The characteristics of effective learning
To learn effectively we should spend enough time to let new information soak into our memory before we move on. Every cognitive process requires time and effort if we want to remember something for the long run. We need to give a meaning to new information based on our current knowledge. How does this new thing connect with what we already know? How does this new thing build upon our current knowledge structure? Why is it important? Is it valid according to existing knowledge? Does it change anything in our current structure?
To encode new information make associations, find examples/counterexamples, use your imagination to think of an analogy or a pattern.
Are you learning a foreign language? Form examples with the new vocabulary. Think of words that sound or look similar to new words. Can you remember any synonyms? Any antonyms? Close your eyes and visualise yourself using new words in a real life scenario with a native speaker.
Have you just learned a new mathematical formula? Solve a couple of problems with this formula. Are there any exceptions? Can you derive the formula on your own on a blank piece of paper? Can you explain to your parents what’s the purpose of this formula? Why do we need it? Explain this formula to someone that doesn’t know anything about mathematics. Why is this formula consistent with other formulas that you already know?
Let’s say that you are reading about the European Union. The moment I am writing this article the number of EU states is 28 whereas the number of Eurozone states is 19. How can you remember these two numbers? Look at them for 5 seconds. Can you relate these two numbers somehow? I am sure you have already come up with an idea. For example, 1 + 1 = 2 and 9 – 1 = 8. Or just focus on 19 and add the last digit to 19 to make 28. This simple quick observation costs 5 seconds but it can lock these two numbers in your memory making it hard to forget. Oh, and before I move on, I just wanted to let you know that Alexander Fleming discovered the penicillin in 19 28.
Now who starts a learning session with a blank piece of paper? Almost no one. Most of us open our books or notes and start reading. And after we read, we reread and reread and reread. Big mistake. What will help you to learn effectively is not rereading but self-testing. What can you remember from the last time? Recall first! Rack your brains! Look up in the ceiling until you bring something to the surface! Do you think this is a waste of time? No, it’s not. It’s the only way to build strong memories. The more you struggle to remember something the stronger roots it will grow in your memory. If you didn’t manage to recall it, encode it better. How can you secure it better in your memory? Recall it again after a couple of days. Target it again!
Flashcards is a great way to practice recall. Use traditional flash cards or electronic ones. Anki is a great software to make electronic flash cards. Use flash cards for anything you are trying to learn: language vocabulary, historical events, medicine, anything.
When you take notes, use the Cornell notetaking system. Divide the sheet into two columns. Take notes on the right column and use the left column for the corresponding questions. When you review your notes cover the right column with your hand and try to answer the questions on the left column. Confirm. Did you get it correct? Leave space in your notes so you can use it while you practice recall. If you didn’t get something correct add comments, encode it better, add supporting information, draw an “attention” sign. Always start reviewing your notes with self-testing. Make it hard as you are being tested every time you review your notes.
Tell me now how many courses and books are out there that promise they can teach you a language or anything in 7 days? Infinite. Correct. Is it possible? Have you learned a language in 7 days? Do you know anyone that has? If you do, please let me know because I want to meet that person.
Research has shown that to learn effectively we need to space our study sessions. We need to allow a little bit of forgetting to happen. Recall information that starts getting rusty in our memory. Do you struggle? Does it take time to bring to the surface? That should be your goal. It’s only then When you glue it to your long-term memory.
When you mass your studying into one single session you feel you are making great progress. But that progress is only short-term! Space your learning out in time and when you go back to carry on, always start with self-testing.
Stop going to those “ultimate hands-on crash-courses”. This only suits the course organisers who teach you “everything” over a single weekend and walk away with all your money at once. It doesn’t suit you.
Imagine your long-term memory as a garden with plants. Each plant is a bit of information in your memory. You need to go back often enough to water your plants. How can you water your plants? With self-testing. We explained that earlier. Water your plants with recall practice if you don’t want to see them die. Bear in mind that you can’t water your plants only once even if you throw a ton of water on them. You need to space the watering process. Do the same with your learning.
Have you realised what I’ve just done with the previous paragraph? I used an analogy to connect self-testing and spacing with the process of watering plants in a garden. Do you remember encoding? I just wanted to remind you. I went back to it. I spaced it out.
And then it comes to the learning styles… Today we all believe we are a certain type of learner (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic etc.) However, there is no scientific evidence that we should learn according to our “preferred learning style” if we want to achieve maximum learning results! Instead, science says we should learn in different modes and work with our weak sides. It’s only then when learning becomes effective. Don’t stay within your comfort learning zone. Stretch yourself. Explore new material from different sides.
Do you prefer pictures? Start reading.
Are you reading about the events of the Second World War? Close your book and watch a documentary on YouTube covering the same events.
Are you studying English by reading a passage in silence? Stop for a minute. Read it out loud and record it with Google Translate. Did Google Translate pick the words up correctly? If so great. You just practiced pronunciation. Press the record button now and listen. Focus on the words that you don’t pronounce correctly. There you go. Reading, speaking, listening. At zero cost.
Always remember this. If you want to make your learning easy, you will have to pay a price for it later. The price of forgetting. Effective learning (long-term learning) should be effortful and hard. Hence, avoid practices like cramming, rereading and speedreading. These practices make you feel you are learning fast. However, the results are only temporary.
I know some of the above may sound controversial. But this is not my personal opinion. It is what science says about how we should learn. I only managed to dig this truth out after diving into research papers and changing totally the way I learn. Because the way I used to learn was far far away from the optimal. I wish I knew all this when I was a student. But no academic institution dedicates a separate module to how we should learn. Educators believe that we know how to learn. Unfortunately, we don’t. Because the characteristics of effective learning are counterintuitive. We are poor judges of future performance based on current performance. Just because you feel you remember everything now, doesn’t mean you will remember it in the future.
What you should do is to nurture curiosity, motivation and love for what you are learning. Find genuine interest in it. Effective learning happens when you are in a sort of meditation state. Fully absorbed, trapped in a book, film, documentary, interview, talk etc. It’s then when the magic happens.
PS: Special thanks to Maggy for making the below beautiful illustration for me. You can find her at firstname.lastname@example.org.