If you work full-time and have family responsibilities at home, it can be difficult to find time to learn anything new. There are the traditional methods of attending night school or open university style courses. These courses, however, can be time-consuming taking a commitment of several hours a week and often rely on learning by repetition. Further education courses like these are often necessary for obtaining formal diplomas and qualifications but there are other ways to learn faster. In addition, if you only attend one class once a week, be it a sport or learning activity, you do not tend to pick up the skill very easily and may plateau quickly. It normally allows you to maintain a certain level but not to advance. A faster learning method for a playing a musical instrument, for example is to play for 10-15 minutes every day instead of trying to cram two hours in on a Saturday.
Even if we are lucky enough to have the time on our hands our attention spans are shorter these days. We flick through TV channels, blogs and vlogs and scan news articles online. We are bombarded with digital information wherever we go.
Therefore, it is useful to understand a few tips for how to accelerate this learning process. How can we cut down on the time it takes to learn a new skill?
Before we learn anything new it is worth discovering what learning style suits us the best. There are several theories on the different ways we absorb information but generally our learning styles are:
If you tend to be more engaged when looking at pictures, photos and images and are able to visualise objects, then you may predominantly be a visual learner. During a lecture you may not take in what the lecturer is saying but may get the message when they draw or write on the board or screen. You may learn more from reading the book on the subject than attending the lecture if the lecture predominantly speaks rather than writes or shows presentations.
If you are an aural learner, then you can easily take the information by listening to the lecturer or an audio recording. You may easily learn lyrics to songs after listening to them a couple of times.
If you have a kinesthetic bias then you learn by doing, you are more likely to absorb a new skill if you are involved (think sports, school science experiments and wood working).
Quite often, the most successful method is a mixture of the three e.g. even if you are predominantly a visual learner it would be almost impossible to learn a language from a book without hearing how it is spoken. Once you have an understanding of which method suits you best you can save time simply by focussing on courses that are biased to your style or contain a good mix.
Stay focussed and get plenty of sleep to learn faster
The fact that learning seems to be more effective in shorter doses may be due to our attention span, which is estimated at between ten and twenty minutes for focussed attention. These days our attention spans may be getting even worse. We flick through hundreds of TV channels, scan blogs or vlogs and news articles online. We are bombarded with digital information wherever we go. Our phones and email distract us with pings and vibrations when a new message, email or update arrives. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the time we set aside for learning is entirely focussed on the process without distraction. This is not easy when we may be using an App on the phone or studying online but try to set the phone on silent or turn off the email program whilst you are studying to avoid these distractions.
Research has shown that the learning process benefits from sleeping between lessons. Sleeping after learning may actually allow the brain to make more connections and may even result in physical changes in the brain 1 (at least in mice!). Therefore, breaking lessons down into smaller more focussed chunks with a sleep in between may be a faster way to learn than one 2-hour lesson a week.
If you want to pick up new skills but don’t feel you have a lot of time or attention, then micro learning may be the answer. Short, to the point, information rich courses are available online and via apps on your phone or tablet. Different formats allow you to learn in different ways. It may be as simple as staying up to date with current affairs by following one of the various news sites or watching an inspiring Ted Talk. Whole subject lessons are also now available in this format.
Micro-learning subjects tend to be broken down into small chunks and non-essential information is stripped out. Multi-media formats have allowed great flexibility in how information is presented to suit all learning styles (audio/video webinar/interviews/presentations etc.)
Why is micro learning effective?
This method of “bite-sized” learning and online access allows us to learn at our own pace. The lessons are broken down into the minimum size chunk to present one aspect of the subject matter. For example, an online guitar lesson may simply be a ten minutes exercise devoted to learning a chord.
These focussed lessons allow learners to absorb and retain the information more easily. Micro learning is now being adopted by large corporations as an effective method to train staff. The days of attending long training seminars is over and using an eLearning curriculum which can be completed in your own time is very much in vogue. There is the additional benefit to businesses of lower costs of course.
Speed reading is another technique that can help you spend less time researching information or learning. There are several different techniques which can be practised to good effect. They allow the reader, essentially to skim a page of information quickly, rather than reading every word. With practise books can be read in a fraction of the time and the information within retained. Personally, I find these skimming techniques easier with narrow columns such as magazine and newspapers than wide pages in books with a lot of words spread across each line of the page.
Find out more about different speed reading techniques here
If you can retain facts quicker then you can learn faster. There are lots of techniques for memory training but a common one is to use Mnemonics or association with easy to remember phrases, poems or imagery. Bare facts can be hard to absorb but by linking them to something that is easier to remember such as a rhyme we can recall things faster. You may remember from school learning the rhyme “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain” to recall the colours of the rainbow in sequence (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet).
Healthy Diet and exercise
Diet to help improve memory and learn faster
There are lots of current articles on the best foods to boost brain power. It is important for brain and body health to maintain a balanced diet and missing meals is not recommended, especially breakfast. Key things to include in your diet for delaying the effects of aging and enhancing memory and learning ability are:
- Oily Fish
- Super berries (blueberries may also delay memory loss)
- Seeds and nuts
Read more about foods for enhancing memory and brain power here
It is also important to stay hydrated. The body and brain become tired if we are dehydrated so remember to drink water regularly throughout the day.
Exercise for enhanced brain function
Scientific evidence shows that aerobic fitness helps to reduce loss of brain tissue as we get older 2. If we stay active we are able to process information more quickly and respond better to mental challenges.
Accelerated Learning Resources:
1. getabstract – This is a great resource it gives access to over 15,000 non-fiction books so is great for learning. It isn’t free unfortunately, but subscription starts at just over £4 per months (2017 rates). It allows you to absorb the key content of books in approximately 10 minutes. This is achieved by presenting the reader with the key information only including:
- Top take-aways
- Detailed summary of the content
- Significant quotes
I am fortunate enough that my company has a subscription to getabstract so I have been able to absorb titles on project management, finance, time management, health and wellbeing and can recommend it as a valuable learning resource.
2. Duo Lingo – Language App, each lesson is approximately five minutes long. Totally free with paid add-ons. We are both currently using it to learn French. It uses visual and auditory learning and allows you to practise speaking the language.
3. TedTalks – motivational and inspirational presentations and talks, typically shorter than 20 minutes. Initially technology based but now covering most subjects. I love this one!
4. You Tube – Millions of videos on every subject.
5. Highbrow (https://gohighbrow.com/) – micro learning site that delivers lessons in bite size chunks in a daily email – and much of it is free (Small fee for premium courses). Learn anything from tips on male grooming to efficient time management.
Summary – Top 10 Tips for Learning Faster
- Discover your learning style.
- Study mindfully without distraction giving 100% attention to the subject/lesson
- Break the study down into focussed chunks or bite sized pieces (micro learning) – use shorter more frequent study sessions.
- Use Apps and online courses designed for faster learning.
- Get plenty of sleep between study sessions.
- Learn how to read faster – speed reading or sign up to getabstract and get the key facts without needing to read the whole book.
- Adopt techniques for improving your memory (mnemonics).
- Eat plenty of brain foods.
- Drink plenty of water and stay hydrated.
- Exercise regularly.
1. Yang et al. (2014). Sleep promotes branch-specific formation of dendritic spines after learning. Science Magazine, 344, (6188), 1173-1178.
2. Gomez‐Pinilla et al. (2013). The Influence of Exercise on Cognitive Abilities. Comprehensive Physiology 3, (1), 403-428.