If you’re going to learn anything, you need two kinds of prior knowledge:
• Knowledge about the subject at hand, like maths, history, or programming
• Knowledge about how learning actually works
The bad news: Our education system often skips one of them. This is problematic, given that your ability to learn is such a huge predictor of success in life, from achieving in academics to getting ahead at work. To succeed over the long term, you have to master skill after skill.
“Parents and educators are pretty good at imparting the first kind of knowledge,” shares psychology writer Annie Murphy Paul. “We’re comfortable talking about concrete information: names, dates, numbers, facts. But the guidance we offer on the act of learning itself — the ‘metacognitive’ aspects of learning — is more hit-or-miss, and it shows.”
To wit, education research shows that low-achieving students have “substantial deficits” in their understanding of the cognitive strategies that allow people to learn well. This, Paul says, suggests that part of the reason students perform poorly is that they don’t know a lot about how learning actually works.
It’s a cultural issue.
Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel, psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis and coauthors, along with Peter C. Brown, of “Make It Stick: The Science Of Successful Learning,” say that “how we teach and study is largely a mix of theory, lore, and intuition.”
So let’s cut through that lore. Here are learning strategies that really work.
This is an update of an article originally posted by Drake Baer on Tech Insider.
1. Force yourself to recall
The least-fun part of effective learning is that it’s hard. In fact, the “Make It Stick” authors contend that when learning is difficult, you’re doing your best learning, in the same way that lifting a weight at the limit of your capacity makes you strongest.
It’s simple, though not easy, to take advantage of this: Force yourself to recall a fact.
Psychologists call it the “testing effect“: When you keep trying to remember a piece of information, you interrupt the forgetting process and help cement the memory of that information into your brain. Flashcards are a great ally in this endeavour, since they require you to supply answers.
An even better strategy, the “Make it Stick” authors write, is to space out your attempts at recalling the information, instead of cramming them all into the span of a few minutes. That way, you allow some forgetting to happen between tests, meaning that remembering takes more cognitive effort and the memory gets stronger.
Interestingly, however, one survey found that only 11% of college students practice recalling information while studying.
2. Don’t go easy on yourself
Again, it comes down to putting in more cognitive effort.
In one study, students who looked at paired words like “foot-shoe” had a harder time remembering the second word later than students who looked at clues like “foot-s — — e.” Researchers call this phenomenon the “generation effect.”
Other research suggests that, when you’re testing yourself, you should mix up the type of problem you solve, a strategy known as “interleaving.” One study found that students who worked on maths problems in a “shuffled” format, where each set included problems drawn from a variety of lessons, remembered more on their final test than students who’d worked on un-shuffled maths problems.
That way, the testing conditions are more similar to real life, where you first have to figure out what kind of problem you have on your hands, and then solve it. The authors note that interleaving can feel inefficient, which might be why it’s so infrequently used in schools, but it ultimately leads to greater retention in the long run.
3. Don’t fall for fluency
When you’re reading something and it feels easy, what you’re experiencing is fluency, the “Make It Stick” authors write.
It will only get you in trouble.
Example: Say, for instance, you’re at the airport and you’re trying to remember which gate your flight to Chicago is waiting for you at. You look at the terminal monitors — it’s B44. You think to yourself, Oh, B44, that’s easy. Then you walk away, idly check your phone, and instantly forget where you’re going.
The alternative: You read the gate number. Then you turn away from the monitor and ask yourself, What’s the gate? If you can recall that it’s B44, you’re good to go.
4. Connect the new thing to the old things
“The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to prior knowledge,” the “Make It Stick” authors write, “the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.”
When you’re weaving in new threads into your pre-existing web of knowledge, you’re elaborating.
One killer technique is to come up with real-life examples of principles you’ve just uncovered. If you’ve just learned about slant rhyme, you could read poems that exhibit it. If you’ve just discovered heat transfer, you could think of the way a warm cup of coffee disperses warmth into your hands on a cold winter’s day.
5. Reflect, reflect, reflect
Looking back helps. In a Harvard Business School study, employees who were onboarded to a call center had 22.8% higher performance than the control group when they spent just 15 minutes reflecting on their work at the end of the day.
“When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy,” HBS professor Francesca Gino told Business Insider. “They feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they’re doing and what they learn.”
While reflecting may seem like it leads to working less, it may lead to achieving more.
NOW WATCH: Ideas videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.