5 Reasons You Struggle to Learn (and How to Get Better)

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It’s finally happened. I’ve gone barmy. I started this new writing venture just shy of a year ago and had one piece of advice drummed into me. Stay on topic. And now I’ve veered off course, devil that I am. Clearly, I still need to learn a lot about blogging (and about how to write better headlines, obvs.).

I was casting around for ideas for what to write next and came up with the idea of learning. After all, can you expect yourself to become really good at something, and produce your best work if you have trouble learning?

I don’t think so. So, let’s get into it.

Later, I’ll clue you in on the four main learning types and how you can discover which type of learner you are.

First, let’s look at some reasons it can be challenging to learn.

You struggle to learn something from square one

When you want to learn something new, you often don’t know where to start. Maybe you want to learn how to play chess, but don’t know how to go about it. You’re unsure, so you either end up not bothering at all, or you try to learn and explore in an extremely disorganised way. You seek information from any source you can possibly think of — from books, friends and family, even videos. 

If you take this chaotic approach to learning, you’ll find it harder to focus and you’re inevitably taking in conflicting advice, which can be as unhelpful as knowing nothing at all. Also, if you turn to family and friends, it’s always possible that the information you end up getting is outdated. Your friends may know how to play the classic game, but be unaware of some great online chess games you can play.

You struggle to remember what you’ve learned

Remember when you were at school? I bet there were countless times when your teacher taught you something, only for you to forget it within hours or even minutes.

This problem doesn’t just go away the moment you go into the workplace. How often have you been in meetings where important points have been made but half of the participants have forgotten half of what was said shortly after the meeting wraps up.

With these types of bad experiences piling up throughout life, it’s little wonder that as we grow older, we generally become less willing to learn new things.

You struggle to make good use of what you’ve learned

Some fail to learn new things effectively because they spend loads of time learning the theory and almost no time applying their knowledge and skills to their lives.

Think about how people learn to ride a bike. It’s common for parents or an older brother or sister to show you how to ride a bike and tell you what you need to do to start riding yourself. But it’s only when you get into the saddle yourself that you really start learning.

This principle applies to most things. It’s only when you start doing the thing you want to learn (regardless of how many video tutorials you may have watched) that you’ll start to make real progress.

You don’t have an effective approach to learning

Every once in a while, I’m sure you thought to yourself, “No matter how hard I try to get this into my head, It just isn’t happening.”

This is a common problem.

Many people exacerbate the problem by putting more and more effort into what they’re trying to learn. This ends up being counterproductive, as putting in the time and effort is unlikely to be enough without also having an effective approach.

You become overwhelmed learning a lot of new stuff at once

I’m sure you know that having the wrong teacher can quickly put a damper on your ambition to learn something new. This can be amplified if the course or teacher makes the subject overly complex from the beginning.

Let’s take learning a new language as an example.

If you’re learning French, and all your teacher did was make you learn the grammar laws for weeks and weeks, you’re highly likely to decide you don’t really want to learn French anyway and quit. If your teacher managed to make learning French fun and immersive, however, I bet you wouldn’t be so quick to quit learning the language. If a teacher makes something fun, it probably gives you a confidence boost as well, and you can steadily learn the grammar and vocabulary anyway.

There are many ways you can tackle these problems and soon I’ll share some useful tips and resources to help get you going. Before you start learning something new though, it’s helpful to know what’s driving you to do it.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Know your motivation

There are two types of motivation — internal and external.

Internal motivation

You learn because you have a passion for it and enjoy the topic. For instance, you want to learn about Greek mythology because you just love stories.

External motivation

You learn because you want to achieve something that is not related to the topic. For example, you might want to learn coding to make a lot of money.

Any topic has sections that may be irrelevant to your goal. That’s why it’s vital to know your motivation. When you’ve got a clear idea of what you want, you can focus your time and energy on learning the best, most relevant sections of a topic, those that will help you reach your goal faster. If your motivation is external, you can leave trivial things for later, or eliminate them entirely.

Now let’s turn to the learning types. Knowing your learning preferences is the next step toward creating an effective and productive approach to learning that will give you the best chance of getting the results you crave.

The 4 main learning types

It should come as no surprise that different people learn in different ways. Some people like to be shown how to do something, some people understand something better if they read about it and still others learn better if they are told how to do something. There are 4 main styles of learning that are useful to know.

Visual learning

This style is best suited to people who like to watch videos and watch presentations that are visually stimulating in some way. This usually doesn’t require you to do anything fancy, just that the presentation includes graphs, charts, and pictures.

They are the people who learn best by seeing. People who fall into this category are sometimes also called spatial learners.

Visual learners:

  • Respond well to demos.
  • Take detailed notes.
  • Are very artistic and creative.

Auditory learning

This is the one for anybody who loves listening to audiobooks and podcasts. This style of learning is sometimes called aural learning.

Auditory learners:

  • Learn best through listening and speaking.
  • Respond well when read to, or when reading aloud.
  • Listen for keywords and phrases.
  • Read more slowly than others.

Text-based learning

I’ve labelled this learning style as text-based, just to be a bit different. It’s more commonly called the reading/writing learning style. It’s best suited to those who enjoy reading and writing  — as you’d expect.

These people learn best through reading and writing. The medium doesn’t really matter, be it websites, books, articles, or magazines.

Text-Based Learners/ Reading/Writing Learners:

  • Enjoy reading.
  • Like to organise their thoughts by making lists.
  • Take plentiful notes on whatever they’re studying.
  • Can understand explanations on paper or on-screen with ease.

Kinaesthetic learning

This is where the ‘hands-on’ learners fit in. If you fall into this category, you learn best by doing it and actively trying things out. This is also sometimes called physical learning.

Kinaesthetic Learners:

  • Use all of their senses to interact with material.
  • Learn by trial and error.
  • Like to find solutions to real-life problems.
  • Have shorter attention spans than others.

Don’t worry if you’re still not sure what you’re learning style is, you can take the VARK questionnaire to find out.

Next, feast your eyes on some great resources and tips for people who prefer each learning style.

Learning tips and resources for all

You can try out any or all of these resources to see if they suit you, regardless of your preferred learning style. To make it easier to scan and find what you want I’ve sorted them by learning type. There are loads of other great resources you can find that I’ve not listed here. These are the ones I’ve come across.   

Visual learners

There are abundant resources available for visual learners. Here are some of the best I’ve come across that help make learning just a bit more fun.

Mischievous memes

Memes can be a fun, creative, and interesting way to introduce new content. Memes are ideas that have taken hold of the popular consciousness to some extent, so using them can help make it easier to remember new concepts. It might also help make dryer subjects a little more engaging. This could be particularly useful if you’re a teacher trying to get kids enthusiastic about a new subject.

Memes can be a great way of testing your understanding of a topic too, as the format is a good test of how well you can explain it in brief in a way that’s intended to be seen by others. You can get feedback on your memes if you share them on social media, and see if your followers understand the concept you are trying to get across. You could think of it as a creative variation on the second step of the Feynman method.

There are plenty of tools out there you can use to create memes, ToonyTool and imgflip are two of the best I know of.

Devise top-notch visual explanations

You can use thinglink to create fab visual explanations of different concepts, adding audio, video, and other multimedia content. If you’re an employer, it could be a good way to make employee training and development a bit more fun, and it looks like a good way to learn to become a real marketing Guru too if that’s your ambition. This could also serve as a great resource for teachers who have classrooms packed with visual learners. The only downside I can see is that it’s not all free, but if you have a bit of spare cash, I think it’s well worth giving it a try.

Excel at editing videos

The least surprising resource for visual learners is the wealth of videos you can find on platforms like YouTube and Khan Academy, to help you learn everything from playing the guitar to the fundamentals of physics. Learning through videos has been a long-time favourite of many teachers trying to breathe life into a subject. In addition to these well-known giants, there are some fantastic educational video sites out there. Some require subscriptions. If you’re helping someone else to learn (while learning yourself) edpuzzle is a great way to add a personal touch to existing videos and really make a subject pop.

 Create attention-grabbing presentations

With the long history of PowerPoint and the even longer history of blackboards, you’ve probably got enough ways you can present content in an interesting way for visual learners. Nevertheless, you could use Prezi to create presentations that really grab attention. This can be a great way to keep the human connection if you’re working from home, too. If you’re a visual learner, couple PowerPoint with Prezi and learn to tune your presentation skills down to a fine art.

Auditory learners

There are an increasing amount of resources available for audio learners. According to a 2014 study involving medical students, of those who preferred to use only one learning style 36% were auditory learners, which is considerably higher than the 30% accepted as the likely proportion of auditory learners in the general population. Given that, here are my top 5 resources.

Audible

Audible is second to none. Whether you want to develop yourself with the aid of numerous self-help books, learn the right business moves to make, learn how to write a novel, or just immerse yourself in fiction, Audible is every auditory learner’s dream. For the best deals, sign up for a subscription plan. Alternatively, you can buy things individually as needed. You can get all kinds of spoken word content and entertainment.

Tide FM

This app and Google Chrome extension uses white noise and timers to help you stay focused. the idea is based on the Pomodoro Method. It will help you increase productivity, power through your work, and improve your ability to pay attention. It may even help improve your memory.

Spotify

As they say themselves, “Listening is everything.” Music can help learners of all types relax and become more productive, but it can be particularly helpful for auditory learners. It’s not all music though, you can get access to some great meditation programs and podcasts to help you learn more effectively too.

Insight Timer

This is another great one if you want to keep yourself calm and focused throughout the learning process. Rest is critical if you want to learn effectively and be productive, so listening to the great playlists available and partaking in some of the courses may be just the thing you need to start your learning journey on the right foot.

Stitcher

For those who don’t vibe with Spotify, stitcher is a great alternative option. It focuses solely on podcasts, offering over a quarter of a million of them. You can listen across all your devices, and download them anytime, anywhere so that you can truly learn on your own terms.

Text-based learners

The traditional education system, luckily for those of us who are text-based learners, continues to be geared to our style of learning. Still, we could all use a few helpful tips. Here are a few for you.

Rewrite and reread notes.

If you’re a text-based learner, it makes sense that you’d get a lot from rereading and rewriting what you’ve previously written down, right?

This helps you to fully absorb what they’ve learned through connecting it with physical activity. Since your reading level is usually above average, it can also be useful to reread articles, presentation slides, and books a few times. You don’t have to really read every single text word for word, you can just scan for ideas that confused you or things you struggle to remember and reread those portions until you’re confident you fully understand the ideas being conveyed.

Read around your topic.

if you’re a text-based learner, but learn better through reading and you do through writing, there’s always the option to do some more reading on the side. Whatever you’re learning about, read around the topic and look for additional information about what you’re trying to learn. That way you can expand your knowledge by reading more about concepts and therefore gaining a broader understanding and acquiring more in-depth knowledge.

For example, if you’re studying heart disease, you might go beyond the most common presentations of it, and look into more insidious forms of heart disease that people might be prey to, or you might investigate ways you can alter your lifestyle to minimise your risk of developing it.

Get making lists.

Often, people who prefer learning through reading and writing also happened to be ‘list people.’ If this is true for you, and you find making lists the best way to organise your thoughts, why not make a list for new concepts you’re trying to learn? This can include the terminology and the main ideas you’ve extracted from particular sources.

You can be more confident you won’t forget anything if you’ve made a list as well so that if you have to take a quiz or an exam at the end of the course, you’ll be more likely to remember stuff you’ve made lists about. Want to know the best bit? It doesn’t matter what order you put stuff in, it can still be wonderfully useful.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Kinaesthetic Learners

Many work environments aren’t the best if you’re a kinaesthetic learner. Here are a few tips to help you adapt.

Use a standing desk where possible.

Standing can actually help improve focus according to a 2016 study conducted at Texas A&M University. If you learn best through movement and doing things, standing up can also aid concentration and working memory.

Fidget, fidget, and fidget some more.

The brain needs to take breathers throughout the day so that it can focus more easily, retain information, and perform better. That’s nothing new. What you may not know is that if you’re a ‘hands-on’ learner, simply fidgeting may help give your brain a break. It could be that you just walk to the bin to chuck a rejected note away, or you slide a ball across your desk and stop it before it rolls off. Small movements may distract your brain for long enough and, after a quick breather, you can dive back into work with increased focus.

Funky flashcards.

When you’re learning something new, you might want to try creating flashcards on the subject. The simple act of doing so could kick your brain into gear. You can then move those flashcards around and create a sort of moving diagram that your brain has an easier time understanding than plain old static words on a page.

Take a creative approach.

I’m sticking with the diagram angle for this one. You can draw one to help you gain a fuller understanding of a concept you’re finding tricky to grasp. You can create mind maps easily online with MindMup or take things a step further with storyboarding and design with Canava. Taking the creative route may even help improve your recall.

Practice.

Practice is important for everyone learning something new, but it’s perhaps even more crucial for kinaesthetic learners. It’s learning by doing and through trial and error. By practicing with others, you can help set an example too. Even if, at first, you give an example of what not to do. 

The wrap-up

We’ve covered what might be holding you back, from not having a great approach to not knowing where to start. You know one way to find your preferred learning style and know the typical characteristics of each. Remember to puzzle out why you want to learn something, then take a look through the resources I’ve highlighted. Soon, you’ll be well on your way to mastering that skill you’ve always wanted to — whether that’s finding out more about Greek mythology, or taking your next step up on that career ladder!

Published by Lizzie

Lizzie here. I'm a freelance copywriter and editor based in the UK. I'm also passionate about volunteering and hold a MA in History from the University of Warwick. I've written for a multitude of fantastic websites and companies, including a legal automation software company, a dog training site and more. Check out my reviews on Fiverr and Upwork for more info!

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