Learning doesn't stop when you leave high school or university. In fact, you should be learning throughout your entire lifetime. So why are effective learning tools so hard to come by?

Indeed, when we purchase an educational web or iPhone app as adults, it’s probably because we already want to learn the subject—not because a parent or teacher is forcing us. It's therefore pretty frustrating that most adult-oriented educational software spends a lot of time trying to motivate us through cheesy animations, games, and quizzes that we should share with our friends.

The fact is that a game or app can't just hand you learning on a silver platter. We often see claims of a 'silver bullet' to learning (for example) how to code, speak fluent French, or become a sensational Guitar player in a short period of time.

But learning doesn't work that way. Instead, these are skills that takes time and deliberate practice to master.

Wouldn't it be great if curriculum designers focus on helping us learn faster rather than just help us have fun while learning?

The right app can help you learn faster

It often seems as though the designers of most educational tools lack respect for the power of an adult's intrinsic motivation. While it's true that younger children with little intrinsic interest in a subject (say, biology) may benefit from fun and engaging activities, adults who really want to learn a language or score high on a graduate entrance exam do not need these frills. It's even been suggested that “score-oriented" quizzes containing matching questions or multiple choice may harm performance results.

[Learn more about whether kids really learn a foreign language easier than adults.]

But there is some good news. There are newer mobile study applications that want to optimize your learning efficiency instead—like Brainscape. Brainscape is a web and mobile adaptive flashcards app that focuses your study time on learning by stripping out the bewildering range of settings and features that exist in most other mobile study applications.

We're not just being biased. Brainscape's scientifically optimized learning software helps you learn faster AND actually improve your learning skills long after you have stopped using it, by engaging three key cognitive processes:

  • Active recall is when you think of an answer from scratch rather than passively reading through information. Flashcards use active recall by getting you to recall the answer before flipping over the card. This improves your ability to remember and learn concepts rather than just recognizing them.
  • Spaced repetition repeats the information you're don't know more often and reduces the exposure to information you are comfortable with. Research has shown this method helps you learn significantly faster. It makes sure that you're attacking your weaknesses. And it works: repeating information is how we remember it.
  • Metacognition is the awareness and understanding of your own thought process. When you use Brainscape's flashcards to learn new concepts, you're asked to self-assess your confidence in your answers to the flashcards (not only "do I know the answer?" but also "how well do I know the answer?"). This forms deeper memory traces and improves learning.
The science of Brainscape on how to study

This system of learning allows YOU to be in control, so that you are only learning what you need to learn, in the pattern best suited for your own purposes.

Move from unknown to known

But even the right app won't necessarily guarantee that you'll learn faster. When you set out to learn a new topic, you can't just blindly pick resources and hope they'll help you reach your goals.  

You'll have to evaluate how to find the right resources to reach your goals. You need to consider where you are starting from to properly assess the resources you need learn.

A powerful tool to assess what we know and what we don't know about a topic is the Knowns and Unknowns categorization (see table below).

table of known unknowns helps learn faster
Use this framework to help you identify where you need to focus your study. This will help you learn faster.

This framework is particularly useful to approaching knowledge by asking yourself:

  • What do I know already? (known knowns)
  • Am I conscious of what I'm not exploring? (unknown unknowns)
  • Do I have any biases or unconscious assumptions about the topic? (unknown knowns)
  • What are my conscious assumptions about the topic? (known unknowns)

When you take the time to understand where you fall on a particular topic, you can better understand which resources and practices would be best to get you to the 'known knowns' quadrant. Gaining a better understanding of your own learning situation is among the most valuable life skills you can have.

At Brainscape, we're obsessed with finding ways to learn faster, better, and more efficiently. We actually have an entire guide dedicated solely on how to study effectively. These techniques will help you learn any topic by reading properly, taking notes effectively, and making learning a daily practice.