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
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.
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 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 say. That’s true – as I discuss here and here, I believe that the fundamental building blocks of learning are a strong learning mindset and consistent deliberate practice.
But deliberate practice doesn't have to involve rote learning and repetition. There are many ways to get from A to B and some are better than others.
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 try 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 parts of a subject or skill, which makes you better at picking the right solutions in unfamiliar situations.
People generally go about learning the wrong way. Methods like rereading and massed practice are by far the most popular but the research tells us that the gains from them are limited. Although these methods may feel productive, gaining familiarity with a subject or skill is not the same as mastering it.
Ultimately, most of us spend a lot of time trying to choose the right strategy for our learning but we can save a lot of time by eliminating what doesn’t work and experimenting with what’s left.
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.
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.
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.
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