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No more excuses! Tips for learning new things at retirement age and optimizing focused study habits

Editor’s note: Viktoria Vidali has been a piano teacher, publisher, TV and documentary producer, photographer, and executive director of an environmental and educational nonprofit organization. Her first children’s book, Francisco and Gabriel’s Blue Moon Adventure, a magical tale of two brothers, is available on Amazon. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area , she’s now a resident of Vilcabamba.

By Viktoria Vidali

As we advance in age and attempt to learn new things, it’s often too easy — when all efforts for success have been exhausted in spite of our best intentions — to find solace in the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

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old dogWhy cast off for uncharted waters when you’re already an old salt at navigating familiar seas? The answers lie not only in how deeply you’re committed to learning, but in how effective your study habits are. Actually, you can acquire stellar study habits while you learn the subject of your desire. Here are a few proven tips.

DON’T TRY TO DO TOO MUCH, TOO SOON

Let’s say you’ve purchased a popular language text to learn Spanish. The book is divided into 20 chapters. You set a goal of completing one chapter per weekday and the book in one month.

Well-designed plan, you reason, congratulating yourself for your excellent organizational management.

Monday morning you begin and work steadily for two hours without interruption to complete Chapter 1. So far, so good. Tuesday you proceed with Chapter 2 and discover about halfway through that you need to refer back to Chapter 1 to remember words being repeated in Chapter 2 you’ve already forgotten.

WOW, I’m not getting it, you quickly realize.

Determined nonetheless, you plug along to finish Chapter 2 on schedule. By day four, you find yourself more and more frustrated as the accumulation of new words doesn’t seem to be “going in,” so you tell yourself you need a break and skip your Friday study.

The following Monday, you’re behind your timetable and uncertainty about your ability begins to grow. You find excuses for your poor performance and, yes, you admit a guilty pleasure in almost believing, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

POMODORO METHOD

But hold on. Let’s examine how you’re studying.

Research has shown that 25 minutes of focused learning (called the Pomodoro Method) with a short break afterward can help you create a “package” or “chunk” of knowledge that will stick. To optimize your focused learning session, cut out common distractions, like cell-phone or computer prompts. You might also purchase a pair of headphones to eliminate ambient noise.

DELIBERATE PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

Next, practice testing your retention by recalling what you’ve just learned. Look away from the text and repeat out loud, or silently to yourself, or by writing on a piece of paper, the new information before you. If you can’t do this, you’re fooling yourself that you’ve understood the material.

Keep testing yourself until you can accurately duplicate the data. Thereafter, make a point of going over your first “knowledge pack” during the week in different venues, while you’re on a walk, for example. In this way, you’ll be cementing that “chunk” into your long-term memory.

FOCUSED AND DIFFUSE LEARNING

Before long, you’ll see the wisdom in dropping your initial idea of completing one chapter every day and, instead, concentrate on two focused learning sessions of 25 minutes each with a break in between. Brain research has shown that taking a physical and mental breather, by — for example, letting your mind relax and wander to unrelated topics (this is called “the diffuse mode” of thinking), exercising, or enjoying a cup of coffee — is beneficial to learning. Once you gain mastery of your first knowledge pack, you can go on to create other chunks until you have a whole series you can later link in meaningful ways.

PLAY / MOVEMENT AND YOUR MEMORY PALACE

Here are two super-handy learning tricks.

1) Let’s say you’re struggling to conjugate the present tense of the word ser (to be) in Spanish: soy; eres, es; somos; sois; son. You begin by composing a jingle using these words in the lyrics. See how putting what you’ve learned to music or to a rhythmic dance works. Get up from your desk chair and have fun playing around with this.

2) Or you can conjure up a “memory palace,” also known as “mind palace” or the “method of loci” (from the Latin word locus, meaning place). You do this by envisioning a location you’re familiar with, like your living room, and positioning objects in that space that spark recollection of the words you’re trying to learn. The more off the wall the picture, the better.

Staying with our ser example, you might imagine the following to assist in learning how to conjugate it:

  • soya bottle of soy (SOY) sauce on the coffee table;
  • an heiress (ERES) in a sequin gown on the couch;
  • your pet swinging from the light fixture while fizzing the letter “s” (ES);
  • the heiress exclaiming, “So most (SOMOS) people don’t believe I’m broke!”
  • a puddle of barbecue sauce (SOIS) on the floor;
  • your young son (SON) splashing in it.

 And there you have it.

YOU’RE NOT IN A COMPETITION, SO TAKE YOUR TIME

Research has shown that slower-paced protracted learning is preferable to quick forced learning. So go about your studying at your own speed — getting into the groove or flow of the process and momentarily forgetting the product — and give yourself the time you need to learn.

Waiting until the last minute to absorb new material is a bad idea. Though you may pass the exam after you’ve crammed all night, you’re not likely to retain the data because most of what you’ve stuffed into your brain remains in your “fuzzy” working memory and will dissipate rapidly.

TACKLE TOUGH TASKS FIRST

This may initially require a flash of willpower, but once you’ve done it a few times, taking on the hardest problem first will become easier. The most difficult part is to begin, so jump right in!

REST

Getting enough rest is essential to successful learning. A tired body equals a tired mind. Interestingly, during sleep your brain removes debris and wipes your mental slate clean, so you can acquire fresh material the next day. To their great delight, many people have experienced how “sleeping on a problem” can help solve it. This is because while you’re asleep, your brain is busy subconsciously, figuring out the answer that’s had you stumped.

SUMMARY

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”?

While this aphorism may be accurate for old dogs (though I’m skeptical of even this), it’s decidedly not true for humans. Our brains remain elastic throughout our lives as long as we keep them actively and vigorously engaged.

So, to all golden-aged geezers who want to broaden their passions (before it’s too late!) and transform their learning into a life-long journey of amazement and joy:

No more excuses!

(Author’s acknowledgment: Many thanks to Doctors Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski for their fascinating Coursera.org MOOC, Learning How To Learn, upon which the information in this article is based.)