Learning to Learn Better: Strategies for improving the behavior of learning
It’s a commonly held belief that the capacity for learning is simply something you’re born with, and that our learning capacity never changes. But unlike hair color, or the gene that makes cilantro taste like soap, you actually can change how efficiently you learn new things and how well you retain that information. Utilizing the following practices can help keep your mind agile and sharpen your ability to learn new skills.
Focus and organization
When setting a goal to learn something new, or to improve your expertise, it’s helpful to approach those goals in fragments. Breaking down your goals into smaller, more manageable fragments allows you to focus on the task at hand: learning that new skill. When we set targets within our goals, we can better manage our feelings and keep progressing towards our end goal.
Self-doubt is a common learning deterrent, especially when coupled with poor organization and focus. Luckily, for those of us who take it upon ourselves to better prepare to learn, there is overwhelming evidence showing that people with clearly defined goals consistently outperform people who “wing it.” Even if you don’t break down your goal into smaller pieces, it’s always recommended to have a goal when you begin a new learning journey.
Thinking about thinking
Now that we’ve established that focus and organization can help us better prepare ourselves to learn, let’s discuss something almost all experts do regardless of their field of study: metacognition. Simply put, metacognition is “thinking about thinking,” and you can practice this skill by being introspective about how you know what you know.
Metacognition not only gives insight into what we know, but more importantly what we don’t know. When practicing metacognition, ask yourself: what do I know? How well do I know it? How confident am I my knowledge on this topic? Getting better at learning happens more easily when you’ve clearly defined what it is you need to study.
When you’re thinking about how to break down a goal into more manageable pieces, that’s metacognition in action. When working through an issue, a well-trained expert will think about how the problem is framed and whether or not their answer seems reasonable; this is also metacognition in action. Utilizing the practice of “thinking about thinking” in our day-to-day life is crucial to maximizing our ability to learn effectively. Metacognition brings clarity and helps us reflect not only on the new knowledge that we gain, but the thinking and learning that brought us to our conclusions.
If metacognition is thinking about thinking, you can think of learning agility as knowing how to learn, and how to best approach situations where you don’t already have the answers. Being an agile learner means being able to learn from experience and apply it in new, abstract ways, while adapting to new opportunities and circumstances.
Challenging our preconceived notions is the first step to becoming a more agile learner. By trying new approaches and stepping out of your comfort zone, you can find improved ways of doing things that can save time and money. Working on your active listening skills is another great way to boost your learning agility.
By listening closely to what others say, and being able to reflect on that information properly, you’ll be better prepared to respond in scenarios both familiar and unfamiliar. Want to test your active listening skills? “When reflecting on the information you receive from someone,” said Alex Williams, psychology program director, “if you’re able to relay their information back using different words and they nod or say something like, ‘Yes, that’s it!’, then you were actively listening.”
As we improve our learning agility, those new habits help us to learn new concepts more easily. Being an agile learner also helps us navigate difficult scenarios, which in turn makes us a stronger asset to our organization.
While organization and metacognition actively help us learn better, and learning agility puts us in position to tackle new challenges, reflection is the most important part of becoming a better learner. Reflection can be as simple as taking your morning shower and mentally planning your schedule for the day, or it can be something more intentional like meditation. It doesn’t really matter how we do it – reflection simply requires a moment of calm.
While some engage in more intentional acts of reflection like meditation, it’s important to remember that even a good night’s sleep can help you learn and retain new information better.
“While we don’t know everything about sleep, we do know that getting the proper amount of sleep is important when trying to retain new information,” said Williams. “Getting better and more quality sleep puts you in a position to continue to learn better.”
It’s also important to remember that the inverse is true: we have a harder time retaining knowledge in times of stress and anger. It’s not technically impossible, but it’s far easier to retain knowledge when your mind is at ease.
So while getting better at learning isn’t going to happen overnight, we are all capable of learning how to learn better, and we can achieve those goals using the tools given to us. By organizing and focusing on our goals, improving our metacognition, and reflecting on what we have already learned, we can put ourselves in a position to succeed, and continue to improve our ability to learn.
As an adult, returning to the classroom or pursuing your next certification can seem daunting. These tips can help you get in the right frame of mind to digest and implement new knowledge, and help prepare you for whatever challenges lie ahead.
Read more about the benefits of mindfulness at work.