Learn new things without leaving home

Resources to teach you new skills are more accessible than ever, and the experience could lead to sharper thinking.

Published: July, 2020

The world is full of ordinary people who've learned to do extraordinary things without entering a classroom. For example, British fashion designer Nadine Merabi taught herself to sew watching how-to videos on YouTube. Video game developer Lual Mayen learned to write computer programs using a laptop tutorial, as he grew up in a Ugandan refugee camp.

But learning new things doesn't have to lead to fame or fortune; learning also brings invaluable health benefits, such as more purpose in life, sharper thinking, and maybe even better brain health. "Engaging in mentally stimulating activities has not only been linked with a lower risk of full-blown dementia, but also a lower risk that the mild cognitive lapses we can have as we get older will get worse," says Dr. Joel Salinas, a neurologist who specializes in behavioral neurology and neuropsychiatry at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Why does learning something new help the brain in older age? "Possibly, it's the creation of new brain cell connections, which may lead to more paths for information to get where it needs to go," Dr. Salinas explains. Just like using a muscle makes it stronger, using the brain makes it function better.

Learning from home

A wide variety of tools can help satisfy your hunger for knowledge and lead you to exciting new worlds and skills from the comfort of home.

Apps. Apps (computer applications or programs) offer bite-sized lessons that you can access whenever you like. Downloading an educational app from an Android or iOS (Apple) app store to a smartphone or laptop is easy and often free, although some apps can charge $20 to $200 for a course. There are thousands of apps to help you learn everything from speaking foreign languages (check out Duolingo or Babbel) or playing an instrument (try Yousician) to learning about astronomy (SkyView) or art history (DailyArt). Not sure where to start? Use an app that offers lots of choices in one spot, such as Udemy, where you'll find courses on computer coding, photography, finance, and thousands of other options.

Books. You can always learn something new by reading a book. But with millions of volumes on physical and digital shelves around the world, it can feel a little daunting to select the right read. If you have a topic in mind (shipwrecks, 18th-century fashion, the American Revolution, modern manufacturing?), head for Goodreads (www.goodreads.com), a website that takes millions of titles and helps you narrow them down. Goodreads can even show you whether a particular book is located in a library near you. You'll also find millions of free books available for download online at sites including your local library, OpenLibrary (www.openlibrary.org), and Project -Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org). Remember, too, that many public libraries offer free audiobook downloads, if you prefer listening to a book.

Online classes. You can actually go back to school and earn college credit by enrolling in online classes at a university. It costs hundreds or thousands of dollars and involves lots of reading, paper writing, test taking, and watching live or recorded lectures. The benefit, of course, is building toward some kind of degree. Depending on your age and ambitions, that degree can be either a ticket to a job or simply an accomplishment.

If you don't want to earn credit but still want to take a structured class, you can sign up for free online classes and watch the lectures of college professors around the world. Free classes are available in a wide range of subjects such as art, government, history, math, medicine, and music. To find classes, visit an individual school's website; check out EdX (www.edx.org), which features classes from many institutions including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and others; or use a college course search engine such as Class Central (www.classcentral.com) to find out which classes are offered free of charge at various universities.

Project kits. Want to learn a new skill or pick up a new hobby? There's a project kit for that. Among the many options, you can find kits to teach you to knit, crochet, garden, create flower arrangements, sew a quilt, build a model, paint, decorate leather, carve wood, do needlepoint — or make candles, beer, wine, soap, hot sauce, or even watches. The kits come with all of the instructions and materials you need to get started. You'll find the kits online (start with Amazon or your favorite bookstore) or just type "how-to kits" or "project kits" into an Internet search engine. Prices range from a few dozen to a few hundred dollars, depending on materials.

Podcasts. A podcast is a recorded program available for free on the Internet. You just visit a particular website, click the "play" button, and listen; or download the podcast to your smartphone or laptop so you can listen to the program whenever it's convenient. Podcasts offer a great way to learn, especially if you're up for a new topic in every episode. And you can find educational podcasts on any topic. Just search the Internet (for example, type "history podcast" into a search engine) or use a podcast app such as Stitcher or Spotify that offers many thousands of podcasts. Options include "Radiolab" (www.radiolab.org), "How To Do Everything" (www.howtodoeverything.org), "Presidential" (www.washingtonpost.com/podcasts), and "The Splendid Table" (www.splendidtable.org). We recommend Harvard Health Publishing's "Living Better, Living Longer" (www.health.harvard.edu/podcast-living-better-living-longer) to discover the latest medical trends or treatments.

Videos. The online video-sharing platform YouTube has millions of videos, and many of them are educational. Some are lectures that college professors have uploaded to the site. And many are how-to explanations created by people who want to share information.

You'll find videos from commercial painters showing you how to paint walls like a pro, from computer experts teaching the basics, from auto mechanics explaining how to make various car repairs, and from dance instructors showing you how to cha-cha. There are videos from makeup artists, tailors, chefs, air conditioning technicians, doctors, lawyers, and just about any person you can think of who has knowledge to share. Choose a topic that interests you, search for it on YouTube, and you'll likely find a video for it.

A caveat: Unlike watching a college educator, it's hard to know if you can believe the information shared by people on YouTube, so approach with caution. Check to see if the "expert" has a website verifying his or her credentials, and compare the information in one video to others to see if there is general consensus.

Tips for learning in older age

Want to maximize your efforts to learn something new? We turned to experts at the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University. James Wilkinson is a senior associate and director emeritus; Ellen Sarkisian is an associate director emerita. Here's their advice.

What's the best vehicle for learning for older adults?

"It's the one that leads them to interact with content by taking notes, doing exercises, drawing a diagram, or all of the above. The form of the instruction really doesn't matter that much. It can be a video, a book, or a podcast. The format should be determined by personal preference," Wilkinson says.

"A video can be helpful in learning a physical task, especially if the video is presented well enough so you can see exactly what to do," Sarkisian adds. "Videos should be paced more slowly than you preferred when you were younger, with pauses to prevent fatigue. It's much easier to learn something presented in chunks that can be easily absorbed."

What are some tips to help us retain information as we learn it?

"People use different tricks to solidify a new skill. Some write down the steps, some try to take a mental picture of what they learned, others repeat the steps mentally or out loud," Sarkisian says. "As you read a book, you can remember it better if you imagine telling someone how it relates to your experience, what you found interesting, what puzzled you, and what questions you have."

And if you're learning a difficult task, such as baking bread, invite a buddy to learn with you. "If it's done with someone else, the companion can give feedback," Sarkisian says. "Even if the other person doesn't know how to bake bread, two heads are still better than one in figuring out the instructions."

"What the learner does with the material determines how well it is absorbed and retained," Wilkinson says. "If it's Russian vocabulary, then write something in Russian. If it's how to grow flowers from seed, then get some potting soil, some seeds, and a good light source, and go to it. If it's German philosophy, then look up the difference between Verstand and Vernunft and apply that distinction to your own thought processes. Think of it like an exercise video. You could watch the video and be impressed with the instructor's fitness, but just watching it really isn't going to do you much good unless you actually do the exercises. I know, I've been there!"

Boosting brainpower

Will all of this learning really boost your brainpower, and how much does it take to make a difference? Consider an interesting finding among people who are known as "super-agers," whose memories remain outstanding into older age: "They tend to participate in mentally stimulating activities that are challenging," Dr. Salinas points out. "The sweet spot for the challenge seems to be hard enough that it takes some persistent effort, but not so hard that you're likely to quit or lose interest."

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