How can we find our way through to the techniques most likely to work when it comes to learning something?
We’ve been studying how people learn at work for over a century, resulting in a range of theories, strategies and approaches, some of which have been discredited, disproved or otherwise died a death; others of which remain remarkably resilient, not always for the right reasons.
In their 2020 book, Evidence Informed Learning Design, learning experts Mirjam Neelen and Paul A Kirschner give us the benefit of their professional experience by identifying their top five strategies for learning – as well as five to avoid. Here’s our take on what they have to say.
Top five ingredients: effective learning strategies
1. Space it out. This involves studying nuggets of learning content over time rather than cramming everything in at once, and leaving longer periods (one or more days) between practice sessions. The idea is that the ‘pause’ between sessions strengthens our memory trace, as we must then retrieve it in the next study session.
The thinking behind this theory has a long history. Way back in the 1880s, German mathematician Herman Ebbinghaus conducted research to show the speed at which people forget. His famous forgetting curve showed the rate at which people forget information if that information has no meaning for the learner and if there’s no attempt to remember it. Ebbinghaus found that, if new information isn’t applied, we’ll forget about 75% of it after just six days.
Writing in Harvard Business Review, Steve Glaveski blames our biology for this seemingly careless disregard for retaining new information: our brains are so good at conserving energy for our innate, evolutionary desire for survival, they “quickly forget what we don’t use”.
The basis of spaced (or distributed) learning, proposed by psychologist Cecil Alec Mace in 1932, is that a series of short sessions that force us to retrieve the previous learned ‘stuff’ from our long-term memory makes the memory trace stronger each time. Accordingly, the slope of forgetting, which was steep at the beginning, becomes increasingly less steep with each session. Glaveski quotes studies that show that, by using spaced repetition, we can remember about 80% of what we learn after 60 days. That’s quite an improvement.
Typical forgetting curve showing the improvement of retention using spaced learning.
2. Practise. Practise. Practise. Retrieval practice is sometimes called the ‘testing effect’ because it’s not simple memorisation; it’s about applying what we’ve learned to deepen understanding. For example, we can test what we’ve learnt through short quizzes, self-explanation (see below) or practice questions. Researchers have found that repeated testing works better than one-time testing and that short, varied test formats are most effective. Regular feedback from a teacher, coach or mentor also helps.
3. Mix it up. This idea involves varying, or interweaving the strategies and approaches used to learn something, for example, by mixing watching videos or reading articles to explore a new theory, followed up by a range of exercises or hands-on application at work.
Similarly, rather than learning something in one block, the sequence in which topics are learned or explored can be mixed up, helping the learner to connect the dots between several ideas, and encouraging the learner to apply different strategies in different contexts. The idea is that, while mixing up resources or sequences might mean it takes longer to learn something, it also helps us to learn deeper and better.
4. Keep questioning. This involves challenging ourselves to explain why something we’ve learned is actually the case.
This works because of a process known as assimilation, a cognitive process that manages how we incorporate new information into our prior knowledge.
5. Teach yourself.They say that the best way to learn something is to teach it; this simply involves explaining to ourselves what you have just learned – another form of assimilation.
Flop five: ineffective learning strategies
- Visualisation: Visualising what we need to learn can work for something that’s easy to visualise (a simple process, perhaps), but only works for memorising, not for applying what we’ve learned.
- Mnemonics: Devising a ‘key’ that connects to what you need to know can work as a trigger in the short term, but it’s a time-consuming strategy that isn’t effective or efficient for most of us – memory champions excepted, perhaps.
- Summarising: Summarising something by writing down the main points or themes may sound like the ultimate form of retrieval practice, but it only works if you’re skilled in summarising. Often, that’s not the case.
- Highlighting and underlining: It’s much too easy to underline too much or the wrong things – and simply running a highlighter over or underlining text is not the same as studying and learning. Highlighting on its own is not enough.
- Re-reading: Rereading to improve understanding might have a positive effect on memorising what’s being learned, but, again, on its own, it doesn’t contribute to better understanding or being able to apply that information in different contexts.
That’s because re-reading can give a false sense of security: when re-reading, we recognise what we’ve read before – and think we already know it. That’s not necessarily the case.
How good are you at learning? Take the quiz
You have to give an important presentation in a few days’ time, and the format means you’ll need to present mostly without notes. How will you prepare?
A: By highlighting the key messages you want to give in three different colours.
B: By staying up late the night before, cramming, so that you remember what you plan to say.
C: By practising your speech in front of a trusted friend.
You promised your boss a summary of that research report, but it’s proving to be a tough nut to crack. Do you:
A: Keep re-reading the more technical passages?
B: Take a break, go outside and do something different for a while?
C: Get that highlighter out again…?
There’s no getting away from it. You’ll just need to know those stats in that upcoming client meeting on Friday. It’s a busy week, so you have only limited time to prepare. Do you:
A: Attempt to commit them to memory just before the meeting?
B: Spend some time on them every day this week?
C: Construct a complicated mnemonic that will help get you through?
Your business has some important new safeguarding protocols, and you need your team to know about, and engage with, them. Do you:
A: Send them a link to the revised staff handbook and hope for the best?
B: Prepare and deliver a PowerPoint highlighting the key changes?
C: Ask them to review the new guidelines, share some video links and then invite them to lead a debate on why safeguarding is important?
Q1: Answer: C.
Practice works because it involves applying and testing what you need to know. This can be reinforced when you receive feedback along the way.
Q2: Answer: B.
Give your brain a break. There’s plenty of research which shows that taking a break and detaching from the task at hand allows our brains to relax and make the necessary connections to resolve seemingly unresolvable conundrums.
Q3: Answer: B:
Spaced or distributed learning helps us to retain what we’re learning because the ‘pause’ between sessions strengthens our memory trace, as we have to retrieve the information when we go back to it on more than one occasion.
Q4: Answer: C.
Interweaving involves mixing up different strategies and approaches to learning. In this case, leading the debate encourages team members to apply what they’ve learnt. Asking questions about what they’re learning and teaching others provides added reinforcement.
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