By Molly Rose Teuke
Whether you’re indulging a desire to learn about ancient Rome, boning up on bird identification or trying to achieve a professional goal (say, passing a certification or licensing exam), knowing things is so satisfying. But learning can be hard — and some educators think it ought to be even harder.
In a counterintuitive quirk of human learning, when you make learning harder, not easier, you increase the strength and durability of your learning and, in the long run, the ease of retaining knowledge. Without continued access and use, knowledge seems to decay. Yet it’s not a decay problem; it’s a retrieval problem.
Learning comes down to more than remembering. It requires forgetting, too. Retaining isn’t the hard part of learning; your brain easily retains everything you pour into it. Accessing it is the real challenge. With rare exceptions (think “Rain Man”), the brain isn’t organized like a card catalog that tells you where on the shelves of your vast mental warehouse certain information is stored.
Knowledge turns out to be more dependent on your ability to access, or retrieve, information than your ability to store it. And your ability to retrieve a given bit of information (a memory) is strengthened the more you do it. Bottom line: The more often you forget, the harder you have to work, and the stronger and more easily retrieved the memory is in the long run. This phenomenon led Robert Bjork, principal investigator at UCLA’s Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab, to develop a concept he coined “desirable difficulties.”
One way to create a desirable difficulty, hence harnessing the power of forgetting, is to break study sessions into small chunks, and space them apart by hours or days. That increases the number of times you forget and have to retrieve the material you’re trying to learn. Given a total of six hours to study, you’re far better off studying for one hour a day for six days than for six straight hours in a single session.
MIX IT UP
Your brain often uses visual and physical cues to aid in remembering. Another desirable difficulty is eliminating those cues by mixing up the environment where you learn. Research from as long ago as 1940 suggests that students perform better on tests that are administered in the same environment as the learning — but that doesn’t hold up in real life. There will be few times you need to retrieve a bit of information in exactly the same place where you learned it. If you vary the setting, you make recall tougher in the short run, and stronger over time and in varied circumstances.
Another way of mixing it up is to work on multiple related concepts in one learning session instead of focusing on one exclusively until you master it. The technical term for this is “interleaving” and it’s especially useful in learning motor skills. A classic study tracked varsity baseball players learning how to swing at three different types of pitches. When the players had one hour to practice and swung at one type of pitch exclusively until they mastered it, they showed immediate improvement, but they didn’t perform so well later in a game.
Switching from a curve ball to a fast ball, then to a change-up during that hour led to better results on the field than devoting a 20-minute block to each of the three in sequence. Mixing it up in this way creates a little forgetting, and that memory blip, no matter how brief, enhances long-term learning and retention.
In her book, “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra),” Barbara Oakley asserts that brains have two main types of thinking — focused (highly attentive) and diffuse (more relaxed) — and we cannot solve a problem (or learn) without using both.
The focused mode is very specific and focused on a problem or concept. But it can be so focused that you’re unable to broaden your thinking. You reach a preliminary solution or perspective, and pretty soon you’re in a mental rut, a condition known as the Einstellung effect. You get so focused on your initial idea that it prevents you from seeing an alternate, possibly better, solution or way forward. It becomes a mental roadblock.
In the diffuse mode, we relax our thinking and let ourselves daydream our way to a broader perspective. “This relaxation can allow different areas of the brain to hook up and return valuable insights,” writes Oakley, adding that the insights returned are often anchored in thinking done in the focused mode. When we are in the diffuse mode, however, our brain seeks patterns and connections that can move our understanding forward.
Your brain’s diffuse mode is good at doing its work in the background. That’s why you so often solve problems while you’re driving, showering, exercising, maybe sleeping. Your ability and willingness to toggle between focused and diffuse modes of thinking increases your ability to learn. The lesson: Take a break.
DON’T KID YOURSELF
A very real problem when you’re trying to learn is the illusion of learning, notably the illusion of repetition. Imagine you’ve spent a couple of hours studying and you feel you know the material well because you’ve read it over and over, complete with highlighting. After this exposure, the material feels familiar and you believe you know it. In reality, you recognize it readily, but that’s not the same as learning. There’s a name for this illusion of competence — the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s a cognitive bias under which you may wrongly estimate your mastery. You haven’t really learned the material and that very fact prevents you f rom accurately gauging how well you actually know the content.
The concept is named for a couple of Cornell University psychologists who tested subjects in three areas (humor, logic and grammar). They found those who ranked in the bottom quartile rated their skills far above that. “Those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden,” the researchers wrote. “Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.” The problem is lack of metacognition — the ability to step back and accurately assess your knowledge or skill.
In a weird twist, learning a small amount about something may make you more prone to the Dunning- Kruger effect. If it’s something you were previously ignorant about, that little bit of knowledge may now make you feel like an expert even though you have no real depth of knowledge. Ironically, those who are least competent in a body of knowledge are generally the most likely to overestimate their understanding, which bears out that old saw, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
There’s an easy fix for the Dunning- Kruger effect: Test yourself. Research shows that a lot of low-stakes quizzing is an excellent strategy for learning. When you finish studying, close the book, put away your notes and test yourself on what you learned. Then go back to the material and see how well you did. The benefit is two-fold. First, it helps you more accurately assess your learning and the gaps in your knowledge; second, quizzing yourself requires that you retrieve information from memory, and the act of retrieval strengthens both the memory and your subsequent ability to access it.
MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICE
You probably have a pet subject you know you’re not any good at. It could be any number of things. Yet, the likelihood is that, rather than not being any good at them, you simply haven’t tried to learn them in ways that make learning possible.
In his TED Talk, “How We Learn Is More Important than What We Learn,” educator Dr. Glenn Dakin poses an especially relevant question for those of us who know that we are no good at (fill in the blank): “If you don’t do well immediately, is that an opportunity to judge or an opportunity to learn?” And that’s a question worth answering.