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How To Learn – Six Strategies for Successful Study

By Mary Andrews

The parents of my young adult clients understand that grades are important to career and, as we approach another academic year, you may also be wondering what to suggest to your youngsters (assuming they listen!) to encourage effective learning.

There are the obvious things we keep getting told such as ‘make sure you get plenty of sleep’, ‘eat a healthy diet’ and ‘do regular exercise’ but who wants to hear these repeatedly?

Instead, the developing field of neuroscience, the study of the brain and nervous system, has quite a lot to say about how we learn.

Some aspects may seem obvious, others a little counterintuitive but all are useful and a bit more fun than the sleep, eat, exercise formula.

1. Goals

Setting learning goals is probably something you have come across before but to promote learning goals need to be:

  • Explicit, set down clearly somewhere, including a voice note on your mobile, a sticky on the wall, or in a special study notebook.
  • Small and achievable. It’s best to have 20 tiny goals that you tick off once complete each day than one bigger goal for the week. Make a point of crossing off or marking goals as complete. Our brains really like this.
  • Personally meaningful. Why is your son/daughter studying what they’re studying? Having them remember why they are studying will help them learn.
  • Positive/doing more of. For example
    • ’spend ten minutes revising French vocabulary for describing my family’
    • ’re-write my answer to question 10 on statistics showing all correct workings’ or
    • ‘speak to my tutor on how to improve my writing’.

These are all better goals than negative/do less of ones such as

    • ‘spend less time on my phone’
    • ‘make fewer grammatical errors’ or
    • ‘talk less in class’.

2. One thing at a time

On the whole, no matter what our teenagers say or indeed what we think ourselves, our brains have a limited capacity and focus and learn best when we do one thing at a time.

So, when they say, I can watch this film and concentrate on my biology homework, I’m afraid it’s simply not true.

Our brains find it difficult to focus effectively on things in parallel.

3. Signals

Encourage your youngsters to adopt some sort of cue that distinguishes work time from non-work time.

For example, set a timer, connect learning to a scent – spray your favourite perfume or light a favourite candle, wear a particular piece of clothing, play some background music or white sound – anything that will train your brain to recognise that now is learning time.

You could also experiment with different spaces to study different subjects although this may not be possible in the majority of cases.

4. Multiple senses

Evidence shows that drawing on as many senses as possible while learning helps to maximise our ability to learn, retain and recall information.

So encourage the use of visuals such as YouTube videos, audios including listening to podcasts or (even better) recording information for yourself, pneumonics, putting the learning to music, making drawings of the learning material.

5. Teach someone

Anything that you can do to deepen your engagement with the subject matter will be helpful but trying to teach what you’ve learnt to others, or to an imaginary person or class, is a great way to progress.

Having a study group or study buddy with who we discuss things and make connections together is also a good way of encouraging deeper processing, and so learning.

6. Hook your learning

We learn best when we can hook our learning onto something we already know.

This could be via a spider diagram, mind map, noting and holding it mentally in our head.

Thinking about how all the different facts we learn link together – taking a birds’ eye view – can also be helpful.

In conclusion, knowing what helps our brains to function well can help us improve how we learn and maximise our chances of good grades both as teenagers but also as adult learners.

Mary Andrews Portrait

Mary Andrews, MSc, IDC, MBPsS, PMABP, AssocISFCP is a qualified coach and career analyst.

With a background in HR and psychology, since 2011 she has been helping professionals and students find direction and thrive in their careers and life.

Make changes that stick. If you want to move from feeling unhappy and dissatisfied to content and fulfilled, contact me for a free without obligation conversation.