If you ask teachers and parents, and even some older students, for tips on how best to learn, you will get lots of advice. Some based on their personal experience - what worked for them - some on what they have seen work for students and some derived from research.
In his book "How We Learn – The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why it Happens”, Benedict Carey includes some tips based on scientific research. Of the nine tips below, the first eight come from Carey’s book and I have added a ninth: Increase Your Brain’s Capacity to Learn.
Here are the tips:
- Vary your learning routine, locations and material.
Many students have a fixed time and place to study. However research has shown that varying your study location – at home in a different room, at school, in a library- can improve learning. In a similar way occasionally changing the time of day you study and the materials you use - laptop, pen and paper, speaking into a voice recorder - also boost learning.
- Get a good night’s sleep.
But vary your sleep time depending on what you are learning.
If you are trying to learn facts like names, formulas and dates, go to bed early and get the deep sleep of the early evening. Then get up early and review what you had been learning the day before.
The sleep that best consolidates creative thinking and motor skills happens in the morning before awakening. So to learn these skills you may find it best to go to bed a little later than normal and sleep in a bit.
- Space your study time.
It's better to do two one-hour study sessions than a single unbroken two-hour session. You will remember more if you do an hour today, then another hour tomorrow, especially if you get the right sleep during the night (see tip 2).
- "Cramming" for an exam can work…. for your exam results.
This is a last resort tactic and is proven to work short term, so you will probably do better in the exam. But you won't remember much long term.
Your brain makes long-term memories only after some forgetting has happened. This is similar to a muscle that needs exercise to break it down a little so that it can become stronger.
- Use self testing.
This is a strong, proven learning technique. You can test yourself by trying to remember what you were learning, or explaining it aloud to yourself or to someone who is prepared to listen. You can get friends to quiz you. One of the benefits is that is that you can get immediate feedback whether you are right or wrong.
- Take notes in class and review them.
But don't be passive. Don’t take notes verbatim and just look over them, or review highlighted text. This won't be much help for your learning.
Be an active note taker. Try to make notes from the important points of the class then rewrite them without looking at the notes. This works your memory harder and immediately shows you what you don't know.
- Don't worry about short breaks or distractions while you're studying.
Learning scientists know that a short break while you are trying to solve a problem you're stuck on is one of the best ways to succeed. When you take a break, your brain will continue to work on the problem subconsciously, without the imposition of preconceived ideas you may have had.
- Create learning sessions where you mix knowledge areas or skills.
When you focus on learning one thing at a time, it is the fastest way to acquire the learning but it can put a limit on the extent of the learning.
Mixing the knowledge areas in a learning session – for example working on maths, then history, then building a PowerPoint presentation about astronomy in a single learning session will sharpen your grasp on all of them better than if you used the session for one knowledge area alone.
- Increase your brain’s capacity to learn.
The first eight tips are really about how to get the best result from your brain’s current "learning capacity”. By “learning capacity” I mean the physical structure of your brain, including all the neural networks that determine how well you can think (your memory, attention, speed of processing and ability to sequence ideas). Imagine if you could increase your brain’s ability to do those things better. Thanks to recent neuroscience research and the conversion of that into a range of brain training programs we all now have the ability to improve our learning capacity. Then when you use the learning tips 1 – 8, you will get an even better learning outcome.