Brain Candy

Puzzles, paradoxes, and science to nourish your neurons

Everything You Thought You Knew About Learning Is Wrong

How, and how NOT, to learn anything

Learning through osmosis didn't make the strategies list
image courtesy of Flickr user indi.ca
Taking notes during class? Topic-focused study? A consistent learning environment? All are exactly opposite the best strategies for learning. Really, I recently had the good fortune to interview Robert Bjork, director of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab, distinguished professor of psychology, and massively renowned expert on packing things in your brain in a way that keeps them from leaking out. And it turns out that everything I thought I knew about learning is wrong.

Here's what he said.

First, think about how you attack a pile of study material. “People tend to try to learn in blocks,” says Bjork, “mastering one thing before moving on to the next.” But instead he recommends interleaving, a strategy in which, for example,instead of spending an hour working on your tennis serve, you mix in a range of skills like backhands, volleys, overhead smashes, and footwork. “This creates a sense of difficulty,” says Bjork, “and people tend not to notice the immediate effects of learning.”

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Instead of making an appreciable leap forward with yourserving ability after a session of focused practice, interleaving forces you to make nearly imperceptible steps forward with many skills. But over time, the sum of these small steps is much greater than the sum of the leaps you would have taken if you’d spent the same amount of time mastering each skill in its turn.

Bjork explains that successful interleaving allows you to “seat” each skill among the others: “If information is studied so that it can be interpreted in relation to other things in memory, learning is much more powerful,” he says.

There’s one caveat: Make sure the mini skills you interleave are related in some higher-order way. If you’re trying to learn tennis, you’d want to interleave serves, backhands, volleys, smashes, and footwork—not serves, synchronized swimming, European capitals, and programming in Java.

Similarly, studying in only one location is great as long as you’ll only be required to recall the information in the same location. If you want information to be accessible outside your dorm room, or office, or nook on the second floor of the library, Bjork recommends varying your study location.

And again, these tips generalize. Interleaving and varying your study location will help whether you’re mastering math skills, learning French, or trying to become a better ballroom dancer.

So too will a somewhat related phenomenon, the spacing effect, first described by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885. “If you study and then you wait, tests show that the longer you wait, the more you will have forgotten,” says Bjork. That’s obvious—over time, you forget. But here’s thecool part: If you study, wait, and then study again, the longer the wait, the more you’ll have learned after this second study session.

Bjork explains it this way: “When we access things from our memory, we do more than reveal it’s there. It’s not like a playback. What we retrieve becomes more retrievable in the future. Provided the retrieval succeeds, the more difficult and involved the retrieval, the more beneficial it is.”

Note that there’s a trick implied by “provided the retrieval succeeds”: You should space your study sessions so that the information you learned in the first session remains just barely retrievable. Then, the more you have to work to pull it from the soup of your mind, the more this second study session will reinforce your learning. If you study again too soon, it’s too easy.

Along these lines, Bjork also recommends taking notes just after class, rather than during—forcing yourself to recall a lecture’s information ismore effective than simply copying it from a blackboard. “Get out of court stenographer mode,” says Bjork. You have to work for it.

The more you work, the more you learn, and the more you learn, the more awesome you can become.

“Forget about forgetting,” says Robert Bjork. “People tend to think that learning is building up something in your memory and that forgetting is losing the things you built. But in some respects the opposite is true.” See, once you learn something, you never actually forget it. Do you remember your childhood best friend’s phone number? No? Well, Dr. Bjork showed that if you were reminded, you would retain it much more quickly and strongly than if you were asked to memorize a fresh seven-digit number. So this oldphone number is not forgotten—it lives somewhere in you—only, recall can be a bit tricky.

And while we count forgetting as the sworn enemy of learning, in some ways that’s wrong, too. Bjork showed that the two live in a kind of symbiosis in which forgetting actually aids recall. “Because humans have unlimited storage capacity, having total recall would be a mess,” says Bjork. “Imagine you remembered all the phone numbers of all the houses you had ever lived in. When someone asks you your current phone number, you would have to sort it from this long list.” Instead, we forget the old phone numbers, or at least bury them far beneath theease of recall we gift to our current number. What you thought were sworn enemies are more like distant collaborators.

* Excerpted from Brain Trust: 93 Top Scientists Dish the Lab-Tested Secrets of Surfing, Dating, Dieting, Gambling, Growing Man-Eating Plants and More (Three Rivers Press, March 2012)

Twitter: @garthsundem

Garth Sundem is the author of the books Brain Trust, Brain Candy, and The Geeks' Guide to World Domination.

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