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Learn to learn! 5 tips to work better at home

You’ve been locked up working for hours, and yet you haven’t been able to memorize your lesson well. Your brain probably lacks training, or you don’t have the right reflexes. Neuroscience can help you become more efficient! There is an explanation by PaperHelp content writer Dustin Bratten in 5 points.

Many students, especially in their first year of higher education, have difficulties because they do not have suitable working methods. Hence the importance of learning to learn. This is the credo of Isabelle Le Brun, a lecturer at Grenoble-Alpes University. This neuroscience specialist relies on the functioning of the brain to develop learning tools.

1. Get enough sleep and eat a balanced diet

Do you think that sleeping is a waste of time? Wrong! Sleep is essential for your brain to function correctly. By nature, there are little and big sleepers. But, on average, we need 8 hours of sleep a day. Ideally, you should go to bed at 11 p.m., or at least before midnight, to get enough cycles. If the beginning of the night ensures physical rest thanks to slow-wave and deep sleep, REM sleep takes a greater place in the following processes. This is when the brain reorganizes information and memorizes it. A phase not to be neglected!

Sleeping well and eating well is like putting the right fuel in a car!

In the same way, a healthy and balanced diet has an essential physiological impact. It allows us to feed the cells of our body that are constantly renewing themselves, including those of the brain. Sleeping well and eating well “is a bit like putting the right fuel in a car!” smiles Isabelle Le Brun.

2. Set concrete objectives in small sequences

We only really do one thing well at a time. Dividing your attention between different tasks means giving less attention to each of them. To be effective, Isabelle Le Brun recommends eliminating “distractors”: your smartphone that vibrates with each new text message, your computer screen that flashes when new windows open… Music, however, is not necessarily to be banned, provided that there are no lyrics in a known language.

The idea is to focus your attention on clear, concrete, and relatively short objectives: knowing a definition, identifying the key concepts, and knowing how to redo a diagram. To do this, rather than working for 3 hours in a row, it is better to divide your working time into “mini-missions” of 20, 30, or 45 minutes, interspersed with short breaks – during which you can consult your SMS!

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This method has a double advantage: it allows you to be active in your learning and estimate the time it takes you to complete a given exercise. Helpful on exam day! It also helps to see how you are progressing in your memorization or revision. You can make this progress concrete by moving Post-it notes on your desk or by crossing out items on a list as you go along. In any case, don’t hesitate to take stock: it is always satisfying to realize that you now know a specific notion or that you have finished a series of exercises. These small intellectual rewards make an effort rewarding!

3. Create automatisms

Acquiring new knowledge implies having good fundamentals. The more ability you have, the easier it is to learn, and the more you practice, the easier it becomes to learn. The same is true of mental arithmetic as it is of gymnastics. To explain this mechanism, Isabelle Le Brun uses a metaphor: “When you walk in a field, the grass lies under your steps. If you pass several times in the same place, the trace becomes more marked, it widens and finally does not disappear. The path is easier, and you go faster.”

This image reflects how memory works, based on a network of neurons that communicate with each other. The more we repeat an action, the more we reuse the same connections. This strengthens them, and performing the initial task requires less attention: you have created automatisms. You can then devote yourself to new, more complex practices.

Do not hesitate to vary the formats, methods, places, and situations in which you work.

4. Practice reconstructing information

As you may have noticed, listening to or reading a lecture is not enough. To be sure that you have understood and memorized it, you must reconstruct the information. This is what you will be asked to do on the exam, but you might as well have practiced beforehand! Doing exercises, rephrasing the definition of a concept, or explaining a phenomenon to someone are all ways of restoring knowledge in different forms. Applications also exist to design “flashcards” on a smartphone or tablet. You can also make them with paper: these small question (on the front)-answer (on the back) cards are an excellent memorization tool.

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“Don’t hesitate to vary the formats, methods, but also the places and situations in which you work”, insists Isabelle Le Brun: this avoids that your memory depends, unconsciously, on the context in which you have learned something. You will then be able to answer on the day of the exam, but also later on. The knowledge you acquire during your studies will be helpful to well beyond!

5. Grouping concepts to memorize them

There are many methods to facilitate memorization. The “7±2 span” way is based on the fact that, on average, we easily retain 7 items, plus or minus 2 depending on our aptitudes (and training).

A scientifically proven technique consists of grouping information to increase the storage capacity of our memory. For example, it is a matter of learning two-digit numbers rather than just the digits: remembering 14 and 27 takes up half as much memory as the list 1, 4, 2, and 7. Similarly, instead of struggling to learn 35 English irregular verbs at once in alphabetical order, group them according to their theme or phonetics, and you will only have to focus on 5 lists of 7 verbs each. If this method works, why not use it?

Other methods and tips

Isabelle Le Brun co-wrote the book “How to Practice Learning” with Pascal Lafourcade, a computer science lecturer at Grenoble-Alpes University (De Boeck, 2015). Memorizing, attention, emotions, mental representations, and memorization are all covered in this book, which alternates between theoretical explanations and little practical tasks. It’s a means to discover how the brain works and how to make it operate and demonstrate that learning isn’t a long, laborious, and solitary process.