Learning is what we all do naturally but researchers are discovering new ways to make learning more successful.  

At times learning can be as simple as thinking, as shown in a classic experiment by American neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone. He compared the brain scans of two groups of volunteers: those who practised piano exercises for a week, and those who merely thought about practising the piano exercises (holding their hands still while imagining how they would move their fingers). Connections between the neurons in the brains of both groups reorganised similarly. Learning involves strengthening connections between neurons. Seems strange that even ephemeral thinking can alter the form and function of the enduring brain.

Learning is more effective when we take out time to focus on thinking about what we have been doing deliberately. If we’d take some time out for reflection, we might be better off, says a team of researcher led by Giada Di Stefano of HEC Paris who studied the effect of reflection on learning. By reflection, the researchers mean taking time out after a lesson to synthesise, abstract and articulate the main points. Reflection, they add, builds our confidence in the ability to achieve a goal.

In their study 202 adults completed an online maths brain-teaser under three different conditions: reflection (participants took a few minutes to write what strategy they used or might use in the future to solve problems before starting the second round); sharing (participants were told that their notes would be shared with future participants); and control (participants simply completed another round of brain-teasers). Participants who were allowed to reflect performed an average of 18 per cent better on the second round than the participants who were not given time to reflect.

This research study confirms American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey’s words: ‘We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience’. The message is clear: stop, reflect and think about learning.

Like reflection, self-testing or quizzing yourself also improves learning by strengthening memory. During the past hundred years, hundreds of experiments have shown that testing improves learning. A fact known even to Aristotle more than 2300 years ago: ‘Exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory’. But until now no one was sure why.

Psychology researcher Katherine Rawson of Kent State University in the US and her former graduate student Mary Pyc asked 118-English-speaking students to learn 48 Swahili words by pairing them with their English counterparts (for example, wingu-cloud, lulu-pearl and zabibu-grape, if you want to self-test yourself after a few minutes). They hypothesised that learners invent a mediator – word, phrase or concept that connects one piece of information to another – to trigger the right piece of information. For example, ‘wing’ might serve as a mediator between wingu and cloud (a bird flying in the clouds).

When the students were tested one week later, as expected those who had taken the practice test did better than those who hadn’t taken the test but only studied. When Rawson and Pyc asked students to recall their mediators just before the test, those who had taken the practice test remembered their mediators 51 per cent of the time. Those who hadn’t taken the practice test remembered their mediators only 34 per cent of the time. ‘The illusion is, you read something and think you’ll remember it,’ says Pyc. ‘But if you don’t try to retrieve it, you don’t know if you know it.’ Time for a test: Repeat the three Swahili words you learned a few minutes ago.

The pen is mightier than the sword – and the keyboard. During lectures, taking notes on laptops rather than longhand is increasingly common. Pam Mueller, a psychology graduate student, had left her laptop and was forced to use pen and paper to take notes in a psychology lecture. Surprisingly, she felt like she had gotten much more out of the lecture that day. The inkling that there might be something different about writing led Mueller, now at Princeton University, to collaborate with Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California, the professor teaching the class. Their research suggests that ‘even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because of their use results in shallower processing’. When you take notes by hand, you process information as well as write it down, but when you are typing you tend just to  transcribe large chunks of lectures verbatim. That initial selectivity leads to long-term comprehension, says Mueller.

Learning techniques that don’t work are highlighting and rereading. Highlighting is simple and quick but it doesn’t improve learning. There is also no clear evidence that rereading improves comprehension. The best strategy is to spend time on self-explanation and self-testing.

A learning technique that does work is pretending to teach. Psychologists say that there are many well-known cognitive benefits when you say what you are learning in your own words. It helps to organise your thoughts as well as identifying knowledge gaps that you need to fill.

The old wisdom is that we learn best from our mistakes. Research, however, shows that something more is needed: we must be conscious of our mistakes to harness the benefits of new learning. ‘You have to keep in mind the new way of doing things while suppressing the old way,’ says Jason Moser, a clinical psychologist at Michigan State University. ‘It’s a lot of work and hard to overcome first.’ The reason is that learning new things leads to more effort, more mistakes and, eventually, a lot of frustration. Once you are consciously aware of the mistake you have made in your learning process, your performance at the new task is likely to improve.

Above all, learning requires will power. Roy Baumeister, an American expert on self-control and co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, agrees: ‘People have said for centuries that you can build character by making yourself do things you don’t want to do, that by exercising self-discipline you can make yourself into a stronger person. That does appear to be correct.’ Even when you are preparing for an exam.

© Surendra Verma 2016

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