How to Have Fun While Learning as an Adult

Do this to 2-step approach to learn faster and retain information longer

I am standing on one leg, balancing precariously while clutching a fistful of flashcards with German body part words. Between the toes of my up-raised foot is the flashcard for “foot”, “der Fuß”. Shaking to retain balance I maneuver my right foot to the left side of my body. “I should have used the other foot,” I think to myself, but it’s too late to change it. The shaking gets worse, but I manage to keep my balance. I wiggle my toes, releasing the flashcard into an IKEA bin on my left. The flashcard twirls in the air and lands inside the bin. Score! 1 point.

I am 13 years old, in a summer camp for learning languages in the middle of nowhere, Minnesota (that’s just outside of Bemidji). The summer camp is dedicated to language learning.

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Photo by Robin Lyon on Unsplash

A decade and a half later, I don’t remember the score from the game, but I remember how to decline “Fuß”, along with a wide array of grammar that generally proves to be challenging for learners. This was a useful experience in more than the specific instance of this one word, or even just learning German.

In education, this approach is called multi-modal learning, a kind of learning that uses multiple senses to generate vivid experiences that stick in your mind for a long time. Whether you’re a visual, auditory, tactile, or any number of other learning styles (depending on the particular model), combining different modes of learning seems to give better results and stronger recall.

In an ideal world, learning would be effortless, fun, and effective. By practicing a multi-modal approach to learning you can make your experience closer to the ideal.

Make Your Learning Fun by Being Multi-Modal

You can’t turn everything you learn into a game, and you shouldn’t need to try. Learning as an adult means you are trying to get through a large amount of information relatively quickly. But, as an adult, you can also find fun in the kind of things that a child wouldn’t. By incorporating a more diverse set of activities in your learning routine, you can make it feel less like a chore, and more like play.

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Photo by Alaric Sim on Unsplash

The easy way to start making your learning multi-modal is to incorporate visual, audio, and movement ques into your practice. Instead of just reading about a concept, map it out, try to describe it to an imaginary audience while recording yourself, or create a model illustrating the concept out of the objects on your desk. By involving the visual, auditory, and tactile experiences you can make a dry subject feel a lot more real (and thus, a lot more memorable).

If that last suggestion seems weird, bear with me. Yes, it may feel odd to create a model of a concept out of pencils, paperclips, and whatever you have lying around your desk. This approach has a few advantages, it’s weird enough to be memorable just because, it involves your sense of touch and movement, and you wouldn’t be the first to do it. The London School of Economics has used a Rube Goldberg-esque assembly of tubes and weights to model the economy with water:https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2Fk_-uGHWz_k0%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3Dk_-uGHWz_k0&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2Fk_-uGHWz_k0%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtube

The Phillips Machine has been retired to the London Science Museum after serving as a learning and modeling tool for almost a century.

By activating different modalities you are forcing your brain to approach the model from different directions. By drawing it you are letting yourself see the way different parts connect. By talking through as if you were trying to teach, you are finding weak spots in your understanding and synthesizing the knowledge into new models in a way passive listening doesn’t accomplish.

Create Deliberate Moments of Relevance

Deliberate practice can help shorten the initial learning curve for a new skill to as little as 20 hours. By engaging in practice that challenges you (but isn’t too hard) and provides immediate feedback, you can get pretty good at a new skill very quickly. Getting good, immediate feedback really helps you hone your skills.

A good way to get that feedback is by making your practice immediately applicable to your life and environment. For many, the idea of “practice” means sitting in a room and repeating a task until it becomes automatic. In that sense, this deliberate, relevant practice is the opposite. Whatever skill you are learning, be it a foreign language, accounting, or yoga, they can be made vividly relevant to your life and the goals you are trying to achieve.

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Photo by Luis Quintero on Unsplash

If you are learning a language, going to the country would obviously be a huge benefit, but if that’s not immediately feasible (especially now, where travel poses new dangers of Coronavirus spread) participating in online communities in your target language can go a long way. You can find a way to apply your skills through volunteer work (if you’re learning accounting, and are done with your family budget and your neighbors’ taxes, helping a non-profit or local charity may be a great way to practice in a way that makes the skill really matter).

A solid way to get some deliberate and relevant practice is to make online content about it, explaining the concept you are learning to your audience. It’s better than talking to an imaginary audience, because you get feedback, maybe even from people much better at this skill than you are. Still, you may have reservations about showing yourself while learning, which can be a vulnerable experience.

You can always try working with an in-person or online tutor or coach (you can find a tutor for just about anything on Tutor.ID). By getting the help of someone knowledgable in the skill, you can get feedback that helps build good habits and avoid common mistakes. More importantly, you should ask the tutor to help you practice in a specific, relevant to your goals way. By providing you feedback on problems that you are actually trying to solve through learning, you can get good enough to solve these problems that much faster.

Years after my encounters with multi-modal learning, I still practice these techniques. Now, working on my 6th language, I realize that learning with your whole body, your senses, and your imagination makes the process more efficient, but also makes my life more fulfilling. Learning something for life doesn’t have to be tedious. By applying a little creativity to break up the monotony and practice in fun, relevant ways, you don’t have to put your life on hold while you learn. Instead, you can experience more of life while learning.

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