Last updated: 28.04.20

Amy Brann | The Foes to Learning Effectively

Amy Brann | The Foes to Learning Effectively

In the past few sections we’ve covered what helps you learn better. But what about the opposite? What factors can actually stop you learning properly? Well the simple answer is that if it interferes with your memory, then it is likely to interfere with your ability to learn effectively. 


One factor that is known to interfere with memory and learning is stress. Most of us will be familiar with that sensation of being stressed out and finding that your mind has just gone blank. You can’t recall the information you need to. You can’t answer a simple question. Similarly, when you are stressed out, it interferes with the brain systems that you need to learn effectively. This interference happens because of the chemical changes which are going on in your body and brain when you are feeling stressed.

When you get stressed, it initiates a cascade of chemical changes in your body and brain. There is a fast stress route which involves the hypothalamus activating your adrenaline pathways. And there is a slower stress axis which uses hormones as messengers - the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (or HPA) axis. Both of these pathways are linked to your body’s “fight or flight” response which is involved in readying your body for action. And they affect your brain functioning. So when your stress levels reach a particular threshold (and this threshold is likely to differ slightly from person to person), it has an effect on your hippocampus - a region of your brain that is involved in learning and memory - interfering with your ability to learn and remember effectively. So making sure you aren’t feeling stressed, at the time when you are trying to focus on learning something new is a good idea.

5 quick ways to help you de-stress in the moment:

  • Deep breathing to settled your nerves
  • Listening to some music to calm you down
  • Going for a walk in a greenspace  to clear your head
  • Talking to yourself in the 3rd person to give you some distance and perspective.
  • Minimize uncertainty by making sure you are well prepared
  • But what else apart from stress can negatively affect your ability to learn


    Well distraction is another major factor. With so much going on around you, both internally in your head and externally in your surroundings, it is so easy to mentally drift away from the learning task at hand. This mental interference can make the learning less efficient as the brain is having to multitask, rather than focusing on one task at a time. And although it may seem at times that multitasking is an efficient way to operate, there is a drawback. And that is that everytime your brain has to switch between one task and another, there is a short delay in your thinking - a gap, or switch cost - that otherwise could have been invested in the task at hand. And although it can often be difficult to shut off a noisy brain so you can focus on learning something new, there are practical things you can do to your physical environment that can help to tackle the external side of distraction.

    5 quick and easy ways to minimize distraction in your learning space:

  • Clearing away clutter which is not relevant to the task at hand. 
  • Put “do not disturb” sign on your door
  • Put an “away” icon on your chat messenger
  • Turn your phone to silent to stop it buzzing every time you receive a message or email,
  • Put on background music to provide a continuous acoustic baseline that blocks out unwanted noise.

    Another factor that can hinder learning is poor sleep. This will be discussed in more detail in a later article but in essence learning is a day and night process - a 24 hour cycle which not only allows you to encode the new information, but also to consolidate that information into your memory. And so if you don’t get a good night’s sleep then this second consolidatory process isn’t given the time and space that it needs to take place, making your learning less efficient in the long run.

    The Wrong Mindset

    A final one that again will be discussed in more detail in a later article is  being in the wrong kind of mental state. The basic idea here is that the risk of seeming  unintelligent because you don’t yet know the information or skill that you are about to learn can sometimes become a barrier to gaining knowledge. This mental oxymoron reveals how important it is to see learning as an opportunity to grow and develop, both individually and within a wider learning culture, rather than an opportunity to prove how intelligent you are. With the wrong mindset you will fail to capitalize or benefit from the learning opportunities on offer.