Mastering a skill: Three sure-fire ways to speed the process

“A lot of people think that they’re not good learners . . . but often times they’re not using effective practice.” - Mikey Garcia, UCLA Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab

Learning a new skill? We may be able to save you some time.

A wealth of fresh research confirms that the old familiar methods – reviewing material over and over, for hours on end – is far from ideal. Whether you’re building your business skills, seeking to improve as a public speaker, learning the art of social media or a new language, here are three sure-fire ways to speed the process.

1.Teach a child: Step 1 of the “Feynman Technique” – a three-step learning process devised by Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman – is to teach a child. Explains Jessica Stillman, in a piece for “[Feynman] insisted that even the most difficult concepts could be put into words anyone could understand.”

Blogger Shane Parrish notes: “When you write out an idea from start to finish in simple language that a child can understand (tip: use only the most common words), you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level and simplify relationships and connections between ideas. If you struggle, you have a clear understanding of where you have some gaps. That tension is good — it heralds an opportunity to learn.”

2.Timing – understanding reconsolidation: How long does it take your brain to reconsolidate information? According to one series of reports, it takes six hours, which is why it’s helpful to break up study sessions. Says Fiona MacDonald, in a piece for “Reconsolidation is a process whereby existing memories are recalled and modified with new knowledge…This is also why…researchers gave the participants a six-hour gap between training session – earlier neurological research has shown that’s how long it takes for our memories to reconsolidate.”

Adds UCLA’s Garcia, as quoted in Jessica Stillman’s piece for “If you have four hours to study, then you’re much better spending an hour every single day for four days than spending four hours on one day.” Stillman adds: “Even breaking a single hour into four well spaced fifteen-minute study sessions can be beneficial.”

Other researchers emphasize that it’s not how many hours you spend, but how you spend those hours. According to an article in, the key “is to embrace the first 20 hours and learn the most important subset skills within that time frame to get the maximum amount of impact. Numerous studies in the fields of motor and cognitive skill acquisition have established that the first few hours of practicing a new skill always generate the most dramatic improvements in performance.”

3. Mix it up: Where and how do you study? Research suggests you mix it up.

The idea here is two-fold: 1. Modify the way in which you study; and 2. Find new (physical) places in which to learn. Said Pablo Cenik, Johns Hopkins researcher, as quoted by MacDonald: “What we found is if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row.” Macdonald also quotes Cenik colleague Nicholas Sonderstrom: “The science of learning actually says you should mix up where you study.” Adds MacDonald: “Apparently, associating different environmental cues with the material you’re trying to learn makes it easier to call those memories up later.”

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