Sure-Fire Tricks for Learning Something New

Have you ever wanted to learn something new but assumed that it required too much effort, that you were too old, or that it was just too difficult? Many people would like to learn to speak a new language or play a musical instrument but incorrectly assume that the time for learning such things was when they were much younger.

Learning new things can be tough sometimes, but it is also good to keep challenging your mind as you grow older. Challenging your brain helps with longevity. Fortunately, there are a lot of tips and tricks out there that can make the process easier and more effective.

Whether you are trying to learn quantum physics, a new language, or how to perform CPR, researchers have uncovered a number of different tips, tricks, and strategies that can help you move from beginner to expert much more effectively and easily. Here are a few great ideas to consider.

1

Learn Over Time

Father teaching daughter playing guitar
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When you are trying to pick up a new skill such as learning to play the guitar or speak Spanish, you might be tempted to engage in binge-learning sessions. Instead of trying to learn everything all at once, experts suggest that spreading your practice and study sessions out over a period of time, known as distributed practice, is the best approach.

One review of common learning strategies found that distributed practice was one of the most effective strategies for learning a new skill. So instead of cramming for a big exam the night before, you are much better off spacing out a few study sessions in the weeks and days leading up to the exam.

The great thing about this approach is that it often helps people stick to their goals to learn something new.

Instead of sitting down for an hour or two every night to try to memorize Spanish vocabulary and conjugation rules, try spending 15 to 20 minutes every day on a brief study session. Not only are you more likely to actually find time for these quick sessions, you will learn more and stick with it over time.

2

Practice the Right Way

USA, New Jersey, Woman sitting on sofa and playing acoustic guitar
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They say that practice makes perfect, but recent findings reveal that it's really the right kind of practice that leads to expertise. While factors like innate talent, IQ, and motivation also play a role in how well people learn and later perform a skill, experts agree that practice does have an essential role in the learning process.

So what kind of practice is best? While psychologists are still figuring out exactly which practice approaches lead the most success in various situations, some experts recommend that exploration during the early learning stages is critical.

So if you are learning a new language, starting with the sounds, grammar, alphabet, and other basic elements might help you become more fluent later on. If you are playing a new video game, taking the time to explore the game-play environment and learn the rules can help you excel and score higher.

3

Study at the Right Time

Coffee break
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Our bodies have their own internal "clocks" known as circadian rhythms that control the sleep-wake cycle and energy levels throughout the day. While the peak times for physical strength are around 11 a.m. and 7 p.m, the peak periods for mental alertness are around 9 a.m and 9 p.m. So, would it stand to reason that you should study when your mind is at its sharpest?

In one experiment, researchers had participants memorize words pairs at either 9 a.m. or 9 p.m. and then tested them at a 30 minute, 12 hours, or 24-hour interval. The results revealed that while the time of day had no impact on initial memory, the memory on the 12-hour retest was much better among those who had a full-night sleep than those who had a period of wakefulness.

On the 24-hour retest, the researchers found that those who had slept shortly after studying and then had a full day of wakefulness did better than those who had been awake all day after studying and then had a night's sleep before the retest.

So what does this suggest? The results indicate that studying shortly before sleep is the ideal time to enhance memory. The researchers suggest that sleep helps stabilize declarative memory, minimizing the negative impact that wakefulness has on memory.

4

Take a Nap

African woman napping on sofa
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You don't need a full night's sleep to reap the benefits when it comes to learning. According to some researchers, taking a 45- to 60-minute nap after you learn something can have beneficial effects on memory.

One study found that sleep actually results in physical changes in the brain. Following a learning task, sleep-deprived mice experienced less dendritic growth while well-rested mice had more.

So the next time you nod off after a mid-afternoon learning session, don't feel bad. Not only is the nap probably good for you, it might just help cement the information you learned in your ​memory.

5

Prep Like a Teacher

Girl studying and writing notes next to window


Simon Potter / Getty Images

 

When you want to learn something new, try organizing and translating the information into your own words like you would if you were planning to teaching a lesson. Even if you don’t actually share the information you’ve learned with another person, the expectation to teach can help speed the learning process and help you remember more, according to a study published in the journal Memory and Cognition.

6

Quiz Yourself

High school student completing multiple choice test form
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There has been a lot of talk about the importance of testing in recent years within political and educational circles, but researchers have found that testing can be about a lot more than just assessing what you already know. In fact, testing might actually be one of the best ways to help you learn.

Studies have shown that people who study and are then tested on the material have better long-term recall of the information than those who study and are never tested.

So the next time you are trying to memorize some information or study a challenging subject, spend a little time quizzing yourself, taking online tests on the subject, or completing chapters tests that are included in your textbook.

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  2. Payne JD, Tucker MA, Ellenbogen JM, et al. Memory for semantically related and unrelated declarative information: the benefit of sleep, the cost of wake. PLoS ONE. 2012;7(3):e33079. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033079

  3. Studte S, Bridger E, Mecklinger A. Nap sleep preserves associative but not item memory performance. Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2015;120:84-93. doi:10.1016/j.nlm.2015.02.012

  4. Yang G, Lai CS, Cichon J, Ma L, Li W, Gan WB. Sleep promotes branch-specific formation of dendritic spines after learningScience. 2014;344(6188):1173-1178. doi:10.1126/science.1249098

  5. Nestojko JF, Bui DC, Kornell N, Bjork EL. Expecting to teach enhances learning and organization of knowledge in free recall of text passages. Mem Cognit. 2014;42(7):1038-48. doi:10.3758/s13421-014-0416-z

  6. Yang C, Potts R, Shanks DR. Enhancing learning and retrieval of new information: a review of the forward testing effect. NPJ Sci Learn. 2018;3:8. doi:10.1038/s41539-018-0024-y

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