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How to Learn New Skills So They Stick


Learning is a big part of the staffing industry; we encounter it every day. Candidates are always learning new skills to add to their resumes, and recruiters must race to keep up with the changing job market by learning new recruitment technology and techniques. Even our clients are always learning, constantly on the lookout for the best ways to innovate, scale, and hire. At Crowdstaffing, we have to learn a lot of new things too, so we’ve gotten pretty good at it.

As even the most seasoned scholar would tell you, learning ain’t easy (unless you’re a prodigy, in which case, why are you reading this?). Our brains are fickle and seemingly random in what information they decide to retain. Sure, you can effortlessly quote every line from your favorite episode of The Office, but when you try to remember the meaning of that new word you learned last week? Nada. As it turns out, there’s a scientific reason why Prison Mike is on your mind and vocab isn’t.

You’re Forgetting to Learn Because You’re Learning to Forget

Everyone knows what a learning curve is, but not many people have heard about the Forgetting Curve. Or maybe they have, and they’ve just forgotten about it. In 1886, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus hypothesized that there was a link between how quickly we learn information and how quickly we forget it. He came up with a mathematical formula that described the rate at which people forget newly-learned information, and he discovered what every college student will inevitably learn the hard way: cramming doesn’t work. The Forgetting Curve is steepest just hours after we learn something new; memory retention is 100% at the moment you learn something, but quickly drops to 40% within a day or two. However, the curve is exponential, and after those first few days, the rate at which we forget things slows down.

Ebbinghaus’s experiments uncovered additional insight about how we can learn new skills effectively. First, the Forgetting Curve indicates that we retain information better when we revisit it at increasing intervals, also known as spaced repetition. But not everyone’s curve is the same; it varies depending on the general strength of your memory, the meaningfulness of the information, and the learning method itself. Ebbinghaus also found that when we overlearn something, that is, when we work with it more than is required for memorization, the memory becomes much stronger and harder to forget. That’s why Prison Mike’s quotes are forever etched upon your temporal lobe.

In many ways, your brain is like a computer, mostly in that it can be hacked. And while you may not have a computer’s ability to retain information infinitely, you do have the ability to create shortcuts, especially when it comes to learning new skills.

First, You Must Understand Your Learning Style

It’s common knowledge that people learn differently. But what many people don’t know is that we’re not limited to one style of learning; most of use a combination of the seven styles. Which of the following situations sound like you?

  • Visual – You usually search for YouTube videos or SlideShare presentations when learning a new skill. You remember information better when you can visualize or draw a picture to illustrate the concept.
  • Aural – Certain songs trigger distinct memories and emotions in you. You’re likely musically-inclined and may even be a talented musician. Turning information into a rhythm, rhyme, or melody helps you remember it.
  • Verbal – You love words, whether written or spoken. Whenever you’re learning something new, you prefer to read about it and take lots of notes. You’ve noticed that you process information better when you write it down in your own words or read it out loud.
  • Tactile – You learn by doing, especially when it comes to doing things with your hands. You’re probably an avid DIYer. Things that involve movement and the body, like dance or sports, come naturally to you.
  • Logical – You’re good at recognizing patterns and understanding systems. You love to use logic and reasoning when learning new skills, and you retain information better when puzzles and problem-solving are involved.
  • Social – You learn faster when you’re with a group of people, and you love collaborative brainstorming sessions. You enjoy teaching your friends and sharing information you’ve learned. You probably kill it at trivia.
  • Solitary – You prefer to learn things on your own. You find it’s much easier to learn new skills when you have quiet time to yourself to really dig in and explore. Crowds are distracting to you, and you tend to avoid them when possible.

Hacking Your Brain Using Spaced Repetition

According to Ebbinghaus, the secret to overcoming the forgetting curve is spaced repetition. It’s no use trying to learn a new skill all at once. You need to practice, obviously, but you need to do it the right way, at the right times. Now that you have a better idea of your learning styles, you’re halfway there. Here are a few tips:

  • Create study aids based on your learning style. There are plenty of flashcard apps that let you tailor the cards to your style. Or, you can create your own aids. For example, if you’re an aural learner, record a short song or audio about your subject matter. If you’re a visual learner, draw pictures. If you’re a logical learner, you may want to include a bit of background information, such as the etymology of a word.

  • Use the study aids you created to test your knowledge. Start by reviewing them once per day. During each review, note how well you remembered each piece of information. The parts that you forgot are the ones you’ll need to continue frequently reviewing until you can recall them. As your memory improves, start spacing out your reviews.

  • Give your subject meaning. It’s easier for us to learn new stuff when our brains perceive it as meaningful. You can trick your brain into thinking otherwise mundane subjects are meaningful by giving them context. Creating a narrative is a great way to do this. For example, maybe you’re learning how car engines work so that you can fix a car and escape the zombie apocalypse. Then, you can picture yourself doing it, act out the motions, or say the process out loud (or whatever works for your style).

  • Exercise your brain on your “days off.” Your individual forgetting curve varies depending on the general strength of your memory. The more you learn; the better you get at learning. You can flex your brain muscles by doing a little bit of light learning every day. Curious is an excellent app for gamified brain training, as you can customize it to recommend bite-sized lessons based on your interests.

 

All of us could benefit from learning a new skill or two. Whether for work or personal purposes, mastering something new helps us grow, expanding not just our knowledge repertoire, but our connection to the world. It’s also a neat way to impress other people. Whatever your reason, understanding how your learning style applies to the spaced repetition technique will help you master your new skill efficiently and effectively. That way, you can get back to the important stuff – like watching The Office.

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