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How to learn better with proven techniques
Proven techniques to learn better, maximise retention and understand more, backed by cognitive psychology.
10 min read
Are there any tried and battle-tested strategies to learn effectively, keep the information longer, and improve comprehension? In fact, there are, and they're backed by cognitive psychology.
Memory and learning
Learning is all about memory, and memory influences every aspect of our lives. Think of the last time you gave your telephone number, think of your date of birth, were they easy to recall? I bet they were unless you're like me and have to look at your own number in the contact list (in my defence, I do remember my Spanish number). Think of your favourite sport, let's imagine you've been swimming freestyle for years and had a coach that taught you the right technique, is swimming something you have to think of on every stroke, or does it come naturally? Everything we have ever experienced is memory in one way or another.
To solve future problems and solutions in creative ways, the knowledge and skills need to be readily available, which can only be ready when they've been committed to memory.
How do we learn from a neuroscientific perspective? There's a small section in "Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide" that explains this. A network of neurons connected by synapses creates patterns as they fire at the same time in response to a stimulus. Under some conditions, the connections of the active neurons will be strengthened. To remember, we need to be able to activate a highly similar pattern to the one that fired with the original stimulus (during learning) without the stimulus.
Interestingly, prior knowledge makes creating new memories easier and faster, because we can link new knowledge with prior knowledge. The new network will be active at the same time the established network is active. This is exciting. The more you know in different areas, the easier it'll be to learn new things.
After this bit of fascinating neuroscience, you might be saying: "that's cool but, how can I learn faster? Counterintuitively, the best ways to achieve long-lasting learning are the ones that make us feel we're not learning much. In the end, it all comes down to this: activate a highly similar pattern to the one that fired with the original stimulus, but without the stimulus. The best way to do this is to practice doing exactly that.
Retrieval is the act of bringing to mind the information from memory without having the source of the information in front of you. It strengthens the future retrieval of information. In fact, the more difficult it is to bring something to mind now, the easier it'll be in the future. There are many ways to practice retrieval, and you can probably recall a few of them you've used.
To prepare for exams, I used to write everything I remembered about a topic and then compared it with the book. Back in the day, I wasn't aware what I was doing was called retrieval, but it felt natural that if the goal was to know something, I had to be able to recall the information. If I can't write or talk about what I learned, did I really learn it?
Other examples of retrieval include, but are not limited to, low-stakes tests (without the pressure to pass the exam), flashcards, concept maps, drawing...
When I thought of concept maps in the past, I believed the value was in drawing them at the moment of reading. Retrieval practice shows that it’s more effective, once you do a concept map, to try to draw it from memory, without looking at the original. In this statement lies another of the advantages of retrieval practice: by bringing to mind the information from memory without looking at the map and, in the end, comparing the original and the copy, we get feedback on what we've forgotten and need to reinforce.
Retrieval doesn't help only to learn facts or memorize information, it is valuable because it promotes meaningful learning. It helps us to use the information flexibly in the future and to apply it to new situations.
This technique is usually done with other important techniques. One of the most obvious and that probably most people have done at some point is spaced repetition.
Coming back to the times I had exams, I used to write everything I could remember on a piece of paper, that's retrieval. Although doing it right after reading definitely improved retention for a few days, just once wasn't enough. To make information really stick, I needed to do this a few more times, maybe two days after, then a week after, a few weeks after, and so on until it was easy to recall. This is called spaced repetition. Why does it work?
If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered. ― Edgar Allan Poe
Immediately after we learn something, we start to forget it. If we were not to use or recall what we learned the first time in a few weeks or months, we'd find out we would have completely forgotten about it. It's when we bring the information to mind after we start to forget, that the information will get "reinforced" and that it'll be easier to recall in the future. To learn in the long run, we need to retrieve the information only after we start to forget it. In fact, the more challenging something is to remember (while still being able to successfully do so, at least partially) the easier it'll be to recall in the future.
We now know that spaced practice and retrieval are crucial for durable learning. We also saw that making associations with previous knowledge helps accelerate learning, though that's not the only benefit, it also develops our understanding of the information, it helps us learn in a meaningful way. How do we best connect the dots?
This concept is highly discussed among researchers since it is quite broad and might be difficult to apply effectively. It involves adding something to a memory, integrating and organizing new information with previous knowledge, and getting a better understanding of the information by thinking deeper about it. The book “Understanding How We Learn” shows three techniques: elaborative interrogation, concrete examples, and dual coding.
Elaborative interrogation is about answering how, and why things work. The questions should encourage you to explain the main ideas and connect them with others. It works best when we already have background knowledge. It's difficult to ask how and why at the beginning, with little information.
Similar to elaborative interrogation is self-explanation. With this technique, we talk out loud and explain the steps and methods we use to solve a problem. We've always heard that the best way to learn is to teach, this is called prepare-to-teach, which is an application of self-explanation and it produces greater learning. Applications of the method include writing a blog post, making a video about it, teaching a friend...
I’m a fan of these two methods, I used to talk out loud in my room about a topic, as if I was a TV presenter, answering how and why things work for an imaginary audience. For a while, I had to teach professionally about network technologies, which, even though I already knew the material, forced me many times to go deeper in order to feel confident answering my students' questions.
Concrete examples show you a specific version of an abstract idea. We are better at remembering the concrete than the abstract. Although there's the risk of only remembering the specific examples (the surface) rather than the underlying concept. To minimize this, it's better to have different examples with the same underlying information but with different superficial details.
Dual coding is the idea that combining visual and text information will improve our learning. Dual coding is not about the debunked learning styles notion, which states that a person should be given the information in their preferred format, for example, books for those that prefer text, diagrams for those that prefer visual information. Since we process each through different channels, and pictures are remembered better than words, combining them is better than just using one. An anatomy diagram and a map of all important rivers with labels we have to fill in are examples of dual coding.
Interleaving is the theory that, by mixing up information or skills you want to learn that are somewhat related but not the same in a study session, rather than fixating on memorizing a single idea per session, we learn better and gain a deeper understanding in the long run.
A tennis player trying to master the different strokes could try to dedicate a whole session for each stroke: one day for the forehand, the next day for the volley, etc. A coach familiar with interleaving would suggest otherwise, that it's better to try all or a few different strokes in the same session: a session of 10 minutes of volley, 10 minutes of forehand, and 10 minutes of backhand. The player probably prefers the first option, it gives her a sense of mastery instead of jumping to the next technique just before starting to get it. In fact, studies show students who use interleaving are less accurate and slower while learning, but, when tested, later on, they produce more accuracy and speed.
We now know effective techniques to maximize learning and understanding in the long run. At the same time, when we sit down to study, don't we feel sometimes we lack focus, we're distracted or we don't really know what we want to get out of the session? While memory is a key part of learning, attention plays also an important role. Ideally, we'd want to feel that, in the study session, we're present, with little to no mind-wandering, squeezing every second of it, learning what we really want to learn. Without attention, none of that is possible.
Attention is quite a complex topic, and a few theories attempt to explain it. The gist of it is that attention is thought of as a limited-capacity resource, affected by multiple factors, among them:
- Our own interest in the information and how salient the material we use is.
- Cognitive overload.
How interested we are in the information will affect our attention. Some material might feel unexciting to us. Setting our intentions will help: why do we want to learn the material, what do we want to get out of a particular study session (specific concepts, algorithm, etc.)?
Multitasking is an illusion. It's impossible to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. While we believe we're doing several tasks at the same time, our brain is just switching back and forth from one task to another rapidly, which makes us less efficient than if we were to put our attention to one thing.
Cognitive overload occurs when there are too many things to process and pay attention to at a given time. Since our working memory has limited capacity, it's paramount to limit distractions and take frequent breaks to replenish. We can block all notifications, place the mobile phone out of our viewing area or in another room, etc.
Here are some strategies to maximize our attention:
- Set your intention: what do you want to achieve, what are your goals for the session?
- Reduce distractions.
- Focus intently on one task at a time and take frequent breaks.
There's a lot written about learning, improving our focus, productivity, etc. Maybe too much in certain areas. Everybody's looking for the grail to learn everything as fast as possible and read 30 books a day, each in 30 seconds while remembering everything for life. That is simply not possible, it's a marketing ruse appealing to our most basic desires.
The reality is that to really learn and know a topic, effort, time and struggle are required.
None of the techniques described above work independently. They work in synergy with one another, because each covers a different aspect of the learning process.
I hope these fundamental techniques are useful to you in your journey.
"Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide". Yana Weinstein, Megan Sumeracki, Oliver Caviglioli.
"Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning". Peter C. Brown. Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel.
"Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction". Chris Bailey.