We’re all lifelong learners. The moment we’re born we start exploring the world around us and learning about its ways. We experiment, make mistakes, memorize what worked and what didn’t in a similar situation last time (retrieval practice) and so progress through life becoming more and more knowledgeable each day.

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However, this is not how we learn in academic circumstances. Here among the most popular techniques are rereading text and massed practice of a skill or new knowledge (e.g. cramming for exams). Empirical research has shown that they are a waste of time and effort. Massed practice works only in the short run because it takes time for new knowledge to get transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory. And when rereading, say, your lecture notes, you practice rereading, not recalling. It’s that simple. Being able to repeat the phrases in your course book doesn’t mean that you have mastered its content. It’s just an illusion of knowing.

Instead try at least one of the following things.

  • Test yourself on the material.
  • Can you define its main points?
  • Try turning the main ideas into questions and then answer them.
  • Connect the new learning to what you already know.
  • Look for examples beyond the text.
  • Find a metaphor or visual image for the new material.

It’s time-consuming, requires a lot of mental effort and might sound counterintuitive but this is how deep, durable easy-to-access knowledge is achieved. Shortcuts won’t get you there.

Another effective alternative to rereading is retrieval practice.Flashcards are an example.When you try to recall facts/ideas/events from memory, you immediately get a very good understanding of what you do and don’t know. Moreover, self-quizzing strengthens the connections between whatever you’re trying to remember and what you already know making it easier for you to recall in the future.

How often should retrieval be practised? Well, as it shouldn’t be too easy, allow yourself to become a bit rusty between sessions. It feels less productive, but the effort guarantees deeper and more durable knowledge in the long run. Trying to remember something is like looking for it in a massive warehouse. A mental one, of course. In your head, you’ve got thousands of rows of shelves with thousands of boxes on them filled with millions of memories of all kinds. You can either ask the warehouse supervisor to tell you where the stuff you’re searching for is (this is a metaphor for referring to your lecture notes or book) OR go and find it yourself. And which option do you think will make it easier for you to find the same thing next time you need it?

All this might sound like hard work, and it actually is, but the benefits are immense. Maybe the greatest thing about learning is that the more you know, the more you can learn and the easier it becomes. How does it work? Each time you’re learning something new, you brain doesn’t just take it in indiscriminately. Instead, it analyses the new piece of information and connects it to what you already know in as many ways as possible. For example, you’re trying to remember the word honey. Apart from the meaning and spelling, which are the same for all learners of English, each of us will have their own associations with the word – the way it sounds, the memories and visual images it evokes, even details of the situation in which we first came across it. Our brain uses all these mental cues and places the new word in lots of different ‘boxes’ (scientifically, they’re called schemata). In our case, it may be ‘boxes’ with the word money (because apart from the first letter/sound the two are spelt/pronounced exactly the same), bees (they make honey), tea (honey is sometimes used to sweeten it), sugar (both are sweet), the smells and sounds of the cafe where you first saw it on the menu, etc. Later, when you need to use the word, your brains uses these ‘tags’ to find it in the enormous warehouse of your mind.

However, when there’s nothing for the brain to connect the new bit of information to, it’s doomed to be lost. Say, chances that I’ll memorise a nuclear physics term are slim as my knowledge of the subject is limited to just knowing the words ‘nuclear’ and ‘physics’. It’ll stand a better chance of finding a place in my memory if it resonates with me in some other way – for instance, it’s mentioned in one of my favourite songs (this is a real-life example and the word in question is synchrophasotron featuring in an 80s song performed by the Soviet pop diva Alla Pugacheva).

And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. (I know, I know it’s easier said than done, especially if you’re a perfectionist like I am.) They are valuable stepping-stones to mastery. Moving to a higher level of expertise requires striving and involves a good deal of disappointment, but the mistakes you make are a sign of effort, not failure.

If this doesn’t sound convincing enough, then consider this: worrying too much about making errors when taking tests may actually result in poorer performance. Why? Well, our short-term memory, also known as working memory, is a sort of filter that all new information goes through before it ends up, sorted out and labelled, in long-term memory. The latter can be likened to a data centre of enormous capacity (no-one actually knows its upper limit, if it exists at all, but it’s definitely big enough to accommodate every single experience in a man’s lifetime). By contrast, working memory has a limited capacity, and when you’re worrying about your performance, you’re wasting its finite resources, which otherwise could be invested into solving the test problems. Less brain power – poorer exam results!

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