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Nine Techniques to Maximize Adult Learning

Explore nine effective techniques to optimize adult learning and discover practical strategies to enhance engagement and retention among adult learners.
Benedict Carey, author and award-winning science reporter at the New York Times since 2004, has spent many years following developments within learning science. In his book “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens,” Carey summarizes research on how we learn languages, and explains how this can be applied to adult learning.

Carey has a relaxed way of looking at learning. He encourages us to trust the process: instead of spending a whole night cramming before a test, we should “free our inner slacker” by taking breaks, sleeping well, and taking power naps. We should let knowledge sink in by revisiting material later and being patient with the learning process.

Carey offers 9 tips on how to make learning stick:

1. Space Out Learning

Spacing out means breaking up study material into small, easy-to-absorb chunks. These “micro-learnings” should be planned out into different time periods to maximize learning potential.

2. Test Yourself

Tests are one of the ultimate forms of learning. Carrying out a test, an assessment or a quiz before starting to study or before taking the ultimate “exam” strengthens your learning. Robert Bjork, Professor in Psychology at the University of California, says that “the harder your brain works to dig out a memory, the greater the increase in learning.” Tests don’t necessarily have to be classic classroom exams: attempting to explain concepts to others is a way of testing our knowledge, and therefore of increasing our learning.

3. Distract Yourself

Taking breaks is another great way to effectivize learning. By allowing our subconscious to take over, we allow the brain to work through material and increase learning on its own.

4. Remember: The Power of Forgetting

Carey also talks about the power of forgetting and the “forget-to-learn” theory. He states that forgetting helps learning in two concrete ways:
When we start an assignment, our minds tend to give the task a considerable psychological weight; and
Stopping ourselves when dealing with an assignment will extend its life in our memory and thus “push it to the top of our mental to-do-list.”
However, Zeigarnik stresses that it is important that the interruption is self-induced.  Simply being disturbed by a random person does not do the trick.

6. Avoid Cramming

While studying all night before a test may seem helpful, it may be counter-productive when it comes to learning. Carey offers a few nice metaphors to explain cramming in relation to learning. Cramming is like “flooding your lawn once,” instead of watering it over time – using the same amount of water: “Flooding the lawn makes it look slightly lusher the next day, but that emerald gloss fades.” Instead, water the lawn with a healthy dose of water every couple of days.

Carey also discusses how to optimize your study intervals: “To put it simply, if you want to know the optimal distribution of your study time, you need to decide how long you wish to remember something.” Ultimately, this means that if you want to remember something for a longer time period, then you should plan your intervals.

7. Learn in Different Places

Bjork also found that studying in varying environments can increase your learning capacity. When, how, and where the learning material is presented to us can provide important contexts that help us recall the information. Change up your environment if you’d like to optimize your learning.

8. Mix “Related but Distinct Material”

Mix “related but distinct material” while learning. Blending skills, items, and concepts over the long term, seems to help us get a crispier idea of each material individually.

For example, tennis players don’t just focus on their backhand for hours on end. Instead, they practice everything from backhands to serves, mixing up their moves. This is the approach that we should be taking to learning all material.

9. Sleep: “If you snooze, you win”

Nobody really knows why we sleep, but one theory suggests that we sleep to consolidate our memory, and therefore to learn. The latest research suggests that this “unconscious downtime clarifies memory and sharpens skills”. Carey says that he “thinks of sleep as learning with our eyes closed.”
Source: Benedict Carey, “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens.” Random House, NY: 2015.
At Celemi, we incorporate many of these learning techniques into our solutions. We believe in micro-learning, taking breaks, interleaving, and testing. Our methodology is serious fun, and we deliver learning results that you can see at work in your organization. Get in touch if you’d like to talk more about our business simulations and how we can optimize learning for your people.
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