One of the most important times we need mindful, focused concentration is when we are learning something, whether it’s calculus, cooking, or car repair.
And if you thought paying attention to your breath was challenging, just wait until you try to sustain your attention through differential equations or the French Revolution!
We all think we know exactly HOW we’re supposed to study. You just sit down, read the book, do the exercises, and voila! — content learned.
But much of the conventional wisdom about how we learn is actually wrong. Study in the same place all the time? Nope! Sit down and focus with single-minded intensity? Wrong again! Reread your notes and highlights from the text? Also incorrect!
Whether you are learning mitosis, marketing, or metal-jewelry making, read on for tips to make your learning stick! (*if you’re the parent of a teen, you may want to share this with them 🙂 )
Train Your Brain
A mindfulness practice is a core component of attention training. Studies show that practicing mindfulness enhances our focus and concentration. You can learn how to begin a meditation practice here. Before you sit down to study, spend a few minutes focusing on your breath, calming your mind, and cultivating your attention.
Watch your language!
In their book The Mindful Way to Study, Jake and Roddy Gibbs point out that a lot of the phrases we use to describe studying are pretty violent — we’re going to “hit the books,” “nail the test,” or “hammer it into our heads.” No wonder we don’t like to study!
Instead of viewing learning as a battle — you vs. the material — view it as a relationship. It’s you and the material. The Gibbs’ describe learning as a dance — the dancer engages with the music. A ballroom dance is an act of cooperation, not fighting. Learning is a joint venture, not a hostile takeover.
What’s the point?
Why are you learning? Is it to get an A? A raise at work?
While grades and money are important, if they are your sole intention for learning something, you won’t enjoy it as much, and you probably won’t learn as much.
In a famous study, two groups of children were allowed to play with an assortment of toys. One group was simply allowed to play with whatever toys they wanted. The other group was given the same instruction, but was also paid to play with the toys. Can you guess which group rated the toys as less fun? Yep, the kids who were paid to play. The extrinsic reward reduced the intrinsic joy of the activity.
The more we focus on the results of an activity, instead of the process, the more our performance suffers. Just think of the difference between how you perform in a practice, when no one’s really watching, and how you perform in a competition, when all eyes are on you. As the Gibbs’ write, “The best way to get the rewards as a result of dancing well is to pay attention to the dance itself while dancing.”
Set your intention or goal, but then when you study, just study. Engage in the process of learning.
In two recent books — Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel, and How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, by Benedict Carey — the conventional wisdom about learning is challenged by the latest research.
The following is a summary of the findings — see if there are ones you need to be unschooled in!
The suggestion to sit down and study one subject with single-minded intensity is well-intentioned, but doesn’t always lead to meaningful learning. The numbers vary, but I would say most humans can handle about 40 minutes of intense focus before they need a cognitive break. Set a timer, and when it goes off, get away from the books for a bit — get a snack or get some exercise before returning to your studies.
Mix it Up
We probably think the best way to study is to focus intently on our math, then switch to science, and so on. But researchers have found that the practice of interleaving — mixing up our study of different subjects — actually leads to greater recall of the information.
Mix it Up, Again
Have you been told to always study in the same place? Well, there’s evidence to show that’s not very effective, either. When we study in different places, we take in all sorts of additional cues from our environment. We create new neural networks in our brain for storing that information. “Ah, yes, I remember I solved an equation like that while I was working outside and that red bird flew over my head.” “That’s the story I read when I was snuggled under my favorite blanket in the study!”
Forget What You’ve Learned
Forgetting is actually an essential part of learning. Maybe you do some homework on Monday, and then review what you’ve learned over the week on the weekend. You’ve forgotten the information you read on Monday. Sort of. When you review, you retrieve the information again. You strengthen the neural pathways in the brain that store the information.
When you quiz yourself and get the question wrong, that’s actually a great way to learn! Because now you need to look up the correct answer and revise your thinking. Which is pretty much what learning is all about.
Quiz, Quiz, Quiz
Have you ever studied a ton for a test, felt super prepared, and then you bomb the test? “But I knew it!” you exclaim.
That’s what experts call the “illusion of mastery” — we stare at our notes or our books long enough that we become fluent with the text. We think we know it. But if we actually had to answer a question without our notes in front of us, we’d be lost.
This is why some old-school strategies like flashcards work. They make YOU come up with the answer, instead of seeing it in front of you. Quizzing yourself — one of the oldest strategies in the book — is also one of the best.
Studies show that mindfulness practice helps us manage performance-related anxiety. We all feel anxious at times, and we need a certain level of nervous system activation to be able to do well on a test or in a competition. But people who practice mindfulness feel less anxiety before the event, and recover more quickly afterwards. Bringing that level-headedness into your test allows you to have all your wits about you as you work.
If you do find yourself stressing out in the middle of a test, take a moment and stop working. Look up from the test — get yourself out of the test vortex and orient yourself to the environment. Take a deep breath. Take 5 breaths if you need to. This practice of returning to the present moment through deep breathing will activate your body’s calming response. You’ll be able to think more rationally. Remind yourself that a test is not the same as a lion charging at you, even though your body may be reacting to it that way!
By strengthening our attention muscle through mindfulness practice, we develop our ability to focus our awareness where we want it, and to filter out distractions. And the more focused we are when we study, the more we’re likely to remember. Psychologist Daniel Willingham says,
If your study session is full of thoughts about prom or your friends’ Facebook updates, that’s what you’ll remember. If you can use the strategies above to keep your attention where you want it, imagine how much you’ll learn!
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