32+ apps to improve teaching and accelerate learning for school and career
Technology has revolutionized the way we approach learning. When I think back to my schooling and how I struggled through lectures and fell asleep on my textbooks trying to cram for my exams, I am a little jealous of the technology college kids have at their fingertips today. But mostly, I am excited for the opportunities it presents for different learning preferences and the neurodiverse to learn effectively.
Recently, I had the honor of being a guest on Shock Your Potential, hosted by Michael Sherlock. We discussed ways to learn faster to advance your career. In our conversation, I presented some ways to hack your brain to help you take in and retain information more effectively. And each of these methods has a corresponding app that you can download — often for free — to help you accelerate learning.
Nine key methods to accelerate learning
1. Take notes — and organize them!
A trend I see in adult learning is forgetting to take notes. During our high school and college years, quizzes and exams motivated us to take notes so that we could study and revise. But as adults, we often don’t take notes during self-motivated learning.
Notes allow you to review what you’ve learned and revisit that information down the road. If you don’t get the chance to apply your new knowledge immediately, it will fade from memory over time. Taking notes allows you to refer back to specialized knowledge when a situation arises.
Note organization apps are great for storing things you learned in a system that makes sense for you. Apps like Evernote or One Note were created for students and allow you to categorize text and images easily. You can search information easily to find exactly what you are looking for without having to read the whole thing.
Linear versus random organization tools are essential to supporting differently wired brains. While in school, I was forced to use linear outlines. I found them a source of frustration. I’m a random thinker and prefer to organize my thoughts using mind maps. Graphic organizers like Popplet, X mind, and Mindmeister are invaluable to me when trying to understand a process or write a book.
Trello and Notion are popular organization apps. They can help you create links between the information you have gathered from other sources. They include kanban-style card groupings so you can find your notes and other materials at a glance.
2. Automate notetaking
A tool that I use a lot in my business and learning is Otter . It allows me to record anything I am listening to so that I can play it back later and access transcriptions. This is great if someone teaches you how to do something at work. You can listen and give them your full attention while they teach you and have a recording and transcribed notes that you can access in the future.
3. Screenshot key information
When I take notes, I like to use a mixture of text and images to help illustrate important points. You can do this by taking screenshots or screengrabs of important slides in a webinar or presentation. A quick Google search will likely return a diagram or graphic representation of information. You can even create a custom graphic using Canva. If you type “graphic organizer” in the search box on Canva, you’ll get many ready-made examples.
4. Speak your notes and thoughts
I have used speech-to-text to write all but two of my books. I find I can write more and better when I speak my thoughts. Dictating my books is not 100% accurate, and some of the misheard words are hilarious, but even with the editing required, it is still much faster than if I was stuck at a keyboard trying to figure out what to write.
I’ve been using Nuance’s Dragon Naturally Speaking for almost 20 years for lengthy work. When writing short pieces like blog posts, emails, or marketing pieces, I’ll use Microsoft Dictation or the Google Voice typing tool.
5. Grab your learning time
One thing that’s hard for professionals to do is to find time to sit down and concentrate on learning something new. You must actively control this: instead of trying to “find” time, you need to grab the time to study. And once you’ve carved out that time, how you spend it is just as important.
Let’s say you have just an hour per day for focused learning. That’s five to seven hours per week available to dedicate to learning. How do you make the most of that hour every day?
Apps like Asana and ClickUp can take you a step beyond just organizing your notes. You can use them to organize your learning time and append your notes (or links to your notes) in discrete task blocks. Both apps have multiple views so that you can visualize and organize your learning time by task, hour, day, and month.
To stay focused on your learning, you can use timekeeper apps like Focus to Do (which uses the Pomodoro method to “chunk” time into 25-minute focus blocks).
6. Maximize your focus
When I need to study, I put on noise-canceling headphones. Earbuds are okay if that’s all you have, but the important thing is that they remove any distractions: the television in the next room, the kids running around the house, traffic outside, you name it.
I also play music specifically geared toward focus. I prefer classical music, but focus tracks are available for any genre. Search for “focus” playlists on Spotify or Amazon Music, or study playlists on YouTube. One hugely popular YouTube channel is LofiGirl, which streams nonstop music geared toward studying, sleeping, and more.
Set your phone on Do Not Disturb. You can find this in your phone’s settings. While you’ll still receive messages and calls, the phone won’t buzz or ring unless it’s from someone you’ve marked as an important contact.
7. Increase your reading/listening speed
Along with increasing your knowledge retention, try to increase how much knowledge you can consume. I often listen to a podcast or audiobook at 1.5x or 2x speed. The brain must pay closer attention to information played back at higher rates, so doing this helps me focus. It also means I can consume more information than if I listened at a regular speed. At first, it will sound a bit funny at faster speeds, but your brain will adjust quickly.
Most podcast apps allow you to adjust the speed. If not, there are speed controller apps that will enable you to adjust the speed of a video or audio file externally.
You can also increase the speed of your reading. Apps like Readsy and Spreeder help you to speed read. Readsy minimizes the learning phase by showing you one word at a time with a letter highlighted in red. This reading option is excellent for people with dyslexia as it stops the words from jumping around. Spreeder (which recently brought desktop app 7 Speed Reading into its fold) has a free version, which follows a similar format, showing one word at a time in sequence from the text you paste into the reader widget.
It may take a little trial and error to determine whether faster speeds equal more information intake. But it’s worth it to find out how you best consume content.
8. Find alternative information sources
Great information can be presented in the most boring way sometimes. I’m sure I’m not the only one who struggled to stay awake during university lectures from instructors who spoke in a monotone and, as Michael says in the podcast, “had spittle on their lips.”
And even if you have an engaging teacher, the way they teach may not line up with your learning style. You might be a visual learner who struggles to retain the information presented in a lecture but remembers every moment of the lecturer’s demonstration of the chicken dance.
Today, you can approach that information through different avenues online.
- YouTube is a vast repository of videos about every topic you can think of and a great way to get a new perspective on a topic you’re trying to learn.
- Mooc is an online platform for free courses, where you can find many topics presented by instructors who have a different, more engaging approach.
- AWS Training and Certification offers no-cost digital training for IT professionals on using and managing data on its cloud services.
- Quantic offers forty free courses to professionals who are considering getting an MBA.
- Harvard University has hundreds of free college courses online, as do Stanford, MIT, and other institutions.
Wait a minute, you say. This article is about how to accelerate your learning. How can you do that if you’re not studying?
Rest is essential. It helps your brain relax, improves its “elasticity,” and prepares you for more learning. You need rest breaks during learning sessions of five to 10 minutes. You need a 30-minute to 1-hour break to meditate, walk, call a friend, and just be away from the learning session. You need a full night’s sleep, so your entire body relaxes and your brain processes everything you’ve done today.
Rest is so important that there are dozens of useful apps to help you maximize the rest period:
- Focus To-Do (5-minute brain breaks)
- Calm (a go-to-sleep app with mind-calming storytellers)
- Headspace (a guided meditation app)
- Sleep Cycle (a smart alarm clock that tracks when you’re in your deepest and lightest sleep modes)
- Reflectly (an app that guides you through a pre-sleep regimen, such as journaling your day)
Extra credit: Go old-school
If the above technologies aren’t helping as much as you’d like, try the old-fashioned, pre-internet way. Approach someone you know as a good resource for the information and ask them.
If you’re studying on your own, librarians are enthusiastic supporters of the search for knowledge and will help guide you toward resources that can help.
If you’re trying to learn something at work, approach a colleague or supervisor and ask them to show you the information in action. My son does this, and it’s highly effective because it maximizes his learning style.
Here’s an example of learning-at-work in action. A friend works at a company that is growing rapidly and implementing new content management systems to help with that scale-up. For new employees, learning how to use those new systems can be challenging. To help, she schedules several short, 15-minute sessions during employees’ first few weeks to show them how to use the tools they’ll need to rely on to complete their work. She also ensures that the employees know they can contact her anytime they need help learning any aspect of the system. Walkthroughs are incredibly helpful in getting new employees up to speed and motivating them to continue learning the system independently.
One caveat: Make sure you put effort into learning and engaging if you choose this method. Time is a precious resource, and if you ask someone to spend time on you, you must show them that investing in your growth is worthwhile.
Conclusion: Try before you buy
If the above list of apps seems daunting, don’t fret. The reason that there are so many different learning apps on the market is — besides competition — that there is no single app that’s a perfect fit for every learner.
And that’s totally okay! Pick the app that seems most interesting to you. Take advantage of the free version before you commit. Explore different apps if it’s not quite right.
If there is no free version or free trial, watch YouTube videos of other people using the app. This will give you a good idea of the features and general layout and help you decide whether to spend money on it.
Whatever you do, accelerate your learning and keep growing!