From an Interview between Shane Parish of Farnam Street and Barbara Oakley who has recently written a book on the subject backed by years of academic research.
How can we learn new things optimally? (This applies to both abstract ideas like math and physical skills like playing music)
The distinction we draw between rote learning and understanding is artificial. You need both repetition and understanding, the two go hand in hand, you are building up the structure in your brain that embeds the memory of what it is and why, you understand more and deeper as you repeat it and the pattern becomes clear and embedded in our brain.
You need both focus time and what neurologists call ‘default mode’ time. The brain consolidates knowledge and makes connections during ‘default mode’. Default mode is the mode we normally operate in when we are not focused but just operating eg. when driving, walking, exercising or eating as our mind jumps around from one thought to another, and we are aware of ourselves and our place in the world.
Pomodor principle: Concentrate hard and focus for 25 minutes and then reward yourself by doing something else and letting the default mode happen. (The reward re-enforces the learning as something enjoyable and the change in activity allows the brain to consolidate knowledge.)
During the focus mode, the best way to embed understanding after having read a page of material is to look away and recall the key concepts from the last page and work through them mentally. More effective than underlining or re-reading. Repetition of the the same thing like re-reading can actually be unhelpful because our brain assumes it knows and skips over rather than really connecting.
Variety is great for the brain. There is little evidence for the idea that some people are auditory and some people are visual or kinaesthetic learners. We all learn through all of these modes. Our learning is amplified if we combine different methods, it keeps the brain engaged and excited, building the patterns. The wackier the connections the more likely it is that the brain will remember it (hence memory palace and other visualisation techniques)
Exercise is also good at encouraging dendritic extension of neurons (the little branches on the neurons that extend to and connect with other neutrons) because of the growth factors it releases in the brain. Different views on whether it’s better to learn before or after exercise but either way it seems to help.
Get really good sleep is essential for forming the memories properly. Sleep well.