Learning is often associated with a structured classroom environment, teachers, assignments, and exams. However, this formal style of education is merely one way that we acquire knowledge. In truth, we absorb new knowledge daily, often unconsciously – from preserving tomatoes to navigating the commute, from identifying the dog’s favored chew toy. Cognitive scientist Pooja Agarwal, an assistant professor at Berklee College of Music, emphasizes the importance of understanding the vast amount of information we learn without deliberate intent.
Distinguishing between memory and learning is crucial. While memory pertains to information retention, learning denotes the lasting acquisition of skills or knowledge through experience, explains Hadley Bergstrom, an associate professor of psychological science at Vassar College. Vocabulary can be memorized, but speaking a language signifies learning.
The act of learning molds the brain. Existing connections between neurons are strengthened, while new pathways emerge. Consistent engagement in activities, such as knitting or driving, nurtures these connections, facilitating the learning process. As time goes on, retrieving these skills or memories becomes easier
In the absence of structured classroom environments as we get older, embracing new knowledge is still important. Research indicates that learning later in life could safeguard cognitive function as we age. Those who pursued higher education exhibited higher cognitive function levels in their 50s compared to their non-college-educated counterparts.
In a technology-driven era, acquiring essential life skills also keeps us more independent. Rachel Wu, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, points out that unfamiliarity with online banking or smartphones may lead to reliance on others for mundane tasks.
Although the advantages of learning are evident, venturing into unfamiliar territories can be daunting. What strategies promote effective learning? What are the costs involved? How can one overcome potential challenges? Fortunately, there are effortless, cost-free means to infuse learning into your daily life, without the constraints of traditional classrooms.
Learning Thrives Beyond Structured Settings
While formal education plays a pivotal role, learning is ubiquitous: reading Wikipedia on a smartphone, watching instructional YouTube videos, and following a beginner’s guitar book. Caution is necessary while assessing what you are learning. Verify the credibility of the creators. Are they experts in their field? Are YouTubers attempting to lure viewers into paid classes? Expertise should underpin reputation.
By adulthood, individuals often recognize their optimal learning modes. Tailor your learning approach to motivation – self-guided or instructor-led. Some thrive at their own pace, while others flourish within a group.
Eternal Challenge Fuels Progress
Routine solidifies how good you become at completing familiar tasks, which makes you more efficient. Learning should be a challenge! While it’s easy to want to be comfortable, embracing new, complex ideas and skills is essential. Just as varied exercises engage diverse muscle groups, diverse learning experiences stimulate cognitive agility.
Feedback is also crucial for progression. Instructors correct pronunciation, and tutors help to fix mathematical errors. Errors and setbacks guide our learning. There is value in the struggle and errors during the learning process.
Harnessing Pre-existing Skills
Past skills form the foundation of adult learning. Learning a new language leverages pre-existing language concepts. Transitioning from violin to piano benefits from shared musical foundations. Despite differences, adaptability empowers our learning. However, challenges arise when older skills don’t directly translate to new endeavors. It’s important to be flexible.
Practicing acquired knowledge fosters retention. Also known as retrieval practice, verbalizing what you’ve learned helps sustain memory. Recounting a book excerpt, sharing a podcast’s humor, discussing breakfast choices – each constitutes retrieval practice. Jotting down something you learned today before bed, a practice requiring minimal time, enhances memory and learning as well.