Whether it’s a new technology, a foreign language, or an advanced skill, staying competitive often means learning new things. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers have taken a course or sought additional training to advance their careers, according to a March 2016 study by Pew Research Center. They report that results have included an expanded professional network, new job or different career path.
Being a quick learner can give you an even greater edge. Science proves there are six ways you can learn and retain something faster.
If you imagine that you’ll need to teach someone else the material or task you are trying to grasp, you can speed up your learning and remember more, according to a study done at Washington University in St. Louis. The expectation changes your mind-set so that you engage in more effective approaches to learning than those who simply learn to pass a test, according to John Nestojko, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology and coauthor of the study.
"When teachers prepare to teach, they tend to seek out key points and organize information into a coherent structure," Nestojko writes. "Our results suggest that students also turn to these types of effective learning strategies when they expect to teach."
Experts at the Louisiana State University’s Center for Academic Success suggest dedicating 30-50 minutes to learning new material. "Anything less than 30 is just not enough, but anything more than 50 is too much information for your brain to take in at one time," writes learning strategies graduate assistant Ellen Dunn. Once you’re done, take a five to 10 minute break before you start another session.
Brief, frequent learning sessions are much better than longer, infrequent ones, agrees Neil Starr, a course mentor at Western Governors University, an online nonprofit university where the average student earns a bachelor’s degree in two and a half years.
He recommends preparing for micro learning sessions. "Make note cards by hand for the more difficult concepts you are trying to master," he says. "You never know when you’ll have some in-between time to take advantage of."
While it’s faster to take notes on a laptop, using a pen and paper will help you learn and comprehend better. Researchers at Princeton University and UCLA found that when students took notes by hand, they listened more actively and were able to identify important concepts. Taking notes on a laptop, however, leads to mindless transcription, as well as an opportunity for distraction, such as email.
"In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand," writes coauthor and Princeton University psychology professor Pam Mueller. "We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning."
While it sounds counterintuitive, you can learn faster when you practice distributed learning, or "spacing." In an interview with The New York Times, Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, says learning is like watering a lawn. "You can water a lawn once a week for 90 minutes or three times a week for 30 minutes," he said. "Spacing out the watering during the week will keep the lawn greener over time."
To retain material, Carey said it’s best to review the information one to two days after first studying it. "One theory is that the brain actually pays less attention during short learning intervals," he said in the interview. "So repeating the information over a longer interval—say a few days or a week later, rather than in rapid succession—sends a stronger signal to the brain that it needs to retain the information."
Downtime is important when it comes to retaining what you learn, and getting sleep in between study sessions can boost your recall up to six months later, according to new research published in Psychological Science.
In an experiment held in France, participants were taught the Swahili translation for 16 French words in two sessions. Participants in the "wake" group completed the first learning session in the morning and the second session in the evening of the same day, while participants in the "sleep" group completed the first session in the evening, slept, and then completed the second session the following morning. Participants who had slept between sessions recalled about 10 of the 16 words, on average, while those who hadn't slept recalled only about 7.5 words.
"Our results suggest that interweaving sleep between practice sessions leads to a twofold advantage, reducing the time spent relearning and ensuring a much better long-term retention than practice alone," writes psychological scientist Stephanie Mazza of the University of Lyon. "Previous research suggested that sleeping after learning is definitely a good strategy, but now we show that sleeping between two learning sessions greatly improves such a strategy."
When learning a new motor skill, changing the way you practice it can help you master it faster, according to a new study at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In an experiment, participants were asked to learn a computer-based task. Those who used a modified learning technique during their second session performed better than those who repeated the same method.
The findings suggest that reconsolidation—a process in which existing memories are recalled and modified with new knowledge—plays a key role in strengthening motor skills, writes Pablo A. Celnik, senior study author and professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation.
"What we found is if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master," he writes, "you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row."