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Patrik Edblad

The Science of Learning: Study Less, Learn More

in Personal Productivity

Charlie Munger is a business magnate, lawyer, investor, philanthropist and Warren Buffett’s right hand man at the Berkshire Hathaway Corporation. As I’m writing this, his net worth is estimated at $1,3 billion (1).

Munger is big on learning; really big: “In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time — none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren (Buffett) reads — at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”

In his 2007 USC Law School Commencement speech he said:
“I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines.

They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up and boy does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.…so if civilization can progress only with an advanced method of invention, you can progress only when you learn the method of learning.

Nothing has served me better in my long life than continuous learning. I went through life constantly practicing (because if you don’t practice it, you lose it) the multi-disciplinary approach and I can’t tell you what that’s done for me.

It’s made life more fun, it’s made me more constructive, it’s made me more helpful to others and it’s made me enormously rich. You name it, that attitude really helps (2).”

Misconceptions about Learning

This obsession for learning is something all hugely successful people have in common. If you want to be successful in life, you need to be an effective learner. It’s as simple as that and there’s no way around it.

The problem most of us face is that the learning theories we use are for the most part the result of lore and intuition and they are simply not effective.

Over the last forty years or more, cognitive psychologists have been working at building a body of evidence to clarify what actually works, what strategies get the best results and which do not. By carrying out experiments in schools and other more unconventional places, researchers have found that:

• Learning that’s easy can be good in the short run but to be deep and durable, learning has to be effortful.

• We are very poor judges of when we’re learning well and when we’re not. When learning is hard and slow it feels unproductive and we’re tempted to employ easier strategies, even though these strategies are usually a lot less fruitful in the long run.

• Massed practice, (the conventional wisdom of single-minded, rapid-fire repetition of something you’re trying to ”burn” into memory) is the least productive strategy out there but by far the most popular.

• Re-reading has three strikes against it: It is time consuming, it doesn’t result in durable memory and it often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text can make you feel you have mastered the subject.

• Using only your preferred style of learning is ineffective. Rather than limiting instruction or experience when you choose the style you find most amenable, you learn much better if you ‘go wide’ by drawing on all of your aptitudes and resourcefulness.

How to Study Less & Learn More

If you’re surprised by these claims, you’re not alone. Most people have a very ineffective approach towards their learning that is based on well-meaning, but inaccurate advice, on how effective learning happens.

Fortunately, you can speed up your learning immensely by tweaking the way you study to make full use of what cognitive psychologists know to be effective.

The ideas and strategies below are primarily aimed at students, but they are equally beneficial to life-long learners. Here’s how to make your learning highly effective:

Maintain a growth mindset – It’s not your brain that sets your boundaries but rather your own beliefs as to what these boundaries are and to be able to learn effectively, you need to drop your limiting beliefs and excuses as to why you are ’somehow not a good learner’.

If you don’t, you’ll be a victim of your ”fixed mindset” and spend your time documenting your intelligence rather than developing it.

If you adopt a growth mindset instead and decide to develop your talents through dedication and hard work, you’ll create the love of learning and resilience needed for great accomplishment. More on this research here.

Don’t wait – Start your projects as early as possible and give yourself permission to walk away. Deliberate interruption is not the same as quitting.

On the contrary – stopping work on a big, complicated project activates it in your mind and you’ll begin to see and hear all sorts of things related to it in your daily life. You’ll also be more attuned to what you think about those incoming clues.

It’s an ’interruption’ working in your favour. Psychologists call this phenomenon the ’Zeigarnik effect’. Once our brain has started working on something, it will want to continue. So make sure you let it get to work straightaway.

Embrace difficulties – Some of the suggestions described below such as spacing out practice or getting a little rusty between sessions and interleaving the practice of two or more subjects, will make retrieval feel harder and less productive.

Know that the increased effort produces longer lasting learning and enables a more versatile application in later settings.

Go beyond your preferred learning style – A common notion in learning is that everyone has one preferred way of learning. People do have multiple forms of intelligence to bring to bear on learning, but research suggests you learn better when you ’go wide’ drawing on all your aptitudes and resourcefulness, than when you limit instruction or experience to just one style. Engage in the material using as many different ways as possible in order to learn it.

Avoid illusions of knowing – The most common reason for bombing a test, after what felt like careful preparation, is the illusion of fluency. Mastering the lecture or the text is not the same as mastering the ideas behind them. However, repeated reading provides the illusion of mastery of the underlying ideas. Don’t let yourself be fooled.

The fact that you can repeat the phrases in a text or your lecture notes is no indication that you understand the significance of the precepts they describe, their application, or how they relate to what you already know about the subject. Retrieval practice is a great way to counteract this tendency to fool ourselves, (more on this below).

Try to solve the problem immediately – Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt. Whenever you take on something new to learn, try your best to solve it before you even start learning about it.

Practice retrieval – In virtually all areas of learning, you build better mastery when you use testing as a tool to identify and establish your areas of weakness. Researchers call this the ”testing effect” (3). Testing immediately after a lecture or testing yourself at spaced intervals is far better than re-reading at spaced intervals.

Repeated retrieval ’ties the knot’ in your memory. Retrieval must be spaced out rather than becoming a mindless repetition and it requires some cognitive effort. Self-testing is one of the strongest study techniques known by researchers.

Asking a friend, work colleague or classmate to test you is a great strategy; so is using flash cards. Applications and tools such as Anki, Cram and Osmosis are great for retrieval practice.

Vary practice – Most people do better over time when they vary their study locations. The more environments you use to rehearse, the sharper and more lasting the memory of that material becomes.

The more changes you make in your study location, the more independent your knowledge develops concerning your surroundings. After all, your goal is to perform well under all kinds of conditions.

Break up sessions – Dividing your studies into two or three sessions is far more effective than concentrating on one. This forces you to re-engage with the material, dig up what you already know and re-store it – an active mental step that reliably improves memory.

Spacing out your practice will feel less productive because memory failure has begun and you have got to work harder to recall the concepts. What you don’t sense in the moment is that the added effort is actually making the learning stronger.

As mentioned earlier, massed practice is good for short term memory but the sad part is that such a practice does not lead to durable learning. For something to get into long term memory, you need to re-engage with the material several times.

Interleave practice – This means practicing two or more subjects or two different aspects of the same subject. You shouldn’t study one aspect of a subject completely and then move on to another subject and so on. Linearity isn’t effective. Interleaving of various topics gives a richer understanding.

Keep in mind that there is a price to pay when doing this because just when you’re about to understand something, you have to move to another topic. This leads to a feeling that you don’t have a full grasp on the topic.

Again, when you space out practicing and get a little rusty between sessions, or you interleave the practice of two or more subjects, retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but remember, the effort produces longer lasting learning!

Elaborate – Elaboration is the process of giving material new meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know.

The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be and the more connections you create will help you remember it later. You don’t fully understand a topic until you have to teach it.

When stuck, take a break – A short study break to check in on the news, social media, email or something else is actually the most effective technique learning scientists know of to help you solve a problem when you are stuck.

Distracting yourself from the task at hand allows you to let go of mistaken assumptions, re-examine the clues in a new way and come back refreshed. Your brain will keep working on the problem subconsciously without the unproductive guidance you’ve been giving it!

Reflect – Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning powers: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time. Take some time to reflect on what you’ve learned and what you’ll be doing with the knowledge later.

Use memory cues – Until you develop a deep learning of a subject, you can resort to mnemonic devices (4). Before sustained, deliberate practice and use of the material has stored it into the long-term memory, conscious mnemonic devices are an awesome way to help organize and cue the learning for ready retrieval.

The Science of Learning – In Summary…

The next time you’re getting ready to hit the books, make sure to put these ideas and strategies to use. Here’s a checklist you can use to make sure your studies are as effective as possible:

  • Keep a growth mindset. You can most likely become an expert in your chosen field if you just get out of your own way.
  • Get started right away. Put your brain to work immediately.
  • Know that difficulty is actually a good thing. If it’s easy, it’s not effective.
  • Use all of your learning styles. Put all of your learning styles into practice.
  • Avoid illusions of knowing. Don’t be fooled that you know the material better than you do.
  • Try to solve the problem right away. Do your best to solve the problem before you’ve even started learning about it.
  • Practice retrieval by using quizzes. Test yourself with the help of someone you know or by using a service such as Anki, Cram and Osmosis.
  • Vary practice. Alternate the environments in which you study.
  • Break up sessions. Divide your studies into several sittings.
  • Interleave subjects. Always practice two or more related subjects at the same time.
  • Elaborate on the material in your own words. Explain the material to someone else and connect it to what you already know.
  • Take a break when you get stuck. Give your brain a chance to work on the problem without your interference.
  • Reflect on what you’ve learned. Take some time to ponder how you’ll be using this new knowledge.
  • Use memory cues. Organise and retrieve what you’ve learned by using mnemonic devices (4).

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Sources

  1. Forbes: Charles Munger
  2. Charlie Munger – USC Law School Commencement – May 13, 2007
  3. The Power of Testing Memory: Basic Research and Implications for Educational Practice
  4. Memory and Mnemonic Devices

Suggested reading
I learned about these strategies from excellent books such as:

If you are truly serious about your learning, I highly recommend you check them out!

Also, if you liked this article, I’d be very grateful if you emailed it to a student or friend who could benefit from it as well. 🙂