And although everyone has their own style of learning, their own mnemonic tricks to try, neuroscience provides us with some helpful hints on how we might learn and remember information more effectively.
A two-part process
You might think that learning is about how the information “goes in”. But that’s only part of it. Because learning is useless without being able to remember or retrieve, what you’ve learnt – in other words – focusing on what “comes out”. Learning effectively requires being good at both.
Here are five things that neuroscience tells us about effective learning:
1. Present information in a way that makes it easier for your brain.
The way information is presented influences how easy it is for you to learn it. Although you may not always get a choice about how the information you have to learn is presented, experiencing information in a right way means that it will be easier for your brain to encode it.
For example, using words and pictures combined, using congruent visual and auditory information, reducing erroneous material and unnecessary distractions, and highlighting the most important elements to remember can all help your brain to process the information more easily.
2. Forming strong anchors to existing knowledge helps you to remember new information better.
Your brain is a network of information. Each piece of information is linked or associated with another, forming a network of concepts, words, facts, names, events and figures. When you remember one piece of information, it is often causing you to remember another, related, piece of information.
Similarly, when you are learning something new, it is often useful to connect or anchor this new piece of knowledge to something which is already firmly embedded in your memory.
3. Avoid multitasking when trying to encode new information.
Multitasking isn’t doing two (or more) things at once; it is actually when your brain is rapidly switching between two (or more) tasks at once. All this switching is effortful for the brain and can impair your ability to learn.
Instead, take the time to focus on one task at a time so that your full attention to concentrated on the learning experience. This means that you reduce the mental costs of “switching” and can learn the information more effectively. If you do have to multitask then try and make sure the accompanying task is one that you can do easily – on “automatic pilot” – to free up as many mental resources as possible for concurrent learning task.
4. Practice retrieving the information you have learned when you have a spare moment to help stave off forgetting.
Most of what you learn is forgotten unless you routinely use the information. This is because of ongoing brain plasticity. Retrieval practice – where you try and recall the information from scratch or when you try and recognise information which you have experienced previously – helps to reinforce the memory connections in your brain and make them more resistant to forgetting.
5. Aim not just to learn, but to become an expert by setting yourself achievable learning goals.
Expertise is associated with a whole host of benefits from improved flexibility in your thinking and more efficient problem-solving. Being an expert doesn’t necessarily mean having an innate talent for something, but instead comes from sustained and effortful learning, practice and experience of something.
Setting yourself short-term achievable learning goals which accumulate over time into the development of core expertise will help you to reap the benefits of being an expert across your relevant skills and field. Having a mentor who is an expert in something that you would like to become an expert in, can help to facilitate this process.
Just a taster, find out more
These are just 5 out of a much longer list of insights which arise from neuroscience on how you can learn information better.
Given that learning is the centrepiece of your ability to develop, improve and impress, putting learning at the heart of what you do well, is key to your success.
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