Effective learning and improving memory and study skills

At the moment I am interested in improving my learning ability, there are lots of tips and tricks around, but what I would like to discover is a systematic and scientific approach. I'm sure there has been lots of work done towards this, but at the moment it is not very easy to find or access. The other question is how to measure if any particular approach is effective. Research around brain game type training systems is still quite sketchy. The methods of memory athletes might be a promising avenue, but the kind of learning I wish to achieve is not memorising the order of a randomly shuffled deck of cards, but to establish significant amounts of learning of material such as: history, philosophy, science, theology, etc., this knowledge needs to be consolidated, integrated and established in long term memory. I'm at the beginning of my journey of discovery and would certainly be glad of any insight that others might be willing to share on the matter.

I have recently started at the gym, and as to be expected I have been taking my own particular approach to my exercise. Realising that I was sitting in front of computer or a book too much without any exercise, I decided that going to the gym would be a good way to improve my general fitness and health, even if I don't need to loose any weight. As to my own particular approach, it comes naturally to me to be methodical and if possible quite scientific about most things. I am not content to do exercise without some direction and focus, in addition I want objective and measureable results. To have a subjective feeling of getting fitter or healthier is not as appealing to me as having some kind of metric that I can track. Being measurable isn't just about some weird hang-up I have with numbers (although that might be the case), but it is an important motivational tool. It is a great advantage to be able to gauge current fitness and to be able to set tangible goals and track progress towards those goals. I expect that subjective feelings of improved fitness will accompany my progress, but it will be a real help to be able to clearly see the progress. Another advantage is to be able to judge the effectiveness of different approaches to exercise in meeting my goals.

With my fitness training I have decided that I am not particularly interested in weight loss, gaining strength or improving body image. Such goals might be important to lots of people, but they are not particularly relevant to me: I don't need to loose weight, I hardly need to improve my strength for my day to day activities (study), I'm happy with how my body looks. However, I am interested in improving my general health and fitness. While I don't feel particularly unfit, I know that having an inactive lifestyle is not good for anyone, and I do want to be healthy. My goal isn't just to be healthy now, but to stay healthy as I get older. Finally, one of the most important reasons for me to improve my fitness and be active is that it helps with energy levels, and the ability to concentrate and think better.

As for the technical details, I have done some research and decided to do a type of heart rate training. This gives me a clear and specific indication of my cardio-vascular fitness, and I can use it to track my fitness and the effectiveness of the exercise that I do. Further than that, I plan to purchase a 24hr activity tracker/fitness band (with pulse rate) to track my daily habits, health, activity, sleep, etc. Basically, I want to be systematic and informed, and a far as possible I would like to make use of technology to lessen the burden of manually recording all the information I would like, and to help with the analysis.

At the moment I am completing the final year of a degree in philosophy. It is hard work, and there is so much information to take in. Even though I am doing quite well, sometimes I feel like I'm not quite keeping up. Additionally, I am planning to continue next year with a master's degree (and maybe more after that), so naturally I am concerned with how I might be able to improve my study skills, memory, and general mental ability. I want to get smarter and better at learning. I have learnt a lot in the last 3 years and I've even got better at my learning, but for all I've learnt one of the biggest things I've become aware of is just how much there is to learn in the field of philosophy. It seems I regularly meet lecturers and professors who know and understand so much that it leaves me wondering how it is possible to even get to that level. Even after nearly 3 years of dedicated study I feel like a complete beginner. One response might be to just say that the task of becoming an expert is too big and just give up, another might be to rise to the challenge. Since I am committed to further study for the foreseeable future I have decided to take some inspiration from my newly adopted physical exercise programme, and to not just continue learning more, but to find specific measurable ways to get better at learning and thinking. Basically, I want to improve my mental fitness, and while I'm sure that my study over the last few years has to some degree improved my mental fitness, it has mostly felt like a linear process of just learning more. Now I feel it is time to get serious about getting better at learning more, and not just in a woolly subjective way, but in specific tangible ways.

Having been inspired by what is possible with sport science (how measurement of things like heart rate, lactate threshold, VO2max, etc. can help with achieving optimal physical training), I have been left wondering if there might be a similar scientific approach to improving mental fitness. There are many suggestions offered for how to improve mental fitness, but as yet I haven't come across a good way to assess my learning ability in a way that is appropriate to my goals (an IQ test won't tell me if I'm getting better at learning and mastering philosophical topics). I might have to settle for something less precise than what is available for measuring my cardio fitness, maybe something like a daily word-count of philosophy written and page-count of philosophy read (although I'm not really happy with that).

Some of the approaches I am hoping to use include:

• Improving physical fitness in order to improve mental fitness
• Improve reading skills (especially skim-reading and speed reading)
• Optimise diet to improve concentration and memory
• Develop good study habits (write notes/summaries while reading, take regular breaks, drink water, etc.)
• Schedule day to make good use of time
• Get adequate sleep
• Schedule revision to optimise retention of facts and ideas
• Learn memorisation techniques
• Anything else I can!

However, as mentioned, one of the biggest challenges is to work out what might be an effective metric to use to set goals and track progress.

I would love to hear from anyone else who has undertaken a specific program to improve their mental fitness, especially if they have found it successful. If that's you, please comment below (or use my contact form).