When learning anything new, be it a mathematical formula, language or musical note, it can be tempting to simply try to memorize everything in the hopes that you’ll be able to recall the information later on when you need it.
However, although the brain does have a rather impressive ability to retain certain information that is drilled into it over and over through memorization, this certainly isn’t the most efficient way to learn.
Memorizing takes up a lot of time and significant effort, and we often tend to forget things simply because we don’t find them interesting, even if we did stay up all night staring at flash cards and lists.
Luckily, as it turns out, the brain learns more effortlessly when you make creative connections between ideas. By making connections with things you already know and understand, new ideas also become easier to understand, and thus learning is accelerated.
There are two main forms of learning; passive learning and active learning, and both forms are equally important to a well-rounded learning experience.
Passive learning happens when you aren’t consciously putting forth effort to learn something. For example, you could be listening to Spanish music and subconsciously cataloging certain words, or maybe while you read your favorite blogs you are taking in information without really realizing it.
With passive learning, you are enjoying the activity while also gaining exposure to new information and developing a natural sense of what sounds or looks right.
Active learning happens when you are consciously making an effort to learn by doing things like reading or listening to words and then looking up the translation or definition and attempting to use them in a meaningful way.
Following are a number of different active learning techniques that can be a lot of fun and involve absolutely no memorization.
Learning by visualizing
One way to solidify a new idea or concept in your mind is to put it in a visual format. For example, you may imagine a variable as a pencil or a function as a pencil sharpener. Doing this helps you to recall the relationship later on, because you’ve formed a new connection in your brain.
For those who aren’t visual learners, this same technique can be applied using other senses, such as imagining a certain smell, sound or taste along with a new concept.
Learning through metaphors
Metaphors are great because they connect something new that you are learning, with something you are already familiar with, which helps you to recall the new information more easily and quickly. Complex physical equations can be related to their real life counterparts, and political ideas can be brought to a personal level when related to your own social life.
It’s kind of like creating a bridge, from the abstract to the commonplace or from the unknown to the known.
If metaphors aren’t really your thing, you can manually establish the relationship between ideas by creating diagrams. But even if you have created metaphors and visualized images or sounds with certain concepts, creating a diagram can help you to explore different ways of connecting ideas and prevent you from repeating the same diagrams for different concepts.
For example, if you’re studying literature, you can diagram ideas that are based on a time, place or author, showing the similarities between different works.
Learning through simplifying
If all else fails, the best way to learn new things is to make it simpler. If there is a concept you are struggling with, try to imagine how you would attempt to explain the idea to a kindergartner or child. By doing this, you are forced to think about it in a different way, which can help to clear the fog and enable you to see the concrete rather than the abstract.
Joyce Del Rosario is a career and education blogger and she is a part of the team behind Open Colleges and InformED, one of Australia’s leading providers of Open Learning and online and distance education.