For everyone looking to learn better in 2018
I learned a lot in 2017. I learned about how the European Union works, because Britain decided to leave it. I learned what a social media-obsessed presidency looks like, and the distinctive outlines of a political party that picks power over principle. I learned that a Trump presidency can force a scientific-based organization dedicated to saving millions of people’s lives into not using terms like “science-based” in an effort to get its budget passed.
That was learning that happened to me. I want 2018 to be a year where I can define more of my learning, making it more deliberate and intentional, and hopefully, effective. To that end, I turned to Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just about Anything.
“The ability to learn effectively might be the most important skill in life,” says Boser. “It’s like the anti-Kryptonite. It gives you the almost magical power of being able to succeed in any field.” Indeed, the case for continuous learning has never been stronger—whether we’re trying to remain agile in the face of automation or simply build the muscles to think deeply in the face of a warp-speed news cycle and a Twitter-fueled political environment.
For everyone looking to learn better in 2018, Boser identified three important strategies we can all put into practice right away: finding meaning, developing metacognition, and embracing the power of forgetting.
Research shows that motivation is key to successful learning. So in order to master a new idea, we have to figure out how to make meaning of the subject matter.
“It’s impossible to learn if we don’t want to learn, and to gain expertise we have to see the skills and knowledge as valuable,” Boser writes. “We have to create meaning. Learning is a matter of making sense of something.”
Some people think our brains are like computers: We read something, our brain stores it, and we recall it when we need it. Not quite, says Boser. One illuminating 2002 experiment found that students could successfully use formulas and math to solve an average of 1,500 physics problems, but still lacked a conceptual understanding of the questions they were answering. “People can do things—literally—thousands of times without learning.”
We need to actively engage with information to make it stick. Stopping to say “Why is that?” or even getting an answer wrong helps cement information in the brain.
So while it may make us feel smart to underline and highlight text in a book, it’s far more effective to read for a bit, then stop for two minutes to jot down notes on what you understood. Research from 2014 shows that students who read a passage and then had to recall what they learned, either by writing a paragraph or creating a concept map with what they remembered, retained more of the information than students who just studied the texts without the active retrieval strategies. Forcing them to frame it and write it forced them to make meaning of it.
Another good way to learn? Get answers wrong. Boser was once asked the capital of Australia. He confidently blurted out Sydney, and then Melbourne, moving onto Perth and then every other Australian city he could come up with. (The answer is Canberra.)
This was a very effective way to learn the capital of Australia, Boser says. By messing the answer up, he became more likely to remember the correct answer moving forward. This is called the hypercorrection effect—what happens when you are absolutely sure you know something, and then find out you are wrong. When we’re confronted with our own mistake, Boser says, “We stop and say, why is that?” Thus, the material we learn has more meaning.
The next time you hear an argument, see if you can immediately boil it down to its essence—either in writing, or simply by taking a moment to identify the key takeaways. This may seem time-consuming, but it’s probably less time consuming than reading material, forgetting it, and having to read it again. Make the information you absorb have meaning, and it may stick.
Humans are an overconfident lot. We think we are smarter and better-looking than we actually are, and that we work harder than everyone around us. This is, of course, mathematically impossible. “We don’t do enough to understand the things we don’t know,” Boser writes.
That’s in part because we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what we do and do not know. As it turns out, thinking about thinking is a highly effective way to improve learning. Metacognition has two aspects, Boser says. There’s the planning: What are my goals and how will I learn this? And there’s the monitoring: Is there another way to do this? How do I measure progress? Why am I doing this?
Dutch researcher Marcel Veenman found that kids with metacognitive skills outperformed those with higher IQs on math tests. He told Boser that in his research, metacognition accounts for 40% of learning outcomes, compared to 25% for IQ. Creating a process for how to plan, monitor, and evaluate learning—not surprisingly—creates deeper understanding. (Teachers are masters of this, of course.)
One study showed that middle schoolers who received training on how to think about problem-solving—as well as another group that received training on problem-solving, as well as how to think about how to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning—did better on exams, embraced more self-directed learning later in the semester, and were more motivated than peers that did not get metacognition training.
According to the UK’s Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF), which performs studies to try and close achievement gaps, metacognition is one of two of the most effective educational interventions it’s tested. (Feedback is the other.) Students involved in programs designed to improve how they think about thinking accelerated their learning by an average of eight months’ worth of academic progress, with the greatest effects shown by low-achieving and older pupils. And a Stanford researcher developed a 15-minute study hack based on metacognition that lifted B students into getting As. If you’re looking for a way to embrace metacognition, it’s a great place to start.
The power of forgetting
People typically forget 50% of what they learn within 24 hours. According to Boser, this is totally fine. “In short, the research suggests that forgetting is good for learning, not bad, and the more we take advantage of forgetting, the more that we learn.” That’s because when we forget, we have a chance to re-remember. And re-remembering is how we retain information for longer.
A key educational practice that takes advantage of our tendency to forget is called “inter-leaving.” When practice sessions mix up different types of problems, kids tend to learn more than they would doing one kind of a problem at a time. Think of math: Kids typically learn one thing, say, a set of graph problems, followed by another, such as a set of slope problems. They are not required to think about what kind of problem they are solving, which would be helpful when it turns up on a test in no particular order. When we force ourselves to switch back and forth between different bits of information, we forget and then re-remember the material—ultimately absorbing the material better.
One study, by Douglas Rohrer, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, showed that kids who studied with problems jumbled up did better than those who did not. More importantly, later in the semester, when the children were tested again, they retained more.
Annie Murphy Paul, writing in Scientific American, describes the results here:
After three months all the students were led through a review session, and a day later took a test. The students who had been engaging in interleaved practice got 80 percent of the test questions right, compared with 64 percent on the part of students who had been completing blocked assignments—a not-inconsiderable difference. But the real value of interleaving became apparent when the students were tested a full month after the review session. On that test the interleaved students scored 74 percent, the blocked ones a paltry 42 percent.
This approach flies in the face of how we typically learn information. Find me a student who hasn’t crammed and I will find you a unicorn to fly me home for the holidays. And yet this is the way most kids study.
“We often practice the same thing over and over again,” says Boser. “But when you switch it up, the learning is more generative.” He says students who use a larger pile of flashcards, which space the learning through the sheer volume of cards, improved their learning by 30%. He even found a way to design for it IRL: his son now cuts back on Wednesday homework, and does more on Saturday afternoon (poor kid). The spacing and variation will help his learning—or so they both hope.
There are a lot of misconceptions around learning. Many people believe there are learning styles, even though there is no evidence to support this, or that we learn well without guidance (we don’t).
The truth is that learning is hard work—but to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, it’s the hard things that tend to be worthwhile. We can all be natural learners if, like Boser, we make the time for it, design the right processes, and figure out how to track our progress.