LEARNING HACK #12: Skip the easy things

This post is part of a series challenging our assumptions about learning techniques. We’re asking you True or False questions to see what you do and don’t know about how to learn effectively, as well as giving you up to date information from current research into learning. Check out the previous post in this series and read the most recent one below.

When something feels hard to learn, it means we’re not learning it well.

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When something feels hard to learn, it means we’re not learning it well.

THIS IS FALSE.

When we find learning easy we presume that we are sailing through, understanding everything and therefore learning it all well. This has been proven to be a falsehood. In fact, effortful learning is more durable because the difficulty increases our ability to remember.

To clarify, effortful learning means taking the time to learn properly. Some of the most effective learning techniques – such as visceralisation or spaced repetition – slow us down and so they make us think that we’re getting behind, when actually the effort we have put in means that the information is being drilled into our memory more effectively.

Want to read more on this topic? Check out these links:

  1. Robert Bjork – Desirable Difficulties (Video)
  2. Desirable difficulty – Wikipedia page

What is Up Learn? Up Learn uses artificial intelligence and research from cognitive science to help students achieve A* results. Find out more.

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LEARNING HACK #10: Guessing the answer is better than reading it

This post is part of a series challenging our assumptions about learning techniques. We’re asking you True or False questions to see what you do and don’t know about how to learn effectively, as well as giving you up to date information from current research into learning. Check out the previous post in this series and read the most recent one below.

Trying to solve a problem before being shown the answer, even if that type of problem has never been addressed before, is more effective than looking the answer up straight away.

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Trying to solve a problem before being shown the answer, even if that type of problem has never been addressed before, is more effective than looking the answer up straight away.

THIS IS TRUE.

It’s awkward. It’s uncomfortable. We’ll probably even get the answer wrong. So it’s natural to want to read up on a topic before being asked any questions on it. How can we answer a question that we have never seen the answer to?

The process of struggling to answer a question before that topic has been learned is known as generation. Sometimes, when something feels difficult or unnatural it can actually help us remember it. By being forced to find a solution before we know the answer we are actively engaging with the problem, using our logic to come to a conclusion rather than relying on a nicely phrased textbook response. Next time we confront the problem or solution we are more likely to remember it.

Want to read more on this topic? Check out these links:

  1. Unsuccessful Retrieval Attempts Enhance Subsequent Learning
  2. The Generation Game: Why the best learners make the most mistakes

What is Up Learn? Up Learn uses artificial intelligence and research from cognitive science to help students achieve A* results. Find out more.

We’re releasing a new learning hack every 2 days. Like our Facebook page to be notified!

LEARNING HACK #6: Make yourself uncomfortable

This post is part of a series challenging our assumptions about learning techniques. We’re asking you True or False questions to see what you do and don’t know about how to learn effectively, as well as giving you up to date information from current research into learning. Check out the previous post in this series and read the most recent one below.

It is more effective to move between topics than it is to focus on one topic solidly before moving onto the next.

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It is more effective to move between topics than it is to focus on one topic solidly before moving onto the next.

THIS IS TRUE.

Research now shows that we learn better when we mix it up. Moving between different topics rapidly forces us to draw distinctions between them, which is vital to applying knowledge in a broader context.

Our intuition leads us to revise one topic for an extended period of time before we move on. But, as these myths have shown so far, our intuition is often misguided. It feels much easier to study one topic continuously, but in the long-term we won’t be able to apply our knowledge as effectively as if we swap between topics regularly.

This is an example of desirable difficulty. At first it is awkward and challenging to move between topics, but this difficulty is desirable because it makes our motor and cognitive skills better in the long-term.

Want to read more on this topic? Check out these links:

  1. Study Strategies: Interleaving
  2. Robert Bjork – The benefits of interleaving practice
  3. Why interleaving enhances inductive learning: the role of discrimination and retrieval

What is Up Learn? Up Learn uses artificial intelligence and research from cognitive science to help students achieve A* results. Find out more.

We’re releasing a new learning hack every 2 days. Like our Facebook page to be notified!

How to Cut Useless Studying and Improve Your Learning

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
– Pablo Picasso

The Not So Model Student

Jack is a model student. He attends all his classes and takes notes in them. He reads all the textbook chapters he’s assigned and highlights the key passages. But when he gets his results back from his end of term exam, he’s shocked to find that he’s failed. Jack runs to his teacher’s office in distress and asks her what happened.

“How did you study for the test?” she asks.

“Well I went back and highlighted all my notes, then reviewed them along with the highlighted passages of my textbook until I felt I understood the material.” he says.

Jack sees himself as a model student, but he is far from it – he doesn’t know how to learn effectively and is totally unaware of it.

We can all identify with this story, whether it’s from rereading French vocabulary that vanishes from our memory on test day or reviewing Economics definitions and forgetting crucial words in the exam.

What’s so frustrating when this happens is that, like Jack, we think we’ve done everything right. We start to question ourselves – maybe we didn’t work hard enough or we’re just not that good at languages or test taking. But these explanations are almost always false.

The real problem comes from our tendency to fool ourselves through what cognitive scientists call “illusions of knowing.” Strategies like rereading and highlighting create fluency, the belief that facts and formulae that are easy to remember now will be easy to remember tomorrow or next week. We feel we’ve mastered the material when we haven’t – all we’ve done is move it into our short term memory, which means we end up forgetting most of it.

Improving learning with self-testing

The best way to overcome our illusions is an effective studying technique in itself. That technique is testing or “retrieval practice” and the research proves that it’s highly effective in making learning deeper and more durable. Plus, when you test yourself, you find out whether you can actually recall what you’ve learnt or not.

In a 2006 study by Henry Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke of Washington University, 120 students were given two scientific texts to study – one on the sun and the other on sea otters. They studied one of the passages twice in separate seven-minute sessions. They then studied the other passage in one seven-minute session but in the second session, they were asked to write down as much as they could recall without looking.

The students were then split into three groups, one which took a test five minutes after the study sessions, one two days later and one a week later. While studying or rereading was marginally more effective in the five-minute test, testing was far superior when it really mattered, in the two-day and one-week tests.

How testing improves retention
How testing improves retention

Tests are more than just a measurement tool. They change what we remember and how we organize information in our minds by making us engage in more “effortful” learning.

Elizabeth and Robert Bjork’s “desirable difficulty” principle tells us that the harder our brains work to dig out a memory the more effective our learning will be. When the brain is retrieving texts, formulas, skills or anything else, it’s working harder than when it just sees the information again. That extra effort increases the resulting storage and retrieval strength.

In his book Make It Stick, Roediger highlights another benefit of self testing. When we successfully retrieve a fact, we re-store it in memory in a different way as it becomes linked to the other facts we’ve retrieved, making us even more likely to retain it.

So whether it’s in the form of recitation, rehearsal or self-examination, testing is something that we should all be using regularly in our learning for any subject or skill.

The Takeaway

Commonly used learning strategies like rereading and highlighting may feel effective due to the feeling of fluency they cause but they are largely useless. Effective learning techniques are effortful – the harder they feel, the deeper and more durable learning will be. Testing or retrieval practice is an example of one such strategy and we should use them regularly in our learning schedules in place of rereading.

Actions

1) Quiz yourself

After reading an article or text, pause and ask: what are the key ideas here? What message is the author is trying to communicate? Then try and write down as much as you can remember, without looking.

2) Teach someone

After reading an idea for the first time, try to explain it to a friend or family member as soon as possible. If nobody’s around explain it out loud to yourself. You’ll quickly see where your knowledge falls short and what you need to go back and review.

3) Take a test before you’re ready

Instead of waiting for the perfect moment, test yourself before you feel comfortable. If you’re learning a language, find a native to practice as soon as possible. If it’s a subject, do a past paper before you’re comfortable with the material.

Up Learn

At Up Learn, we’ve taken insights from cognitive psychology and neuroscience and implemented them in a learning system for achieving A* at A Level. We’ve designed retrieval practice and self-testing into our courses. Find out more at Up Learn.

This post was written by Nasos Papadopoulos from MetaLearn.net