What’s the best way to learn anything? 16 Tips from science.

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We are lucky that our brains are readily capable of learning new things by design. Even when we are not motivated? We grow about 700 new neurons every day. That’s automatic. Those are for learning. But that’s just a tiny portion of it. The remaining 100,000,000,000 neurons in the brain are ready to change how they connect with each other. That’s all for learning too. So how do we go about bringing in those changes in the brain’s behavior? How do we improve and optimize learning?

The most fundamental ways to learn anything you want to

There is a convoluted answer to the question “How can I learn anything efficiently?”. From a neuroscientific perspective, learning is defined as a stable change in the brain. These changes are at the level of single neurons, brain regions, or spread-out neural circuits. The convoluted answer to that question is – the best way to learn anything is to ensure that the brain undergoes a meaningful change. A more useful answer is – actively do a few things which allow the brain to do its job well. And a practical answer is – The quickest way to learn new concepts/skills easily is to let your brain process information deeply[1] and let new knowledge build on old knowledge to form a dense network[2] of learning/memory. On top of this, you can boost your learning capacity by keeping a “explore with curiosity,” and “actively apply in real-life” mindset. We’ll see how in a bit.

Passive living doesn’t exactly encourage a change in the brain’s structure. At least not a desirable change. We can’t just put our hands inside the brain and re-wire it. We can’t clearly upload information yet. What we can do is – be strategic and deliberate so the brain just does its job more efficiently. For that, we need to step out of our neurons, figuratively, and approach learning from all those things that connect our neurons to the inside world and outside world (mind & environment).

Fortunately, there are a few fundamental factors that affect learning. They are a little deeper than most learning how to learn approaches that discuss study methods, visualizations, practice routines, or task-specific suggestions. These are the most fundamental, easily usable tips on effective learning. It wouldn’t matter what you are learning, or at which skill level you are. The following learning tips will improve your chances of quality learning in any domain – be it coding, small-talk, acting, chess, business, cooking, parkour, facts, philosophy, or statistics.

1. Find a reason & purpose to learn

The stronger the reason, the better your learning will be. In psychology, the word conation refers to a basic aspect of being alive – motivation & intent. Conation[3] is the body and mind’s readiness to approach, perform, or avoid doing a task. It describes the baseline energy the body and mind have to acquire new information and the willingness to supply additional energy to keep acquiring new information. Conation is a fancy term for a deliberate, specific kind of motivation – the motivation needed to convert thoughts and emotions into actions. To begin learning anything, the needed conation can come from reason/purpose[4] because it can fulfill psychological needs. These needs could be anything: creating a new self-image, need for pleasure, satisfy curiosity, avoid boredom, understand a deeply personal topic, help a valued family member, gain social recognition, show dominance in the business world, save the world, etc. There can be a million needs to fulfill and those needs can give a reason, purpose, and conation to learn. Conation gives you the commitment to achieve goals and dreams.

2. Be ready to pay attention

One of the biggest problems is not paying attention. If you really want to learn, give it all the attention you got. Our ability to select relevant information to focus on is called attention and our ability to sustain that attention for a long time is called concentration. Attention & concentration are the 2 most fundamental processes needed to do any deliberate activity. Attention is our ability to prioritize information and that tells the brain what to process. For any kind of learning, paying attention is important. But, many factors can hamper it – distraction, lack of motivation, lack of commitment to your task, negative emotions, etc. Lifestyle aspects like the quality of sleep, diet, and physical activity affect your ability to concentrate too. So for learning anything, it’s vital to be ready to pay attention.

3. Pay attention to the big picture and the finer details simultaneously

Always stay in touch with the big picture and the finer details. Our attention can focus on details or look at the big picture and both of these tell our brain a different story. Focusing on the details activates a map of information that is closely tied to the details. Focusing on the big picture activates a map of information (represented by neural circuits) that is broad and global. When you approach any learning activity, focusing on both allows the brain to activate both maps. When both are activated, the new learning is “grounded” in those maps. It is also processed at multiple levels (from shallow to deep encoding[5]) which makes learning intuitive, stable, and flexible. If you simultaneously attach the details and global aspects of new learning to past learning, your new skills or knowledge gets a robust foundation. This groundedness improves memory and the stability of learning.

4. Have fun while learning

Positive emotions like curiosity, satisfaction, and liveliness have a massive impact on how your brain processes your learning. One of the key benefits of having fun while learning is that it creates a sense of reward in learning. That inherently motivates people. Fun and liveliness also help the brain toggle between narrow-detailed processing and global-abstract processing which further improves the richness of learning. Fun boosts many aspects of cognition that are necessary for learning. Along with enjoyment, attempt to fully engage all your senses as they would provide rich, mutually supporting information to your brain.

5. Learn in small bits, consistently

Don’t expect mastery in 1 day. Take it slowly, do it consistently. Taking small steps at a time doesn’t tax the brain and helps us build knowledge & skills little by little. If you need help (or scaffolds), begin learning with additional help[6] and then let go of that help slowly. Small chunks of learning are more manageable than large chunks because large chunks may not have the necessary foundation set in the brain. Taking time off learning also improves memory for previously learned information. Gaps between learning sessions, as opposed to long marathons of learning, promote new neural changes[7]. The benefits of taking time off and spacing-out learning sessions are called the spacing effect. It is one of the best ways to study efficiently, especially if you have to memorize facts.

6. Exercise well, sleep well, eat well, socialize well

Overall well-being keeps your brain healthy and that ensures you have the capacity to learn. Social health[8], sleep hygiene, eating & drinking hygiene, and physical activity[9] affects overall well-being, cognition, and biological health. Compromising any of these is a certain way to put your brain at a disadvantage while learning.

7. Always use variety in your approaches along with trial and error

Your learning is more “generalized” than mindless repetition if you learn using a variety of techniques and learn a variety of things. Variety creates a better foundation[10] to expand learning and skill, especially if you build the foundation slowly. Trial and error show you how to expand your learning and skill. Variations in what you learn allow the brain to aggregate all minor changes and create a flexible generalized neural pattern (and mental approach) to execute a skill or apply knowledge. Trial and error methods encourage the brain to engage in “error monitoring[11]” to explore errors and arrive at a correct (or functional) approach. So variations in learning optimize the brain’s knowledge/skill-representation mechanisms.

Caution: While planning your learning, don’t spend too much time finding all (or the best) resources before you even start. That usually is a sign of procrastination.

8. Ground your learning in people, books/videos/toys, and the environment

Talk with other people who are learning or are experts. Read books, blogs, watch videos, play with relevant toys. And use your learning in the real/digital world. Make sure you can do something with your skill in your environment, not just within your mind. Explore all sorts of resources you can find to learn. All resources can be good enough unless they are “not even wrong[12].” Even factually wrong or contextually incorrect resources can show you what’s a good approach. Taking help is a part of any skill training or expertise, so seek help from a resource when you need it.

9. Use metaphors and analogies to grasp new concepts in terms you understand

Metaphors and analogies are powerful tools to understand something new. When we use metaphors and analogies, we can connect new knowledge to old knowledge. If you are trying to learn new concepts in biology, connect them to things you already understand well – maybe how a computer works or how society functions. Then learn the technical terms and try to separate the analogy from your new learning. This will leave you with a “model” of how things work in biology. When analogies are familiar and we “get” them, they stick around because they are simplified versions of new information and they compress new information in digestible chunks.

10. Learn to recognize what is wrong

It’ll help you course-correct your learning. For this, you need to figure out good resources to learn from. A fundamental way in which people learn concepts is differentiating one concept from the other[13]. For example – while talking about things that fly, knowing an airplane is a flying vehicle is not enough. Understanding that a bird is not an airplane and a drone isn’t a vehicle is important in distinguishing between birds, drones, airplanes while discussing things that fly. Understand what aspects of your understanding or performance are wrong and explore why and how they are wrong by comparing correct and wrong aspects.

11. Use feedback to confirm or evaluate how much you are learning

Feeling like you have learned something is very different from knowing you have learned something. Knowing it means confirming it. Retrieval practice[14] (deliberate attempts to recall what you’ve learned) along with feedback on whether your “test of memory” was right or wrong can improve learning as well as the motivation to spend more time learning. Dedicated online tools[15] to provide feedback (Grammarly, for example) can help students learn better and engage them in an active learning environment too. Look for evidence that confirms or contradicts how well you have demonstrated learning. Look for evidence that highlights the details in how you approached it. Seek concrete/detailed as well as judgment-based (good/bad, pass/fail) feedback from apps or people.

12. Challenge yourself enough not to always succeed

Keep room for failure. Keep room for trying things beyond your capacity. Use failure to explore and improve. Taking on challenges has 2 benefits – a) It can induce a state of “Flow” where you feel fully immersed in a task, and b) It can push you[16] to use a little extra effort and accelerate learning toward a higher standard. It can help you envision a slightly improved version of yourself (or skill, depth of knowledge, or awareness). This is sometimes called adaptive learning and is effective in both cognitive[17] and motor[18] learning. If task difficulty can’t be increased, you could consume coffee to feel more aroused[19] to optimize learning. High arousal usually makes learning more efficient. Challenges & arousal optimize learning but extremely easy or extremely difficult tasks don’t, typically. That’s the Yerkes-Dodson law.

13. Talk about your learning and, if possible, teach

Teaching is a fun way to verify learning and expose gaps in that learning. Just telling someone what you learned can also encode your learning with explicitly chosen words and a memory of that act of talking can further improve the memory of your original learning. Over time, the memory of your original learning and what you describe it as could merge into a more consolidated type of knowledge. Talking or teaching can expose certain limitations in your own understanding and those could be areas you work on to improve the quality of learning.

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14. Ask questions and don’t accept superficial answers easily

Dive in deep and feel the satisfaction of exploring. Just knowing words for something you don’t understand may not always help. We can be under the illusion of knowing something just because we can identify or label it with a word. For example, why does the heart race? Knowing that a fast heart is called Tachycardia does explain the cause or mechanism, it just gives us a word that may help us explore the reasons. The answer “because the heartbeat is fast” is a poor answer to the question “why do people have tachycardia?”. Some answers are just rephrased questions. Identify those and ask “Why” like a child. Ask all sorts of questions. Wonder “IF” something can be explored. For any new learning, explore causes & effects, mechanisms, processes, labels, additional related information, etc. Descriptions are great for learning but don’t treat descriptions as explanations. Explore explanations.

15. Always think about what you have learned 

Relate it to your life, your future, or your experiences. Try to make sense of it for a deeper understanding. Sense-making helps people learn, and even fosters curiosity. Thinking about thinking is called metacognition[20]. Our ability to reflect on our own thoughts creates the opportunity to give higher importance to certain thoughts (and associated neurons). That is likely to make associated neural structures more efficient[21]. Freely thinking about an experience or connecting it to your life’s goals can also promote a chain reaction of thoughts that give us creative insights, highlight gaps in knowledge, and create a deeper understanding (or confusion). All 3 of these – creativity, gaps, & understanding (confusion) can create a new chain reaction of learning using curiosity, new ideas, and new goals/directions as fuel.

16. Learn important words, technical details, and processes

Don’t stay ignorant and unaware of what you are learning with the belief that technical words are just meaningless words. Labels are important in learning. Not having the right words (labels) or mental images to describe something is called hypocognition[22] and it suppresses cognitive ability. Words & labels help you understand concepts and relate them to each other and improve memory. They help you differentiate between related ideas. You can form a network of concepts and facts to create a big picture once you learn relevant words and concepts. Be sure you can mentally represent what you are learning by visualizing, describing, or moving your body. These are called mental models. Acquire a mental model for what you are learning and gift-wrap it in words.

If you implement even a few of these, you probably won’t need additional help. Many of these learning tips are subsumed under the brain-based learning approach, which you can read about here and here.

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[1]: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S002253718290531X
[2]: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022537183902013
[3]: https://academic.oup.com/acn/article/15/5/443/2089
[4]: https://eric.ed.gov/?Id=Ej718129
[5]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4035598/
[6]: https://journals.lww.com/nurseeducatoronline/Abstract/2005/09000/Strategies_to_Scaffold_Student_Learning__Applying.7.aspx
[7]: https://www.pnas.org/content/111/1/E194.short
[8]: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0201008
[9]: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17518420801997007
[10]: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07370008.2015.1067215
[11]: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23380166/
[12]: https://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=271
[13]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312512091_The_Challenge_of_Abstract_Concepts
[14]: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0010027720301359
[15]: https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ895699
[16]: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2923.2011.04210.x
[17]: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0360131513001711
[18]: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167945715300105
[19]: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0191886994902267
[20]: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042811009104
[21]: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/046359v1.abstract
[22]: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1037/gpr0000126
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