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.

What do you think?

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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.

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

LEARNING HACK #1: Intelligence – nature or nurture?

A huge amount of research has gone into clarifying how we learn best. How can we make sure that information doesn’t just go in one ear and out the other? How do we get knowledge to stick, rather than slip away over time? The answers that research points to are almost always different to what our intuition leads us to believe.

We want to clear things up for you. We’re guessing that you want to learn as effectively as you possibly can, right? So, over the next few weeks we will be posting a series of blog posts that will challenge your assumptions on learning. Each post will ask you a True or False question that focuses on one aspect of learning, so that by the end of this series you will have gathered all the key principles.

Ready to bust some serious learning myths? Look no further, our first one is just below:

Research has shown that intelligence is fixed at birth. Although studying can go some way in improving our brainpower, it is unlikely that this will have a dramatic effect.

What do you think?

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Select an answer above and then click HERE to reveal whether you were right!

Research has shown that intelligence is fixed at birth. Although studying can go some way in improving our brainpower, it is unlikely that this will have a dramatic effect.

THIS IS FALSE.

While some of us may naturally be better at certain subjects, through deliberate practice our abilities can be drastically increased.

In fact, studies have even shown that just knowing that intelligence is malleable has a positive impact on academic achievement. What this means is that if you’re reading this, you have already increased your likelihood of success!

This idea is what we call the growth mindset: a hunger for learning that sees mistakes as opportunity for improvement, not indication of failure.

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

  1. Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential 
  2. How To Help Every Child Fulfil Their Potential 
  3. A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality

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!

 

Why You’re Learning the Wrong Way and What To Do About It

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
– Albert Einstein

You’re doing it wrong

For most of my life I’ve been learning the wrong way and the chances are you have too. For me, studying at school and university mostly involved long periods of time reading textbooks, highlighting and underlining them and writing out notes. I even transferred this high volume philosophy to the sports I played, believing that persistent practice of my skills would lead to higher performance.

It’s not that this strategy didn’t work at all – I achieved a measure of academic success and was competent in the sports I played. But the truth is that I was doing a lot wrong and I wasn’t the only one. The tools that my friends and I used to improve learning all involved working more – reread the chapter, hit more forehands, write more detailed notes.

Fortunately, research in cognitive science has now provided insights that are helping us build new models of the learning process. We can now use more effective strategies to replace the standard practices that are used by most learners around the world.

What’s wrong with our ideas?

Most of our ideas about learning are taken on faith and shaped by our own intuition about what works well. Two common beliefs that many of us hold are:

1) Repeated exposure ‘burns’ material into your memory and is the most effective way to memorise – the belief that if I reread my notes or repeat my lines enough, they’ll stick eventually.

2) Massed practice is the best route to mastery – the belief that the best way to gain mastery in a skill or field of knowledge is through single-minded, rapid-fire repetition or “practice-practice-practice.”

These beliefs are so widely held that they permeate every dimension of our beliefs about learning and education. Cognitive scientists Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel have compiled a series of research studies to counter these beliefs and recommend alternative methods. In their book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, they find that:

1) Rereading is more time consuming and less effective than other strategies.

2) The gains from massed practice are temporary. Most of us see fast improvement during the initial learning phase of massed practice, but these benefits are short-lived.

Our ideas about learning are so appealing because of their familiarity, and because we suffer from “illusions of knowing” which make us poor judges of when we’re learning well and when we’re not. Strategies like rereading notes and massed practice in sports feel effective because we’re getting comfortable with a text or skill and improving our fluency in it. But for real permanent gains, these strategies are largely a waste of time. Fluency is not learning and it’s certainly not mastery.

“But of course it takes hard work and practice to learn something,” I hear you shout. That’s true – the fundamental building blocks of learning are a strong learning mindset and consistent deliberate practice. But deliberate practice does not have to involve rote learning and repetition. There are many ways to get from A to B and some are better than others.

Using different tools

More effective learning strategies are like technology that allows us to do more with less. Before 1440, all books were produced by hand – works of law, science and philosophy were painstakingly copied onto papyrus and parchment. But when Johannes Gutenberg created the printing press, book making was mechanised. Now the same amount of labour could be used to produce many more books.

Using standard learning strategies such as rereading is like trying to produce books by hand when a printing press is available. Science has provided us with a deeper understanding of how we learn, so it’s time to replace some of our old tools with new ones, or at the very least, to experiment with what seems to be working better.

What are these new tools? I discuss each of them in depth in separate posts but they centre on the principles of self-testing, spaced retrieval and mixed practice. Self-testing allows us to tackle our illusions of knowing by showing us what we’ve actually learned.

Spaced retrieval strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting, which makes learning deeper and more durable. Mixed practice involves the interleaving of different components of a subject or skill, which makes you better at picking the right solutions in unfamiliar situations.

The Takeaway

People generally go about learning the wrong way. Methods such as rereading and massed practice are by far the most popular but the research tells us that the gains from them are limited. Although it may feel like these methods of learning are productive, gaining familiarity with a subject or skill is not the same as mastering it.

We often spend a lot of time trying to choose the right path or strategy for our learning but we can save a lot of time by eliminating what doesn’t work and experimenting with what’s left.

Actions

1) Start Self-Testing

Don’t avoid self-testing until you feel comfortable with the material. Self-testing helps you identify how much you actually know and what you need to work on so do it before you feel ready. You’ll inevitably make mistakes but use those as opportunities for learning.

2) Use Retrieval Practice instead of Rereading

Avoid repeatedly rereading material. Instead try recalling facts or concepts more often using flashcards. You can build your own with free software like Anki or use ready-made decks on Memrise for a wide range of subjects.

3) Use Mixed not Massed Practice

Mix your practice up by practicing different aspects of a skill or subject together rather than repeating the same thing over and over again. If you’re doing maths problems, don’t do 10 calculus problems followed by 10 geometry ones – mix them up randomly instead.

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. Find out more at Up Learn.

This post was written by Nasos Papadopoulos from MetaLearn.net