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Last updated: 11.03.20

Amy Brann | Ten ways to learn more effectively

We've partnered with Amy Brann author, keynote speaker & expert in the application of neuroscience to bring you a series of learning content designed to encourage you to think about your learning experience and how you can enhance it.

Why is effective learning so important?

Everyone wants to learn in a way that makes the information stick. So that it stays in your head, rather than in one ear, out the other, as the saying goes. But how can you do this? What is the best way to learn from the perspective of your brain?

We take a look at 10 ways that can help you can learn more effectively, so that you can save both time and effort in your fast-paced world. 

1. Present the information to yourself in multiple formats.

The way information is presented influences how easy it is for you to learn. Although you may not always have a choice about how the information you have to learn is presented, using a variety of presentation modes and mediums usually helps. Words, pictures and audio are all different ways to present the information. So rather than just using one format, try multiple. For example, you could draw a picture of the content or convert it into an audio stream rather than just reading it.

2. Remove distractions. 

This might sound like an obvious one, but in a busy world it is becoming increasingly difficult to block out unwanted distractions. Clear your desk, shut your door, turn away from your phone and computer screen. Now you are ready to focus without external distraction. Then write a list of all the things that you have to do or remember, to make sure your mind is also clear of unwanted distractions.

3. Take a minute to connect - or anchor - the new information with what you already know. 

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 often causes you to remember another related piece of information.

Similarly, when you are learning something new, it is useful to connect, or anchor, this new piece of knowledge to something which is already firmly embedded in your memory. So ask yourself - “what’s this like?” and tie it to something you already know so that it is more likely to stick.

4. Avoid multitasking. 

Multitasking isn’t actually 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 is 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 (e.g. listening and walking) so that your brain isn’t conflicted as to where to focus it’s mental resources.

5. Practice retrieving the information, don’t just focus on encoding.

This one is a really important one. We therefore have a whole section dedicated to it later on. The key here is that most of what you learn is forgotten unless you routinely use it because of ongoing brain plasticity. Retrieval practice - where you practice trying to recall or recognise information which you have experienced previously - helps to reinforce the memory connections in your brain and makes them more resistant to forgetting.

Click here to view our guide to retrieval practice.

6. Have a goal. 

Learning for the sake of learning is doomed to fail because you lack the motivation to put in the necessary mental effort. While your goal is of course to learn the information, that isn’t really the whole picture.

There is a bigger goal that you are working towards - the reason why you are learning the information. Identify this goal and the reward that you will get from achieving that goal - what you will get out of knowing this information and what the long-term benefits are.

This is what really drives your motivation, increasing the effort you want to put in, and ultimately helping you learn more effectively. 

7. Harness the power of emotion.

Your mood is integral to the way you learn. Information which has an emotional edge is usually remembered better than information that is emotionally neutral. If possible, try and think emotionally about the information you are learning. Add in a human factor. Connect it to real life stories or narratives.

Try and relate it to some emotional or personal experience in your own life. This will all help to bolster your memory for the information you are learning. Similarly, try and make sure you are in a positive state of mind when learning.

Being bored, anxious, or angry can all negatively affect your motivation to learn as well as hindering your ability to attend to and focus on the information you are trying to learn, which in turn makes the learning experience less efficient. 

8. Capitalize on your social context to maximise your learning experience and embed a deeper understanding. 

Your learning does not happen in a vacuum but takes place in a dynamic setting as you interact with the people around you.

People are especially important to your learning experience because they can act as mentors, provide feedback, and offer an opportunity to observe and learn “on the job” rather than through more regimented training exercises.

In addition, when conversing with others it allows you to learn out loud, rather than just inside your own head, which helps you to rationalize, evaluate and discuss the information more thoroughly, leading to a deeper understanding of the information. 

9. Getting a good night's sleep is important for consolidating what you learn.

Sleep is essential for learning because it is the time when your brain has the opportunity to consolidate your experiences from the day off-line without unwanted mental disturbances. Getting a poor night's sleep or not having sufficient “deep sleep” can hinder your brain’s ability to consolidate what you have learnt that day. We will cover this more in a later section.

10. Be curious and enthusiastic. 

Fundamentally, learning is easier if you are interested in what you have to learn. Although this isn’t always something you can choose, it is something you can help generate. Everything has some kind of innate interest in it, however small. Search for what piques your interest in what you are learning, get input from others as to why it is interesting and try and “catch” their enthusiasm.

More broadly, by moving out of your mental comfort zone and by trying new things you will increase your propensity to come across things which are novel and unexpected, helping to boost your curiosity.

About Amy Brann

How do you build a better brain? That’s the question Amy Brann is helping leaders and organisations answer. Amy is a renowned keynote speaker and neuroscience expert who has worked with organisations around the world to help them understand how they can apply key ideas from the latest research and transform their workplace. Amy’s step by step approach makes this is entirely achievable.

Click here to find out more about Amy’s work.

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