7 Ways to Learn Anything More Easily

Last Updated Sep 8, 2010 7:17 AM EDT

It's September, so kids are heading back to school and those of you still in college or business school are preparing to hit the books. But back-to-school time isn't just of interest to parents and traditional students, young professionals can use the yearly return to study as inspiration to start learning something new for themselves or their careers.

But what if you've decided to learn a new language or new technical skill, how can you make the process as productive and pain free as possible? Psychology has evidence-based answers to help you study anything more efficiently, and blog BPS Research Digest rounds up seven of them, which were recently featured in The Psychologist magazine (HT to Bob Sutton for the pointer.)
  • Adopt a growth mindset. Students who believe that intelligence and academic ability are fixed tend to stumble at the first hurdle. By contrast, those with a 'growth mindset', who see intelligence as malleable, react to adversity by working harder and trying out new strategies.
  • Sleep well. A 2007 study covered on the Research Digest found that lack of sleep impairs students' ability to learn new information. 28 participants attempted to remember a series of pictures of people, landscapes, scenes and objects. Crucially half had slept normally the previous night whereas the other half had been kept awake. When tested two days later, after everyone had had two nights of normal sleep, Matthew Walker found that the previously sleep-deprived students recognized 19 per cent fewer pictures in a recognition memory test.
  • Forgive yourself for procrastinating. Everyone procrastinates at some time or another â€" it's part of human nature. The secret to recovering from a bout of procrastination, according to a 2010 study, is to forgive yourself. Michael Wohl and colleagues followed 134 first year undergrads through their first two sessions of mid-term exams. Those who had forgiven themselves for procrastination prior to the initial mid-terms were less likely to procrastinate prior to the second lot of exams and tended to do better as a result.
  • Test yourself. A powerful finding in laboratory studies of learning is the 'testing effect' whereby time spent answering quiz questions (including feedback of correct answers) is more beneficial than the same time spent merely re-studying that same material. Nate Kornell of UCLA explained that testing 'creates powerful memories that are not easily forgotten' and it allows you to diagnose your learning. Kornell also had a warning: 'self-testing when information is still fresh in your memory, immediately after studying, doesn't work. It does not create lasting memories, and it creates overconfidence.'
  • Pace your studies. The secret to remembering material long-term is to review it periodically, rather than trying to cram. In a 2007 study, Doug Rohrer and Harold Pashler showed that the optimal time to leave material before reviewing it is 10 to 30 percent of the period you want to remember it for. So, if you were to be tested eleven days after first studying some material, the ideal time to revisit it would be a day later. If it's seven months from your initial study of the material to an exam, then reviewing the material after a month is optimal.
  • Vivid examples may not always work best. Common sense tells us that effective teaching involves dreaming up interesting real-life examples to help teach complicated, abstract concepts. However, in a 2008 study by Jennifer Kaminski and colleagues, students taught about mathematical relations linking three items in a group were only able to transfer the rules to a novel, real-life situation if they were originally taught the rules using abstract symbols. Those taught with the metaphorical aid of water jugs and pizza slices were unable to transfer what they'd learned.
  • Take naps. Numerous studies have shown that naps as short as ten minutes can reduce subsequent fatigue and help boost concentration.
(Photo courtesy of Flickr user Hermés, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.