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Remember It Well: How to Learn Better

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By Dan Gordon '85

Published Jul 1, 2012 8:00 PM


Stay focused on the topic. Study in the same place all the time. Take copious notes. All proven learning strategies, right? Sure. But if the goal is to retain knowledge, research shows that these commonly held beliefs about how to go about it are misguided. You need to relearn how to remember.

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Illustration by: Michael Wolosc Hinow

Robert A. Bjork, director of the UCLA Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab, conducts studies comparing the relative effectiveness of different learning approaches, as well as surveys on what people believe about their own learning. And it turns out that most of us are going about it the wrong way.

"What we know from research to be the functional architecture of human learning and memory doesn't appear to be understood by the user," Bjork says. "So we walk around with a faulty mental model." You might think we would have figured out what works best through trial and error, but the paradox is that we tend to falsely assume we're learning more when we follow the conventional strategies. Bjork says that's probably because we don't distinguish between learning and performance. If we cram the night before for a big test or job interview, for example, we might do well but, as most any college student can tell you, whatever we learned from a night of cramming information into our head is far less likely to stick much past the test.

In a world in which we're increasingly responsible for our own learning inside and outside the classroom, here's what Bjork and others in his field say are effective ways to make long-term knowledge gains:

Be Hard on Yourself

We tend to stay in our comfort zone when we're learning—in part because struggling isn't fun, but also because when things are easier, it feels to us like we're being more productive. In general, though, the harder the brain has to work at learning something, the less likely we are to forget it.

If you have to labor to retrieve information but are ultimately successful, it's much better for your retention than simply looking up an answer or reading a text a second time. This is what's referred to as a "desirable difficulty"—though it comes with a disclaimer: Difficult doesn't mean it should be impossible.

"It's desirable because overcoming it triggers the very processes that create comprehension and longterm recall," Bjork says. "But if you are not equipped as a learner to contend with it, it's not desirable."

Unduly Noted

Taking notes doesn't have to be a bad thing. But it's the way many of us do it—simply transcribing information we read or hear in a lecture, rather than making connections and interpretations—that hinders learning.

"A court stenographer can take down every word from a day in court and not be able to tell you what the case was about later in the day," Bjork points out. Fruitful note-taking, he says, is when it's done in fits and starts, more of a commentary than a transcription. Better yet, take notes right after you've read something or heard a lecture—the act of recall is far more powerful as a learning tool than highlighting the material on the page or copying notes from a blackboard.

Put Yourself to the Test

If you're forced to come up with an answer on your own based on certain cues, you'll remember it far longer than if you looked it up or were given that answer. Similarly, with material you've learned, the more difficult it is to retrieve information from your memory—again, provided you succeed—the more likely that you will be able to recall it down the road.

That's why Bjork is a strong proponent of testing as a learning strategy, whether it's self-administered or you ask a friend to quiz you. "Using our memories alters our memories," he says. "When you're tested, you do more than just reveal what you know; you make that information more recallable in the future."

Give Yourself Space

If you're going to study something twice, the longer you wait between sessions—assuming it's not so long you forget it completely—the better your long-term recall. This is a time-honored result known in cognitive research as the "spacing effect." Yet, Bjork has found in his studies that the vast majority of students believe they learn better under "massed" conditions, in which study sessions are lumped together.

There's No Place Like a New Place

Bjork has seen the advice commonly offered to new students. It goes something like, "Find a quiet spot and have that be your regular place to study." Nothing wrong with solitude, but for long-term learning, there's something about varying the context in which you take in information—even the physical context—that improves later recall. If you're learning at home, something as simple as alternating the rooms where you're taking in the material can help.

Switch it Up

Most of us also tend to think we should learn in blocks—mastering one concept before moving on to the next. In fact, Bjork and others have discovered that it's more effective to go back and forth between distinct concepts within a study session, a kind of mental cross-training known in cognitive science as "interleaving."

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