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The Science of Successful Learning: Part 1 – The Myths of Learning 5

August 10, 2021

An article inspired by “Make it Stick, The Science of Successful Learning” written by psychologist professors Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel, and Peter C Brown.

How learning works

Before we begin the process of optimizing our learning, it is important to understand how our learning process works. Every time we learn something, whether in school, at work, or in our day-to-day lives, our brain follows a three-stage process of learning.

Three stages of learning

Stage 1. Encoding

New information is received by your senses and then transmitted to your brain in the form of chemical and electrical charges. These are then encoded into memory traces (mental interpretations of the patterns you’ve observed) and held in short-term memory. Most memory traces are soon forgotten.

Stage 2. Consolidation

Next, during consolidation, the information is placed into long-term memory. Your memory traces are reorganized and connected to past experiences and knowledge in your long-term memory to give them meaning. This contextualizes the data and strengthens the memory traces.

Stage 3. Retrieval

Finally, the retrieval process is when you fetch the material from your long-term memory. This strengthens and reconsolidates the memory trace by connecting it to new learning.

The three stages: encoding, consolidation, and retrieval, are the foundation of how we learn. By understanding each phase, we can approach learning more intentionally for maximal efficacy.

Myths about learning

There are many misconceptions about learning. Most at first glance, seem logical and intuitive; however, numerous empirical psychological studies have proven they are indeed myths.

To embrace the full influence of the five learning hacks, first, you must unlearn these four myths.

Myth 1: Learning should be easy.

We’re often coaxed into believing that learning should be easy. Unfortunately, effective learning is not easy. It requires active effort and energy. The research highlighted in “Make it Stick” shows that when learning requires effort, the information sticks. Learning SHOULD feel hard.

Myth 2: Repeated exposure, easy activities, and efficient practices promote learning.

We’re often taught in school to “review”, “reread”, and “highlight” notes. However, passive studying like this is NOT effective. Rereading and reviewing notes won’t help increase your retention.

“In a 2008 study conducted by Washington University students were divided into two groups, the first group of students read and immediately reread study material, whereas the other students read the material only once. Both groups took an immediate test after reading, and the group who had read twice performed a bit better than the group who had read once. However, on a delayed test the benefit of immediate rereading had worn off, and the re-readers performed at the same level as the one-time readers.” (pg.14)

Once again, learning effectively requires active effort. Rather than simply reading over the material, actively engaging in the content is far better for comprehension.

Myth 3: We are good judges of our abilities.

Ironically, as highlighted by the Dunning-Kruger effect, the least competent people overestimate their competency. We often overestimate our abilities, especially when we’re incompetent. We often fall into what Peter C. Brown (Author of “Make it Stick”) calls the familiarity trap. The familiarity trap is the feeling that we know something, simply because we’ve seen it before.

This overestimation of competency often leads to extreme disappointment come exam day.

Myth 4: Learning is best achieved when we focus on a single topic or activity.

We often think that focusing on learning one subject until completion is the best approach. This myth is so troubling because it’s intuitive and logical. It makes sense to learn something to completion or to complete one task before progressing to the next, especially if it’s an area of weakness.

However, the evidence was clear that interleaving studying was far more effective. The trouble with learning all at once is the information remains in your short-term memory. Without partially forgetting the material as you switch tasks, your brain does not need reconsolidation or retrieval (the stages that cement the memory trace as long-term memory) and thus new information is mostly forgotten.

Takeaway Message

Be aware of the many misconceptions about learning. Most at first glance, seem logical and intuitive; however, there are more effective ways to learn. Check out Part 2 of this article to learn 5 effective ways to learn better.

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