Among the myriad of impressive characteristics human beings possess, the capacity for new learning clearly ranks at the top. A key part of this is that we have the ability to become better at learning. In this article we’ll take a look at just how this works and how you too can become a better learner.

Have you ever marveled at the skill of an expert? You’re not alone! Researchers who study learning have unpacked how people learn to be experts across many endeavors1. While the intent of this article is not with the expectation that you have to become an “expert” to be a better learner, this line of research has given us deep insight into the process of learning, and subsequently, access to effective strategies to improve learning. 

At its core, learning has occurred when there is a change, typically as a result of interaction with the environment, in our behavior, skills, knowledge, habits, attitudes, interests, and even our personality2. Learning, therefore, is actually about using information.

Research illustrates it isn’t merely general abilities, like memory or intelligence, that sets experts apart from novices. Rather, experts have gained deep knowledge that impacts what they pay attention to and then what they do with what they notice.  Experts show differences in organization, representation, and interpretation of information in ways that increase their ability to remember, reason, and solve problems1.

So how can you apply their secrets of successful learning to be a better learner yourself?

1. Set up for success.

As adults, we’re all very busy. It’s only natural we feel compelled to attend to many demands at once in an attempt to get everything done. Unfortunately, multitasking seriously undermines learning3. Brain imaging studies show that when the brain is presented with many choices to which to respond, it causes a type of bottleneck. Further, we actually are less likely to use the part of our brains designed for deeper learning when we are distracted.

One of the biggest culprits is technology. This isn’t the use of technology to engage in learning, it’s being constantly interrupted by technology or trying to do many things using technology at once. Despite a plethora of research, many people do not actually believe this applies to them, but try this simple experiment:

Choose two new areas of learning for you. For each, select a similar length passage written on the topic that is fairly complex. Give yourself the same amount of time, say 10 minutes. For one, read the passage but stop to read or send a text, check social media, listen to the radio, or any other tech-related activities that you might normally stop to do. For the second, place yourself in a quiet environment without such distractions and/or ignore those that occur. Now have someone ask you questions about the contents of the passage, and compare how well you do in both conditions. The results will likely surprise you!

Just as experts block out distractions and focus solely on the task at hand, the take-away is that your learning time is of great value and you deserve to give yourself your undivided attention.

2. Make the most of metacognition.

Metacognition is in essence “thinking about our thinking”. It’s when we monitor ourselves during the learning process, like a series of checks and balances on how we are doing with understanding and moving toward our goal of mastery. It’s a bit like when you are driving and start to realize you might be lost. When you are learning something new and potentially challenging, you may also begin to get this feeling.

For most people, this is uncomfortable—and that’s natural. It’s what you do next that matters. It can be very tempting to stop to avoid these feelings, but experts don’t let this rattle them, instead they embrace it. Here’s how you can do the same to make the most of metacognition:

·       Become more attuned and fully present in the moment

·       Look for the specific cues that point to confusion so you can work toward clarity

·       Pose deeper questions (“why and how” over “what and when”)

·       Organize your learning by taking time to pause, reflect, and connect what you’ve learned

3. Practice like a pro

We all know that to learn something takes practice, but how you practice makes all the difference. Distributing practice sessions that are shorter in duration over a few days or weeks is much more effective than “cramming”4.  In fact, more than 100 years of research repeatedly has yielded this same finding!

Brain imaging technology is now allowing scientists to see that this type of practice activates different parts of the brain, and even makes changes as the level of nerve cells. This is because distributed practice allows your brain time to process, encode, and move information into long-term memory. That said, there is a sweet spot, because too long a lag will mean you are starting a bit from scratch.

Closing Thoughts

We may admire those who are considered experts without realizing that each of us can improve our own areas of ‘expertise’. Taking a page from their book, you can begin applying the strategies of expert learners today and become a better learner, too.

Additional Resources


  1. Bransford, J., & National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded edition. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

  2. Sharma, A. (Retrieved May, 2018). Learning: Meaning, Nature, Types and Theories of Learning. Psychology Discussion.

  3. Rosen, C. (2008). The myth of multitaskingThe New Atlantis, 20, 105-110.

  4. Gerbier, E., & Toppino, T. C. (2015). The effect of distributed practice: Neuroscience, cognition, and education. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 4(3), 49-59.

About the Author:

Lilla Dale McManis, MEd, PhD, is an educational psychologist who specializes in learning and cognition. She uses her training and experience to promote optimal outcomes through translating research into meaningful practice.