Key insights from research on human learning and memory.
Scientists started to investigate learning theories in 1926. Yet, almost a century later, many of us fail to apply proven learning strategies.
This meta-study on learning, memory, and metacognitive processes has shown most learners hold outdated beliefs and commit errors that can even impair, rather than enhance, their learning effectiveness.
To be honest, I was prone to all of these errors during my Bachelor and Master studies. It wasn’t until I became a Teach for All teachers that I dug deep into learning research.
So, here are the four most common mistakes that prevent us from becoming super learners.
1) Using Mass Study Instead of Spaced Repetition
Many people continue to cramp too much content into a single learning session. They confuse consumption with learning and think the more they consume; the more will stick with them.
Unless you have a photographic memory, this belief is terribly wrong.
Our brains don’t work like a computer’s hard drive where you insert a memory stick and simply remember everything on it.
Instead, our brains work as a dynamic neuronal network. We learn by making new connections within this network. Scientists agree that we learn by relating new information to what we already know.
Through smaller learning units and regular breaks, we can better support the formation of these links. Researchers have shown that learning in portions is way more effective than cramping whatever you can into a single sitting.
If you want to learn a new language and study 50 new words on Monday, you’ll likely forget all new words by Thursday. To remember what you learn, you better split the amount into separate days, research says.
How to apply it:
Break major learning sessions down to several single ones. Use technology assistance for spaced repetition, like Anki for flashcards or Lingvist for languages.
2) Memorizing Facts Without Context
By memorizing facts without any context, you’re wasting your time. Whenever you study grammatic rules, name reaction in chemistry, or browse through year dates in history, you’re not learning smart.
To remember what we learn, we must link the input to our existing knowledge.
As established, our brains are a network of neurons. You can look at it like highways with intersections. And every time an intersection with a new highway is formed, you will remember more of what you learn.
The need for connecting knowledge is the reason why knowledgeable people learn faster. If you already have a large inventory in your mind, it’s easier to find a fitting dock for what you learn.
Instead of learning a word from its translation, it’s way better to form different sentences with it and think of everyday situations when you can use it.
Here’s an among learning scientists well-known example by professor Robert Bjork:
“One chance to actually put on, fasten, and inflate an inflatable life vest would be of more value — in terms of the likelihood that one could actually perform that procedure correctly in an emergency — than the multitude of times any frequent flier has sat on an airplane and been shown the process by a flight attendant.”
How to apply it:
Connect anything you learn to what you already know. The best question to do so is asking why something works that way. Then, try to use it in a real-life context and apply the knowledge to your life.
3) Sticking to the Same Learning Method
You’ve likely heard about the people who claim to be a visual or auditive learner. Yet, the hypothesis that specific learning methods are better for some people than they are for others is an outdated belief.
At most, learning types are a self-fulfilling prophecy. This means if you believe you can learn something in a specific way, your belief in the effectiveness of this method will promote your learning efficiency.
Instead, you want to do anything that helps you relate new knowledge to existing memory — no matter if that’s via listening to a podcast, writing a reflective essay, or teaching it to a toddler.
The wider your mix of methods, the greater your learning success.
Here’s what scientists say about our brain’s infinite capacity to learn through different learning techniques:
“In fact, storing information in human memory appears to create capacity — that is, opportunities for additional linkages and storage — rather than use it up. It is also important to understand that information, once stored by virtue of having been interrelated with existing knowledge in long-term memory, tends to remain stored, if not necessarily accessible. Such knowledge is readily made accessible again and becomes a resource for new learning.”
How to apply it:
Super learners focus on diversifying their learning techniques. You can do the same by experimenting with any of the following: practical exercises, rereading, note-taking, summarizing, questioning, teaching, self-testing.
4) Avoiding Test Situations
When we’re learning something we’ve not mastered yet, we tend to avoid every opportunity to test our new skills in real life. We fear we might embarrass ourselves by making mistakes.
Here’s a personal story:
I had been learning French for three years when my parents took me to France for a camping trip. On the way, we stopped at a McDonald’s to get lunch. My parents encouraged me to make the order, yet I refused. I was afraid my French would sound hilarious.
My fear of failure stopped me from improving my skills.
The act of recalling information provides a much greater boost to later retention than studying it for a second time. So, independent reproduction — like being asked to make a restaurant order in a foreign language — is essential to keep your knowledge in mind.
Plus, Richland et al. found that long-term learning benefited when participants were asked questions that they could not answer before studying text materials.
So, making errors appears to create learning opportunities. In the words of the scientists:
“Becoming maximally effective as a learner requires interpreting errors and mistakes as an essential component of effective learning rather than as a reflection of one’s inadequacies as a learner.”
How to apply it:
Seek situations where you can test your new knowledge. Don’t judge yourself for not getting everything right. Instead, focus on the learning benefit you get from making mistakes.
Learning is a journey, not a destination. And to learn more effectively, here’s what you might want to keep in mind:
- Use space repetition instead of mass learning.
- Embed new facts into context.
- Experiment with diverse learning methods.
- Seek test situations and embrace mistakes.
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