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How Do We Learn? Create Effective Study Habits 

Conrad Hughes, Education Advisory Board Member

Effective Study Habits by Dr Conrad Hughes

A core question that many of us would like the answer to is how to learn effectively.  Decades of study in cognitive psychology and neurobiology have brought out a handful of universal practices that enhance understanding and memorization. 


When we are too emotionally excited, we are in a type of overdrive and cannot register information well (although some of it might be seared into our unconscious through the hippocampus, but it won’t be easy to retrieve).

When we are bored and not engaged, all information seems to be stale and inert to us. Good learning happens in a type of sweet spot or magic zone where there is sufficient emotional arousal, teaching methods, storytelling, and making use of emotional hooks that can create an atmosphere of calm for the learner. Teachers can create a study-friendly emotional climate in both virtual and physical classrooms by ensuring psychological safety for their students. A distraction-free environment breeds peace of mind—which in turn allows for focused study time. While studying at home, learners can also create a similar environment which ensures emotional stability and calm. 


Understanding information is key to storing it. And understanding is synonymous with conceptualization. When information is packaged in concepts (big ideas and mental systems), it becomes much easier to follow, store and retrieve. So, it’s important to thread information together in big ideas.


Before we commit information to long-term memory, it needs about 40 exposures. Some gifted individuals can memorize information after a few repeats, but this is rare. The key here is not simply to repeat information mindlessly and hope that it goes in, and especially not to repeat information in a linear sequence, over and over again without a break. It’s important to structure the system of repetition by interleaving (repeating in varied sequences interspersed with other cognitive activities), mnemonics (patterning the information to remember it), and associations. The great Roman orator Seneca, who was famous for the length and intricacy of his speeches, said that he would remember what to say by associating each idea with a room in his villa and imagining himself walking through the villa to recall the parts of the speech he had memorized. 

Fundamentally, we learn best when we want to learn. If you are curious and want to find something out, you will find out. That is the most powerful key: motivation. This much said some technical strategies can help. 

Happy studying!