Reading and learning are habits, processes, and activities. They are things you can get better at. You can get better at learning much in the way you can get better at doing exercises by training the right muscles; all it takes is a little effort and dedication. Reading and learning more efficiently can help take the stress out of your studies because you’re working smarter instead of harder. Read on as we explore some of the strategies you can use to streamline and strengthen your learning style.
Think of reading as exercise for your brain. Much like a daily workout regiment, you need to make time for it. The trick to reading more efficiently is to do it every day. Set a time to do your reading and be sure to include a few breaks in there. If you’re reading past the hour mark, you need to give your brain a few minutes to rest and process before diving back in.
If you find it hard to dedicate 30-60 minutes (or more) a day toward reading, you’d be surprised how much reading you can do in bits and pieces throughout the day. Read in the bathroom, read in an Uber or while you’re on the bus. Watching TV with commercial breaks? Break out your book to read a page or two while the ads are playing and then put it down when your show comes back on. Even just a few pages a day can add up in the long run.
The other important thing to do is to set a reading goal and stick to it. It could be related to time spent reading or it could be a daily minimum page count you want to hit. You can even “gamify” it and give yourself little treats for staying on track with your reading.
Connect What You Learn To What You Know
Forming associations in our mind between knowledge we’ve already learned and subjects we’re trying to master can help that information sink in. This process is part of an approach called elaborative rehearsal and it involves mastering/memorizing material by linking it to concepts that you’re already deeply familiar with. If learning about a subject makes you think about something (maybe a historical figure reminds you of a family friend, or a lesson in anatomy reminds you about a piece in a car engine), focus on that association! That can be a memory trigger that can make that information easier to recall later. Memory techniques like mnemonic devices and memory palaces are also forms of elaborative rehearsal.
Sketch It Out
Studies have found that drawing information can make it easier to recall later. Just as how physically writing notes down can improve memory retention, drawing a concept we want to remember can help cement that knowledge in our minds. Creating flow charts, word maps, or even shorthand symbols can be a great way to imprint that information in your memory and also break up the tedium of a study session with a bit of fun doodling.
Pick A Card, Any Card
There’s a reason why flash cards are so commonly used as study aids: they work! Creating a set of flashcards (either by hand with index cards or by using a word processor or app) is fairly easy. It’s the repetition of flash cards that make them so effective: by constantly reiterating and recalling information, you’re making the information “stick.” Flash cards allow you to quiz yourself and test your progress through this process of “spaced repetition; it’s a study strategy that taps into metacognition—the science of thinking about thinking—to make you reckon with how you’re processing the material you’re learning.
Something to keep in mind with spaced repetition: it’s more effective when you group your flashcards together into categories of related information and difficulty level. Flash cards begin to lose their effectiveness if you keep drilling yourself on the same information over and over again; at a certain point you want to work on more difficult concepts, ratcheting up the difficulty level to keep your mind sharp. If your flash card sessions feel too easy, they probably are.
Staying up late to study for the big test is a very common form of procrastination, and one that we often do because it seems to work. The truth is that while cramming the night before an exam might make you feel more prepared to take the test, that sense of mastery of the material is illusory. Research has found that cramming is terrible for memory retention. Not only will you have trouble recalling what you learned, cramming can also induce stress, cause sleep deprivation, and otherwise put you at a physical and mental disadvantage.
Use It Or Lose It
One of the best ways to become a more effective learner is to not stop learning. Like many positive habits, consistency is the key to both progression and not losing what you’ve gained. Scientists have noted that continuing to learn new subjects encourages neuroplasticity. Your brain’s cells can atrophy and die over time due to a lack of stimulation. By engaging our mind with active learning we’re encouraging the neurogenesis process, which is how the brain produces new brain cells.
Part of why the repetition of studying is so important is because our brain actively “prunes” itself by maintaining useful neural pathways and closing ones that aren’t important. In other words: the more often you think about something, the more deeply you practice it, the more your brain will maintain those cells and give them priority.
Diversify Your Learning Techniques
There’s more than one way to learn. Sometimes we can fall into a rut with our processes, which is why it’s good to incorporate several different learning styles to make it more fun and engaging. Doing a lot of reading? Supplement your learning with some auditory media like podcasts or audiobooks. Watch videos, draw mind maps, and write down your own notes by hand. A great way to really master a subject is to teach it: try explaining to a friend what you’ve learned. If you can convey it accurately and succinctly to someone else, you are well on your way.