3 and a half ways to boost your learning and skills

Posted on March 6th, by Dr Rob Yeung .

20160307 Learning is a skill like any otherManagement writers often talk about the fact that we live in an increasingly VUCA world (which stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) and I think that few people would disagree with that. In this chaotic and every-changing world, one of the best things we can do to future-proof our careers is to keep learning.

So that may be about doing more reading or doing some of the excellent (and often free) courses available online. Perhaps you need to pay to gain a diploma or master’s degree. Go on a training course or just ensure you are learning new skills on the job.

Based on psychological science, here are three and a half proven ways to be as productive as possible and get the most out of your studying and learning:

1. Distribute your learning

Say you have a week to learn something and you decide that you can devote no more than 7 hours to studying a topic. Maybe you are studying simply for your own learning – or perhaps you have an exam on Monday morning. Would you be better off doing one hour of reading a day? Or doing all of your reading in one session of 7 hours?

Doing little bits of learning over a longer period of time is called distributed practice while cramming all of your learning into a short space of time is called mass practice. And studies overwhelmingly show that distributed practice is much more advantageous.

That’s likely to be true whether you’re learning a mental skill (such as mathematics or a new language) as a physical skill (such as a sport or a new activity at work).

Whatever you’re learning, aim to do short, frequent sessions of practice rather than long, infrequent sessions.

2. Switch gears too

Here’s another scenario. Say you have to learn two different topics. Perhaps you are preparing to take separate exams in biology and politics. Or you may be preparing to give presentations on two different topics, such as your company’s new products on one day and on a charity you volunteer with on another day.

Suppose you have all of Sunday afternoon to learn your two different topics. Should you do say 2 till 4pm on one before doing 4 till 6pm on the other?

Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, research studies suggest that we would be better off switching between the two topics more frequently. So that might mean doing an hour of one before switching, and then alternating the two again. Psychologists call this interleaving (as opposed to finishing on one topic before moving to the next, which tends to be called blocking).

This may surprise some people. After all, wouldn’t it be confusing to study one topic for an hour or even only a half-hour before switching – and then switching back and forth throughout a study session?

But the answer is no.

Studies suggest that interleaving – studying multiple topics during a single study session – boosts subsequent recall more so than blocking.

3. Change your context

Where do you do most of your studying? Some people have a favourite spot such as their desk in the office or a specific, comfortable chair at home. Others may study in lots of different venues and locations: standing up on the train on the way to work, sitting in different coffee shops, in different rooms at home, in various meeting rooms at the office and so on.

Research studies suggest that the subsequent recall of information is significantly better if information has been acquired in a variety of settings. So don’t get too comfortable in any one place.

Mix things up. Change your environment and you may boost your learning.

3.5 Choose the same context

There is an exception to rule number 3. Psychologists have discovered something called context-dependent memory. In a famous study, scuba divers were asked to learn something either on land or underwater. They were then tested on their recall either on land or underwater.

The result: divers who learnt on land did better in subsequent tests on land. Divers who learnt underwater did better when tested underwater. In other words, if you learn something in a specific setting, you tend to do better if you later get tested in that exact same setting.

So if you know that you will be asked to recall information at your office desk, for example, then you might be better off learning while sat at your office desk.

Over to you

These three and a half pointers are backed by a lot of psychological research. Feel free to share them. And do let me know how you get on with them!

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