10 Tips from Science to Improve your Learning and Save you Time

10 Tips from Science to Improve your Learning and Save you Time

How much time to you spend trying to learn something, only to find that a few days later you’ve forgotten most of it? Or perhaps you’re working on a problem and can’t find any way to solve it? Your creativity has run dry? Do you wonder if there is a way to learn so that you remember more? Or if there are techniques to help you be more creative? With a new school year about to start, these questions might be particularly relevant. 

Luckily, there are better ways to learn and that’s what Benedict Carey’s book, “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why It Happens” is all about.

But wait, there’s more! Not only will this book make sure you use your learning time efficiently, I’ve also saved you some more time by summarizing the key findings. Check it out below, but be warned; some of this advice will seem weird but, according to researchers, does work!

According to Benedict’s book, we have plenty of space in our brains to store information. He estimates that the average brain has 100 billion neurons with a 1 million GB capacity. Apparently, that is enough space to store 3 million TV shows!

If space to store our memories is not an issue, why don’t we remember everything we learn? It turns out that how you store a memory and how easy it is to retrieve it are key parts. So here are 10 tips from the book to help you store and retrieve what you learn better:

1 | 


Don’t learn in silence.

I used to do my homework with music playing and my parents were always telling me that I would work better in silence. Turns out I was right, and they were wrong!

Your brain likes stimulus and context when you learn, and music is one way to provide this. Even better is to mix it up. Perhaps listen to jazz in one session, classical in another session. This approach can even apply to your study location – change it up and your learning will benefit!

2 | 


Don’t worry if you struggle to remember something.

The harder your brain has to work to remember something, then the greater the learning as it increases both retrieval and storage.

3 |


Step away from the highlighter pen and take a test!

Using highlighters and study aids can make you think you know more than you do. Instead test yourself on what you’ve learned. This has been shown to improve retention and comprehension much more than studying alone. One study estimates that this will help you remember about 50% more a week later

4 |


Take a “pre-test”.

This is a strange one. It is recommended that you take a test on a subject before you have learned anything about it. It seems that the act of guessing engages your brain in a different way so imprints the correct answer more deeply. 

5 |


Space out your learning.

While cramming for an exam has been shown to be effective, you will probably forget most, if not all, of the information you learned within a short time.

A better solution, according to science is “distributed learning” where you space out your learning over time rather than do it all at once

The book even has a handy table to help you plan:

Time to Test Study Period Spacing
1 week 1-2 days
1 month 1 week
3 months 2 weeks
6 months 3 weeks
1 year 1 month

For example, f you have an exam in 3 months, then your first study period should be 2 weeks after you first learn the topic. Then schedule study period every 2 weeks after until the exam.

While this has been shown to be a very effective method of learning, it does take planning and motivation!

6 |


Quit before you finish.

Have you ever wondered why your favorite TV show always ends on a cliffhanger? It’s because our brains hate unfinished things, and those cunning TV writers know that you’ll be tuning in again next week to find out what happens next.

But you can use this to help your learning or when you’re working on a big project: stop at a point where you have more to do. Since you’re not finished your brain won’t like it and it will remain at the top of your mind. This means it will be a little easier to get back to, especially if you struggle with motivation!

7 |


Amount of study time is less important than quality of study

Good news for those of us that are struggling to find time to study: the amount of time you study is less important than how you break up your study.

If you divide up your study sessions (see #5) and also self-test during these sessions (see #3) then you will probably remember twice as much as just studying alone!

8 |


Distractions can be good, especially for problem-solving.

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of working on a problem, failing to solve it and then the solution pops into our head while we are doing something totally different like walking the dog or taking a shower.

Researchers have confirmed that stepping away from a problem for a short time (about 5 – 20 minutes) is beneficial because it allows your subconscious to get to work on the issue.

So, stopping to play that video game can actually be helpful. Just remember; no more than 20 minutes!

9 |


Mix it up.

This requires learning multiple things at the same time. Mix it up by simultaneously learning different concepts or skills, as well as mixing new stuff in with the old. Your brain gets bored easily, so mixing stuff up keeps it interested and you learn more effectively.

10 |

Don't procrastinate on creative projects

Working on a creative project? Start as early as possible, to give yourself time to take breaks and allow your subconscious to work on it. This is similar to #8, but since it’s a creative project rather than a problem you need to solve, you may need to take longer breaks.

Hopefully you found these findings interesting. If you want more detail on how the brain works or the scientific research behind these recommendations, then I do recommend reading the book. Benedict Carey does a great job of explaining the research and the concepts very clearly. 

I also encourage you to try out some of these concepts, even if they seem a little weird, like pre-testing! As the author points out, these techniques can be implemented without spending a lot of time, money or effort, which definitely means they fit into the Frugalitude way!

I’ve found that #6 (stopping before I'm done) and #8 (taking breaks) have helped me a lot. Both of them allow my brain to keep working on the problem, even if I'm not conscious of it. As a result I usually come up with a much better solution or a more creative idea.

I'd love to hear what learning techniques work for you - share below!

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