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Training Your Brain: Six Tips for More Effective Learning

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How do you achieve mastery of a topic? What if you think you know a topic thoroughly, but when you sit down to take a test, you discover that your mastery of that topic is not as good as you believe?

As you progress through your academic career, you’ll be required to learn various topics and demonstrate your understanding of them. This mastery of a topic means taking quizzes and tests, relating what you learned in a forum post, or applying that knowledge in a written essay or a project.

Effective Learning Is a Complicated Process and Sometimes Hard to Categorize

There are many philosophies related to how we learn. While we understand the differences between visual and auditory learners, effective learning is a deep, complicated process. At times, it can’t be neatly categorized.

Our brains are often compared to computers, but this isn’t exactly how they work. When we want to access a file on our laptop or desktop, we simply locate the file (sometimes tucked away in a folder), click on it, and voila! There’s the information we need, precisely when we need it – magic!

When it comes to retrieving information from our brains, however, it’s not so straightforward. How many times have you double-clicked on a piece of information that you thought was neatly stored away for a test, only to discover a problem? Perhaps the link was broken, the file was corrupted and you just can’t—no matter how hard you try—recall it?

When we consider the processes required for our brains to remember information, it’s a miracle it even happens at all. But effective learning and studying can be made easier not only by understanding your preferences in how you take in information, but how our brains work to process that information and what we can do to keep it there.

NYT Reporter Benedict Carey Offers Six Tips to Become a More Effective Learner

In 2015, New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey wrote a book called, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens.” In his book, Carey offered six tips to help you become a more effective learner.

1. Vary your location of study.

The information you take in can link itself to a particular location. Changing your location can help you retain and recall the information better when you’re outside your usual place of study. For example, you may recall facts better when you move from your bedroom to a classroom or office setting.

2. If you’re studying to retain facts, go to bed early.

The deep sleep needed to retain information happens during the first half of the night. Go to bed early, then set your alarm to wake up before your regularly scheduled time to review the information you need to recall.

3. If you’re working on a project that requires fine motor skills or creativity, hit the “snooze” button.

The deep sleep needed for fine motor skills or creativity occurs in the early morning. It’s okay to pull a late night sometimes, but try to sleep in for as long as possible to give your brain a chance to reset itself.

4. Break up study times into smaller, more manageable segments (preferably over the course of several days).

Our brains retain more information if you break down information into smaller parts and take breaks between study sessions. The links to information within your brain will grow stronger with repeated recollection, especially if time is allowed to elapse between study sessions. Three hours of study over the course of three days, for instance, is more effective than three hours of continuous study the night before an exam.

5. Cramming is okay as a last resort, but don’t expect to remember much after you finish a test.

As previously mentioned, the breaking down of information and taking occasional breaks is what helps us retain and recall facts and figures. Cramming doesn’t help you build enough mental muscle to help you remember information after it’s no longer needed.

6. Test yourself.

Highlighting text, underlining or copying information is considered passive learning. Simply reading over the material provides the illusion of study and that you’re learning the material, but it’s not enough.

Create mock tests instead. Another option is to review the information, hide it and rewrite it in your own words. These activities cause your memory to work harder, helping you to retain information more effectively.

When it comes to our intellectual brainpower and effective learning, no pain means no gain. To build neural connections that last, memory muscles need to be put to work and they need to work hard.

Just like physical exercise, when you push yourself to the mental limit, you’ll see the results. Then the next time you get ready to take a test, you can feel more confident that you’ve mastered the information and that it’s ready for retrieval at precisely the right moment.

Erin Brescia earned her bachelor of arts in English communication from the University of Mount Olive and her master of liberal studies with a concentration in English from Fort Hays State University. She has been teaching communication, writing, and American literature courses in the School of Arts, Humanities and Education since 2009.

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