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How Can We Learn Effectively?

Guidance on effective strategies for learning at University

Developing your brain's connections

diagram of brain and networks within itLearning is an active process and may often feel like hard work!  This is a good sign, however, as ‘one who does the work does the learning’ (Doyle, 2008).

In your brain, when learning something new, your brain cells are trying to establish connections with others to form new networks of cells. To help your brain make these new connections, you need to help it to take notice.

Consider when you are doing something very familiar, like brushing your teeth, or taking your daily journey home. Have you ever found that it’s so familiar, you do not even remember doing it?

Therefore, if you want to remember and learn something, you will need to engage with it in new and different ways. For example, on your journey home, take a new route, look up at the buildings or notice the bird song.  When studying, this means engaging with knowledge in different ways, for example by turning your notes into visual diagrams, explaining your ideas out loud rather than writing them down, applying what you've learnt to a new situation or problem.

  • Doyle, T.,  Zakrajsek, T. and Loeb, J. (2013). The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain. Virginia: Stylus Publishing.

Distributed practice effect

Importantly, the more ways you engage with your new learning, the stronger these new connections in your brain may become too. This is known as the ‘distributed practice effect’ (Anderson & Pavlik, 2008).

Consider your brain to be like a muscle which you can strengthen over time. Think about how difficult (if not impossible!) it would be to attempt to run a marathon after just one practice run the night before. Instead, you would have to build up your strength and stamina slowly.  It is just the same with learning and memory. You need to use and practice your learning over time in order to retain it.

Therefore, if you are trying to remember something, or develop a new skill, start as early as you can. Continue to re-engage with it regularly, in different ways, over time. This might be through listening, talking, reading, writing, practising and applying it.

  • Anderson, J.R. and Pavlik, P.I. (2008) 'Using a model to compute the optimal schedule of practice', Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 14(2), pp. 101-117.

Social learning

students sitting round in seminar group discussionLave (2019) discusses learning as being socially situated.

This suggests how learning with others can often really help. During your studies, this may be enabled already through class discussions, group work, or peer study sessions.

However, you can also set up peer support yourself in a number of ways, such as walking and talking with a friend about what you are studying, asking questions and debating topics. You may have a ‘study buddy’ who you work quietly alongside at the same time, to help motivate each other. When revising topics, you may find it useful to explain or teach your ideas to each other. Teaching others is a really useful tool for revision known as the 'Feynman Technique'.

  • Lave, J. (1993) 'The Practice of Learning' in K. Illeris (ed.) Contemporary Theories of Learning. London: Routledge, pp.200-208.
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