Learning is not only empowering but fulfilling. It gives our lives meaning and can benefit us professionally. Learning is also perhaps the best antidote to boredom and depression. And the really good news is that we can improve our ability to learn.
As the brain re-wires itself from experience, it can change the capacity for learning. That is, it can learn how to learn. This is especially true for certain kinds of learning skills. Learning occurs at several hierarchical levels, ranging from simple knowledge to higher levels of comprehension and incorporation, where knowledge is applied to solving problems and creatively applied to new situations. The formal way of categorizing different kinds of learning is based on the “Taxonomy of Learning” theory as developed by Benjamin Bloom. This scheme designated three domains of learning: thinking, feeling, and doing. All three, of course, involve memory. Using memorized information at one level influences how well the memory develops on a lasting basis. What I wish to stress here is that each of the higher domains of learning contribute greatly toward mastering the long-term memorization required in the lowest level of Knowledge learning. In short, I contend that knowledge memory and the higher levels of learning are mutually supportive.
The brain also learns a hierarchy of emotional responses to enrich the awareness and growth of our attitudes and feelings. This hierarchy of levels begins with Receiving and Responding, which refers to paying attention and reacting to emotional stimuli. Next there is Valuing, in which the learner attaches salience and emotional significance to an object or idea. Finally, there is Organizing and Characterizing, which Bloom considered separate but which I would combine. This highest level of emotional memory occurs as learners accommodate various emotional responses into their own emotional schema to such an extent that the learning now becomes a personality characteristic. A common example is attitude adjustment, wherein a person changes biases to create a new way of responding emotionally to a given set of stimuli.
What was incompletely considered in the original formulation of emotional learning is the influence of emotions on the memorization process.
When a person knows a body of knowledge across all levels of the learning hierarchy, we can call them an expert. What makes an “expert?” In most any field, the experts have a hard time telling you what it is that has made them an expert. Often they are unable to tell you how they solve problems or generate new insights. The reason is that expertise develops over time, and much of that learning has become so well learned that it is automatic. Moreover, experts have developed what some call an implicit capacity in the form of what others have called a learning style, or template, or schema.
Mental templates or schema put the brain on autopilot, enabling it to accomplish tasks without much effort. This feature of learning is especially prominent in the elderly—most of whom have significant degeneration of the brain but are still able to perform at seemingly normal mental levels. I remember being stunned at seeing the shrunken brain in the brain scan of my dying elderly father. His mental functions were not nearly as diminished as the scan would suggest.
Schema manifests in other ways too. You may wonder why some people seem to become more competent as they get older, at least up to a point. I like to think that at 78, I am at the top of my game. Even though my brain has probably deteriorated, I compensate with the lifetime schema acquired over the years.
Learning experiences help develop the capacity to learn. Part of that capacity likely results from a better ability to absorb contextual cues and to make associations among various cues. Rich experiences during childhood development also increase the likelihood of developing a more extensive repertoire of learning skills.
It is possible to teach people how to learn to learn. One of the first experimental demonstrations of the learning-to-learn phenomenon was by H. C. Blodgett in 1929. He studied maze behavior in rats, tracking how many errors they navigating a maze for a food reward. The control group ran the maze and found the food, with the number of errors decreasing slowly over successive days as they learned where the food was. Experimental groups ran the maze daily for three or seven days without any food reward. Naturally, they made many errors each time, because there was nothing to learn. However, when they were subsequently allowed access to a food reward, the number of errors dropped precipitously on the very next day’s trial. In other words, the rats had been learning about the maze—its layout, number of turns, etc —during the initial explorations, even when no reward was available. The learning just wasn’t being put to use.
The idea was expanded and formalized some 20 years later by the famous physiological psychologist Harry Harlow. Harlow studied monkeys, testing their progress on visual problems and other tests of discernment. Training on a series of different but related problems accelerated their rate of improvement. Increasing the number of problems on which monkeys were tested led to the observation that the monkeys’ general learning competence improved over time.
Harlow developed the prominent “learning set” theory, which posits that learning any task is associated with implicit learning capabilities that can generalize to other related learning situations. These days, educators think of this as “transfer,” where learning one task may make it easier to learn another related one. Typically, this learning set is acquired subconsciously as a by-product of experience.
One practical illustration of learning-set theory is language learning. Many people who learn a foreign language find it easier to learn a second language—even a third language or more, if they are related, as in Romance languages. Learning how to set up equations to solve a math problem can make it easier to set up equations for other math problems. Learning how to play one song on a piano can make it easier to learn other songs. Learning how to play one musical instrument makes it easier to learn another instrument.
Ever wonder why some people can learn like sponges, soaking up information in great gobs, while others struggle to learn? Learning sets provide an explanation. It is akin to the rich getting richer, while the poor get poorer. The “more you know” axiom is especially heartening for learners who struggle early on mastering a given learning task. They will get better if they stay with it and don’t get too discouraged.
But then there is the typical case that most people just rock along with whatever learning abilities they have, making no effort to change basic learning and memory skills. Improving your memory capability, for example, requires you to make a conscious effort to use the ideas and techniques that are explained in my book. Just knowing what to do accomplishes nothing if you don’t act on that knowledge.
Yet making any kind of change is often hard for many people to do. It has always been hard for me to understand, for example, why students especially seem reluctant to use these memory principles and techniques. They have a compelling need to improve their memory abilities. I wrote about my frustration in an earlier Psychology Today blog post. Fellow college professors have told report similar observations. One professor posted this observation: “I used to try and help college students to improve their learning skills, but sadly very few truly were interested. For the most part, just getting them to study at all was a big issue. I learned to ask about their 'study' environment--which often included non-stop text messaging interruptions, sometimes 'multi-tasking' with Facebook and listening to overly loud music.”
Why the reluctance to improve learning and memory skills? One explanation might be hubris. A teacher commented on my blog post as follows: “Contrary to what you might expect, the students who were by far the easiest to teach were the poorly educated, sometimes not particularly literate ones. These students knew their own limitations and were happy for all the help that they got in study, literacy and life skills. At the opposite end of the spectrum, all the really difficult students I ever had in my classroom were university students, particularly those doing higher degrees.” In my own classrooms, students seem to think they know best how to learn. After all, they perfected their learning style enough to get admitted into a competitive university.
Self-doubt may be another possible explanation to resist improving learning and memory skills. Many students lack confidence in their learning ability, which they may think is fixed and unchangeable. Adults sometimes think (and even perversely revel in) the affirmation that they are who they are, and they can’t or don’t need to change.
Another reason might be that people are just too busy. A posted response from a college student explained it: “As a college student myself I can say that training our memory is just not my top priority. We feel so stressed and busy with trying to keep up on school, studying, work, and relationships that any time we would get to train our memory we just want to catch up on sleep.” Here was my response: “Hey, don't give me that. I was a harried, overwhelmed college student too— until I used good memory principles and techniques. Think of it this way: college is like a very steep mountain that takes four years to walk up the road to the top. Consider how much easier the trip would be if you took two weeks to learn how to ride a bike. That's about 1% of the total time. And, when you get to the top, you have a huge set of learning and memory skills you can use to make your work life easier more productive.
Bottom line: people use all sorts of excuses to resist improving learning-to-learn skills. They should read my book, Blame Game, How To Win It.
The more you know, the more you can know.
Excerpted from the author’s new book, Memory Power 101, 298 pages (New York: Skyhorse). Available for only $14.95 at bookstores or Skyhorse.com.