Co-founder of language learning app, Memrise, and Grandmaster of Memory, Ed Cooke, discusses learning best practice and why it's not as scary as we first think.
Nobody enjoys failing. But we all love accomplishing things. Unfortunately, fear of failure all too often paralyses us, meaning we avoid new experiences or the attempt to learn new skills. I'll share a secret with you though - the obstacles in the way are largely an illusion.
When you break it down, 'learning' anything is simply a case of building up some simple memories. What that amounts to is putting information into your memory, and then practising and repeating until it becomes automatic. The only problem here is that we all privately doubt our memory a little bit: we think of it as the part of our minds least likely to behave itself. But we don't need to worry.
Think back to all those times when you've tried to cram 'learn' a module the week before an exam - yes, we've all been there! All the tricks and tactics you'd adopt in that period are memory tricks, but because we're not taught how to use them properly, we act blind and just 'cram'.
Fortunately there are techniques for helping support and enhance the natural abilities of our minds, and get the most out of our memories. We naturally remember things that are vivid, emotional, or spatial, for instance - so how can we apply this to picking up new skills?
There's a way of using your brain which has a similar effect as the bicycle does for the body. It's the idea that there are simple principles behind gearing the mind up to receive and retain information in the optimal way. For example, how long should you look at something in order to memorise it? When should you review that information? What's the best way to test it? It turns out that there's a rhythm of learning, repeating and testing little pieces of information that can help our brains learn three times faster. Like the design of a bicycle, it's very simple but very powerful.
The perfect 'bicycle for the brain' is subtly different for everyone, of course. The advent of mobile has made it easier than ever before for people to learn in a time and way that suits their lifestyle. Memory works best when we give it a little to do often, while learning in different contexts makes your memory more robust because you don't associate information with any one place in particular.
We've also seen an increase in learning being gamified over recent years, which is great for tapping into the power of emotions in memory. If people can enjoy an activity and wind up speaking fluent Korean, they'd realise they're capable of achieving goals beyond their wildest dreams. Do that enough times, and learners would stop their black and white perception of 'failure' and 'success', focusing instead on having fun.
Learning a new skill remains one of the most rewarding experiences for a human being. From riding a bike as a youth, to learning a new language through to cracking coding - they all give us that unrivalled feeling of worth, value and success. Training the mind to store relevant information is not nearly as daunting as you might think and shouldn't be used as an excuse for avoiding new challenges - so why not go out, find your bicycle and take it for a spin?
Memrise have just returned from a 12,000 mile roadtrip around Europe with their Membus, collecting micro-videos of locals across the continent using their language in context to compile the world's largest video dictionary.