If you don’t know how to learn well, you’re basically screwed.
So say Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel, authors of “Make It Stick: The Science Of Successful Learning.”
“We need to keep learning and remembering all our lives,” they write. “Getting ahead at work takes mastery of job skills and difficult colleagues … If you’re good at learning, you have an advantage in life.”
Roediger and McDaniel, both of whom are psychologists at the University of Washington in St. Louis, argue that we misunderstand — at a cultural level — how learning works.
“How we teach and study is largely a mix of theory, lore, and intuition,” the authors write.
Only recently has learning been submitted to the empirical rigour of cognitive psychology — which has turned up lots of the bad habits that many of us picked up in school.
Here are a few examples of terrible ways to learn new concepts:
Rereading the material
Recall your time in school. When you wanted to prep for an exam, your “studying” probably consisted of poring over the same texts for hours.
More than 80% of college students say that rereading is their main study strategy. The authors cite three reasons for why it doesn’t work:
• Rereading takes forever. You could be learning better, in a shorter amount of time, with other strategies.
• Studies show that multiple readings of a text provide no benefit to recall.
• It deceives you. Mastering a text is not the same as mastering the ideas behind it. Rereading a text gives you an “illusion of knowing.” You’re getting super familiar with what a text says, but only superficially.
Rather than rereading, quiz yourself. It’s better for cultivating long-term recall.
Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel repeatedly slam “massed practice,” which you and I know as cramming — the rapid, intense study of a text or technique for a short duration of time.
Synthesizing several decades of research, the authors note:
“Massed practice gives us the warm sensation of mastery because we’re looping information through short-term memory without having to reconstruct the learning from long-term memory … [T]he fluency gained through massed practice is transitory, and our sense of mastery is illusory.”
Real mastery of material, the authors emphasise, comes through reconstructing knowledge. That means forcing yourself to recall your understanding of a subject from memory, which you can hack with techniques like retrieval, elaboration, and generation.
Catering to your “learning style”
You’ve probably said that you’re a visual or auditory learner.
You may be mistaken.
“The idea that individuals have distinct learning styles has been around long enough to become part of the folklore of education practice and an integral part of how many people perceive themselves,” the authors write.
“The underlying premise says that people receive and process new information differently,” they continue. What’s more, the theory holds that folks who don’t get info in their preferred learning style — written, heard, etc. — are getting the pedagogical shaft.
This sentiment, the authors insist, is toxic, since saying that you have one learning style and not another gives you a “corrosive, misguided sense of diminished potential.”
If you identify as someone with a “low kinesthetic” learning ability, then you’ll likely stray away from athletics, rock-climbing, dancing, yoga, or any of the various ways to take advantage of having a body. If you identify as a “low-auditory” learner, then you’ll turn yourself away from listening to music, lectures, and the like. Taking yourself to have one speciality — and many weaknesses — is impoverishing.
Instead, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel encourage you to adopt an idea of “successful intelligence”: an attitude of bringing all your tools to the learning table. Yes, you do have different kinds of intelligence — Cornell University psychologist Robert Sternberg’s model says it’s analytical, creative, and practical — but that doesn’t mean you have a certain “type” of learning.
Instead, when you’re trying to master an idea, approach it with the full breadth of your intelligences. Rather than having your “learning style” limit your ability, use every way to learn you have available to you.
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