Do we have to work harder or smarter to learn faster?
Putting more time and grind may not be the best way to learn new material. Neuropsychology now reveals what happens inside our brains when we learn and memorize stuff.
Turns out, if abused or pushing yourself too hard, vesting more effort and time results in fewer results.
Armed with this easy does it approach here are just 4 tremendously effective principles to become a super learner.
1. Be an active practitioner of what you learn
Ben Franklin famously said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” The level of your engagement in learning is next to the most important thing stipulating the speed of the whole process. If you combine theory with practice, your learning curve will be a lot steeper and your retention of all the new info will be more sustainable.
Moreover, this will give you significantly more possibilities to explore and play with ideas. Learning and applying new knowledge makes you more creative and help you develop skills crucial for understanding the subject much deeper. True mastery can only be achieved when you extrapolate known wisdom with your own ideas and observations which can only occur if you act on it.
Think of it this way, if you’re just casually reading some marketing advice without implementing them, you’re not actually learning anything. No matter how many cool white papers you read or how many masterclasses attend, you need to see how it works for yourself and the only way to do it is to try things out.
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2. Use spaced repetitions and summaries
The attention span is one thing, the long term memory is another. No matter how good you are at focusing or how big a chunk of new info you can process in one go, your brain still needs multiple takes to retain it. The best techniques to do it is using spaced repetition and summaries.
Spaced repetition is simply getting back to the learning material within 48 hours (2 full sleep cycles). The harder the content to grasp, the more times you should get back to it. There is no strict pattern to follow as long as you keep sufficient spaces between learning (at least 2 hours) and give yourself time to rest and ponder on what has been learned in freeplay mode.
Many groundbreaking ideas have one thing in common - they were all presented to the inventors during the time of rest like taking a bath or sitting under an apple tree.
Summaries are like rivets holding new pieces of information where they should be on a bigger scheme. Imagine a scrapbook holding pics of every single moment of your life. Every pic is a fraction of your story and simultaneously a story on its own, just a smaller one. But only if you have access to all the pics, you will be able to see the whole of it. Summaries solidify each piece of info and help your memory to systemize it. The more systemized the knowledge of the subject, the easier will be the retrieval of needed info, the better will be your understanding.
Whenever you’re finished reading a piece of info, take a few minutes to summarize it. The best way to do it is to write down and/or say out loud the main ideas behind what you just read. Using your own words will solidify this new information and will ensure that you understand the principle itself. Do it like you’re explaining what you have just learned to someone.
Try it now and write a summary of what you learned in this article so far (sure, you can look up).
3. Speed up your reading
Your brain can process the info much faster than you might imagine. On average, we read 300 words per minute. Studies show that you can read twice as fast with the same retention level after just 30 minutes of practice in speed-reading. The actual world record is 25,000 words per minute. That’s Lord of The Rings trilogy in under 20 minutes!
So what’s the trick? Just 3 things to remember:
Normal readers move their eyes as the line goes and that’s what slows them down. It requires a lot more of fixation points to get from the beginning to the end of a line. Your gaze is bouncing from one single word in this sentence to the next one, and that puts additions strain on your eyes and slows the reading speed.
Speed-readers rely on bigger saccades - fixation points of vision. They use peripheral vision to read chunks of text not separate words.
It requires some practice but eventually, you’ll get there. Start by increasing the font size so a line would contain no more than 4-6 words and try to grab the whole line with your peripheral vision.
Fix your gaze at the center of this line and move it vertically down from the top, not horizontally from left to right
Decrease the font size gradually maintaining the top-to-bottom style of reading and avoid moving your eyes left to right.
The other thing is to read without relapses. Sometimes we need to go back and re-read what we just went through because we need another take on the info to comprehend it more fully. But most often than not it’s just a bad habit that we develop over the years of studying. We think our brain isn’t fast enough to keep up with the eyes but that’s just not what’s going on. Our brain is more than capable of processing written info as long as we follow the idea behind it. That is not averting our attention to other thoughts and tasks.
Make it a habit to re-read text only after you finish the whole paragraph, not while still in the middle of a sentence. Diversions like this mess up with both your reading speed and comprehension.
Stop subvocalizing what you’re reading. Than mental voice pronouncing words of this sentence really slows you down. Not your fault really, that’s how we’ve been taught to read back in schools. Now it’s time to relearn how to read.
Subvocalizing words take mental energy as it activates the same brain regions as speech. Since you can process up to 25,000 written words per minute but only 150 spoken words, you are being literally dragged behind by your own tongue. You do not need to pronounce anything in your head to understand it, your brain can pick up written text much faster without it.
There are a few tricks to minimize subvocalization like chewing gum while reading or guiding your eyes with your hand. The first distracts you from saying words in your head while the other helps to fix on groups of words instead of a separate word. You can also try listening to the music as it also helps with concentration. Still, the most effective solution is the most obvious - read faster than you can actually speak.
There’s no way to be a better reader than to read.
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At around 300 wpm it’ll be a slur of incomprehensible murmur that with practice will draw you further away from subvocalizing stuff you read.
4. Have more fun
Numerous studies confirm that having a break is crucial component for any studying session. When we concentrate for too long we hit the so-called “learning plateau” - the point when no new information can be effectively processed and when further studying actually decrease your comprehension. In other words, the more you learn the less you understand if you overstudy.
Naturally we need more time to rest our weary heads, however, not all past time is equally beneficial. Scrolling down on social media, for example, is linked with increased level of stress and impedes your ability to learn.
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The best way to prevent hitting the learning plateau is to have some fun. This activates lateral thinking - the famous out of the box approach. That’s why many famous inventors and scientists had insights when they were relaxing, not concentrating hard on the task at hand.
When we are relaxed our minds enters the so-called scattered mode of thinking. The problem that we’re trying to crack is still there, just not at the immediate center of attention. It bounces around at the edges of our minds where it can hit something that will help us solve it, something we wouldn’t have the chance to think of if we were focused.
So the next time you get stuck on some daunting stuff or just work/study for too long, get out and have some fun, or just exercise as it improves cognitive abilities much the same way.
All of the said principles are downright easy to follow and extremely effective to help you learn stuff much faster. They do not require any preliminaries or special skills, so start implementing them right away. And remember that having fun in the process is what actually matters.