It’s very telling that we only use the term “learning experience” when things are bad.
Nobody really teaches us the best way to learn. As a student, we spend plenty of time in classes but how much real instruction do we get on the best way to take notes or study? It’d be hysterical if it wasn’t obscene. We’re not dumb — we’re doing it wrong.
Effective learning is not intuitive. And it’s made even more unintuitive by the fact that your brain is lazy and will play devil-on-your-shoulder the entire time. It wants to do what is easy, not necessarily what’s effective. And when it comes to learning, what feels like it’s working often doesn’t and what feels like it isn’t working often does. When you feel stupid, it’s usually a sign you’re getting smarter.
Time to outsmart our brains. If you need to learn a new topic or skill for work, if you’re a student studying for exams, or if you just want to get better at a hobby or area of interest, this is the post for you. (And if you have kids in your house, this is something you’ll want to review with them. This way in a few years they’ll be getting acceptance letters from prestigious schools and not planning an inside job at Dunkin Donuts.)
Daniel Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. His book is “Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy.”
Time to put your thinking cap on. Let’s get to it…
The most commonly used learning strategies are often the least effective. I highly recommend you listen to what your brain says — and then do the opposite.
Reading And Highlighting Is Overrated
It doesn’t get things into your skull. Whether you’re going to in-person lectures, watching videos or reading books, you need to take notes. They’ll be essential later and, more importantly, the process of taking notes is powerful.
And, for the record, speed reading isn’t real. Studies show it’s just skimming, and if you’re trying to learn complex stuff that’s difficult to comprehend, it’s beyond useless. (For the people who wrote the speed-reading books I purchased in high school, my lawyer will be in touch.)
Beware Third Party Notes And Materials
Research shows the study guides an instructor provides you with do help, but only when used as a supplement not a replacement. Taking your own notes is vital because writing things down makes them more memorable and your notes will later jog your memory. Using other people’s notes doesn’t do this as effectively.
Reviewing old tests is good for understanding the type of questions a teacher tends to use. Otherwise, they’re not great for learning. You need to know everything that could be on a test, not just the specific subset that was covered on prior exams.
Familiarity Is Not Comprehension Or Memorization
This is a big one. You review your notes and your brain says you’re fine because it all looks familiar. But that doesn’t mean you know it. Being able to recognize something after the fact doesn’t mean you can effectively recall it when quizzed.
“Just let me reread my notes and I’m ready,” says the student who isn’t. Test day is going to hit you in the face like the big boxing glove on a spring from the Saturday morning cartoons.
Cramming Doesn’t Work Over The Long Term
Cramming is another example of something that feels like it works. And, surprisingly, for test day, it kinda does. Students who crammed retained about 72% of what they learned vs 84% for those who used distributed practice. Not too bad considering the amount of time spent. Problem is, if this is something you actually want to remember, cramming fails. Just three days later, crammers only remembered 27% of material compared to 80% for those who used distributed practice.
If you’re cramming for Biology 101 and you’re planning to take Biology 102 and Biology 103, you’re going to be screwed. These are the people still playing Russian roulette after five clicks of the trigger.
So what does work? A principle you need to keep in mind here is that preparing to study is studying. All the work that goes into getting ready to study is where most of the real gains come from. Let’s break it down…
Organizing the information you want to learn is critical at all stages.
Don’t Just Transcribe Lectures
You want to listen, think about it for a second and then write your version of what you heard. This promotes understanding. (I can blindly copy things written in Latin; that doesn’t mean I understand them.) Yes, this takes a little longer but your notes don’t need proper grammar or punctuation. Write them like you’re texting someone. All that matters is you get the point across.
Organize Your Notes
Whether your notes are from lectures or from reading, you need to subsequently go back and structure them. Yes, I know this sounds about as fun as asking you to swim from New York to London, but it’s powerful. This is how information goes from lists of abstract facts to actual understanding.
Reorganizing your notes isn’t an annoying task you do so you can study; it is studying. Getting your hands dirty structuring information, seeing how it all relates and making it clear is one of the most effective ways of getting it to stick in your head and dramatically improves memory.
The next step? I apologize in advance because you’re actually going to have to do some thinking…
Plain and simple: it’s easier to remember meaningful content than meaningless content. Recounting a movie plot is easier than recalling a list of unrelated facts. Most of the things you currently know you didn’t deliberately memorize. You understand how all the parts of the arena fit together so remembering the constituent elements is pretty effortless.
Take the time to review your notes and get a sense of how they all fit together. Make “sense” of it. Ask yourself “how” and “why” questions to make sure you have a feeling for the underlying system involved.
This level of understanding is an active process. It takes deliberate work. Yes, it can take time and really put a dent in your video game playing schedule. A level of meaning is vital for topics with difficult concepts like math, but even more fact-based topics like history become easier to retain when you grasp why a particular era was important, why the war was fought, and what the people involved stood to gain or lose.
Mnemonics have been shown to help but they are for meaningless content. They create meaning where there is none. They should be your last resort because organic meaning is more effective. If you get lost, a holistic understanding gives you a way to find your way to the right answer, but if you forget what an acronym stands for, you’re in deep doo-doo.
How do you know when you really grasp something? Turns out the old saw is true here: can you explain it simply to someone else so they understand? Again, don’t let your brain fool you with mere familiarity. As Daniel notes, “Being ready for a test means being able to explain content yourself, not just understanding it when someone else explains it.”
Okay, now it’s time to just “study”, right? Wrong. The best way to prep for a test is to test yourself. Testing is not something you do after studying; testing is the studying…
Students that test themselves vs merely “studying” do 10-15% better on exams. You just went from a B to an A with one technique.
So how do you best do this? Create a massive deck of flash cards with everything that was covered. Yes, everything. No, you can’t just quiz yourself from your notes. You might be accidentally remembering the order of the information. Flash cards allow you to randomize the questions every time.
Yes, this sounds as appealing as opening the cabin door mid-flight. It’s a lot of work. But, again, creating the flash cards is, in itself, studying. You’re structuring and organizing the information again before you even test yourself. This drills the info into your head that much deeper.
Test yourself with the flash cards. Speak your answers out loud. Sounds weird but research shows this improves retention. Immediately confirm whether or not you got the answer right. Fast feedback is good.
This is all called “retrieval practice” and it’s very effective at strengthening memory. If you merely review your notes, you’re back to the “familiarity bias” where your brain mistakes recognizing for recall. Retrieval practice is essential because the process of getting things out of your memory strengthens memory.
So we’re done? Heck, no. William Blake wrote that, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” I don’t think he was talking about studying but he might as well have been. You don’t want to just learn, you want to “overlearn.” This is a powerful tool in your arsenal. It’ll feel unnecessary but that’s your brain being lazy again. Once you get everything correct you want to shoot for doing at least 15% more than you think you need to. Again, annoying, but that’s pretty much the signal that we know something is working.
Okay, game day. What do you need to keep in mind when you’re actually being tested?
First thing, read the instructions and review the entire test to get an idea of how much time you have per question. During the test, read each question carefully. (All the studying in the world won’t help if you confuse “What did George Washington say?” with “What did George Washington not say?”.) Leave some time at the end to check your work.
Yes, at some point you will get stuck. You won’t know the answer. Your brain is a supervoid. Suddenly, you know what aphasia feels like. This is where we pull out a very advanced technique…
It’s called “trying.” People often don’t try hard enough to get things out of their memory during a test. They just ask, “Do I know this?” and, if not, they guess or move on. If you didn’t do all the stuff we discussed above, that might (sadly) make sense – but you did the work. If you organized the information, took the time to find the meaning, and tested yourself thoroughly, it’s in your head. You just gotta work a little harder to get it out.
Studies show people remember a little more each time they try. So try for 30 seconds then come back to it later and give it another shot. If you can’t remember a fact, think around it. Recall the meaning you created. The themes. The stories. Use the map in your head to find your way back to the Shire, Frodo.
Oh, and don’t be afraid to change your answers. Repeated studies show students usually changed wrong answers to correct ones.
Do all this and the bards will sing about your genius for generations to come.
Alright, time to round it all up – and learn how to best keep learning after the test…
Here’s how to outsmart your brain and learn effectively…
How do you keep learning after a test? When you get the exam back, go over the errors you made, find the correct answers, and think about why you got it wrong. Yes, this will hurt your ego. It will make you feel dumb – but that’s the sign you’re getting smarter.
Maybe you’re not a student but the ideas above will help you improve at anything you’re curious about. (And if you know a student, send this post to them.)
I love learning. This website is basically a walk-in closet for things I’ve wanted to learn about. Sometimes the days are boring and never seem to change but that doesn’t mean life doesn’t change — because you can learn and grow and see more in the things around you.
And when you learn something new that blows your mind, that’s an awesome feeling. It means the world is different than you thought it was. And whenever we learn about the world, we learn a bit about ourselves and our place in it.
You become a better you.