The ultimate goal of teaching is to imbue learners with a sense of possibility, creativity and persistence needed for higher learning and success. Even if teachers are successful at imparting these qualities, students still need to learn new knowledge and skills. So, what exactly is learning and how can students (or ourselves) do it more efficiently?
Learning About Learning
Learning describes the process of acquiring knowledge and skills which are then made readily available from memory. Take it a step further and you will form a mental model in which the key ideas are extracted, organised and connected to pre-existing knowledge. This allows us to take a complex set of interrelated ideas, extract the underlying principles and fuse them into a meaningful whole. The result is knowhow; a mental model which can be adapted and applied in a variety of circumstances allowing us to make sense of future problems or opportunities.
Limits to Learning
There is no limit to how many long-term memories we can form provided we relate it to what we already know. This creates a positive feedback loop where the more we learn, the more possible connections we create for future learning. It is only the retrieval capacity that is limited. So, what does this mean?
Retrieval cues are used to retrieve memories formed in the past. If cues get weakened or damaged, you will find it more difficult to retrieve the associated memory or knowledge. But this damaged state isn't inevitable. It is possible to strengthen these connections through periodic retrieval, by increasing the number of associated cues and ensuring cues are formed in a meaningful context. In other words, knowledge tends to be more durable when it is thoroughly comprehended as a concept, is connected to other knowledge in your memory and has a practical or emotional weight.
Effortful learning is something we have all come across. Rather counter-intuitively, it leads to one of the best forms of learning. This is because it creates stronger, more precise and more enduring connections. The types of learning difficulty encountered can be broken down into two categories.
These elicit more effort and slow down learning. Examples include not being allowed to take notes and limiting learning to listening, watching or testing. You could try disrupting fluency by mismatching lectures with the textbook or using blurry text.
These are when there is too much difficulty and the extra effort is counterproductive. Examples include situations where the learner does not have the background knowledge or skills to respond successfully.
Metacognition describes the ability to monitor your own thinking and it is a critical skill for any learner. Why? Because it enables practitioners to analyse the world around them, continually monitor their performance and pass judgement on how to adjust their behaviours in order to impact their future self. This helps keep them out of blind alleys, identify when they might be deluding themselves and enables them to reflect on how to do better next time.
However, you should take care. Judgement is readily misled by illusions, cognitive biases and narratives we create to explain the world around us. One of the biggest illusions is the illusion of learning. Humans are poor judges of whether they are learning well and often overestimate their level of mastery. Furthermore, they frequently fail to identify areas of weak learning and tend to favour less productive study methods.
The Myth of Errorless Learning
There is a belief that errors committed by learners are counterproductive and are the direct result of faulty instruction. The perceived solution is to spoon-feed learners with material and check their learning with immediate quizzing. This serves only to test short term memory and reinforces the belief that students will learn a mistake if it is made.
The reality is far different; errors are integral to reaching mastery, while corrective feedback prevents the errors from being learned. Once students realise that learning is a process of struggling with errors, they will become more likely to tackle tough challenges and start to see mistakes as lessons rather than failure. It is their perseverance in the face of failure that leads them to success. Give them room to struggle with difficulty and they will perform better.
An inability to convince students of this view will result in a fear of failure. This will poison learning by creating an aversion to experimentation and risk taking. Leaners will perform worse when under pressure as their working memory monitors performance and is not fully engaged in problem solving. This fear will also create feelings of incompetence that engender anxiety and disrupt learning.
Effective Study Techniques
Take charge of your learning and follow a simple but disciplined strategy. Structure time to regularly pursue the strategies below. It will be difficult, and setbacks will occur. These difficulties are a sign of effort and it is this effort which builds meaningful connections in the brain allowing us to form lasting mental models. You have to do something beyond passively reading or interpreting information! If used well, these techniques will lead to better mastery, longer retention and a more versitile application. Finally, the improvement gained is often not immediately perceived by the learner. Please persevere.
- Retrieval Practice
- Spaced Retrieval Practice
- Interleaved Practice
- Varied Practice
Retrieve new learning from memory. This includes facts, concepts or events. This method utilises the testing effect.
- How to Use:
- Whilst reading, periodically pause and ask questions about the topic without looking at the text. Check your answers and correct any mistakes. Regular retrieval practice helps you identify areas of weakness and enables you to focus your learning on them. Another method is to set time aside each week to quiz previous material. Ask yourself: What are the key ideas? What terms or ideas are new? How do I define them? How do I relate them to what I already know?
- Retrieval practice identifies key concepts, strengthens retrieval routes, arrests forgetting and provides a reliable measure of what you do and don’t know. Periodic testing strengthens learning, while regular testing means you don’t need to cram for exams.
Spaced Retrieval Practice
Study information more than once with considerable time between sessions. Beware, if too much time passes you will forget too much and need to relearn the material.
- How to Use:
- Create a schedule of self-quizzing with specified time intervals between sessions. The amount of time depends upon the content; it could be revisited at day one, in several days or even weeks later. Once learned, revisit the topic monthly. Try and combine quizzing of both new and old knowledge while interleaving different topics. Flashcards are a good medium to use.
- Spaced retrieval allows a little forgetting to occur. Consequently, you must work harder to remember. This effort refreshes cues and re-establishes connections to the long-term memory. Consolidation of knowledge helps ideas become more salient and memorable.
Study of two or more subjects/skills during the same period. The topic is switched before practice is completed. Beware, this will slow your grasp of understanding and possibly result in some confusion.
- How to Use:
- Structure your study so that you distribute practice across multiple topics rather than polishing off one topic completely. Once you start to understand a topic, but your grasp is still rudimentary, scatter this topic throughout your learning schedule.
- Interleaved practice improves your ability to discriminate between different types of problem, helps you identify the unifying characteristics within a problem type, allows you to select the right tool to find a solution and improves both recall and knowledge application in the real world.
Mix up the manner in which you practice skills. This makes the learning process more cognitively challenging.
- How to Use:
- Change the manner in which a given topic or skill is practiced.
- Varied practice improves your ability to transfer learning from one situation to another as subtle nuances become visible. You will develop a broader understanding of relationships in different contexts and this enables you to develop a flexible vocabulary of actions needed to succeed in a broad range of scenarios.
Connect new knowledge with what you already know and find additional layers of meaning as you express it in your own words.
- How to Use:
- Relate material to what is already known, explain it to someone else in your own words or explain how it relates to your life outside of class. You may find metaphors, visual images or large summary sheets useful in perfoming this technique.
- Elaboration improves mastery of material and creates multiple mental cues for later recall.
The process of attempting to solve a problem or answer a question before being taught the solution.
- How to Use:
- Before reading about a topic, attempt to explain the material as key ideas and how it relates to prior knowledge. Next, read the material and confirm if your understanding is correct. An alternative method is to fill in missing words within a text, solve problems before class or learn by doing rather than being told.
- Generation primes the mind for learning and engages higher order thinking. You are more likely to learn and remember a solution if taught after attempting to solve it.
Allows you to review what has been learned from recent experiences. It involves recall of recently learned knowledge (retrieval), connecting it to previous knowledge (elaboration) and visualisation or mental rehearsal of what might be done differently (generation).
- How to Use:
- Write learning paragraphs to reflect on what has been learned in the previous week. Ask yourself: What happened? What did I do? How did it work out? What are the key ideas? What are some examples? How do these relate to what I already know? What went well? What could have gone better? What might I need to learn for better mastery? What strategies might I use the next time to get better results?
- Reflection is a combination of retrieval practice, elaboration and generation that adds layers to learning and strengthens skills.
This is an objective instrument to clear away illusions and adjust your judgement to better reflect reality.
- How to Use:
- Use regular quizzes and practice tests. Ensure you answer the questions before looking up the answers! Focus study on areas that you are not up to speed on.
- Calibration allows you to align your judgement (of what you do and don’t know) alongside objective feedback. This prevents you from being carried off by illusions of mastery. It helps you become sure of what you do know and that you are accurate in this assessment.
- Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning; Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, Mark McDaniel