Many people consider learning to be an active endeavor, one that takes place in a classroom with a teacher and homework and tests. This intentional form of education is just one way to acquire knowledge. In fact, we absorb new information every day, often unintentionally: the best way to store tomatoes, the quickest way to get to work, the dog’s preferred chew toy. “It’s really important to give ourselves credit for the massive amount of information we learn without realizing it,” says cognitive scientist Pooja Agarwal, an assistant professor at the Berklee College of Music.
There is a distinction between committing facts to memory and learning. Memory refers to the retention of information, whereas learning is the long-term acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, says Hadley Bergstrom, an associate professor of psychological science at Vassar College. We can memorize vocabulary words, but we learn how to speak a language.
Learning changes the brain: Existing bonds between neurons — nerve cells that send messages signaling everything from breathing to thinking — are strengthened; new pathways between neurons are developed. Repeated exposure to an activity, like knitting or driving a car, strengthens these connections, and thus, we learn. Over time, recalling these skills or memories becomes easier.
As we get older and are no longer exposed to organized classroom settings, acquiring fresh knowledge holds value. Studies have suggested that learning later in life may preserve cognitive function — which refers to the ability to acquire knowledge, reason, and manipulate information — and those who have completed college had higher levels of cognitive function in their 50s than those who did not. “I think you can broadly say,” Bergstrom says, “that new learning over long periods of time is likely going to improve cognition as you age.”
Learning new life skills in a technology-based world helps people remain independent, says Rachel Wu, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. “If you don’t know how to do online banking and you don’t live near a bank,” she says, “you have to rely on somebody else to handle your money for you. If you don’t know how to use a smartphone, a lot of options are closed to you, like rideshare apps.”
While learning has profound benefits, it can be intimidating to one day venture to pick up a new skill. What are the best ways to learn? How much will it cost? What if I suck at this? There are low-lift, no-cost ways to help facilitate learning in your everyday life — no classroom necessary.
Learning doesn’t need to happen in an organized setting
Look outside the confines of classrooms and lecture halls for learning opportunities. While education can and does take place in these locales, learning can happen anywhere: when reading a Wikipedia page on your phone, while watching a YouTube video on how to build a table, after following along in a book for beginner guitar players. Be sure to vet the creators of whatever resources you use. Does the author have expertise in their subject matter? Is the YouTuber attempting to push viewers into paying for a class where they can learn how to make thousands in passive income? Many people online purport to be experts, but make sure they have the credentials to support their reputation.
By adulthood, people usually have an idea of how and where they learn best, Wu says. Think back on your previous schooling or hobbies. Do you grasp concepts through trial and error? Did you feel a mastery over a topic when you were able to explain it to others? Maybe you prefer to learn at your own pace with a lot of practice along the way. Think about what will motivate you more, Agarwal says: learning on your own, or with an instructor. Some people favor self-guided instruction at their own pace; others are inspired when surrounded by fellow students.
For low-cost and low-effort educational opportunities, look to your family or members of your community. Your neighbor may be a master gardener, and in return you can teach them how to make dumplings. If you lack time to dedicate to a ceramics class, try learning alongside your children at their various activities, says Allyson Mackey, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. While considerably higher in both cost and time, Mackey also says traveling to locations with cultures different from your own is another way to learn outside of a classroom.
Constantly challenge yourself
As you settle into a routine in life, “you’ve built this perfect brain for your environment and for the types of tasks that you do,” Mackey says. You’re adept and efficient at the duties and hobbies you perform every day. To acquire new skills or knowledge, you have to be challenged. This isn’t to say you can’t enjoy what you’re learning, but you need to consistently level up. Once you have a grasp on a particular song on piano, for example, you’ll want to move on to another piece or practice more complex chord progressions.
For this reason, researchers are apt to liken learning to exercise. “What’s fundamental about exercising muscles is you don’t do the same thing every single day,” Bergstrom says. Learning a new skill or hobby, or making your current hobby more difficult, “potentially could slow down cognitive aging,” Bergstrom continues, “as opposed to doing [something] repetitive, like crossword puzzles. It’s kind of the same thing every day.”
One way to ensure you’re advancing is through feedback. An instructor can correct your pronunciation; a tutor can show you where you went wrong on a math problem. Even self-guided learning has feedback built in, Wu says: If you start beekeeping with the help of YouTube, but produce no honey, that’s a clear sign something went awry. “Even with trial and error by yourself,” Wu says, “you would still get feedback. It’s just from the environment and a little bit slower than feedback from an instructor.” Struggle, mistakes, and “failure” are essential parts of the learning process, Wu says. These missteps are valuable forms of feedback you can learn from. In turn, you’ll improve your subsequent performances — and that’s learning. “Learning, in general, happens,” Wu says, “when you make a mistake, and then you change your behavior to adjust to that.”
Capitalize on the skills you already have
Learning in adulthood means relying on skills you’ve acquired in the past. For example, if you’re teaching yourself a new language, you don’t need to relearn the concepts of words and sentences and grammar like a toddler would as they babble through their first phrases. “If you already know how to play the violin, playing the piano might be a little bit easier,” Wu says, “because you can translate from one instrument to the other.”
Because every task or hobby has its intricacies, you’ll stumble when your old skills don’t neatly translate to your new craft. Again, when using your knowledge of violin when learning how to play the piano, you might get confused reading two lines of music instead of one. While it’s not exactly easy, try to stay out of your own head and be flexible when acquiring new skills, Wu says.
Get the information out of your head
Instead of trying to cram knowledge in, focus on verbalizing what you’ve learned, Agarwal says. Known as retrieval practice, simply recalling and reflecting on information can help you retain those details. Thinking back on what you read in a book yesterday, telling a friend something funny you heard on a podcast, mentioning what you ate for breakfast — that’s retrieval practice. An easy way to put retrieval practice to work is to write down — or tell your partner or roommate — one thing you learned at the end of every day. “That will boost your memory and your long-term learning,” Agarwal says, “without taking more than 30 seconds and without any cost at all.”
Even if you think you didn’t learn anything that day, you most likely did, Agarwal says: how to get to work from your apartment without using GPS, in what aisle you can find olive oil in the grocery store, how to set up a projector.
Teaching what you just learned to someone else is also an effective way to learn, Mackey says. Organizing related thoughts into a narrative that makes sense to you is easier to remember.
“Sometimes we focus on getting information into our heads, like watching videos, going to lectures,” Agarwal says. “Where the magic happens with learning is getting information out of our heads.”