We often assume that the ability to quickly learn material and master different fields of study comes down to how smart a person is, or how good of a memory they have. But research increasingly suggests that raw talent has very little to do with overall success in life, including success in learning. Instead, success has a lot to do with the strategies and techniques you choose to follow.
Over the years I’ve been blessed to work with TSM in researching the techniques used by various experts who have become leaders. Many of these strategies have been woven into our learning platform.
Whether you’re a high school student studying for a final exam, a college student struggling to keep up in class, or a psychology student preparing to take the EPPP, these learning techniques can make the difference between success and failure. These ten strategies can also spell the difference between a study process that is full of stress and frustration vs. one that is fulfilling and fun.
Tip #1: Create Productive Habits.
Self-control and willpower—the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to reach long-term goals—has been linked to success. This is especially true when it comes to learning difficult material, which requires intensive focus and self-discipline. The problem, however, is that willpower is a limited resource that continually gets depleted. In the APA booklet on willpower, they quote one of the classic studies establishing this:
“Some of the earliest evidence of this effect [willpower depletion] came from the lab of Roy Baumeister. In one early study, he brought subjects into a room filled with the aroma of fresh-baked cookies. The table before them held a plate of the cookies and a bowl of radishes. Some subjects were asked to sample the cookies, while others were asked to eat the radishes. Afterward, they were given 30 minutes to complete a difficult geometric puzzle. Baumeister and his colleagues found that people who ate radishes (and resisted the enticing cookies) gave up on the puzzle after about 8 minutes, while the lucky cookie-eaters persevered for nearly 19 minutes, on average. Drawing on willpower to resist the cookies, it seemed, drained the subjects’ self-control for subsequent situations.”
At first this seems to present us with an impossible situation. If you draw on self-control in one area, then you deplete your willpower for other areas. Thankfully, there is a way around this dilemma. You can bypass the need for willpower by creating productive habits. When we engage in right behavior repeatedly over time, that right behavior becomes automated, no longer requiring stores of willpower.
In the context of learning, that means it’s important to create productive study habits. Whether those habits involve turning off your smartphone while studying, keeping to a routine, refusing to procrastinate, or implementing some of the steps below, your success will largely be determined by your habits.
You know when something has become a habit when you do it naturally without even thinking about it, thus bypassing the need for willpower. Obviously willpower is required in the initial process of establishing a good habit, but once the habit is in place, practicing the habit no longer has a depleting effect on our willpower reserves.
Tip #2. Give Your Brain Plenty of “Incubation Periods”
Successful people don’t simply work from the time they get up in the morning to the time they go to bed at night. Rather, successful people make sure they include times of rest, relaxation and self-care. Times of rest act as incubation periods that give the brain an opportunity to consolidate what you’ve learned. This could include activities like,
- practicing mindfulness meditation or yoga
- doing nothing at all
These periods of rest work in tandem with intense cognitive study to help cement data into your brain and prevent neurotransmitter depletion. For these times to be effective as incubation periods, you should try not to fill them with other cognitive activity. For example, when you eat, give your full attention to enjoying your food. When you go for walks, deliberately purpose not to think about the content of your studies. When you are having a rest, turn off your phone and email so your brain can be at peace.
We’ve discussed this in more detail in our article ‘The Archimedes Principle: Leveraging the Power of Rest’ and in my article, ‘The Role of Stillness in Education.’
Tip #3. Don’t rely on rote memory.
We all want to be able better to remember the things we study. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our ability to recall information depends entirely on how good of a memory we have, or how naturally smart we are. However, the research actually points in a different direction. In 2002, the journal Nature Neuroscience published the results of tests performed on memory champions. These tests were designed to discover whether people with exceptional memory ability were naturally smarter or had brains that were structurally different than average. Rather surprisingly, brain scans and cognitive neuroimaging tests revealed that the memory champions were in the above average IQ group. As far as the structure of their brains was concerned, these fell into the average category. So if the difference between people who are “memory athletes” and those with merely average recall had nothing to do with their brains, what was the defining difference? It all came down to the techniques they employed.
In other words, memory is a skill that we develop just like any other skill, and we develop it by following the right techniques. If you neglect these techniques and rely on rote memory, you will be using your brain inefficiently. Consequently, you could be prolonging the time it takes to master material.
We have discussed this further at ‘Best Kept Secrets About Brain Fitness: a Conversation with Graham Taylor and Robin Phillips (Part 3)’ and ‘The Myth of the Good Memory: how memory is a skill not a gift (Study Myths Part 2)’.
Tip #4. Space Out Your Learning
It seems counter-intuitive, but the most efficient learning is actually re-learning following a period of decreased retention or even total forgetfulness. Indeed, research shows that the most effective study occurs when that study is spread out over time, as opposed to massed practice in which all the study occurs in a single session. Nate Kornell explained about this in an article for Psychology Today:
“If you’re going to study something twice (or more), you learn more by spacing the two study trials apart rather than massing them together. So don’t study something 5 times on Friday, study it every day from Monday-Friday. You will learn more. The spacing effect is one of the strongest effects in the memory literature.”
Memory champion Ed Cooke used this method when preparing for memory tournaments. He compares it to watering a plant. “[T]hink of memories as plants in the garden of your memory” and “[t]hink of repetition as watering” Cooke explained. “Massed repetition is like watering a plant over and over all at once, and then failing to do so for months. Spaced repetition is like watering the plant once a week for a period of months. The same amount of total watering leads to two very different plants at the end of the story, only one of which is dead. So it is with memory.”
Bottom line: don’t save what you need to learn for the night before the exam.
You can read more about this in our article ‘What the School System Never Told You about Remembering and Forgetting.’
Tip #5. Get to Know Your Subject Deeply
We all like to take short-cuts. The problem with taking shortcuts is that sometimes they cause us to end up wasting more time in the long term. Paradoxically, sometimes the quickest way to learn something is to stop trying to be quick.
When it comes to learning, it’s easy to think that everything we need can be found on Google. However, to truly master a field of knowledge and sediment it in your long-term memory, you need to do more than simply memorize isolated facts. Rather, you need a foundation of knowledge that can become a basis for conceptual thinking, contextual reasoning, and the ability to for schemas out of that knowledge. All of this requires a deep familiarity with your subject that cannot be achieved by simply Googling what you need to know. As Debbie Morrison explained,
“Googling’ a fact or concept will likely be stored in the learner’s short-term memory, and while useful in certain contexts, it does not replace a learner having a knowledge base to call upon when working on complex projects or initiatives.”
Tip #6. Engage in Active Learning and Retrieval
Passive learning is when you simply read and re-read material, or listen to it on audio over and over again. People engage in this type of passive learning on the assumption that repeated exposure to material will result in learning. By contrast, active learning is when you create flashcards, summary sheets, take practice tests, set yourself challenges, and constantly dig deeper into elements you are having trouble understanding. Active learning may require more initial effort, but in the long run it could save you hundreds of hours.
The most important part of active learning is retrieval. As Brown, Roediger and McDaniel explain, “Practice in retrieving new material from memory is more effective for durable learning than review by rereading.”
When creating systems for active learning, avoid making it too easy on yourself, as effort is a huge factor in memory-solidification. This is especially the case with retrieval exercises like quizzes and practice tests, which ought to include an element of “desirable difficulty.” To quote again from Brown, Roediger and McDaniel,
“After an initial test, delaying subsequent retrieval practice is more potent for reinforcing retention than closely-spaced practice, because delayed retrieval requires more effort…. Short-term impediments that make practice more effortful (like retrieval that’s spaced, varied, or interleaved) are “desirable difficulties” because they make for stronger learning and memory. Arduous retrieval both strengthens the routes to memory and makes the memory pliable again, updating it with new information and more recent learning.” (From To Learn, Retrieve and Embrace Difficulties)
Tip #7. Begin Each Day with the Hardest Task
We’ve already seen that willpower is like a muscle: each of us possess a merely limited amount of this resource each day. By the end of the day our self-control reserves are more depleted than they were at the beginning of the day, in the same way that a muscle is weaker after spending time at the gym. (Have you ever noticed that chocolate is easier to resist in the morning than in the evening?)
To be an effective learner, you must have a good work ethic. This includes continually exercising willpower to say no to distractions and remain focused. Moreover, you must constantly use self-control to override automated behaviors that threaten to lead you away from your studies, or which threaten to lure you into inefficient methods of studying.
Since self-control seems to be strongest at the beginning of the day, then assuming that all other considerations are equal, it is best to undertake your hardest tasks first of all, just like someone would lift the heaviest weights at the beginning of his or her workout routine. But don’t wear yourself out too much or you might have insufficient willpower reserves to draw on during the rest of the day. That leads nicely into our next tip.
Tip #8. On Difficult Tasks, Take Baby Steps
When you find yourself overwhelmed by the amount of material you need to learn to reach a given goal, it can be tempting to make big commitments that will introduce important changes in your life. For example, some people promise themselves that they will study for six hours every day, or perhaps that they will get up at 3:30 AM every morning to study.
The problem with over-committing is that it can lead to frustration and discouragement when normal life takes over. Instead of making promises to yourself that will be difficult to fulfill and then feeling guilty, or instead of delaying your work until a time in the distant future when your life can accommodate the perfect study routine, identify some baby steps you can start taking right now.
Baby steps are especially important when a person is trying to learn material or master a field of study. Through cramming and massed practice, anyone can learn something quickly. However, to truly master a field, one needs to study it consistently over time—little and often. Baby steps lend themselves to this type of necessary consistency. Baby steps also help to shift the focus to small wins that can accumulate over time to help you reach larger goals.
Tip #9. Have a Way to Monitor Your Behavior and Progress
The APA’s booklet on willpower cites psychologist Roy Baumeister, who explained that willpower is only one necessary component for achieving objectives. It is also important to establish the motivation for change and setting a clear goal, as well as having a system in place to monitor the behavior toward that goal.
Self-monitoring is especially important in the learning process. Whatever you are trying to learn, whether it’s a foreign language or the material you need to know for the psychology licensure exam, you should break your goals into manageable steps and have a clear way of monitoring your progress in each of these steps.
Self-monitoring enables a person to continually adjust their goals so that they can be SMART. A goal that is SMART is one that is specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time-bound.
Tip #10. Get plenty of sleep. A common experience among students is to skip sleep to study. But abundant evidence now exists that sleep is necessary for optimizing memory consolidation. Getting sufficient sleep, and even taking naps in the middle of the day, gives the brain what it needs to consolidate memories for future recall.
- The “Just-Study-Harder” Myth and Your EPPP Materials (Study Myths part 1)
- The Myth of the Good Memory: how memory is a skill not a gift (Study Myths Part 2)
- What the School System Never Told You about Remembering and Forgetting (Study Myths Part 3)
- Why Struggle and Frustration Are Good (Study Myths Part 4)
- Top 5 Ways Successful Students Achieve Focus During EPPP Studies