How to Be a Better Learner

What’s holding you back from finally mastering piano or Italian? Start learning now with these tips.

Man reading book at the sunset on the roof of the old building sitting on the chair placed on red roof tiles.
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French Cuisine.

Tai chi.

What's something you've been meaning to learn?

Roman history.


How to fly a plane.

Why haven't you learned it yet?

Not only will learning Chinese help you, well, know Chinese, it'll also likely boost your brain and keep you sharper longer. And the beauty of learning as an adult is that you choose what to learn – no more griping about how you'll never use the Pythagorean theorem in real life.

[Read: Seniors Benefit from Lifelong Learning.]

Whatever you plan to learn, you can do so more effectively with these tips from Sharan Merriam, professor emeritus of adult and continuing education at the University of Georgia in Athens and coauthor of "Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice," and Nate Kornell, an assistant professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and cognitive psychologist specializing in learning and memory as they pertain to education.

Make learning a community activity. Learning with other people, whether it's in a formal class, series at the library or a book club, can be very effective "because you get to talk about what you're learning," Merriam says. "Sharing what you're learning is key no matter what age you are." (Remember show and tell?)

So where do you start? Merriam suggests starting with something "low key and non-threatening" if you're apprehensive. Check out community centers and libraries for tutorials, classes and book clubs. Scope out nearby colleges for courses geared toward older adults, which can cover a wide range of topics, such as Indian spices or the Vietnam War. These courses are often referred to as lifelong learning classes or are part of a continuing education department. (Read more about continuing education for baby boomers.) Merriam suggests, which offers learning opportunities through what are essentially grown-up field trips. Merriam, for example, learned about theater through this program by traveling to New York, watching Broadway shows and even meeting the director of one of the plays.

If nothing else, finding a friend who wants to learn with you can go a long way. Similar to a workout buddy, the two of you can motivate each other, share what you've learned and hold each other accountable to stick with whatever you've decided to learn.

Relate your experience to real life. As a kid, maybe you better understood your lessons on American history and government after the class trip to Washington, D.C. Maybe you better understood the ramifications of drug use when an police officer spoke to your class. And later, you likely better understood your major and career path once you jumped into an internship.

"One of the big principals of adult learning is that we need to be linking learning to an adult's life experience," Merriam says. Been reading up on Roman history? Find a museum exhibit about the subject, or heck, go to Rome if you can. Learning Arabic? Find someone who speaks the language and meet up, or see if you can follow along while watching an Arabic movie. Learning about wine? Go to a vineyard, or chat with the wine specialist at the local liquor store.

Challenge yourself. Remember how you often learned the most from tough teachers and challenging classes? That's likely because the teachers and courses pushed you to not just memorize the names of the characters in "Macbeth," but also analyze their motives and identify motifs. While that essay (and the dreaded annotated bibliography) may not have been fun at the time, per say, you likely came out learning more than if you'd coasted through true-false quizzes.

[Read: The High School Notes blog.]

The same theory holds true now, as you pick up the guitar or French or yoga. Kornell refers to the concept of desirable difficulty: "Doing something more difficult is good because you learn more when you do, but it also makes you perform worse in the moment," he says. "And when you perform worse in the moment, you feel like you're learning less, when you're actually learning more."