Know it all: 10 secrets of successful learning

1 May

NS 3014:
* 20:00 25 March 2015 by Emma Young

Emma Young is based in Sheffield, UK

Forget highlighting and mnemonics and embrace the memory-enhancing
power of quizzes, distractions, video games, good timing and just

EVEN when school exams are just a distant memory, our thirst for
knowledge goes on. Whether we are after a new skill or fluency in
another language, want to play a musical instrument or explore a new
passion, we are lifelong learners. Even if we simply need to bone up
on trivia to win the pub quiz or impress someone we fancy, our need
to know is never-ending. So you would think we’d have learning down
to a fine art. In fact, some of the most common techniques are
pretty useless (see “What doesn’t work”). But the good news is we
can share some of the secrets of successful learning, and no matter
what your age or ability, they can work for you.

01 Know when to learn

Older adults have morning brains. A study on a group of people aged
between 60 and 82 at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest
Health Sciences in Toronto, Canada, found they were better able to
focus and ignore distractions, and did better at memory tests,
between 8.30 am and 10.30 am than between 1 pm and 5 pm. In fact,
fMRI scans revealed that in the afternoon, these people’s brains
were “idling” – they had switched to the so-called default mode,
associated with daydreaming. In younger adults, by contrast, areas
related to the control of attention were still very active right
into the afternoon.

However, to get the most from their efforts, younger people can time
their learning, too. Another study found that 16 and 17-year-old
girls performed better on tests of factual memory if they studied
the material at 3 pm rather than at 9 pm, but acquired skills
involving movements faster if they practised in the evening. “The
results suggest it might be better to use the afternoon for studying
languages, and the late evening for playing piano or another musical
instrument,” says Christoph Nissen at the University of Freiburg in

Why should timing matter? We know that sleeping after learning a new
fact or skill helps consolidate memories. Nissen suspects that the
“critical window” between learning and sleep is shorter for
movement-related learning than for other types of memory. Whether
adults can benefit as much as teenagers from these windows isn’t
clear. “There is evidence that adolescents have a higher capacity to
learn – and they sleep better,” he says.

02 Quiz yourself

In a landmark study on the importance of self-testing, Jeffrey
Karpicke at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana asked
students to learn the meaning of 40 Swahili words (see “Swahili 101”
below). Those who had to repeatedly recall these words during the
training session scored an average of 80 per cent in a test a week
later, while those who just studied the words without actively
testing themselves scored an average of just 36 per cent. Other work
since then backs up the idea that self-testing is more effective
than some other common learning strategies, such as drawing bubble
diagrams to represent ideas in a passage of text.

Swahili 101

Quizzing yourself while learning these Swahili words will
dramatically improve your recall of them


If that sounds like too much hard work, take heart. Nate Kornell at
Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and his colleagues
have found that what matters is trying to retrieve the information
you are learning, rather than succeeding. Being given the correct
answer seems, counter-intuitively, to be as big a boost to later
performance as remembering it by yourself.

“This finding was quite surprising,” says Kornell. “Memory
researchers have long assumed that there are ‘paths’ in memory from
the question to the answer and – here’s the part that appears to be
wrong – that you learn more by travelling your own path than by
travelling part way, or the wrong way, and then being told the
answer.” His finding suggests we may have to rethink how memory
works. But it also offers hope to lackadaisical learners everywhere.

03 Learn without learning

It sounds too good to be true, but learning needn’t be hard work.
You can even do it when your mind is on something else.

Beverly Wright at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois,
asked one group of volunteers to practise distinguishing between
sounds of a very similar frequency. Another group spent half the
time in active practice, and the other half just hearing the sounds
in the background while they performed a written task. Both groups
scored about the same on a final test – but only if the passive
learning happened within 15 minutes of the active session; the
effect vanished entirely if the delay was longer than 4 hours.

What might be happening? Wright thinks active training puts the
neural circuitry involved in a particular task into a state
conducive to learning, and that this state continues for some time
after the training ends. While it lasts, similar stimulations to
those that were being learned will be processed by the brain “as
though they are occurring during active training”, she says.

So far, Wright and her team have investigated only the learning of a
skill rather than facts or events. But Lynn Hasher at the University
of Toronto, Canada, and colleagues have found that a spell of
passive learning following active study can also help older adults
learn a list of words. The volunteers in her study reported that
during the passive phase, they didn’t even notice that the words
were being repeated.

If you want to give it a try, take note: passive learning is more
effective while you are doing something relatively undemanding. So
you might want to listen to foreign vocab as you get the dinner
ready, rather than while writing emails.

04 Use distractions

Find your attention wandering? Use this to your advantage. “People
have an underlying assumption that divided attention is bad,” says
Joo-Hyun Song at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. It’s
true that if you frequently break off from studying to send a text
message or to focus on a tune on your headphones, odds are you won’t
learn as well as you would in uninterrupted silence. “But learning
has a later, skill-retrieval part,” she adds. “People hadn’t studied
the role of divided attention in memory recall later.” Doing just
that, Song found that distraction while learning can be beneficial –
if you are also going to be distracted when you have to use what you
have learned.

It is common knowledge that context can boost learning. If you study
a list of words while smelling vanilla, for example, you will
probably remember more of them if the scent of vanilla is in the air
during recall. Song found that divided attention can itself act as a
powerful context. In her studies, people who were distracted during
learning and recall performed just as well as those who weren’t
distracted on either occasion, and better than people who were
distracted in only one situation. It didn’t matter whether or not
the distractions were the same on both occasions, but the degree of
distraction had to be similar. Intriguingly, Song also found that
divided attention was a more powerful learning aid than
environmental contexts such as a smell.

There are important implications, she says. “In training, people
should consider where they will actually acquire and use their
skills.” If you are going to have to remember what you have learned
in an environment where you are likely to feel distracted – in a
packed foreign city or a noisy pub on quiz night – you would
actually do better to have distractions while you are learning.

05 Buddy up

While solo studying is important, thrashing out difficult material
with other people can pay dividends. Saundra McGuire, assistant
vice-chancellor for learning and teaching at Louisiana State
University, and chemistry Nobel prizewinner Roald Hoffman recommend
you alternate group work with study time by yourself. Specifically,
once you have tried to go it alone, you can benefit from the
collective wisdom of a small study group of three to six people.

McGuire and Hoffman say that study groups need two key elements to
promote “meaningful learning”: discussion and problem-solving
activities. If group members make up quizzes for each other, this
can help them prepare for tests. However, after discussing the
material, clarifying anything you are confused about, and using the
opportunity to mock-test each other, you should then go back and
work on the problems and get ready for any exams on your own, they

06 Play video games

This may come as a pleasant surprise to the parents of teenage
gamers. Gaming is the ideal downtime activity if you are learning to
type or play a new sport or instrument – anything, in fact, that
involves a fairly constant and predictable structure and requires
the coordination of sensory input and physical movements. Just make
sure it’s action video games you play.

A team led by Jay Pratt at the University of Toronto, Canada, found
that people who played action video games, such as Call of Duty, for
at least 6 to 8 hours a week were faster at learning a lab-based
task that involved hand-eye coordination. They weren’t any better at
the start, they just improved more quickly. Pratt thinks this is
because gaming speeds up a person’s ability to form accurate brain
“templates” for hand-eye-coordinated action. “Action games, which
have harder levels as the game progresses, place a lot of demands on
the visual, cognitive and sensorimotor systems to constantly improve
the efficiency of all these systems,” he says. This is why they are
more likely to have an effect on other sensorimotor tasks than
something like The Sims.

It’s hard to be sure what difference regular gaming would have on
performance in the real world, since there are so many variables,
Pratt concedes. “But if one is in a new job that requires a high
level of sensorimotor skill, say, then playing several hours of
action video games each week could be a worthwhile investment.”

07 Chill out

If sleep consolidates memories, would taking a break from studying
have a similar effect? To find out, Lila Davachi at New York
University scanned people’s brains while they looked at a series of
images, then asked them to think about whatever they wanted. During
this rest period, there was increased activity in the hippocampus
(involved in memory) and “thinking” regions in the cortex. What’s
more, the greater the activity in both regions, the better an
individual remembered the images they had seen when tested later.
Davachi thinks her work shows the consolidation of memories during

If you have just studied a list of vocabulary or perhaps tried to
memorise some key historical dates, then taking a proper break
afterwards should help you to remember this information, she says.
“This is something we don’t appreciate much, especially when today’s
information technologies keep us working round the clock.”

But what counts as a “proper break”? Davachi has been working on
this too. What she has found, but not yet published, is that a rest
can help consolidate memories as long as it activates different
populations of neurons in the brain, or whole brain regions, from
those that were active during the learning period. So if you have
just put in some hard mental study, going off to practise your
tennis backhand should do the trick. Having said that, a little
lie-down might seem more tempting and may be even more productive.
We still don’t know the relative benefits of chilling versus taking
a nap, when it comes to learning.

08 Pretend to teach

You are likely to remember something better if you think you might
have to teach it later. Kornell discovered this when he gave
students at Williams College 10 minutes to study a 1500-word passage
about The Charge of the Light Brigade. Those who were told
beforehand that they would have to pass on what they had learned to
someone else later remembered more points from the text, and their
memories were better organised, than those who thought they were
simply going to be tested on the text.

Better yet, independent learners can trick themselves into reaping
the benefits of this insight. “Our research shows that pretending
that you’ll have to teach will help you learn in the same way,” says
Kornell. And if you actually then do the teaching, all the better.
There are many well-known cognitive benefits to asking yourself
whether you can recast what you are learning in your own words, he
adds. “It leads to active retrieval from memory, and helps with
organising one’s thoughts as well as identifying knowledge gaps that
one needs to fill.” Kornell and his team note that teachers often
instruct their students to prepare for a test, but this doesn’t
encourage them to pick the learning strategy that should ultimately
lead to a better score.

09 Do interval training

You’ve just learned a series of brilliant chess openings, so when
should you go back and revise them to maximise your chances of
actually remembering them when it counts? “The longer you wait the
better,” says Kornell. “There are limits on how long you should
wait, but they are very, very long.” It’s true that waiting makes it
harder to remember the information when you come back and test
yourself, so it makes your life difficult and can feel like a bad
thing. “But the harder it is, the more you learn. So when you need
the information later, for example, when actually piloting that
airplane or playing that chess match, you’ll do better,” Kornell

Refining this idea, Hal Pashler at the University of California, San
Diego, and his team recommend spacing the intervals between
revisions as a proportion of the time between initial learning and
when you want to remember the information. They have discovered that
the best interval to use depends on how long you want to remember
something for. To maximise recall a week later, you should revise
the info about two to three days after learning. “If you want to
remember for a long time, it’s good to have quite a lot of spacing,
maybe at 10 per cent of the time,” says Pashler. So if you need to
recall something in a year, revise it about a month after learning
and then monthly thereafter. To remember something for 10 years, you
should ideally review it once a year. No one knows what brain
mechanisms underpin this. But having long gaps between learning,
revision and retrieval might tell your brain that this is knowledge
you will probably need in the long term, he says.

Pashler’s team is now trying to develop practical learning tools,
based on their research. They have developed an algorithm that can
generate personalised study spacing plans. The formula uses measures
of how difficult the material is and how well a particular student
is performing based on early test results. In one study of people
learning Spanish, the team found that individualised plans improved
retention at the end of the semester by 16.5 per cent, compared with
10 per cent for a one-size-fits-all spacing plan.

10 Just do it

All is not lost – if you do find it hard to sit down and study, and
you do badly in an exam or a performance as a result, don’t beat
yourself up about it.

Michael Wohl at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and
colleagues found that students who had forgiven themselves for
procrastinating before an initial set of exams performed better in
the next set and procrastinated less than students who hadn’t. They
also said they felt more positive.

Wohl thinks self-forgiveness allows us to shrug off negative
feelings about ourselves, so helping to improve our performance in
future. However, he stresses that this doesn’t work for serial
procrastinators. “We’ve found that self-forgiveness for chronic,
unhealthy behaviour can help maintain the status quo – that is,
continued unhealthy or poor behaviour.”

If this sounds like you, you may need to take more drastic action.
Learning requires willpower – self-control in the moment. Willpower
is like a muscle, argues Roy Baumeister at Florida State University,
so the more you use it, the stronger it gets. What’s more, he has
found that by exercising willpower in one area, you can boost it in
another. By making an effort to do anything from keeping your house
tidier to sitting up straight instead of slouching, you should also
enhance your ability to just sit down and study or practise. What
are you waiting for? Why not start right now?

What doesn’t work

These common methods to boost learning are surprisingly useless.

* Highlighting and underlining
* Re-reading important texts
* Keyword mnemonics
* Copying your notes
* Elaborate mental imagery
* Personalised learning styles
* Summarising the material



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