Many people waste their time relying on outdated learning techniques. They use ineffective strategies like rereading and highlighting. By following these techniques, learning becomes pointless entertainment.
A research group around neuroscientist Henry Roediger and psychologist Mark McDaniel spent ten years exploring learning strategies. Their goal was to bridge the gap between cognitive science and educational science. The result of their work is ‘Make it stick.’
Reading more than 15 books on learning, I’ve noticed a recurring pattern:
it’s less important what kind of brain you have — what matters is how you use it.
Or, as the researchers of ‘Make it Stick’ put it:
“Elements that shape your intellectual ability lie to a surprising extent within your own control.”
Howwe learn changes our brain’s neural network. This concept, neuroplasticity, is the enabler for lifelong-learning. Whether you’re a life-long learner, a trainer, teacher, student, or a parent who wants to best help your kids, effective learning strategies can make new knowledge stick.
Here are five evidence-based strategies that help you learn better and store new knowledge in your long-term memory.
1.) Retrieval Practice
With retrieval, you try to recall something you’ve learned in the past from your memory. For example, you might ask yourself what you remembered from the book you finished two weeks ago.
The more time has gone since your information consumption, the more difficult time you’ll have to retrieve it. Naturally, a few days after we learn something, forgetting sets in. And that’s why retrieval is so powerful. In the words of the authors:
“Retrieval strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting.”
While retrieval practice can take many forms — take a test, write an essay, do a multiple-choice test, practice with flashcards — some forms are better than others:
“While any kind of retrieval practice generally benefits learning, the implication seems to be that where more cognitive effort is required for retrieval, greater retention results.”
2.) Spaced Repetition
With spaced repetition, you repeat the same piece of information across increasing intervals. Again, our natural forgetting curve kicks in. But the harder it feels to recall the information, the stronger the learning effect:
“Spaced practice, which allows some forgetting to occur between sessions, strengthens both the learning and the cues and routes for fast retrieval.”
It might sound counterintuitive, but forgetting is essential for learning. Spacing out practice might feel less productive than rereading a text because you’ll realize what you forgot. To retrieve your knowledge, your brain has to work harder. And it should work hard.
As a rule of thumb: learning works best when it feels hard.
Imagine you had to remember 100 paintings from five different epochs. Would you prefer studying one epoch after another or mixing all five?
While our intuition tells us blocking to be more effective, researchers pointed towards the benefits of interleaving:
“If your intuition tells you to block, you should probably interleave.”
Here’s what interleaving means:
“In interleaving, you don’t move from a complete practice set of one topic to go to another. You switch before each practice is complete.”
Alternate working on different problems feels more difficult as it facilitates forgetting. But as you will know by now, that’s the desired effect you want to achieve.
“If learners spread out their study of a topic, returning to it periodically over time, they remember it better.”
Elaborating means you explain and describe an idea in your own words. You consciously associate material you want to learn with what you’ve previously learned. In the words of the book’s authors:
“Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know.”
The more details and the stronger you connect new knowledge to what you already know, the better. By doing so, you’re generating more cues.
Elaborative rehearsal is a method to encode information into your long-term memory more effectively. It can be advantageous to relate the material to a personal experience or to something you already know, explaining the idea to someone else, and explaining how it relates to your life.
Reflection is a combination of retrieval practice and elaboration that adds new layers to your learning materials. Here are a few questions the authors suggest to reflect upon:
What went well?
What could have gone better?
What might you need to learn for better mastery, or what strategies might you use the next time to get better results?
By reflecting, you’re retrieving what you learned and connecting it to existing memories. In the words of Roediger and McDaniel:
“Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these new experiences and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time.”
6.) (Self)-Testing & Calibration
While reading often falsely tricks us into perceived mastery, testing shows us whether we truly mastered the subject at hand. Self-testing helps you identify knowledge gaps and bring weak areas to the light. In their book, the scientists conclude:
“It’s better to solve a problem than to memorize a solution.”
To answer a question or solve a problem before looking at the answer is what learning scientists also call experiential learning. Even if you don’t get the right answer, the process facilitates remembering the correct answer.
Plus, objective instruments, like testing, or self-testing, help you adjust your sense of what you know and don’t know:
“One of the best habits a learner can instill in herself is regular self-quizzing to recalibrate her understanding of what she does and does not know.”
If you only remember one thing, pick the following:
“Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.”
Effective learning strategies include retrieval, elaboration, spaced repetition, interleaving, self-testing, and reflection.
Plus, once you’ve mastered new material, you can use mnemonic devices and build memory places to help you retrieve what you’ve learned.