3 Ways to Learn Better by Studying Less

Yashu Mittal

We believe that anyone can, and everyone should be a life-long learner. The changing demands of work, our innate curiosity and a desire for challenge, longer life expectancy — all these provide great reasons to expand your knowledge and try new things.

You can literally change the size of your brain by spending just 15 minutes each day learning something new.

Think you’re too old to learn? It doesn’t matter whether you’re 16 or 60, you can learn at any age. The human brain starts life with around 100 billion neurons (nerve cells that transmit information). Many neurons die over time, but the hippocampus, an area of the brain dedicated to emotions and memory is one of the few parts of the brain that can actually grow new neurons. You can literally change the size of your brain by spending just 15 minutes each day learning something new. Try these tips to make it work for you.

1. Study in Short, Frequent Sessions

You may think that 15 minutes isn’t enough time to learn anything of substance and that you’d be better off carving out 3 hours to study on a Saturday. However, the science of learning has news for you: A single, long study session isn’t as helpful as shorter more frequent sessions.

The longer the time gap between study sessions, the greater the likelihood that the memory of what you study will fade away. But, if you return to your studies within just a day or two, your mind is still holding onto that previous study session, and the new learning you do helps reinforce those older learning moments.

The act of remembering makes memories stronger.

Here’s another tip: you can improve memory by spending a few minutes each day thinking about what you learned the day before. This “retrieval practice” is shown to strengthen your memory and improve your learning — in other words, remembering something makes that memory stronger!

2. Let Your Brain Do the Work

We often think of learning as the time we actively concentrate on our studies: reading, writing, doing homework or completing practice problems. But our brains are amazingly active even when we aren’t consciously thinking about anything. The scientist and educator Barbara Oakley, who writes about effective learning techniques, talks about two different brain modes: the focused mode, which is when you’re really concentrating, and the diffused mode when you aren’t thinking about anything in particular.

Most of us think of this focused mode when we talk about learning. But it turns out that when our brains enter a resting state — when you’re gardening, taking a shower, cleaning the house, or just “spacing out” — the diffused mode of thinking kicks in and the brain continues to process thoughts. Have you ever been stuck on a problem, and while you take a quick walk around the block, the answer miraculously pops into your mind? That’s the diffused mode at work.

3. Sleep to Remember

We all know that it can be difficult to concentrate, think, or learn when we’re exhausted. We need good sleep to study well. However, the benefits of sleep and learning don’t stop here. Research shows that sleep also plays an important role after we’ve just learned something.

I mentioned earlier that our brains literally grow as we learn — neurons are created and new neural connections formed. Sleep helps with this process. As we sleep, our brains build memories in a process called “consolidation.” It’s like our brain says “What a day! So much has happened. I’d better put everything in order so I can find it later.”

When you spend 3 hours in a single day learning, your brain has only that one night to consolidate those learning memories. Your brain’s going to have to work longer to successfully store that new information. But, if you spread that learning out over 7 days you give your brain 7 nights to build those memories — in other words, give your brain the time it needs to consolidate your learning.

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