The Learning Brain
In the spirit of being “back to school” season, I thought I’d share some tips from an excellent course I just listened to on Audible called “The Learning Brain” by Thad A. Polk. This course delves into the inter-working of our brains, both at the subconscious and conscious levels, to help you understand how the brain processes information and stores it into memory.

Not only is this helpful information for marketers and market researchers like me, it also provides a variety of excellent, science-based tips on how to make learning more efficient and effective.  As business professionals we have to make ongoing education a priority in order to stay competitive.   Additionally, if you have school-aged children, these tips are perfect to help them study more efficiently.  I hope you find these tips as useful as I do!

1. Adopt a Positive Mindset

Your mindset can have a dramatic impact on the effectiveness of your learning.

1A. Think Positive and believe in yourself:

In order to learn something new, especially something that may be challenging to you, you must think positive and believe that you can do it. Low self-efficacy is a term that describes a low-level belief in one’s own ability, which can prevent someone from even getting started or to give up at the first sign of a challenge. People don’t realize how incredibly powerful our brains really are and what they can achieve.

1B. Take Control Over Your Learning:

You must realize that learning is your own responsibility and completely up to you. If you come across a challenge or obstacle, it is natural to blame the teacher or come up with some other excuse. However, these excuses will get you nowhere. It is far more effective to think about what you can do to overcome the barrier or challenge. Maybe you can study harder, listen or read the material again, find another resource, or talk to a friend that is an expert on the material. Stop making excuses and take control of your learning. You should see challenges as opportunities for growth because it’s when you stretch yourself and get outside your comfort zone that you grow the most.

2. Be strategic and deliberate about your learning

Not all approaches to learning are equal. Here are three key tips that have been proven to enhance learning:

  • Interleaving: most people tend to study or practice in blocks – focusing on one type of problem or skill over and over before switching to another. However, scientists have shown, through controlled experiments, that we learn more effectively by interleaving topics or skills during practice. Interleaving topics is a better simulation of how your brain needs to function when you perform, whether it be in a game, on a test, in a meeting, etc.
  • Spacing your practice: it is far more effective to spread your practice over multiple sessions than to try to cram it all into fewer sessions. Not only do you learn the material in more depth, but it’s more likely to stay in long term memory.
  • Relate to your learning: another approach that helps when you are learning something new is to relate that idea to something you already know, which reinforces learning.

Deliberate Practice: Make your practice or learning deliberate and challenging rather than just mindlessly practicing the skill.

  • Set specific goals. Keep it short to 2 or 3 goals that are challenging and will stretch you, but are also achievable.
  • Write your goals down and establish a target date. Identify a reward that you will give yourself when you achieve them.
  • Identify holes in your learning and systematically build them up. It’s naturally tempting to work on things that we are already good at which gives us positive reinforcement in the sense of accomplishment but limits how much we learn and grow.
3. Learn actively rather than passively

We learn better when we are actively retrieving information rather than passively encoding it. For example, reading and highlighting are both passive activities and are not nearly as effective as providing explanations and testing yourself.

Two ways to be active learners:

  1. Ask questions and test yourself – intentionally ask yourself questions about the material by thinking about what key questions the book is attempting to answer are. Create a test to test yourself. Testing yourself is far more effective than re-reading the material because it gives you practice in retrieving the material and information from memory which is ultimately what you want to be able to do. Where do you get the test? Make it up yourself and test yourself a few days later.
  2. Teach or present to others: Try to teach others what you’ve learned. There’s no better way to find holes in your learning than to try to explain it to other people.
4. Identify good sources of information that will challenge you

We’ve all heard the term “garbage in, garbage out” and it very much applies to learning. You must make sure that your source of information is credible, accurate and unbiased. Be skeptical and check out the sources.

Seeking out different points of view can also be helpful. We tend to seek out information and opinions that are consistent with our own and disregard information that isn’t. However, learning about ideas that are different from our own can help expand our learning capacity.

5. Stay active, eat right, and get enough sleep

We’ve heard this before haven’t we? But scientific evidence shows that our brains operate much more effectively when we keep our heart and body healthy. To do this we need to stay active, but this doesn’t mean we have to be competitive athletes. Walking, taking the stairs, gardening or anything that gets you moving helps. Eating right means a lot of different things to different people, but as an example, the course describes studies done with the “Mediterranean” diet. This diet is high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, alcohol in moderation, and more fish and less red meat. Tests have shown that this diet improves heart health and cognitive function.
Sleeping better is also critical. I will not go into all the ways to improve your sleep, but if you are interested in a great book, I recommend “Sleep Smarter” by Shawn Stevenson.

In conclusion, we all have to continue learning in our careers – it never stops. Using the techniques from Polk’s “The Learning Brain” will help give you an edge to make your learning more efficient and effective. Give them a try and let me know how it goes!

About the Author

Rob Riester is Founder and Partner of Peel Research Partners, Inc, a market research firm. Rob leads market research engagements to help companies effectively manage risk and make better business decisions. Find out more about Peel Research Partners