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Hack Your Brain – 7 Ways to Improve How You Learn

Learning is one of the key traits that define what it means to be human. But for something that’s so integral to the human experience, it can be a challenging process.

From school textbooks to university notes, many of us rely on reading to learn important information – but surely there are other methods we can use to enhance our learning?

We’ve dug into the science to find ingenious ways that you can learn faster and smarter – essentially ‘hacking’ your brain by using the mechanics of learning to your advantage.

Here are 7 of the most effective ways to improve how you learn!

1.   Build your memory and learning capacity

In our blog on the science of setting goals , we explored the complex world of neurons, axons and synapses, discovering how your brain uses its incredible cellular structure to work towards achieving goals.

As we learnt, one of the best ways that you can achieve learning goals is to build your memory and learning capacity – in other words, by encouraging your brain to form new synaptic connections that increase its processing power.

By improving how well your memory functions, you’ll be able to enhance how much information you can store and retrieve in your Brian. This in turn will make studying that little bit easier.

Here are some simple ways to improve your memory and learning capacity:

Use mnemonics

Mnemonics are tools to help you remember a complex piece of information by associating it with an easy-to-remember song, phrase, rhyme or picture. For example, a common mnemonic to help children remember the points of the compass is Never Eat Shredded Wheat (North, East, South, West).

Visualise ideas

Visualisation can be a powerful tool when you’re trying to remember information. That’s because when you visualise things, your brain forms new connections between neurons. These connections allow you to ‘retrieve’ (i.e. remember) information more easily.

Use learning apps

There’s a huge array of technology out there to help you navigate the trials and tribulations of learning new information. We reviewed the best learning apps that you can use on your mobile, tablet or laptop to enhance your study here. Give it a read and download your favourites!

2.   Focus on one study task at a time

Conventional wisdom suggests that multitasking is an excellent way to maximise your productivity. In some situations, this might be the case. But in most learning environments, multitasking will end up harming, rather than helping, your productivity.

Numerous studies have shown that when you multitask in the context of learning, your attention gets divided. This makes it harder to focus and makes our attention span shorter, reducing the amount of time that we’re able to concentrate.

The solution is to slow down your studies. Focus on one task at a time and work through a series of tasks methodically. Your attention span – and your brain – will thank you in the long run.

3.   Learn how to take effective notes

Effective learning and effective notetaking go hand in hand.

The majority of us absorb information best when we take notes to supplement what we’re learning.

That’s because taking notes helps you to process what you’re learning. It helps you to reinforce knowledge and allows your brain to build the neural pathways that aid recalling information – in other words, it builds your ability to learn new things.

Here are some simple ways that you can take better notes:

  • Break complex information down into smaller sections
  • Keep your notes brief
  • Consider colour-coding your notes
  • Use bullet points, arrows and lists to order information
  • Use mind maps, flashcards and post-it notes 
Brain Scan

4.   Take regular breaks

Think of your brain like a computer. But a computer that has a near limitless ability to learn and store information.

In fact, the memory capacity of the human brain is estimated to be somewhere around 2.5 petabytes – that’s 2,500,000 Gigabytes – so it’s probably the most powerful processor in existence.

That said, whilst your brain has an almost infinite capacity to store information over the long term (i.e. you can never learn so much that your brain refuses to learn any more), it can get overwhelmed sometimes when learning new information – just like how a laptop can overheat after intense use. That’s why it’s important to take regular breaks to recharge (to push this metaphor even further, again, like a laptop!)

When you push yourself to the point of exhaustion when learning, you’ll find that the returns steadily diminish the more tired you get. That’s down to the fact that your brain is tired and needs a break. Sure, you might technically be learning on that 3am all-nighter, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be understanding or fully taking the information in.

If you find remembering to take breaks difficult, set an alarm on your phone to remind you. Most experts recommend taking a 5- to 15-minute break every hour.

We’ve written extensively about various strategies to help you improve your focus when studying that emphasis the importance of regular breaks, like the Pomodoro method, in this blog. Be sure to check it out to get some more tips.

5.   Break down big study tasks into smaller tasks

When you’re confronted with a huge task like ‘learn the history of the Byzantine Empire’, you’re likely to experience a pang of terror about where to start the process. General, overarching topics can be incredibly intimidating to study.

The trick is to make the general into the specific.

In other words, think about the logical order of topics that present themselves. Do some topics need to be studied first in order to enhance your understanding of others? Is there a logical progression in terms of topics that follow one another? Do you have an upcoming assignment or test covering a particular subject that needs to be prioritized?

Consider how each topic fits into the wider picture and make a list of the topics to be studied, based on their order of priority.

This article has some great advice for how to break larger tasks down into smaller ones for better productivity.

6. Repeat what you’ve learned to someone else

Repeating information that you’ve recently learned to someone else can help to cement the facts in your own brain. This has major implications when we’re trying to improve the ways that we learn new information.

A study by Aloysius Wei Lun Koh, Sze Chi Lee, and Stephen Wee Hun Lim featured in the Applied Cognitive Psychology journal set out to try and identify if teaching recently acquired information helped people to learn it faster. The study separated people into four groups and asked them to solve arithmetic problems.

The group that was asked to teach the arithmetic problems at the same time as solving them performed the best overall in a final test at the end of the experiment. That suggests that teaching information at the same time you learn can help you to learn it more effectively.

7. Test yourself regularly

Okay, you might have read the word ‘test’ and started to groan, but hear us out. Testing yourself every so often can be a great way to fix what you’ve already learned into your brain and to uncover the areas where you need to improve. Studies have shown that it can be one of the most effective ways to learn.

There are lots of different ways that you could test yourself to make sure that you’ve understood a topic to the best of your ability:

  • Flashcards
  • Quizzes
  • Completing past exam papers or questions
  • Have a friend ask you questions

Which method you choose depends upon the time you have available, your favourite way to learn and your own creativity. Have fun with the process!

Learning can be incredibly fulfilling when you get the process right! We hope that these 7 tips have helped you think about the ways that you can improve your own learning process.

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