereading. Try to leave a few days between sessions, during which time you can study different material.

Keyword Mnemonics (Low Effectiveness)

This is a technique which associates mental images and labels with the study material and has been used very effectively in some learning situations.

However, it’s not widely applicable and is best utilised with specific topics, such as…

  • Foreign vocabulary
  • Word definition
  • Scientific terms
  • Names
  • Occupations

It does require practice and the mental imagery needs to be vivid.

Evidence shows the technique assists short-term recall but isn’t as effective as rote learning over the longer term.

For best results, revisit the mnemonics at specific intervals.

Imagery for Text Learning (Low Effectiveness)

girl visualising

This method differs from the mnemonic in that you visualise a sentence and not just a word.

Associating your sentences with clear images has demonstrated advantages.

However, it’s less effective when memorising longer passages.

Sorry, Shakespeare.

It’s been shown to work better when students listen to the material instead of reading it themselves.

That’s multi-tasking for you.

The technique is easy to try, and I suggest experimenting with it, although it might take practice.

Two More learning Strategies

Chunking

Chunking is the process where you break large pieces of information into smaller, bitesized portions.

Unsurprisingly, this helps with learning and recall.

Take a language for example. You break it down into verbs, nouns and tenses, which makes it more manageable.

When you combine these chunks in various ways, you learn how to use the language in different situations.

It becomes malleable as you learn the relationship between each component…

And you can begin to form complex sentences.

Polygots often find it easier to start learning a new language because they possess existing chunks of knowledge.

Most subjects use similar chunking strategies, whereby larger pieces of knowledge are broken into smaller pieces.

We all use chunking strategies on a daily basis…Just think of how telephone numbers are listed.

Instead of one long number, they’re grouped for easy recognition.

Simple Practice and Repetition

golf swing repetition

In my opinion, this is the real key to learning faster and remembering more.

In the west, changes in education have recently placed more emphasis on understanding than rote learning.

Teachers discuss topics with students until they feel they have understood the components of the problem…

However, this understanding can be misleading unless it’s followed up with repetition.

Indeed western students are falling behind their far eastern counterparts in some subjects…

Mainly because in Asia, rote learning techniques to provide students with a thorough grasp of the material…

Before they progress to more complicated subject relationships.

To consolidate that understanding, it’s imperative to use memorisation and repetition to assist memory recall.

Take a golf swing for example. It’s not just a matter of deconstructing the swing into its components and analysing each one.

It’s also a matter of practising the components over and over again to learn how they fit together as a whole.

Only this way, when the swing has been practised hundreds of thousands of times, can it become instinctive.

Scott H Young, proved how important repetition is in his recent 30 day challenge, where he attempted to learn how to draw a realistic portrait.

While practising the location of facial features (understanding), he felt his progress was too slow.

So he shifted gears and began repeating his drawings as quickly as possible, before critiquing each one to consolidate his understanding.

With a tight repetition and feedback loop, he was able to draw an excellent portrait after one month.

Why Do I Still Struggle to Learn?

Between all of the techniques listed above, you should find a few techniques that suit your learning style.

Learning isn’t an exact science and you should experiment to see what works best for you.

Despite robust research which teaches people how to learn faster and remember more, often students still have problems…

And this often boils down to procrastination…

Procrastination

student procrastinating

If the thought of learning a new skill makes you want to curl up in a ball and watch re-runs of friends, you’re not alone.

Learning is a process and can be painful…

Procrastination is a common by by-product, especially if you focus on the result of your endeavour.

It’s pretty daunting to visualise being able to speak another language fluently…

…and can make the most determined learner resort to cat videos.

However, there are two techniques to help you overcome procrastination…

And strap a rocket to your learning efforts.

Two Minute Rule

With this technique, you tell yourself to perform just two minutes of an activity before giving yourself permission to stop.

Often when you’ve completed two minutes, you’ll get into the flow and continue without hesitation.

To illustrate, perform one press up now.

As you likely found, it’s very easy to do more press-ups when you’ve broken through the initial inertia.

Studying is no different.

Motivation follows action, not the other way round.

There’s an app to help with this:

Pomodoro timer:

The Pomodoro technique is a method whereby you work for 25 minutes before taking a 5-minute break. You perform this cycle 4 times before taking a longer 15-minute break.

During each 25-minute working stint, you eliminate all distractions. If you set yourself the challenge of performing one Pomodoro, it’s very easy to complete the whole set.

System vs Result

Stop thinking about your end goal, and focus on your system…

So instead of playing that song perfectly on the guitar, focus your attention on the current practice session.

Stick to the plan…

Such as the timetable you structured before you started studying.

Learning ten new words a day seems much more manageable than mastering a language, and with compound interest, the effects will add up very quickly.

Repetition app:

It’s said that in order to become a famous comedian, Seinfeld decided to write one joke a day.

To ensure he stuck to this plan, he crossed each day off with a red X on a wall calendar after writing a joke.

His knew his only job was to maintain the string of red X’s…

And that eventually, his hard work would pay off.

Using an app, you can track your learning each day with a virtual red X. This is huge motivation to stick to your study plan.

Conclusion

Practicing karate

There are many study methods available to try and I hope you find one of these techniques works for you.

As an easily distracted, chronic procrastinator, I’m constantly seeking small ways to improve my efficiency…

So I can spend more time watching talking dog videos.

Let me know how your own speed learning efforts progress.

Want more mind tickles?