How to Become a More Effective Learner

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
~ Benjamin Franklin

The rise of the Internet has created a situation whereby we can access enough resources to thoroughly learn any topic. But exposure to the relevant material is not enough, instead, to really understand something there are certain study techniques that prove far more useful than others. In this article we will outline a number of these techniques.

Practice Retrieval – Don’t Reread

An overwhelmingly common study practice is the act of passive reading. For new, or difficult topics, most people realize that reading the material once is not sufficient, so what many people do is read through the material multiple times thinking this will do the trick. Rereading, however, is a very ineffective and inefficient learning tool. In his book Make it Stick – The Science of Successful Learning, author Peter Brown explains the downfalls of rereading:

“Rereading has three strikes against it. It is time-consuming. It doesn’t result in durable memory. And it often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the content.” (Make it Stick, Peter Brown)

To create durable memories a much more effective tool is retrieval. Retrieval is essentially self-quizzing. To practice retrieval you create your own quizzes or make use of flashcards to test your knowledge of the material. As Brown explains:

“The act of retrieving from memory has two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. Two, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future. In effect, retrieval – testing – interrupts forgetting.” (Make it Stick, Peter Brown)

The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle recognized the benefits of retrieval over 2000 years ago, writing “exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory.”

Space Out Your Learning

Another helpful practice is to allow for enough time between study sessions to elapse for some forgetting of the material to occur. This forgetting makes recalling the material during the next study session a little more difficult and therefore requires more effort. Not surprisingly, just like effort during a workout results in more muscle gain, research has shown that effort exerted during a study session also leads to stronger learning.

Don’t Just Study a Single Topic

An additional way to make learning more effortful, and thus more effective, is to practice interleaving. During a study session alternate between a few related topics rather than focusing on a single specific topic. For example, if you are studying algebra, don’t just do the practice problems at the end of the latest chapter you have read in your textbook, rather do a few problems from that chapter and then do a few from prior chapters, skipping back and forth. This will result in more effortful learning and therefore a much greater understanding and mastery of the subject.

Take a Break

When you are stumped by a particularly difficult calculus problem, are suffering from writer’s block, or just can’t grasp a complicated topic, an effective way to overcome such hurdles is to take a break. In her book A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science, Barbara Oakley explains how taking a break activates what she calls the diffuse mode of thinking, a mode of thinking that promotes creativity.

“Since the very beginning of the 21st century, neuroscientists have been making profound advances in understanding the two different types of networks that the brain switches between – highly attentive states and more relaxed resting state networks. We’ll call the thinking processes related to these two different types of networks the focused mode and the diffuse mode, respectively – these modes are highly important for learning.” (A Mind for Numbers, Barbara Oakley)

The highly attentive state, or the focused mode, occurs when directly working on something. The diffuse mode occurs when you stop work and start an activity that allows you to relax and your mind to wander. Activities which promote the diffuse mode include taking a walk in nature, napping, or listening to music. What is interesting is that often when we shift to the diffuse mode of thinking our brain still works on what we were doing while we were focused, but in a subconscious manner. Oakley suggests that this diffuse mode of thinking spurs creativity and can lead to the so called “ahha” moments which seem out of reach when we focus too hard on something.

Thomas Edison, the great inventor, used to take short naps when he was stuck on a problem in order to spur creativity, while the writer Charles Dickens was known to take long walks to try and find inspiration for his novels.

Realize that Your Intellectual Ability is Not Fixed

Too often people fall into the trap of thinking that a subject is too difficult for them, or that they just don’t have the “mind” to learn a specific topic. However, research by the psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that those who simply maintain the belief that they are capable of improving their intellectual ability do far better at learning new skills than those who do not hold this belief. It is very common for people to believe that their intellectual ability is largely determined by their genes, age, or other factors outside of their control, but while such limitations exist, they are not nearly as inhibiting as once believed – and Dweck’s research shows that merely realizing this fact makes us better learners!

Dweck’s research also led her to discover that it is best to strive for what she called learning goals, rather than being caught up with performance. Peter Brown summarized these findings in Make it Stick – The Science of Successful Learning:

“Dweck came to see that some students aim at performance goals, while others strive toward learning goals. In the first case, you’re working to validate your ability. In the second, you’re working to acquire new knowledge or skills. People with performance goals unconsciously limit their potential. If your focus is on validating or showing off your ability, you pick challenges you are confident you can meet. You want to look smart, so you do the same stunt over and over again. But if your goal is to increase your ability, you pick ever-increasing challenges, and you interpret setbacks as useful information that helps you to sharpen your focus, get more creative, and work harder.” (Make it Stick, Peter Brown)

Further Resources

 

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