How to Be a Better Learner
It’s here: the season of fresh starts, freshly sharpened pencils, and fresh requests for homework assistance in subjects that seem like, well, ancient history.
Don’t panic. Even if you haven’t pondered the Greco-Roman world since the 1970s, there are still ways to help your kids get better results from the study time that they put in—and hang on to that hard won knowledge for longer. The best part? These strategies will work for you, too.
What, you thought that you couldn’t pick up anything new post–senior year? Learning is possible at any age, and most folks are better at it than they think. In fact, college students in one 2009 study consistently underestimated their ability to improve their scores on a test by studying and actually outperformed their estimations by more than 50 percent.
Need further incentive? “When you keep acquiring new skills and knowledge, you model something very important for your kids: that learning doesn’t have to end when schooling does,” says Daniel Willingham, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of Why Don’t Students Like School? ($14, amazon.com).
So why not harness that back-to-school momentum and get the entire family excited to learn? Continuing education starts now.
Mix Things Up
Instead of devoting each study session to a single, repetitive exercise, experts recommend stringing together a series of varied but related activities. (Think of it as cognitive cross-training.) For example, when studying a language, you may gain more from spending 20 minutes each on reading, speaking, and vocabulary drills than from sticking with just one of those tasks for an hour. Why is this so effective? Encountering the same material in different ways can help cement knowledge because we activate different parts of the brain while doing so, says Robert A. Bjork, Ph.D., the founder of the Bjork Learning & Forgetting Lab, at the University of California at Los Angeles. Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University and the author of Guitar Zero ($12, amazon.com) (about his quest to learn to play the guitar at the age of 40), has a simpler explanation: “If you don’t vary things, you’ll tend to get bored, and if you get bored, you won’t practice.”
Study on Schedule
Crammers, take note: Your child may perform just fine on a test after pulling an all-nighter, but the knowledge she has accrued is also more likely to be temporary. “In the long term, you’ll remember more if you force your brain to repeatedly retrieve information,” says Nate Kornell, an assistant professor of psychology at Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The key is giving yourself time to forget—and then recall—what you’ve studied. Revisiting information that is no longer fresh in your mind gives the material a firmer foothold in your memory. And the longer you wait between study sessions, the harder your brain has to work to dig up those answers—and the more solid that knowledge becomes. In a 2011 study published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, fifth-grade students who reviewed new vocabulary words at one-week intervals locked in almost three times as many words as did those who didn’t space out their studying.
Sleep on It
It’s no surprise that if you’re exhausted, you’ll have a hard time following that online astronomy lecture. But research shows that the shut-eye you get the night after you learn something is just as important as how well rested you were beforehand. “Sleep is important for gelling a memory,” says Willingham. “If you don’t get enough sleep after you’ve learnedsomething, your memory of it will be incomplete.” Yet another reason to push your favorite little procrastinator to finish herhomework before the wee hours.
“There’s a universal truth for learning more efficiently: Engage with the material in a way that makes you active,” says Kornell. Translation: Watching a knitting demo on YouTube can be helpful, but the only way that you’ll ever master knits and purls is to start stitching. While school kids get plenty of opportunities for hands-on enrichment during field trips and lab experiments, some adults tend to rely on passive, book-based learning, to their own detriment. So if you want to speak Italian, don’t just sit there with headphones on. Go to an Italian restaurant. Find an Italian-conversation group on Meetup.com. Or try singing along to “O Sole Mio” with a lyric sheet.
Test Your Memory
In a 2011 study published in the journal Science, students who practiced recalling a passage that they had read retained 50 percent more of the content a week later than did those who hadn’t. Research completed at the Bjork Learning & Forgetting Lab also found that the act of recalling answers during test-taking seems to change how that data is stored in the brain, making it easier to remember in the future. And the tougher the test is, the better, because making errors—and correcting them—trains your brain to avoid the pathways that led you to the wrong information and reinforces the connections to the right answers. (Remind your kids of these benefits the next time they’re groaning about midterms.) And don’t despair if your own test-taking days are behind you. You can get the same edge from anything that sends you on a search through your memory bank. Flash cards do the job well, whether you opt for the good old index-card variety or an app, such as Evernote Peek or Study Blue.
Try a Change of Scenery
According to Bjork’s research, switching up where you study— even just alternating rooms in the house—may boost your ability to tap into what you’ve learned. Here’s why: Our brains associate new facts with various internal and external stimuli, such as physical location. So if your son studies for a geography exam only at the dining-room table, he may find it easier to recall the difference between an archipelago and a peninsula when he’s sitting there rather than anywhere else, including his classroom. “But if you learn that information in multiple environments, you’re tying it to more cues, so there’s a higher likelihood that you can retrieve it anywhere,” says Kornell. The musical-chairs approach may not be for everyone, though: “If your child has trouble concentrating, then having a consistent place to study is best,” says Kornell. And in that case, just imagining himself at the dining-room table come test time can help him recall what he has learned, says Bjork, because he’ll be mentally reinstating that familiar study context.
Pose the Right Questions
Think like a philosopher, not a gossip columnist. When you ask yourself complex questions about what you’re studying—such as why, why not, how, and what if, rather than shallow ones, like who, when, and where—you naturally develop a more nuanced understanding of the subject. Interesting questions will get you thinking about how things are connected, which in turn creates meaning. “You’re much more likely to remember something that is meaningful, rather than surface details,” says Willingham.
Take Notes Later
Your child might think that she’s being a star pupil by writing down every single word that her teacher says, but that court-stenographer routine may actually inhibit her ability to learn, according to Bjork. Frantic scribbling can distract students from absorbing what’s being said. Waiting to record notes—even just until an idea has been fully presented—requires them to reflect on and organize what they’ve heard.
Challenge Yourself, But Not Too Much
Marcus refers to this as the Goldilocks principle: If a task is too easy, you won’t build knowledge or skills. If it’s too tough, you may get frustrated and quit. So aim for what’s just right: a sweet spot of difficulty that experts call “the zone of proximal development.” The idea is to keep pushing yourself, but not so hard that you get stuck. “The makers of video games understand this principle well,” says Marcus. “The next level is harder but not impossible, so it makes you want to keep going.”
You’ve probably heard about the potential benefits of meditation for conditions such as stress and chronic pain. Now there’s evidence that mindfulness training can improve cognitive abilities and even raise test scores. A new study from researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, showed that students who practiced as little as two weeks of mindfulness training, including 45 minutes of formal meditation practice four days a week, boosted their Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) results by an average of 16 percent. The researchers attributed the change to general improvements in focus and working memory—a boon for learning of all kinds. For an introduction to meditating with your kids, try the book Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness With Children, ($22, amazon.com) written by Zen Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
Teach Someone Else
One of the best ways to understand a concept is to explain it to others. “To teach something, you have to organize the content in your mind, think about the most logical way to present it, and come up with analogies to help illustrate your points,” says Willingham. “That requires the kind of deep processing that helps you learn.” Try giving a 15-minute mock lecture on photo composition to your family in the living room or to a friend over a glass of wine. And suggest that your kids offer to tutor other children who need help; one study shows that students who teach others do better on tests. If playing professor doesn’t sound appealing, just pretend. Doing the prep work as if you were going to lead a class has similar benefits.
Keep It Entertaining
Your kids have a built-in motivator: fear of flunking—and subsequent loss of TV privileges. For adults, it’s easy to give up when the endeavor gets too boring or onerous. “Lack of motivation is the number one barrier to adult learning,” says Willingham. His advice: Stay inspired by making things enjoyable. If you’re curious about art history, ditch the dry textbook and sign up for a docent tour at a museum. And reward yourself for the time and effort that you’re investing. If you practice translating Latin poetry for an hour, treat yourself to a pedicure or a favorite snack. “Learning will inevitably feel like work sometimes,” says Willingham, “but it should be fun, too.”