We take a look at seven key techniques that can boost your learning – and two widely-used techniques which a recent study has proven may be worth re-thinking.
Immersion is one common way to help boost learning of all kinds, but it seems to work particularly well for languages, by situating the student in a context, away from the classroom, where they are instead embedded in an environment where the studied language is spoken.
Taking a holiday doesn’t quite count, but travelling to the UK, say, for an internship or a short course is ideal – giving you the chance to listen and learn on the job, being surrounded by the language in its natural (not classroom) context every day.
Distributed practice, a new term for something that has been done for a long time, is essentially doing your learning ‘little and often’. Studies have shown that marathon cramming or over-consumption of learning material in a short space of time is not productive for long-term learning, as the information does not reach sufficiently deep parts of the brain.
Instead of dedicating one day a week to your English studies, better to do half an hour every day: this technique of spreading your practice over a period of time, broken into small chunks, is more likely to reap results. Tests found that the longer you want the information to remain, the longer the intervals should be; so when it comes to reviewing large chunks of work, take your time!
A recent academic study from the United States found that practice testing is also a great way to improve your learning. Why? Not to raise stress levels, but because practice tests ask an activity of the brain which is different from when we are simply absorbing information – it challenges the brain’s ability to recall and dig up information previously stored and put it together creatively.
You can practice by completing units in your courseware, or set yourself a task of practicing the vocabulary you’ve learned each week by writing a small text without consulting any of your materials.
This is excellent for those wishing to improve their conversation skills and get a sense of culture. Learning through making friends and doing can be some of the best techniques to follow if you have a love for meeting new people and best pick up a skill by copying and adapting.
Try to find a social situation – or friend – in which you’ll need to practice your English, for example join one of our Group Classes. This kind of learning allows you to listen and copy sounds and language structures.
The psychological education study found that flash cards, as another mode of practice testing, were an effective learning method for most types of study. Flash cards – which you can find as part of your online course – are there to ‘jog’ your memory and get you thinking, digging up that information that’s been stored in your brain by your distributed practice.
Implicit learning is very common, yet has often not been recognised, so a common term for it is yet to emerge. Implicit, or invisible learning, is concerned with the part of the brain which absorbs actions and information unconsciously. This article in TIME magazine explains:
“In a study published earlier this year, for example, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago reported that people learning a new language showed “native-like language processing” on brain scans when they received implicit training (immersion in the speech of a variety of different speakers), but not when they received explicit training (instruction focused on the grammar of the language).
So learning by simply surrounding yourself with a language – that includes immersion as we mentioned, travel, or listening to English language radio, could really help.
Abundance of information
Studies have also shown that this kind of learning, where the unconscious mind and body absorb actions and languages quickly and deeply, happens effectively in situations where there is an abundance of information.
For instance, concentrating on one word or grammar phrase may not much help you; but listening to music, radio and films in the English language, as well as reading material, or being surrounded by natives, will allow you to absorb sounds and information without realising it.
And two techniques you might want to ditch:
The same study which found flash cards and distributed practice to be worthwhile found that highlighting or underlining was an almost ineffective technique for boosting learning.
Mnemonic learning or image association
This is where we remember something by associating an image or metaphor with the word to help us remember it – however, studies have also shown that, unless this works particularly well for your brain, it can actually over complicate the process!