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Learning How to Learn

Isobel
Barrett
Curriculum Manager

Wouldn’t it be great if, when studying hard at school, college, on an apprenticeship or anywhere at all, you knew not only what to learn (hopefully you’ve got that part down), but also how you were supposed to go about learning it? Quite often we don’t get explicitly taught these skills. You may have really lucked out and found strategies that really work for you, but for many that’s not the case. As we are all lifelong learners, this can pose quite a challenge!

It’s easy to develop ineffective habits that make us feel like we’ve put in the effort but that ultimately don’t translate into the progress and results we hoped for. Some of the most commonly accepted strategies out there are actually not that effective, such as highlighting or re-reading. This blog post aims to bust a couple of learning myths, and to equip you with a selection of learning strategies grounded in the latest thinking in neuroscience (how the brain works).

Myth 1 - it’s about how much time you put into studying

Wrong! If you’re studying ineffectually, you’re going to make less progress than if you spend less time studying, but studying well. The old adage that practice makes perfect deserves an upgrade: perfect practice makes perfect! Take this with a pinch of salt though, as ‘perfect’ looks very different for different people. The point is, by investing a little time in learning how to learn and make information stick, you’ll transform your study skills and ultimately your outcomes.

Myth 2 - I’m a ‘slow’ learner, so I’m not as intelligent as my classmates

Wrong! We all learn at different speeds and in different ways, and this does not equate in any way to IQ. Here’s a cool word: neuroplasticity. What this means is that you can mould and shape your brain and strengthen the connections it makes just through using it! In other words, intelligence is not fixed. Understanding more about how to learn (e.g. by reading this blog as a start) is a vital first step in making sure you’re setting yourself up for success. Equally important is believing that you are capable, and knowing that the learning experience is different for everyone.

Now let’s think about what effective learning strategies might actually look like. Educators, neuroscientists and researchers have dedicated years and years of study to understanding how the human brain learns, so we certainly can’t cover all that in a couple of blog posts. But what we can do is think about a few of the most relevant points that can be immediately applied.

Strategy 1: give your brain a break!

You’ll have heard this advice before, but here is why it matters. We’re all guilty of constantly overloading our brains, which inevitably leads to us becoming distracted and forgetful. This is known as ‘cognitive overload’. We need to respect that our working memory, which is where we take in and process information, is pretty limited and so we must manage the amount of information we throw at it, as it simply can’t hold it all at once. Focus on one task at a time, set a timer (put that phone on flight mode first!), and protect your concentration.

Strategy 2: space your learning!

We remember information better when we’re exposed to it multiple times. However, the trick is to make sure enough time passes between when you encounter the information, and when you review it again (and again and again). This is the opposite of cramming, which will only make the information temporary! Who wants to cram for a test, only to have forgotten everything straight after?

When you return to a topic after, say, a week, you’ll probably have a tougher time trying to remember it than if you’d only waited a day. However, the struggle is the key! The process of trying to remember that information actually strengthens the memory, meaning that when you subsequently try to remember it, it should get easier and easier to retrieve from your memory. This then means that it’s made its way into your long-term memory and has become a more usable and permanent piece of knowledge. Result! In summary, the key here is to plan ahead to space out your learning and revision. The longer the gap, the better.

Strategy 3: practise testing yourself!

Let’s face it, testing has a really bad name. A source of dread for many, testing is often used in a high-stakes, make or break judgemental way that can cause stress and poor relationships with learning. Here’s the good news: practice testing can actually improve learning. There’s an important distinction here between the kind of testing you’ll have experienced at school, and the way you could use it yourself to help you learn and remember. In practice testing, there are no ‘stakes’ involved, meaning that the outcome doesn’t matter! Instant pressure relief. It’s also best done frequently during learning, rather than just at the end of a topic or a term. It’s been proven as more effective than just restudying, so all the more reason to try it.

There are some easy ways you can do this. You can create flashcards like you’ve probably done before (Google ‘flashcard maker’ and you’ll find plenty of digital options, as well as traditional card ones). You could also use something called the Cornell note-taking system. Very simply, this involves leaving a blank column when taking notes, and entering questions or key terms in it shortly afterwards to use for self-testing when reviewing your notes later. Here we link back to the strategy above: space your learning! Combine these strategies for the best effect.

The most important thing to remember here is that it’ll be most effective when used continually (not just once), and that you must make sure that the information you’re self-testing is correct!

Summary

We’ve covered a lot in this blog! Why don’t you make some Cornell style notes, test yourself in a  few days then come back for another read after that? Here are the key points:

  • Reduce the risk of cognitive overload by minimising distractions and avoiding multitasking.
  • Every time you retrieve information from memory, that process makes it becomes more cemented in your memory.
  • Cramming is bad, spacing is good!
  • Practice testing is your friend
  • You can change your brain through exercising it through learning, which creates new pathways and connections up in your grey matter.

END

References:

  • Peps McCrea ‘Memorable Teaching’ 2017 book
  • Barbara Oakley and Terrance Sejnowski, ‘Learning how to learn’ 2018 book
  • Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology, John Dunlosky , Katherine A. Rawson , Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan , and Daniel T. Willingham, APS article 2013 14(1) 4–58

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