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Effective Learning Using Imagination

You can learn by simply spending more time memorizing and reviewing information, but the problem with this approach is that you have only so much time to devote to any one pursuit. Here are several special techniques that make learning easier, and make it possible to learn something in less time.

Learn by Teaching

Suppose you are trying to learn about economics, and specifically about the way that the money supply affects the economy. You have read the books and materials, but it just doesn't stick in your mind. Then a friend asks you about what you are studying. You start to explain, and you have a book or some of your other study materials in front of you. You refer to these and tell him how the "velocity" of money, which has to do with the number the number of times money is loaned out, deposited in banks and re-loaned, can increase the money supply.

Soon it is starting to make sense to you. The more you explain what you are learning, the more of the material you start to recall. This is normal. One of the most effective ways to learn something is to teach it or explain it to another person.

However, there are some problems with this learning technique. First, you have to find someone who is willing to listen to you. These victims or students may be tough to come by. The second problem is the time this takes. You not only spend time to find your listeners, but then you have to spend a fair amount of time "teaching" them the material. So here's another technique that goes a step further...

Learning Using Imagination

You may have read about experiments done with basketball players who visualized making free throws. Some actually practiced their free throws, a second group did nothing, and a third group practiced the shots mentally. Not surprisingly, the first group improved the most. Practice does help. But the last group of players who did mental practice did almost as well, and they did substantially better than those who did not practice. They were learning using imagination, and developing a skill through conscious mental practice.

You can do this in many areas of life, but it has to be more than just daydreaming about whatever skill you hope to develop. It has to be carried out with a true focus on "seeing" the activity happen in your mind's eye. That brings us to a simple technique that will help you learn about any new subject, and remember what you study. It is to imagine yourself teaching what you have learned to another person.

But don't just see yourself standing in front of a class full of students for a moment. You have to actually imagine the words you would say if you were explaining the subject to someone. This kind of mental practice is especially powerful, because for any given subject there is so much information, and yet so little of it is the "important stuff," and by imagining how you would pass on that new information you tend to automatically focus on the things you really need to know. Of course any repetition of knowledge, whether done aloud, on paper or in your mind, aids in retention.

So, as you study, imagine how you would teach what you're learning. Vividly imagine how you would explain it. Suppose, for example, you are studying evolution. You might see yourself writing an example on a chalkboard. Then you would look at your imaginary student or students (whichever scenario seems to work better for you) and hear yourself explaining how natural selection isn't about individual animals adopting to their environments, but about those that are not already suited to it dying out, leaving the more suited ones to reproduce.

You'll probably find that these imagined lessons go much faster than real ones. Your students will (we hope) only interrupt you with relevant questions. You'll should notice that you can remember the material better when you use this exercise in imagination. Why not try this powerful and effective technique for learning more quickly?

Another Way to Use Imagination for Learning

Other research found that students who were told to pretend to be soccer hooligan for a while before a test did worse on academic exams than those who did not engage in this role-playing before the exams. Meanwhile, those who pretended to be college professors for a while before the tests began scored higher than either the "pretend soccer hooligans" or the control group. It's another example of using imagination for more effective learning.

This and other research suggests that you may gain an edge in learning new skills or knowledge just by carefully pretending to be more competent in whatever area of study in which you want to see improvement. But again, the specifics matter. If you want to do better at math, imagine that you are a world-famous mathematician, and imagine being a guest lecturer, explaining various concepts. The key is to imagine being a person who would be an expert at whatever it is you are trying to learn.


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