With the current world conditions forcing us to stay longer indoors and alter our routines, you’ve likely tried to pick up a new skill or learn a new subject. If you are not an active learner, you may feel like it’s taking you too long to pick up that new skill or memorize the new knowledge. You might even think that you are a slow learner.
But slow learning often has more to do with our ability to focus, our mindset, and our attitude towards learning than our innate ability to learn.
Let’s take a look at four reasons why you may be learning slowly and what to do about it.
1. Lack of Focus Makes Learning Slow
Focus is key for learning. If you are not paying full attention to what you are trying to learn, it’ll make learning more difficult and slower. So, while you may believe you are a slow learner, you are most likely just a distracted learner.
Once you improve your focus, you’ll be surprised by how much faster you can internalize new knowledge and skills. How can you improve your focus? Here are a few things to help you.
It’s Easier to Focus in a Quiet, Distraction-Free Environment
Have you tried reading an article in a noisy place? Or have you tried reading a book while texting back and forth every few mins? It’s almost impossible to concentrate.
So, the first and simplest strategy to improve your focus is to get rid of as many distractions as possible. Choose a quiet environment to do your learning and make sure you won’t be interrupted.
It’s Easier to Remain Focused Than to Refocus
Multitasking, as we’ve come to think of it, doesn’t exist. Our brain can’t do two cognitively demanding activities at the same time. What we think is multitasking is most often task switching. We go back and forth between one activity and another.
Some people are better at task switching than others, but overall, task switching is inefficient and makes us lose focus. It takes our mind several minutes to refocus once distracted, especially to refocus on things that demand a lot of mental energy, like learning. Therefore, we are better off avoiding any form of task switching (or even mental wandering) in the first place.
A good way to do this is to block time to learn and make sure to zone out of everything else. Once we schedule a time for something, our mind is free to turn off all the “mental” notifications (“gotta send that email,” “gotta prepare for that meeting tomorrow,” etc.) and let us focus on the task at hand.
It’s Easier to Focus When Our Body and Mind Are Rested and Healthy
Poor nutrition, dehydration, sleep deprivation, and unhealthy habits affect our ability to focus. We tend to attribute our learning capabilities in a given day to our reasoning powers or our memory. But our physiology also plays a major role in learning and internalizing new knowledge and skills.
If you want your brain to focus and be in top condition to learn, you need to keep your body in top condition as well. With a good night’s sleep, improved diet, less alcohol, and better hydration, your brain will reward you with more focus and more effective learning.
2. Mindset and Beliefs Have a Strong Influence on Learning
In the book Mindset: The new psychology of success, world-renowned psychologist Carol Dweck explains the influence our attitude can have on our growth.
People with a fixed mindset—the belief that we are born with attributes that cannot be changed—tend to think in terms of “you either have it or you don’t,” which in turn can create a mental block that hinders their progress.
But people with a growth mindset—the belief that we can develop and improve our abilities through passion and perseverance (what Psychologist Angela Duckworth calls “grit”)—are motivated to stretch their capabilities and work harder to improve.
As Henry Ford once said, “whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.”
And this is true when it comes to learning. If you believe learning myths like “you either have it or you don’t” or “old dogs can’t learn new tricks,” you will create a negative placebo effect (AKA nocebo effect) that can make your learning slower or worse, make you want to quit.
3. Unrealistic Expectations Make Us Believe We Are Slow Learners
Whenever we want to pick up a new skill or learn a new subject, we assume that the learning process will go smoothly. But the reality is that learning is sometimes frustrating, stressful, and slow.
We forget this reality because, as adults, we don’t often get into new fields we know nothing about. You are likely already good at your job and the different things you’ve been doing for a while. So, you probably forgot what it feels to go through the learning process from scratch—and how much time and energy it really takes.
The bigger problem comes when we do not meet our unrealistic expectations of how fast we should be learning, we blame ourselves. We think we are slow learners, that we don’t have any talent, or that we are not as smart.
Our expectations about the learning process and our learning speed are, to a large extent, what makes us feel like slow learners—even if we aren’t.
So, just as we should be aware of our mindset, we must also keep our expectations in check and make sure we talk to people in the field (teachers, advanced students, etc.) to have a more realistic perspective of the time and energy commitment required to learn what we are going into.
It’s also important to note that learning is a long term process. Some people go faster through the beginning stages but then slow down later on.
For others, it is the opposite: they learn slowly at the beginning stages but faster at intermediate and advanced ones. The point is that a fast or slow start is not a good predictor of your capabilities as a learner.
4. Previous Learning Affects Learning Speed
Who do you think will learn snowboarding faster, someone who is already a good surfer and skater or someone who has never tried board sports?
Previous learning affects how quickly we learn something new. The person who’s already a good surfer and skater has a foundation of board sports to transfer into snowboarding, which will make him learn the new skill faster.
In an oversimplified way, our mind works as a scaffold—everything we have already built serves as a base to build on top. Here’s where comparing ourselves to others can be misleading. We don’t know their background or what they’ve learned in the past.
We may think we are slow learners when we compare ourselves to classmates and colleagues, but they may already have knowledge and skills that allow them to pick up the new learning much quicker. The strategy here to become a faster learner is to never stop learning. The more we learn, the faster we can learn new things.
For the most part, people are not inherently fast or slow learners. It’s not a matter of their capacity to learn but how efficiently and effectively they use that capacity.
Think of it this way: Imagine you want to move a wheel from point A to point B. But let’s also imagine that instead of rolling the wheel, you lay it on its side and push it. You’ll make the wheel move and take it where you want it to go, but that is not the best way to do it. It will take you more time and effort to get it from point A to point B.
How fast and easily you make the wheel move has everything to do with how you are using it and little to do with the wheel itself.
The same goes for your brain. You may think you are a slow learner, but most likely, you just need to learn how to use your brain more effectively. By improving your focus, mindset, and understanding of the learning process, you’ll realize you are a much faster learner than you thought.
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Featured photo credit: Kyle Gregory Devaras via unsplash.com