If you’re going to learn anything, you need two kinds of prior knowledge:
- knowledge about the subject at hand, like math, history, or programming
- knowledge about how learning actually works
The bad news: Our education system kinda skips one of them, which is terrifying, given that your ability to learn is such a huge predictor of success in life, from achieving in academics to getting ahead at work. It all requires mastering skill after skill.
“Parents and educators are pretty good at imparting the first kind of knowledge,” shares psych writer Annie Murphy Paul. “We’re comfortable talking about concrete information: names, dates, numbers, facts. But the guidance we offer on the act of learning itself — the ‘metacognitive’ aspects of learning — is more hit-or-miss, and it shows.”
To wit, new education research shows that low-achieving students have “substantial deficits” in their understanding of the cognitive strategies that allow people to learn well. This, Paul says, suggests that part of the reason students perform poorly is that they don’t know a lot about how learning actually works.
It’s a culture-wide issue.
Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel, psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis and co-authors of Make It Stick: The Science Of Successful Learning, say that “how we teach and study is largely a mix of theory, lore and intuition.”
So let’s cut through that lore. Here are learning strategies that really work.
Force yourself to recall
The least-fun part of effective learning is that it’s hard. In fact, the Make It Stick authors contend that when learning if difficult, you’re doing your best learning, in the same way that lifting a weight at the limit of your capacity makes you strongest.
It’s simple, though not easy, to take advantage of this: force yourself to recall a fact. Flashcards are a great ally in this, since they force you to supply answers.
Don’t fall for fluency
When you’re reading something and it feels easy, what you’re experiencing is fluency.
It’ll only get you in trouble.
Example: Say, for instance, you’re at the airport and you’re trying to remember which gate your flight to Chicago is waiting for you at. You look at the terminal monitors — it’s B44. You think to yourself, oh, B44, that’s easy. Then you walk away, idly check your phone, and instantly forget where you’re going.
The alternative: You read the gate number. Then you turn away from the monitor and ask yourself, what’s the gate? If you can recall that it’s B44, you’re good to go.
Connect the new thing to the old things
“The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to prior knowledge,” the Make It Stick authors write, “the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.”
When you’re weaving in new threads into your pre-existing web of knowledge, you’re elaborating.
One killer technique is to come up with real-life examples of principles you’ve just uncovered. If you’ve just learned about slant rhyme, you could read poems that exhibit it. If you’ve just discovered heat transfer, you could think of the way a warm cup of cocoa disperses warmth into your hands on a cold winter’s day.
Reflect, reflect, reflect
Looking back helps. In a Harvard Business School study, employees who were onboarded to a call center had 22.8% higher performance than the control group when they spent just 15 minutes reflecting on their work at the end of the day.
“When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy,” HBS professor Francesca Gino tells us. “They feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they’re doing and what they learn.”
While reflecting may seem like it leads to working less, it leads to achieving more.
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