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Learning to Learn Through Digital Play

When does in-app knowledge become real-world knowledge?

Key points

  • Applying one's existing knowledge and skills in new situations is not a spontaneous process.
  • For example, children who have learned to count using their fingers need to learn to do the exact same thing using pen and paper.
  • When people write something down, they are actively processing and organizing information, integrating it into their existing knowledge.

As soon as we landed in Hong Kong, I wanted to show off my brand-new knowledge of Chinese characters. “See, that’s ‘Exit,’” I told my wife, pointing at the sign with a familiar character—never mind the fact that the sign also said “Exit” in English.

My preparation involved Duolingo and a few other language apps—nothing else. Having studied every day for literally years, I was ready to translate anything that came our way. Or so I thought.

As it turned out, I could only read the price column of a restaurant menu or sometimes tell what kind of meat a dish had in it. And all that would have been a lot more impressive if the menus didn’t also have pictures of the food.

Admittedly, I didn’t study too hard. While Duolingo’s own efficacy study found its learners’ proficiency outcomes equivalent to that of four university semesters, it’s safe to assume that those learners put in the actual work. All I did was put in a little playtime for a few minutes a day.

There’s another issue at play as well. The hard part about learning a language through any other method, as opposed to actually using it, is transferring the knowledge between contexts. Essentially, there’s work involved in making in-app knowledge become real-world knowledge.


When children first learn to count, they often use pebbles or other physical objects to aid them. Once they get good at counting on their fingers, it still takes time and effort to transfer this skill into a different context. Children who have learned to count using their fingers need to learn to do the exact same thing using pen and paper.

Applying our existing knowledge and skills in new situations is not a spontaneous process. A study conducted by university professors Susan M. Barnett and Stephen J. Ceci in 2002 identified several variables that can influence the likelihood of transfer. For example, it’s harder to apply something at our workplace if we learned it a long time ago in a classroom.

It doesn’t help that our brain was built to forget information that doesn’t seem relevant. Even if we paid attention while studying, and our brain encoded the information correctly, it may not have been consolidated into our long-term memory. That step can be influenced by anything—from how we slept that night, our stress and anxiety levels, or whether the new information conflicts with what we already know. And even when we’ve done everything right and have the newly formed memories in our long-term storage, our current situation might be missing the cues that allow our brain to retrieve them.

Write it down.

In the early 1960s, during the most well-known split-brain experiment, psychologists Roger Sperry, Michael Gazzaniga, and others presented different pictures to participants and observed their behavior. In one session, two symbols were presented simultaneously, one on either side of the visual field. For example, a dollar sign was presented on the left, and a question mark was on the right.

If people were asked to draw what they had seen with their left hand, they would draw the dollar sign in their left visual field. But if they were to talk about what they had seen, people would talk about the question mark that had appeared in their right visual field.

The two hemispheres do not function in isolation in our normal life—they form a highly integrated system. Most everyday tasks involve a mixture of “left” and “right” skills. When we listen to someone talk, we analyze their words, intonation, and body language.

When we write something down, we are actively processing and organizing all of this information, which can help integrate it into our existing knowledge. By creating notes, outlines, or diagrams, we can structure the information in a way that highlights key concepts and relationships, making it easier to understand and remember later.

Explain it to others.

When explaining a concept to someone else, we’re forced to organize and clarify our own understanding of the topic, a process that often helps us identify gaps and misconceptions in our own knowledge. This is one reason why study groups are such a great resource, and teaching someone else—also known as the “protégé effect”—is an excellent way to enhance our own learning and memory.

Research has found that students who engage in peer tutoring show improved learning outcomes compared to those who don’t. In one notable study conducted by Carl A. Benware and Edward L. Deci in 1984, college students were randomly assigned to either a passive or active motivational set for tutoring. The passive group was instructed to simply observe and take notes during tutoring sessions, and the other group was instructed to actively tutor their peers. The results showed that not only did the active group have a better understanding and recall of the material, but they also had a higher motivation to learn.

Just do it.

Nobody is going to become a fantastic cook or a great public speaker from books alone. Some skills simply take practice—learning is literally doing the thing. As internet entrepreneur Derek Sivers has said, “If more information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”

Most skills fall somewhere between the two extremes. For example, apps can, in fact, help you learn some elements of a new language, especially when it comes to their strong suit: making it fun to learn vocabulary with intuitive user interfaces and gameplay. It’s up to the student, however, to make a conscious effort and keep applying that new knowledge in real life.


Barnett, S. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2002). When and where do we apply what we learn?: A taxonomy for far transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 128(4), 612–637.

Wolman, D. The split brain: A tale of two halves. Nature 483, 260–263 (2012).

Benware, C. A., & Deci, E. L. (1984). Quality of Learning With an Active Versus Passive Motivational Set. American Educational Research Journal, 21(4), 755–765.

Duolingo efficacy study: Beginning-level courses equivalent to four university semesters. Xiangying Jiang, Joseph Rollinson, Luke Plonsky, Bozena Pajak (2020)…

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