1. Play Video Games!
Yes, you read right. Video games have long been the go-to culprit of poor teenage academic performance for parents and teachers alike.
But as a recent study out of the University of Rochester demonstrates, learners proficient in action-packed games like Call of Duty are significantly faster at performing new cognitive tasks than their non-trained counterparts.
More generally, the study suggests that they learn new things faster.
So go ahead, boot up your Xbox, and tell your parents you’re actually working on getting into Harvard.
2. Explain it to your grandma.
A quote often attributed to Einstein is: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
A corollary to this, is that by teaching something to someone, you actually end up understanding it better, because it forces you to refine your thinking.
One way of doing this without annoying your roommate any more than you already do, is to use a technique from accelerated learning aficionado Scott Young, dubbed the Feynman Technique (after famed theoretical physicist and bongo enthusiast Richard Feynman).
Go through tough concepts you’d like to understand better, and pretend you’re explaining them to someone else. Repeat this process by making your explanations more refined and simplify your language. Doing this will significantly improve your ability to apply that concept on a test or when solving problems.
3. Get your bi-lingual on.
Researchers at the National University of Singapore’s Psychology Department have recently conducted studies that indicate that bilingual children may have a leg up when it comes to understanding new things and processing information. The good news is, no specific languages result in the smartest children. What really counts, the researchers concluded, is probably the process of understanding and distinguishing between two different sets of vocabulary.
So if you don’t yet know a different language, now is the time to start, because you’re essentially training yourself to process more information for different angles – a key aspect of learning new information more quickly.
4. Study before bed.
As this 2012 study out of Notre Dame demonstrates, learning new material, and making new neural connections right before sleeping provides a significant retention advantage over learning during the day.Asto why this works, there’s some evidence that numerous brain repair and consolidation functions are performed during deep sleep and REM sleep.
Regardless, learning something new and immediately following it with sleep, is a definitive way to get more bang for your buck out of study time.
5. Prime your brain beforehand.
“Thinking means connecting things, and stops if they cannot be connected.” ~Gilbert Keith Chesterton
When you’re learning something new, you want to make as many connections as possible, and according to Princeton Review co-founder, and author of What Smart Students Know, Adam Robinson, the best way to do that is to make relate new information to what you already know. This turns out to be the most effective way to create genuine understanding.
One of the best ways to do this is to prime your brain beforehand by doing a brain dump. Take five minutes before learning something new, and write down everything that comes to mind related to that subject. This will draw out anything you already know, and pull potential relationships to the front of your mind before embarking on a new set of concepts.
6. Make it visual.
The brain processes visual information orders of magnitude faster than text. And including relevant visuals with learning materials significantly improves retention during testing.
So whenever you can create symbols, charts, and diagrams to go along with text notes, you’ll enhance your ability to learn new information more quickly.
7. Learn without thinking.
One way to quickly learn a new set of information (especially new motor skills or visual associations), is to actually not focus your attention on learning at all.
Perceptual learning, a concept established by psychology researcherEleanor Gibson, involves the idea that we learn unconsciously through our perceptions (sight, hearing, touch, etc.) in a self-regulated way, without requiring external reinforcement.
More simply, you can learn to intuitively identify different situations or images through directly experiencing them in a fast-paced manner.
For example, for aspiring pilots, following a perceptual learning training protocol through a computer program that allows you to associate different dial readouts with different situations gave them, in 1 hour, the same level of reading skill as expert pilots with an average of 1,000 flying hours.
8. Switch between focused and diffuse modes.
According to Professor Barbara Oakley in her latest bestselling book, A Mind for Numbers, we have two modes of thinking: focused (highly intensive mental processes when you are acutely aware of what you are thinking), and diffuse (a more relaxed mental process associated with sub-conscious thinking). Understanding how to use and switch between these two modes is essential to learning more effectively.
How many times have you struggled with a tough problem, only to give up, go for a walk or take a shower, and suddenly have the solution pop into your head?
This is because we often get trapped by a phenomenon known as the Einstellung effect: when the first idea that pops into your head prevents you from seeing a wider range of possible solutions.
If you’re overly focused on a new type of math problem, you may never be able to figure it out during that single session because you can’t see the forest for the trees.
The best approach is to instead intersperse short periods of intense focus on new information with periods of relaxed diffuse thinking, and to repeat that cycle over and over.