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But what you know, and what you can do, matters a whole lot more.
Which means the faster you learn, the more successful you can be.
So let's jump right in. Here are ten ways, backed by science, to speed up the learning process.
1. Say out loud what you want to remember.
Research shows that compared to reading or thinking silently (as if there's another way to think), the act of speech is a "quite powerful mechanism for improving memory for selected information."
According to scientists, "Learning and memory benefit from active involvement. When we add an active measure or a production element to a word, that word becomes more distinct in long-term memory, and hence more memorable."
In short, while mentally rehearsing is good, rehearsing out loud is even better.
2. Take notes by hand, not on a computer.
Most of us can type faster than we can write. (And a lot more neatly.)
But research shows handwriting your notes means you'll learn more. Oddly enough, taking notes by hand enhances both comprehension and retention, possibly because instead of just serving as a quasi-stenographer, you're forced to put things in your own words in order to keep up.
Which means you'll remember what you heard a lot longer.
Maybe that's why Richard Branson has maintained a lifelong habit of keeping a handwritten journal?
3. Chunk your study sessions.
You're busy. So you wait until the last minute to learn what you need to know: A presentation, a sales demo, an investor pitch...
Bad idea. Research shows "distributed practice" is a much more effective way to learn.
Imagine you want to nail your investor pitch. Once you've drafted your pitch, run through it once. Then take a few minutes to make corrections and revisions.
Then step away for a few hours, or even for a day, before you repeat the process.
Why does distributed practice work? The "study-phase retrieval theory" says that each time you attempt to retrieve something from memory and the retrieval is more successful, that memory becomes harder to forget. (If you go over your pitch repeatedly, much of your presentation is still top of mind ... which means you don't have to retrieve it from memory.)
Another theory regards "contextual variability." When information gets encoded into memory, some of the context is also encoded. (Which is why listening to an old song can cause you to remember where you were, what you were feeling, etc., when you first heard that song.) That context creates useful cues for retrieving information.
Regardless of how it works, distributed practice definitely works. So give yourself enough time to space out your learning sessions. You'll learn more efficiently and more effectively.
4. Test yourself. A lot.
A number of studies show that self-testing is an extremely effective way to speed up the learning process.
Partly that's due to the additional context created; if you test yourself and answer incorrectly, not only are you more likely to remember the right answer after you look it up ... you'll also remember that you didn't remember. (Getting something wrong is a great way to remember it the next time, especially if you tend to be hard on yourself.)
So don't just rehearse your presentation. Test yourself on what comes after your intro. Test yourself by listing the five main points you want to make. Try to recite key statistics, or sales estimates, or cash flow projections....
Not only will you gain confidence in how much you do know, you'll more quickly learn the things you don't know.
5. Change the way you practice.
Repeating anything over and over again in the hopes you will master that task will not only keep you from improving as quickly as you could, in some cases it may actually decrease your skill.
According to recent research from Johns Hopkins, if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, "you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row." The most likely cause is reconsolidation, a process where existing memories are recalled and modified with new knowledge.
Say you want to master a new presentation. Do this:
1. Rehearse the basic skill. Run through your presentation a couple of times under the same conditions you'll eventually face when you do it live. Naturally, the second time through will be better than the first; that's how practice works. But then, instead of going through it a third time ...
2. Wait. Give yourself at least six hours so your memory can consolidate. (Which probably means waiting until tomorrow before you practice again, which is just fine.)
3. Practice again, but this time...
- Go a little faster. Speak a little — just a little — faster than you normally do. Run through your slides slightly faster. Increasing your speed means you'll make more mistakes, but that's OK — in the process, you'll modify old knowledge with new knowledge — and lay the groundwork for improvement. Or ...
- Go a little slower. The same thing will happen. (Plus, you can experiment with new techniques — including the use of silence for effect — that aren't apparent when you present at your normal speed.) Or ...
- Change the conditions. Use a different projector. Or a different remote. Or a lavaliere instead of a headset mic. Switch up the conditions slightly; not only will that help you modify an existing memory, it will also make you better prepared for the unexpected.
Break your presentation into smaller chunks. Almost every task includes a series of discrete steps. That's definitely true for presentations. Pick one section of your presentation. Deconstruct it. Master it. Then put the whole presentation back together. Or ...
4. And keep modifying the conditions.
You can extend the process to almost anything. While it's clearly effective for learning motor skills, the process can also be applied to learning almost anything.
6. Exercise regularly.
This study shows that regular exercise can improve memory recall. Another study from McMaster University found that periods of high-intensity exercise are good for fitness and memory: Exercise resulted in significant improvements in high-interference memory. (Interference occurs when information that is similar gets in the way of the information you're trying to recall.)
A commonly used example for high-interference memory is remembering faces, a skill that is especially useful for people hoping to make connections.
Exercise also resulted in an increase in a chemical called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein that supports the function, growth, and survival of brain cells.
So: Not only will you feel better if you exercise, you'll also improve your memory.
7. Get more sleep.
Sleep is when most of the memory consolidation process occurs. That's why even a short nap can improve your memory recall.
In one study participants memorized illustrated cards to test their memory strength. After memorizing a set of cards they took a 40-minute break and one group napped while the other group stayed awake. After the break both groups were tested on their memory of the cards. The sleep group performed significantly better, retaining on average 85 percent of the patterns compared to 60 percent for those who had remained awake.
Researchers have also found that sleep deprivation can affect your ability to commit new information to memory and consolidate any short-term memories you have made.
Bottom line? Sleep more, learn more.
8. Learn several subjects in succession.
Instead of blocking (focusing on one subject, one task, or one skill during a learning session) learn or practice several subjects or skills in succession.
Why? One theory is that interleaving improves your brain's ability to differentiate between concepts or skills. When you block practice one skill, you can drill down until muscle memory takes over and the skill becomes more or less automatic. When you interleave several skills, any one skill can't become mindless — and that's a good thing. Instead you're constantly forced to adapt and adjust. You're constantly forced to see, feel, and discriminate between different movements or different concepts.
And that helps you really learn what you're trying to learn, because you it helps you gain understanding at a deeper level.
9. Teach someone else.
It may be occasionally true that those who can't, teach... but research shows it's definitely true that those who teach speed up their learning and retain more.
Even just thinking that you'll need to teach someone can make you learn more effectively. According to the researchers, "When teachers prepare to teach, they tend to seek out key points and organize information into a coherent structure. Our results suggest that students also turn to these types of effective learning strategies when they expect to teach."
The act of teaching also helps improve knowledge. Ask anyone who has trained someone else whether they also benefited from the experience.
They definitely did.
10. Build on things you do know.
Relating something new to something you're familiar with is called associative learning. Not the Pavlov's dog form of associative learning, but the kind where you learn the relationship between seemingly unrelated things.
In simple terms, whenever you say, "Oh, I get it... this is basically like that," you're using associative learning.
Need to learn something new? Try to associate it, at least in part, with something you already know. Then you only have to learn the differences or nuances. And you'll be able to apply greater context — which will help with memory storage and retrieval — to the new information you learn.
All of which means you'll need to learn a lot less.
Which science says will result in you being able to learn a lot more quickly.