Kids can and should practice the skill of learning if they want a fighting chance at fulfilling all those lofty goals their parents set for them. But some people keep studying – and thinking – the same way all their lives without improving their methods.
Thankfully, cognitive science has taken a look at how people actually learn, and the results are surprising and super helpful.
Skills are easier to pick up as individual parts.
If you want to learn the guitar, don’t think about performing all the parts at once. Set the smaller, more measurable goal of learning a few easy chords, how to strum correctly, and how to put those chords together.
Over time, the accumulation of those tinier skills will add up to the whole ability to play guitar.
It’s a technique that applies to mechanical learning as well as fact-based lessons.
Multitasking doesn’t work, especially for storing new information.
Most people understand that multitasking is a myth – your brain really can’t pay equal attention to two tasks simultaneously. But few people apply that insight to learning.
In addition to breaking a task down into individual steps, be sure to devote your full energy to each step on its own. When you get distracted, it takes roughly 25 minutes to return your focus to the original task.
Over time, multitasking could mean you only gain a partial understanding of various different skills or concepts, without acquiring a full knowledge or mastery of any.
Writing down what you’ve learned helps cement it in your mind.
If you want to translate information to knowledge, research suggests you should be writing down what you learn – by hand.
A 2014 study found that students who took notes on pen and paper learned more than students who typed notes on their laptops. Over a battery of tests, the pen-and-paper group were more adept at remembering facts, sorting out complex ideas, and synthesising information.
Researchers say the physical act of touching pen to paper creates a stronger cognitive link to the material than merely typing, which happens far too quickly for retention to take place. Writing forces you to confront ideas head-on, which leads them to stick with you over time.
Mistakes should be celebrated and studied.
Being perfect is overrated. The entire point of learning is to make attempts, fail, and find a lesson about where you went wrong.
In 2014, a study of motor learning found the brain has more or less reserved a space for the mistakes we make. Later, we can recruit those memories to do better next time.
If parents teach kids never to make mistakes, or shun them when mistakes happen, kids end up missing a wealth of knowledge.
Being optimistic helps you succeed.
Stressing kids out with negative reinforcement can get them stuck in a mental rut, filling them with self-doubt and anxiety, both of which are toxic for learning.
“Anxiety precludes you from exploring real solutions and real thought patterns that will come up with solutions,” says Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks.
Decades of positive psychology research suggest that we will become more successful in just about anything we try to do if we approach it with an open mind and see tangible room for improvement.
Parents should teach kids to see learning as exploration. It will help give them a sense of determination, which they can manufacture into grit when the going gets tough.
Exciting topics are ‘stickier’ than boring ones.
Kids naturally drift toward the weird and wacky, but once the experience of rote education gets them thinking in cold hard facts, that sense of fun can die off.
Parents: don’t let that happen.
As early as possible, kids should gain an appreciation for why they remember Grandma’s weird-smelling house and those highlighter-yellow shorts Dad wears on night-time runs. It’s because they’re unique.
Author and former US memory champion Joshua Foer memorised a full deck of playing cards in under two minutes by tying each card to a weird image. Kids can do the same for their times tables and presidents.
Speed reading can condense learning times.
The premise is simple: If you can read faster, you can learn faster. Though you might think speed reading takes a lot of effort, programs like Spreeder pick up the pace gradually to make it feel manageable.
By training your brain to process words more quickly, you get accustomed to reading entire strings of words, rather than imagining each one individually, which slows you down.
Practice, practice, practice.
A strong work ethic makes a real impact on the brain.
In 2004, a study published in Nature found the act of juggling produced more grey matter. When people stopped juggling, the grey matter disappeared. There wasn’t anything special in the juggling itself, just the repetition.
Neuroscientists call this process ‘pruning‘. It refers to the new pathways that are carved by doing an act over and over again, to the point where it sticks around for good.
In other words, skills follow the use-it-or-lose-it principle.
Use what you know to learn what you don’t.
If kids encounter a topic they have trouble wrapping their heads around, parents should help them to understand how it relates to something they’ve already learned. The practice is called associative learning.
A student might like football but struggle with differential calculus. If he can see the similarities between a spiralling pass and the slope of a curve, he stands a better chance at understanding the abstract concept.
Teaching other people helps you, too.
Scientists have dubbed it ‘the protégé effect’.
When you take something that you’ve learned and put it into your own words, you’re not only demonstrating mastery of an idea – you’re refining your own understanding of it.
In distilling information into small pieces that someone can easily digest, the teacher must gain a certain intimacy with the subject matter.
That’s why older siblings are generally smarter than younger siblings, one 2007 study suggested – because one of the jobs of the older sibling is passing knowledge along after having received it.