Many people consider learning to be an active effort, one that takes place in a classroom with a teacher and homework and tests. This conscious form of education is just one way of acquiring knowledge. In fact, we absorb new information every day, often unintentionally: the best way to store tomatoes, the fastest way to get to work, the dog’s favorite chew toy. “It’s really important to give ourselves credit for the enormous amount of information we learn without realizing it,” says cognitive scientist Pooja Agarwalan assistant professor at Berklee College of Music.
There is a distinction between committing facts to memory and learning. Memory refers to the retention of information, whereas learning is the long-term acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, says Hadley Bergstrom, an associate professor of psychological science at Vassar College. We can memorize vocabulary words, but we learn to speak a language.
Learning changes the brain: Existing ties between neurons — nerve cells that send messages that signal everything from breathing to thinking — are strengthened; new roads between neurons develops. Repeated exposure to an activity, such as knitting or driving, strengthens these connections, and thus we learn. Over time, it becomes easier to recall these skills or memories.
As we grow older and are no longer exposed to organized classrooms, acquiring fresh knowledge is valuable. Studies have suggested that learning later in life can preserve cognitive function — which refers to the ability to acquire knowledgereason and manipulate information—and so did college graduates higher levels of cognitive function in the 50s than those who didn’t. “I think you can broadly say,” says Bergstrom, “that new learning over long periods of time is likely to improve cognition as you get older.”
Learning new life skills in a technology-based world helps people remain independent, says Rachel Wu, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. “If you don’t know how to do online banking and you don’t live near a bank,” she says, “you have to trust someone else to handle your money for you. If you don’t know how to use a smartphone, a lot of options are closed to you, such as rideshare apps.”
While learning has great benefits, one day daring to pick up a new skill can be daunting. What are the best ways to learn? How much will it cost? What if I’m sorry? There are low-lift, free ways to help facilitate learning in your everyday life – no classroom necessary.
Learning does not have to take place in an organized environment
Look outside the confines of classrooms and lecture halls for learning opportunities. While education can and does take place in these locales, learning can happen anywhere: reading a Wikipedia page on your phone, watching a YouTube video on how to build a table, following along in a book for beginner guitar players. Be sure to research the creators of the resources you use. Does the author have expertise in their topic? Is the YouTuber trying to push viewers to pay for a class where they can learn how to make thousands in passive income? Many people online pretend to be experts, but make sure they have the credentials to back up their reputation.
By adulthood, people usually have an idea of how and where they learn best, Wu says. Think back to your past schooling or hobbies. Do you understand concepts through trial and error? Did you feel a sense of mastery over a subject when you were able to explain it to others? Perhaps you prefer to learn at your own pace with lots of practice along the way. Think about what will motivate you more, says Agarwal: learning on your own or with an instructor. Some people prefer self-directed learning at their own pace; others are inspired when surrounded by fellow students.
Look to your family or community members for low-cost, low-effort educational opportunities. Your neighbor might be a master gardener, and in return you can teach them how to make dumplings. If you lack the time to dedicate to a pottery class, give it a try learn with your children by their various activities, says Allyson Mackey, associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Although significantly higher in both cost and time, Mackey says traveling to places with cultures other than your own is also another way to learn outside of a classroom.
Challenge yourself constantly
When you settle into a routine in life, “you’ve built this perfect brain for your environment and for the types of tasks you’re doing,” Mackey says. You are skilled and efficient at the tasks and hobbies you carry out every day. To acquire new skills or knowledge, you need to be challenged. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy what you’re learning, but you need to level up consistently. For example, once you’ve mastered a certain song on the piano, you’ll want to move on to another piece or practice more complex chord progressions.
For this reason, researchers tend to compare learning with training. “The basic thing about training muscles is that you don’t do the same thing every single day,” says Bergstrom. Learning a new skill or hobby, or making your current hobby more difficult, “can potentially slow down cognitive aging,” Bergstrom continues, “as opposed to doing (something) repetitive, like crossword puzzles. It’s kind of the same thing every day.”
One way to make sure you’re ahead is through feedback. An instructor can correct your pronunciation; a tutor can show you where you went wrong with a math problem. Even self-directed learning has feedback built in, says Wu: If you start beekeeping with help from YouTube but don’t produce honey, that’s a clear sign things have gone wrong. “Even with trial and error yourself,” says Wu, “you’re still going to get feedback. It’s just from the environment and a little bit slower than feedback from an instructor.” Struggle, mistakes, and “failure” are essential parts of the learning process, says Wu. These missteps are valuable forms of feedback you can learn from. In turn, you’ll improve your subsequent performance—and that’s learning. “Learning happens in general,” says Wu, “when you make a mistake and then you change your behavior to accommodate it.”
Take advantage of the skills you already have
Learning in adulthood means relying on skills you’ve acquired in the past. For example, if you’re teaching yourself a new language, you don’t have to relearn the concepts of words and sentences and grammar like a toddler would when they’re babbling through their first sentences. “If you already know how to play the violin, it can be a little bit easier to play the piano,” says Wu, “because you can translate from one instrument to the other.”
Because every task or hobby has its intricacies, you’ll stumble when your old skills don’t translate neatly into your new craft. Again, when you use your knowledge of the violin when learning to play the piano, you may be confused by reading two lines of music instead of one. Although it’s not entirely easy, try to stay out of your own head and be flexible when acquiring new skills, says Wu.
Get the information out of your head
Instead of trying to cram knowledge in, focus on verbalizing what you’ve learned, says Agarwal. Known as retrieval practices, simply remembering and reflecting on information can help you retain those details. Thinking back to what you read in a book yesterday, telling a friend something funny you heard on a podcast, mentioning what you had for breakfast – these are retrieval practices. An easy way to set catch-up practice is to write down—or tell your partner or roommate—one thing you learned at the end of each day. “It will boost your memory and your long-term learning,” says Agarwal, “in no more than 30 seconds and at absolutely no cost.”
Even if you think you didn’t learn anything that day, you most likely did, says Agarwal: how do you get to work from your apartment without using GPS, in which aisle can you find olive oil at the grocery store, how do you put up a projector.
Teaching someone else what you just learned is also an effective way to learn, says Mackey. Organizing related thoughts into a narrative that makes sense to you is easier to remember.
“Sometimes we focus on getting information into our heads, like watching videos, going to lectures,” says Agarwal. “Where the magic happens with learning is getting information out of our heads.”