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Five Strategies for Becoming an Expert, Life-Long Learner

The most critical lesson of any college education is to create life-long learners. After all, what do our students really take with them when they leave our classrooms? Regardless of their major, students will often face a steep learning curve when they encounter their first career-oriented jobs. So how do we best prepare our students not only to learn the subject matter at hand but to grow their learning and successful thinking skills no matter the situation?

With these five evidence-based principles of learning science, we can empower students to become expert, lifetime learners who will succeed and thrive in any academic, workplace, or personal situation they find themselves in.

  1. Make it meaningful

Simple truth: You are more likely to learn and remember things that are meaningful to you.

Not all information is created equally, and you may need to search for a way to make something meaningful to you. For example, if you need to learn peoples’ names at a dinner party or when starting a new job don’t just memorize them. Memorization will not help you retain information over the long haul – think about how many times you’ve been introduced to a group of new people and then promptly forgot everyone’s names. Think of a way to make those names meaningful to you. For example, I’ve just met Caitlin, Alice, Jon, and Robert at get together. Instead of just trying to memorize their names, I quickly associate them with something meaningful to me: Caitlin is the name of my aunt, Alice is the name of the character of my favorite children’s book, Alice in Wonderland, Jon and Robert are the names of two of my favorite characters in Game of Thrones.

If you can make the material specifically related to you, it will be better remembered (1, 2). Your brain even has specific centers that respond to information that is relevant to you. (Your brain is a little self-centered.) This method of learning also creates a more robust network of brain regions for new information compared to rote memorization. Memorizing, or simply repeating information ad nauseam, will leave you frustrated, bored, and will not help you learn effectively.

  1. Use your imagination

Imagination can be an incredibly powerful tool, particularly for learning and retaining information.

Let’s say you are applying for a job at Organic Health Food Industries and have been selected for an interview. Job interviews are inherently stressful, and naturally, you want to put your best foot forward. You Google the company and your interviewer and learn that the company has a new strategy that it’s developing for investing in equipment for local farms, buying trucks to deliver local crops to restaurants and that your interviewer spearheaded this initiative. 

In order to remember all of this information and to show that you’ve done your homework, you generate a creative mental cartoon of all of these components to associate them together (3, 4). For example, imagine that the farm veggies are alive and using the new farm equipment. You imagine a carrot driving a tractor, a tomato using a shovel some dirt, and corn excitedly being showered with a new sprinkler system. Then, your interviewer pulls up to the farm in a shiny new truck. As he shouts “All aboard!”, the carrots, tomato, and corn jump up and down with excitement and hop into the back of the truck. The interviewer takes out a route map and guess what? Your favorite corner restaurant is the first delivery stop of the day.

Silly, absolutely! But can you see the smile on the interviewer’s face as he drives the truck full of veggies? Can you see the new, bright green delivery truck with the Organic Health Food logo on the side? Can you hear the sound of the truck as it rumbles down the road? Can you see the bright orange carrot with his green shock top of hair? Can you see the bright red, rotund tomato? Can you see the tall, slender corn with his green husk wrapped around him? Can you see the veggies jump out of the truck, just in front of your corner restaurant?

We now have a vivid mental image connecting all of the detailed information. Using imagination, particularly combined with storytelling, can help people remember information more effectively by representing things (in this example farm equipment, produce, and restaurants) as sensory details. This trick can work to improve the students’ learning in a multitude of situations, like exams, classroom discussions, presentations, meetings, etc. and help them become adept at using this trick beyond the classroom to retain important information.  

After all, won’t you be thinking of the exciting vegetables the next time you’re in your local grocery produce aisle?

  1. Set yourself up for success

Don’t sabotage yourself. That sounds simple, but we frequently sabotage ourselves without even knowing and then are confused about why we haven’t learned anything. Two culprits routinely sabotage our ability to learn successfully: multitasking and distractions (5, 6). Have you ever seen somebody driving while changing radio stations, texting, eating a hamburger, adjusting the rearview mirror, and talking with a passenger? If you do see such a person, avoid driving near them at all costs. Multitasking while driving puts you at high risk for an accident and multitasking while learning will cause disastrous learning outcomes. Multitasking causes impaired learning.

If your goal is to learn, focus only on that task and put everything else aside. Set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes for learning and ignore everything else until your timer buzzes. Distractions will also cause impaired learning. If you are attempting to learn and have a dog begging for attention, kids yelling outside, the TV or radio on, and social media competing for attention on your computer, you are setting yourself up for failure. Turn off any electronic distractors and try to learn in a quiet environment without friends, family, and or electronic devices distracting you. As you begin studying, focus on your success and the material itself.

  1. Reduce your stress levels

Too often we become obsessed with the consequences of failure: What if I fail the test? What if I don’t qualify? What if I am not admitted? What if they don’t hire me? Negative thoughts cause your stress levels to skyrocket and high-stress levels will prevent you from learning what you need to know (7, 8). High levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, cause your brain to interpret a situation as being more severe than it is. You’re not confronting a life or death situation, you are learning information. Learning is best when biological arousal is at a moderate level, not at a high level. For example, you want your heart rate to be normal, for your palms to be sweat-free, your respiration to be at a comfortable rate, and for your pupils to not be dilated. (If your arousal is too low, you might actually be asleep.) If you find yourself completely stressed out, take time to reduce your stress levels before you sit down for your learning session. Try meditating for a few minutes, doing deep breathing exercises, going for a walk, or listening to your favorite songs. You will learn material faster and better when your stress is reduced and your brain is prepared to learn.

  1. Learn. Test. Repeat.

How many times have you convinced yourself that you know something and then, upon failing miserably to recall the information, been confused and frustrated? If we learn without testing ourselves, we have no idea what we really know and what we don’t know. Testing allows us to identify missing information and correct errors and misconceptions in learning.

Ideally, testing will occur frequently and not just when you believe you are “done”. Frequent testing provides opportunities to show improvement, knowledge gained, and improved accuracy of concepts to be learned (9, 10). Frequent testing also helps build metacognitive awareness, which is your knowledge about what you do and do not know. Accurate metacognitive awareness is critical for learning. Engaging in several brief learning and testing cycles is more effective than one very long learning session followed by one long exam. In other words, cramming doesn’t work. Brief study-test cycles also make it easier to go back and refresh yourself at a later point. We forget over time and if you want to maintain your knowledge, you need to refresh your learning and test yourself periodically. Testing doesn’t have to be boring; you can grab a study buddy and test each other. Or teach the material to somebody else since teaching helps you learn. Take small moments throughout the day to learn a little, test a little, and share what you learned with others.

Sometimes we are lucky enough to be in a situation in which we are learning about something we are passionate about. Other times we are faced with the challenge of learning about something that we are not inherently interested in. Your brain is more likely to remember information that is meaningful and is important to you, and you can use your imagination and creativity to make the material interesting. Eliminating distractions, avoiding multitasking, and taming your stress will set you up for a successful learning experience. Engaging in many brief learning and testing cycles will boost metacognitive awareness and promote efficient and effective learning. With these simple tools, our students will become expert learners who can succeed in the workplace and tackle any new challenge.

References & Further Reading

1. Bentley, S. V., Greenaway, K. H., & Haslam, S. A. (2017). An online paradigm for exploring the self-reference effect. PloS one12(5), e0176611.

2. Leshikar, E. D., & Duarte, A. (2014). Medial prefrontal cortex supports source memory for self-referenced materials in young and older adults. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience14(1), 236-252.

3. Murray, B. D., & Kensinger, E. A. (2014). The route to an integrative associative memory is influenced by emotion. PLoS One9(1), e82372.

4. Caplan, J. B., & Madan, C. R. (2016). Word imageability enhances association-memory by increasing hippocampal engagement. Journal of cognitive neuroscience28(10), 1522-1538.

5. Bellur, S., Nowak, K. L., & Hull, K. S. (2015). Make it our time: In class multitaskers have lower academic performance. Computers in Human Behavior53, 63-70.

6. May, K. E., & Elder, A. D. (2018). Efficient, helpful, or distracting? A literature review of media multitasking in relation to academic performance. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education15(1), 13.

7. Gagnon, S. A., & Wagner, A. D. (2016). Acute stress and episodic memory retrieval: neurobiological mechanisms and behavioral consequences. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1369(1), 55-75.

8. Quaedflieg, C. W., & Schwabe, L. (2018). Memory dynamics under stress. Memory26(3), 364-376.

9. Karpicke, J. D., & Aue, W. R. (2015). The testing effect is alive and well with complex materials. Educational Psychology Review27(2), 317-326.

10. Rickard, T. C., & Pan, S. C. (2018). A dual memory theory of the testing effect. Psychonomic bulletin & review25(3), 847-869.

About the Author

Heather R. Collins earned her Ph.D. in Psychological and Brain Sciences from the University of California, Santa Barbara and completed five-years of postdoctoral research in brain imaging. She is presently a speaker, consultant, and Biostatistician at the Medical University of South Carolina. As Chair of the Behavioral and Social Sciences Department at Trident Technical College, she taught psychology and improved teaching and evaluating critical thinking in psychology, sociology, political science, geography, and anthropology courses. Dr. Collins is passionate about communicating the impact of psychology and neuroscience on everyday life to a wide variety of audiences including college students, instructors, business professionals, and seasoned adults. Her popular TEDx Talk, Successful Thinking: It’s a Know-Brainer has 20,000+ views:

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