accelerated learningOkay, who remembers Speed Reading? Back in the 1970s, advertisements for courses designed to dramatically increase your reading speed were everywhere, promising incredibly short times for reading even the densest novel. Television commercials showed readers doing little more than passing their hands over pages, flipping pages at about one per second. Somehow, the idea goes, the reader learns how to retain all that information, completing a three hundred page book in little more than minutes.

Of course, promising you can learn to finish a novel in five minutes is little more than bunk and hokum. In reality, reading speeds for most people cannot go much higher than about 500 words per minute, or roughly double that of most who consider themselves to be “fast readers.” And of course, those folks never promised you’d read that quickly, they just showed you someone doing it, so they really weren’t lying.

More like fibbing, really.

Either way, how fast you read might not exactly have correlated with how fast you were reading. As everyone knows, reading something is no guarantee that you will understand it. Addressing that very issue is a new technique called Accelerated Learning that focuses on a far more complex and many would say more realistic set of methods and practices to speed up the time it takes to learn new things, regardless of what they are.

What the Heck is Accelerated Learning?

So, what, exactly, is “accelerated learning?” Well, it means just what it seems to: a faster way to learn something. We all want to do that, don’t we? Here’s the rub: there is no one “official” or “doctor-approved” method for learning more quickly. As odd as it may seem, there are many different systems for shortening the learning curve, most of which overlap in some areas, all of which are only fully revealed to you after you pay for the course, the training, the e-book, or whatever product it is that conveys the method to you.

There are so many competing ways to think about learning that it can be dizzying, in fact. There are more than a few online courses that teach different learning methods, some emphasizing speed, some emphasizing retention, and some trying for both. Two interesting ones are “Learning How to Learn” and “Learning to Learn.” No, they aren’t infinite recursion setups, nor are they quotes from old episodes of “Pimp My Ride,” wherein Xzibit says to a guest, “Yo, dawg, I herd you like learning, so we put some learning in your learning so you could learn how you learn.”

While this is indeed hilarious, the fact is that we do need to learn how to learn. Most of us take learning (as a process) for granted. If it works (or worked), why think about it? Most people’s fathers, at some point, tell them, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That sums up the attitude towards learning many people hold, and accelerated learning aims to change that, no matter who you may learn it from.

For the purposes of this overview, we’ll combine the principles of several different proponents of accelerated learning to give you the most bang for your learning buck. Sound good? Let’s go!

A Disclaimer

Let us say right out of the gate that when one generally hears the term “accelerated learning,” it is not being used to discuss anything that goes on in a public primary or secondary school, or even in colleges. Similar techniques may be employed in some of those venues, but in general, “accelerated learning” refers to the ways that individuals can help themselves learn, and how those who work as trainers and facilitators in the business world can successfully speed up and increase the effectiveness of what they do.

This is not to say that these techniques should not be used in schools. To an extent, they are, but by necessity in a limited way, owing to legislation like “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” and the current mania for high-stakes state tests.

Basic Principles of Accelerated Learning

In general, the various practitioners of accelerated learning agree (at least loosely) on a set of basic principles which shape the learning experience.

To start with, learning, if it is to be successful, requires a positive environment. The room, and more importantly, the culture and mood within the room, need to be relaxing and stimulating. If this seems like an oxymoron, consider that one can only pay full attention to any stimulus when one is relaxed. Negative feelings slow or stop the learning process entirely. Students need to feel safe, they need to be able to trust those around them, and they need to experience as many positive emotions as possible. This can be accomplished through a number of ways, but primarily it all comes down to the teacher or facilitator. Be positive in your outlook, in a genuine way. Treat all students nicely, be encouraging, and above all else, show students that you value and enjoy their company. They will in turn express themselves positively, for the most part.

Next, remember that learning is a fundamentally social event. Collaboration is the key. Most people learn more when they collaborate with others, rather than when they are in competition with their classmates. Everyone in class needs to be working together, towards a common goal, with the idea that all will benefit when all learn. Solo work does none of this, but collaboration with different partners can yield impressive results.

Similarly, when students work on creating something (together) rather than consuming something, they learn more quickly. Consider the difference between the old methods of reading a chapter or listening to a lecture and the accelerated learning method of making rather than taking. Would a room full of 9th graders rather, do you think, learn about how a Shakespeare tragedy works by listening to a teacher talk about it, or by quickly going over some guidelines, and then in groups writing their own one-act tragedies, making puppets, and presenting those tragedies as a puppet theater piece? There is no prize for getting this question correct.

And also related to this concept is the idea that learning is best facilitated when students work in a “real world” context, rather than in an abstract sense. Can anything teach you how to or not to build a doghouse like trying to do it, and getting real-time feedback in the form of whether or not it works? Have you ever tried to fix your vacuum cleaner? Reading the manual online will only give you a headache, but carefully taking it apart and examining how it works and what parts perform which functions can get the job done quickly, and you’ll never forget what you learned. Next time, the vacuum malfunction will be only a minor annoyance, assuming the motor isn’t burned out or you don’t need a new power cord.

Learning, if it is to be accelerated, must also happen in such a way that the entire being of the learner is involved and engaged. It is a tragic misconception to believe that we learn only with our brains, or with a portion thereof. Learning is an activity that requires the whole being: mind, body, emotions, and soul. Everything is important and must be accounted for: the emotional state of the learner (create a positive environment), the learner’s sensory input (work towards a classroom that is relaxing and stimulating, but free of distractions), and the learner’s prior knowledge. All these things are important. Did you know that the sense of smell is the strongest memory sense? If you’re teaching Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene, think about what setting up a stage so that Juliet is up higher will do for the experience. Students have to crane their necks. Then, spray some rose scent around the room, with the idea that roses are the smell of love, and were probably growing all around the Capulets’ courtyard. The scene will have more impact, and students will understand it more and retain it better.

In other words, you must involve the learner on many levels simultaneously. Learners must be engaged, and to be engaged requires active and total involvement. Each learner must take responsibility for his or her own learning, and share some of the responsibility for the learning of others. A great math teacher once asked a student he knew, who was in another teacher’s class, “What’d you make on that test?” The student was puzzled by the teacher’s choice of words, and responded, “He gave me an 85.” The teacher responded, “No—you made an 85. You learned 85 percent of the material, so that’s the grade you made.” Instilling this attitude in learners from the beginning makes a tremendous difference.

Lastly, learning must be about variety. There should be multiple options for ways to learn, ways to approach material. Each of us has a learning style that works best for us, and if we can use our own styles to learn, we learn better and faster. This connects to Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and is based on the idea that if given the choice between options for learning that offer opportunities for each of the possible learning styles, students will find and utilize the one that suits them best.

Further reading on the subject of learning can be found in a blog entry on “Cognitive Learning” by Nick Gibson, and in online classes on learning called “Learn Like a Superhero” and “Goals of Learning.” It is unquestionably important to learn how you learn, and to take control of your own learning process.

What Have We Learned?

Everyone learns differently, through different methods, at different rates, and with varying levels of effectiveness. Accelerated learning is not designed to be one method to please everyone. Rather, it works on the principle that flexibility, creativity, involvement, positivity, and collaboration are universally positive experiences, and it is hard to disagree.

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