How to learn

Love this from James Lang which pretty succinctly sums up the best approach to learning new information that you actually want to retain (here, for the purposes of good college grades, but, this is universally applicable stuff):

Practice Testing.  Memory researchers have learned in recent decades that our brains have enormous storage capacity.  The challenge for our memories is not so much cramming stuff in there; it’s being able to retrieve information or ideas from our memories when we need them (i.e., when you’re sitting down in front of a test).  It turns out that the more times you practice retrieving something from your memory, the better you get at it.  Highlighting and re-reading do not require you to use your memory at all; practice testing does.  So if you want your memory to go to work for you in the exam, give it lots of practice when you study. Close your book and test yourself.  You can use flashcards; you can take practice quizzes online; or you can even just practice writing and re-writing the key ideas or information that you want to remember.

Spaced Study.  You probably know this one already, so I won’t belabor it.  But the evidence for it is irrefutable.  You will have a much greater long-term grasp of your learning if you space out your study over multiple sessions instead of cramming it all into one.  In one very simple experiment that demonstrated this, students who studied foreign language vocabulary for ten minutes three days in a row outperformed their peers who studied the same vocabulary words in a single thirty-minute session.  Your parents and all of your previous teachers were right: spacing out your study sessions over time beats cramming—by a lot.

 Making Connections.  When we learn something deeply, we relate it to other aspects of our lives and our existing knowledge. We have thick networks of connections between what we know already—or what we experience outside of school—and what we are learning.  As you are studying, try to make connections between what you are learning and other things you have learned or experienced.  Ask yourself connection-making questions: Have I ever encountered this before?  Have I learned anything similar in another course?  In what real-world contexts would this concept or skill operate?  Why is it significant?  This strategy will work best if you write these ideas down; fill out your notebook or your texts with new connections, rather than with highlighting or underlining

All three of these strategies require more work than highlighting or re-reading.  Learning isn’t always easy.  In fact, some learning researchers suggest that struggle in learning is beneficial.  When we grasp things easily and quickly, we also forget them easily and quickly. [emphasis mine]

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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