The sad truth is that you're probably making yourself less intelligent than you could be. Science shows that common study techniques like rereading material, using highlighters, or taking notes with a laptop rather than pen and paper actually slow down learning. Yet many of us continue to use them.

Being smarter can be as simple as using research-validated study methods. And very few are as easy and effortless and one recently uncovered by researchers at the National Institutes of Health.

10 seconds to faster learning

The study was conducted with the aim of helping stroke victims and others with neurological damage recover faster, but the findings might just help you ace your next calculus test or professional exam. The research had a simple design: 27 volunteers attempted to master a set series of keystrokes, alternating practice sessions with 10-second breaks. The research team monitored when and how they improved.  

What they found was simple but surprising. The participants showed no improvement while they were practicing. But after the 10-second break, their speed and accuracy jumped up. All their learning appeared to happen when they were doing nothing but resting.

"The findings suggest that early improvements when learning a new skill are made 'offline,' during periods when the task isn't actually being performed," sums up the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog. When the researchers conducted brain scans of the participants, they may have found out why.

"I noticed that participants' brain waves seemed to change much more during the rest periods than during the typing sessions," observed Dr. Marlene Bönstrup, one of the researchers. BPS has all the details if you're interested in the neurological nitty gritty, but the bottom line seems to be that for these sorts of tasks, our brains actually do most of their learning when they're resting.

Does this work for other kinds of skills?

This is obviously a small trial that looked at only one simple type of motor skill. It's great information for stroke patients and those helping them recover, but should other types of learners be interested?

The research can't give a definitive answer to that question--more work is needed--but there is good reason to think about incorporating these sort of micro breaks into your own study routine. First, previous research has shown the power of spreading out learning over a series of intense bursts of studying followed by rest breaks.

This sort of "distributed practice" has consistently been shown to be among the most effective study techniques. This latest research just miniaturizes the concept. As little as 10 seconds of staring out the window before you test yourself again or try that new song on the piano one more time might be enough to help your brain start to cement new skills into memory.

Plus, there's basically no downside to 10 seconds of slacking. So try adding mini breaks to your study sessions and see if you suddenly feel smarter.

Published on: May 23, 2019
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