Lesson One: What most people get wrong about effective learning

I’m going to be reopening another session of my popular course, Rapid Learner, next Monday (May 14, 2018). Before that, I’m going to be sharing some of the most important lessons to help you learn better with less wasted time and effort.

This is the first lesson in a four-part lesson series. The remaining three lessons will only be sent to my newsletter readers. If you want the remaining lessons, be sure to join my newsletter.

Misconception: Learning is Mostly Reading and Listening

Ask people to imagine learning something and there’s a common picture that emerges: sitting down with a book, highlighter and notepad in hand, getting ready to study. Or, it’s sitting in a big auditorium watching a professor get up and draw symbols on a chalkboard.

Most people view learning and schooling as synonyms. Even if they don’t believe that they are literally identical, many people hold the belief that we do most learning from reading books or attending classes.

I want to turn that view upside down. There’s a compelling range of evidence that not only is the typical classroom view of learning: passively acquiring written or spoken instruction, only a part of learning, it may not be the most important part.

Reality: Learning is Mostly Practice

Consider one study done by Jeffrey Karpicke of Purdue University.

In this study, Karpicke had students prepare for a test. Before the test, researchers asked the students what would be more effective for learning: re-reading their notes, creating a mindmap and material or trying to mentally recall what they had read.

Imagine for a second that you were taking place in this study, what would you think would be most effective?

The answer, contrary to the majority of respondents, was overwhelmingly that practicing recall was the best studying technique. Both mind mapping and studying fared poorly in comparison with trying to practice retrieving the information.

This experiment shows two things:

  1. Students don’t actually know what is most effective for learning. Despite literally decades of first-hand experience, most were mistaken about what matters.
  2. We often use the stereotype of classroom learning, as our model of ideal learning. In reality, however, learning is driven by practice.

How Learning Actually Works

Reading and listening are often important steps in learning. Without having any instruction, pure practice is little more than trial-and-error. The fact that we can learn from instruction and observation is one of the greatest powers we have as a species.

The mistake, however, is in assuming that most of the “work” that is done to create skill, knowledge and understanding, occurs as it is being passively absorbed. Instead, this view should be flipped, with trying to recall, apply and practice what has been learned being the place where skill building occurs.

The Internalization of Skill

One metaphor I’ve found helpful to think about this process is that learning often involves an internalization of processes and skills—turning things that exist as information in the outside world into synaptic connections within your brain for actually performing them.

This is why retrieval practice was found to be so effective. When you have to try to recall what you’ve learned, you’re training a search procedure that, given certain cues and features of the environment, will yield the correct answer. When you only read or listen to something, the answer might get connected to the typical question that it answers, but it might not. Only by practicing searching for the right answer, given the right questions, is useful knowledge being created.

This goes much deeper than simply recalling facts and trivia. Karpicke’s research team has also found that recall leads to deeper understandings, not simply shallow memorization of facts. This answer, again, should make sense: practicing bringing up information is training subconscious mental patterns to find the information when you need it, passive exposure is not.

Complex skills make the case for practice over passive learning even more powerful. If you need to program a computer, speak a language or understand an investment, you need the ability that, given a particular problem, your mind automatically draws up the relevant knowledge and allows you to perform skilled actions.

Schooling shouldn’t be taken as the focal example of learning, but as a weird edge case.

What This Means for You

Most of us have experience learning things: both in school and in our personal lives. However, as Karpicke’s research demonstrates, even years of experience can lead people to make incorrect assumptions about which methods are most effective.

My mission has been to try to understand the learning processes: both by reading a ton of dry books and papers about cognitive science, and by exploring the implications of those ideas firsthand in many personal experiments. From that, I believe I’ve found some guiding principles that can help you save time in learning new things.

What I hope you will do for now, at least, is to open your mind to the possibility that, despite years of ingrained habits, you might have opportunities to learn better than you do already. Perhaps that could come from discovering a new strategy for understanding or remembering things? Maybe it will come from increasing the scale and ambition of the skills you would like to possess?

Did you find this lesson helpful? Join the newsletter and, this week, I’ll be sending out the remaining three lessons in the series!

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