Whether you are revising for exams or learning for the pleasure of it, it’s hard to downplay the advantages of fast learning. After all, we are all busy, it makes sense to be smart with our time. So can science help us to be a fast learner?
Back when I went to school, lessons consisted of reading passages from coursebooks out loud in class. We would also copy the teacher’s notes verbatim, and repeat times tables by rote.
Nowadays, research shows that these methods are outdated and don’t work. Can you see what they all have in common? They are all passive ways of learning. The above methods require little if no interaction from the learner.
You’ll find that the fast learning techniques highlighted in this article are all designed to be proactive.
7 Science-Backed Hacks to Help You Be a Fast Learner
When you take notes – phrase them in your own words
When you are in a lecture listening to the tutor or reading from a textbook or computer, you take notes. But what is the best way to do this?
Research suggests that highlighting text or copying and pasting from the text will not help you become a fast learner.
In one 2014 study, students had to take notes on a TED talk using a laptop or pen and paper. After 30 minutes, they had to recall specific facts and conceptual factors regarding the talk.
Results showed laptop users slightly outperformed the pen and paper users when recalling facts. However, the pen and paper users really out-performed laptop users in conceptual thinking.
Researchers noticed that laptop users were typing faster than writers. They deduced that the laptop users were more than likely to write verbatim and not engage with the concept.
So, taking notes on a laptop is slightly better for recalling facts. However, if you want to understand the concept, then write your notes using pen and paper.
Keep reviewing your notes
As well as writing notes in your own words, research suggests that you review them regularly. But consider how you like to study in the first place. For example, if you are a constant laptop user, or prefer electronic media, then suddenly switching to pen and paper will be difficult.
Likewise, if you like the feel of having books in your hands or going to the library, then taking notes on a laptop might not come easily. The aim is to make you a fast learner.
If you prefer to access your study material via electronic media, then take notes on your laptop. If you like reading books and writing, then use a pen and paper.
The main point in both instances is to use your own words but regularly review them.
Speak out loud when you review and revise
Studies show there is a difference between thinking about information silently and saying it out loud. Again, this is because one method is passive and the other is proactive.
Speaking a word, rather than thinking a word, works to strengthen that word in our long-term memory. So when we are actively speaking information out loud, we are embedding it into our memories.
Researchers used four different methods to test learning written information:
- Reading silently
- Listening to a recording of oneself reading
- Hearing someone else read
- Reading out loud in real-time
Results showed the ‘production effect’ of reading out loud resulted in the best information retrieval.
Anchor new information to things you do know
Writing for this site, I often fall back on work I’ve completed in the past for my psychology degree. If a subject seems too dense or doesn’t make sense to me, I’ll go back to my studies and unpick it that way.
Research shows that when you anchor new information onto something that you understand, you associate it with a deeper memory. Now you have a greater context for this new information. That unrelated titbit, that tip of the iceberg is holding onto a huge mass of ice under the ocean.
It is not floating around on its own anymore. It is anchored to something solid in your mind. Called ‘associate learning’ new information has a broader context, which helps you remember it.
Break up study into smaller sessions rather than one long period
You have an exam in the morning. You spend the entire evening cramming until the small hours, hoping that this last-minute marathon revision session will engrain your brain with everything you need.
Or, you space out smaller study sessions throughout the day, giving yourself plenty of breaks.
Which one is better?
According to research, it’s a no-brainer. Spacing your study, or ‘distributed practice’ is a much more effective way of learning. The reason is that every time you try to recall a fact or concept and you succeed, it becomes more engrained in your memory.
So, that saying of ‘practice makes perfect‘ does make sense. Studying in one long session doesn’t allow you to practice retrieving information you are trying to learn. You are simply inputting data and hoping it will stay there.
Keep changing the way you revise
Research at John Hopkins University showed that if you always revise, or study in a particular way, you will not become a fast learner. You could get slower over time. It is a little like eating the same food again and again. Or listening to the same music on repeat. The effects will wear off.
“What we found is if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you learn more and faster than if you just keep practising the exact same thing multiple times in a row.” Pablo Celnik. M.D
So shake things up a bit. If you write your notes in black ink – try a bright colour and make every last word a picture. If you speak your notes out loud, why not sing them to your favourite tune?
Talking of speaking, you can speed up or slow down your voice. Change your environment. Instead of sitting at a desk, go outside for a walk or a run, and repeat your study notes that way.
Studies show that you can only know if you’ve understood something when you try and teach someone else about it. I watched Neil deGrasse Tyson on the new Cosmos program the other day. He talked about the quantum physics double-slit experiment.
It fascinated me. I was so excited I tried to tell my sister about it and became unstuck. Only by going back and concentrating on the basic points of the experiment and honing down on the simple facts was I able to relay it forward to others.
If you want to become a fast learner, it makes sense to use the most effective methods. If you have any suggestions that I have missed, I’d love to hear from you.
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