Seven brain friendly hacks for effective learning and retention

by Meena Eswaran

Learning something new was ranked as one of the most important things that people started doing during the global lockdown in 2020, undoubtedly one of the most difficult years that the human race has had to endure so far. People took to learning, either to acquire a new skill or to upskill their already existing knowledge in order to cope with the new normal. Most of this learning has been digital which calls for a lot of motivation and self-discipline.

Come New Year 2021, learning was probably a part of their new year’s resolution for many. Even before the first month draws to a close, there are probably some who are already feeling frustrated that they are not able to keep up with their learning goals.

Why does this happen? Is there some way to overcome this hurdle of not being able to stick to your learning goals? How can we make our learning process more effective, retain information better, and start applying what we have learnt with the help of one of the greatest assets that we have – our brain?

Here are my top 7 tips for a brain friendly learning process and better retention of what you’ve learnt:


1. Begin with the end in mind

Before you start learning anything, whether it is a language or a new skill, understand the true motivation behind your decision to learn. Write down what achieving this goal would mean to you, to use at a future time when you may tend to slack off and find it difficult to keep up. This technique is said to have helped a lot of people steer through their learning journey successfully. It would be much better if this motivation is intrinsic, that is, it comes from within you. Intrinsic motivation is believed to activate the reward centre of the brain, which makes the learning process highly enjoyable.

2. Don’t let the state of being overwhelmed get you stuck

Overwhelm is one of the brain’s biggest enemies when it comes to achieving your learning goals. The part of your brain responsible for learning suffers a freeze when it has to deal with a situation in which it is overwhelmed. To overcome this, break your ultimate goal into realistic bite-sized chunks and deal with these small chunks one at a time. Break them into tiny, manageable steps so that you just cannot fail doing them.

3. Quit the temptation to multitask

In these days of constant digital distractions like checking emails, watching YouTube videos, engaging with social media etc, and other interruptions it is very difficult to concentrate on the job at hand and naturally this affects learning as well. To be able to take in information as we learn, the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for taking data in, has to be activated. For this, focus is needed, without which, the hippocampus will not be turned on. This will make your learning process and outcome highly ineffective.

4. Review, review and review

Connections or pathways are formed between the neurons of our brain when we learn something. These neural connections become stronger every time we activate them. By reviewing and retrieving things that we’ve learnt, we strengthen the neural connections and thus enhance our learning and retention ability. Experts believe that reviewing what we’ve learnt at least 3 times gives us the best chance to boost our learning outcome. 

5. Sleep well

This might sound weird and counter-productive to learning, but neuroscience has proven that while we sleep the brain “prunes” some of the weaker and unwanted neural connections mentioned earlier. This way, the brain cleanses itself out and creates more space for the intake and processing of more information, thereby making our learning process very effective.

6. Make learning a habit

Every time we do something, the neural connections corresponding to that particular activity are reinforced. When we do this a few times, the connections are so strong that the brain enables us to carry out this activity without having to use too many resources. The brain detests changes due to the huge investment of energy involved. Strengthening the neural connections by habit is therefore vital for the continuation of any activity.

7. Get addicted to achieving your goals

Every time you achieve a goal, however big or small, the brain’s reward circuits are activated due to the release of the feel-good or pleasure hormone known as Dopamine. The activation of this pleasure centre in the brain makes you want do the task again and again and thus creates an addiction for learning.

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