Learning how to learn

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In our work at Exco Partners, learning is always an important component that we consider in the solutions we deliver. Learning helps to ensures the change is accepted and importantly reinforces the stickiness of the change, making it become the new status-quo. This short article is a reflection on the traditional methods for learning and presents our research in new ways of learning that we believe can make a significant improvement to how change and learning development programs in a business context can be developed.

Before we get much further – let’s start with a definition of learning:

Acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities.

“Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” by Peter C. Brown Hendry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel

And now let’s do a test … “What?!” I hear you mutter.  “I haven’t learnt anything yet!  What are you testing me on?!”

I understand, but it will ultimately make sense.

Test your knowledge

1. The best way to learn from printed text is to:

A. Read, highlight key points and re-read.

B. Summarise and re-read your summary.

C. Ask questions before you read then read and re-test yourself.

D. Get someone to read the text to you.

2. Intellectual ability is hard-wired from birth:

  • True
  • False

3. Which of the following are true (you can choose several):

A. When you find learning more difficult the information is soon lost and must be re-learned.

B. When you can move easier and faster through material you are learning it more fully because your mind is more open.

C. When you find learning more difficult the information is more durable.

4. Low stakes testing is:

A. Ineffective as it doesn’t place you under pressure which is necessary to focus your attention for effective learning.

B. Helpful to ensure that learning has been absorbed.

5. The most effective way to learn a new skill is to:

A. Practice practice practice

B. Determine your current level of expertise, focus on areas of low performance then follow-up testing.

C. Pay the most money you can for the best coach you can get.

Record your answers so you can reflect on the results at the end.

There is a current trend towards “lifelong learning” and “growth mindsets” however many of us are unaware that a lot of what we were taught at school about how-to-learn is now out-of-date and no longer serves us well.

One example of where learning is misunderstood is in the area of repetition – many of us spend countless hours in our schooling years, reviewing, revising and highlighting blocks of text. Current evidence shows that simple repetition is a poor mechanism for learning.  In fact one of the major keys to successful learning is retrieval – rather than repeatedly reading or reviewing the same material in an effort to force your memory to absorb the information instead look to build retrieval mechanisms from the beginning.

Despite how non-intuitive it sounds the best way to start learning is by asking questions before you start.  This primes your mind to look for answers to your questions.

Then keep practicing retrieving information and when you do so try to space apart that retrieval so that a little forgetting occurs.  Remember that memory is key to learning and the real test of whether you have remembered something is to be able to retrieve it when you need to.

The most effective method for testing is referred to as “Dynamic Testing” which involves:

  1. Determining the current state of expertise
  2. Focusing on areas of low performance
  3. Re-testing to measure improvement
  4. And then … Rinse and repeat

This approach specifically focuses on what you are lacking rather than repeating what you already know.

Another misconception concerns learning styles.  There is no evidence to support the contention that some people learn better from visual cues and others from (say) auditory cues.  No evidence.  None. 

Instead focus on another counter-intuitive recommendation which is to mix up your practice.  Try interleaving your learning by practicing two or more subjects or skills and rather than trying to get perfect one thing instead try switching before you have fully mastered the first thing.  This varied practice helps to develop discrimination skills whereby you can assess the context and select a correct solution from among a range of possibilities.

Try to form structures for what you are learning and connect new information to things you already know.  This helps give you things to “hang” new information on to what you have already learned or already know well.  This ensures a better process of encoding and consolidation both of which are necessary for later retrieval.

Structures can involve identifying principles, rules and key ideas which allow you to apply knowledge to unfamiliar situations.  This contrasts with memorising examples where you can struggle when the situation differs from the example memorised.

Learning that is more difficult is typically stronger, more precise and enduring even though it feels slower

Remember that familiarity is not learning – try to embrace difficulties as you are learning.  Your growth mindset is important here – what do mistakes mean to you?  It’s essential to see mistakes as a process of learning and not as failures because evidence suggests that learning that is more difficult is typically stronger, more precise and enduring even though it feels slower.

So now that you know….. how about doing that test again.  You should find that the suggestions above have worked and you have learnt something new about the process of learning already!

Test Answers: 1-C, 2-False, 3-C, 4-B, 5-B.