THE LEARNING CURVE

​A MAGAZINE DEVOTED TO GAINING SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE

THE LEARNING AGENCY LAB’S LEARNING CURVE COVERS THE FIELD OF EDUCATION AND THE SCIENCE OF LEARNING. READ ABOUT METACOGNITIVE THINKING OR DISCOVER HOW TO LEARN BETTER THROUGH OUR ARTICLES, MANY OF WHICH HAVE INSIGHTS FROM EXPERTS WHO STUDY LEARNING. 

Effective Learning And The Best Way To Study

Effective Learning – The Most Important Thing You Need To Know

​Just about everyone dreams of easy ways to study and learn. From parents to educators to students to me, people want learning to be fun, like an afternoon of cards.

The most recent headline-making example is an app called DragonBox. The approach supposedly “secretly teaches math” to students via an algebra “game.” USA Today declared the app to be “brilliant.” Forbes dubbed it “impressive.” Tens of thousands of people have downloaded the app.

But as a learning tool, DragonBox does not seem to teach students all that much, and students who spend time on the app don’t appear to improve in their ability at solving algebraic equations, according to a 2014 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. Psychologist Robert Goldstone recently examined the software, and he speculates that the app doesn’t provide students any more algebra skills than “tuning guitars.”

Effective Learning Starts with Struggle


​At the heart of learning sits a discomforting truth: gaining expertise is difficult. Studying is hard. In short, you learn more if the learning is harder.

To acquire a skill or area of knowledge, people will inevitably experience some form of hardship. A growing body of cognitive science supports this idea, and researcher Robert Bjork argues that mastery is about “desirable difficulties.” Practice guru Anders Ericsson calls practice “hard work,” while psychologist Daniel Willingham argues that learning is difficult because thinking is difficult.

 For one, learning isn’t playtime or recess or a matter of amusement, and students learn more when they stretch their skills and knowledge in ways that make them uncomfortable.”

Why Struggle is The Root of Effective Learning

The value of academic struggle is about far more than moral pluck when it comes to studying effectively. This isn’t a matter of grit or growth mindset. It’s about understanding the learning process.

We actually gain more if the experience of learning is demanding. Difficulty improves academic outcomes. Some academic pain is itself one of the characteristics of effective learning. Some researchers, like psychologist Lisa Son, have even gone so far as to argue that educators should “withhold” information from students in an effort to boost skills and knowledge.

In this regard, the idea that learning is fun actually hurts students. It makes people believe that if they’re struggling, that they can’t learn, that they don’t have the requisite skills. Much like “easy listening,” the concept of “easy learning” works to water down something of value.

I’ve seen this in my own research, and in studies of student surveys, my colleagues and I have found that around a third of middle schoolers say that their math school is often “too easy.”

Like so many aspects of the human condition, the inner workings of the brain goes a long way in explaining why a dash of toughness can increase outcomes, and what’s important to keep in mind is that the brain is not like a computer. Our minds don’t passively “receive” data, and then tuck information into long-term storage like an IPad.

Struggle works as a learning hack because of a simple reason: The brain needs to actively build some sort of meaning. To study well, to learn well, we need to create understanding.

For an example of this study hack in practice, take the work of psychologist Stephen Chew. He’ll often do an experiment with audiences to show the value of more robust forms of learning. First, Chew will hand out a sheet of paper with approximately two dozen words, and then he’ll have half of his audience count up the number of times the letter “g” or “e” appears in the text. Chew then has the other half of the class focus on the “pleasantness” of the word.

Chew’s experiment is a replication of a much older study, and the results of his informal test are never close. People who engage in a more slightly more rigorous form of learning—the people who have to build some mental tie to the material—will remember as much as 80 percent more than those who don’t.

For Chew, the deeper processing of information is at the heart of learning and studying well. The richer engagement with the materials is what creates expertise. It’s the hack you need for learning.

“If you think about information meaningfully, you are much more likely to remember that information,” Chew says. “This is true regardless of whether you intend to learn the material or not.” 

At the heart of learning sits a discomforting truth: gaining expertise is difficult. To acquire a skill or area of knowledge, people will inevitably experience some form of hardship. ”

Becoming an Effective Learner

When it comes to becoming an effective learner, it’s important to keep in mind that robust forms of learning run on repetition, and in order to hone an area of expertise, we have to engage that area of expertise multiple times–preferably in multiple ways.

This idea is obvious in athletic endeavors. No one learns an overhead serve in tennis on their first try. People don’t gain pole-vaulting skills in an afternoon. I can’t become a basketball star with a few dribbles on a Sunday morning.

But this approach also turns out to be true for any sort of knowledge. The learning of academic material requires redundancy. Psychologist Graham Nuthall pioneered this research, and in a series of studies, he showed that people needed to engage with an idea at least three times before they actually learned it.

No matter what the material—math, geography, or chemistry—it seems that people need to experience the idea a few times before they develop some type of understanding. This is particularly true for studying. “If the information was incomplete, or not experienced on three different occasions, then the student did not learn the concept,” Nuthall argued in his book The Hidden Lives of Learners.

Yet even three times of learning — or studying- – might not be enough. In fact, three times might be the minimum, and in many fields, expertise needs to become a kind of habit. Mastery needs to be automatic.

Foreign languages provide a good example, and if you want to become excellent in Russian, you need to have a highly practiced Russian vocabulary. If someone wants to say, “can I have a coffee?” in a cafe in Moscow, the word for coffee—”кофе”—the word needs to jump to mind without hesitation.

Just about every area of complex mastery requires this fluency. To develop a skill, people need to be unthinking about the essentials. If you want to become a lawyer, you can’t wonder what the word “plaintiff” means. Expert engineers don’t pause when multiplying 7 by 103. Novelists don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the difference between “it’s” and “its.”

To embrace this effective learning strategy​, engage in repeated quizzing, or what researchers call retrieval practice. This is a great learning strategy because the more you quiz, the more you learn. Plus, you’ll be repeating the action. So for efficient learning the learning task should be

  • encouraging free recall
  • encouraging lots of “why” questions
  • testing your grasp of the material

How to Learn Better On Your Own

Barnard college psychologist Lisa Son has been pushing the boundaries of this line of research, and in her work, she has shown that making learning more difficult for students has its own academic benefits.

For an example, imagine a young student—call him Moe—has written a short essay with a few spelling errors. As Son told me, most people would tell Moe the correct spelling of the words he missed.

Not Son, though. She’d ask Moe to glance at the page and look if he spelled all of the words correctly. If Moe didn’t notice the specific spelling issues, maybe Son would point out which words Moe got wrong. But based on her research, Son would not give him correct answers or spell out the words.

Moe would have to discover the correct answer himself. “As the student reads more on their own, they’ll see the word spelled correctly, and they’ll never forget the right answer,” Son told me. “People need to do learning on their own for long-term maximum learning power.”

For Son, the key is that people strive to produce the learning on their own. “What parents need to do is allow their kids to be OK with being uncomfortable, to be OK with not knowing the answer,” Son told me. “If students are never given the opportunity to struggle with their thoughts, then future struggles may become too frustrating, too uncomfortable.”

Son takes this idea quite seriously in her own life, and she gave me examples of the different ways that she expects her own children to grapple with their learning. Indeed, it seems that Son actively tries to cultivate difficulty for her kids. Son won’t protect her young son from bumping his head on the kitchen table, for instance, unless it seems like he’s really going to crack his head open.

Or take the time that Son’s daughter asked about the idea of time zones. Son would not explain the concept to her child, even after her daughter asked about the idea for months. As Son told me, laughing, “I think I overdid it, but if my kid sees someone give her the answer, she’ll kill you.”

The issue here is undeniable, of course. No one really likes hard work. Academic study is tiring. I’m sure Son’s son would rather not knock his head against the kitchen table. Plus, struggle in learning can be humiliating. It makes it seem like we can’t learn—like we just don’t have the ability.

So when studying, consider the following effective learning techniques:

  • add in delays (it makes studying harder)
  • take breaks (it makes studying hard)
  • write down the material (it makes study harder).
  • mix up your learning (it make study harder)

Also make sure to put away your notes and simply recall because, yes, it makes studying harder. It;’s the hidden study hack again.

We actually gain more if the experience of learning is demanding. Difficulty improves academic outcomes.”

Talent Isn’t Enough: The Importance of Effective Learning

​Not long ago, I met up with mathematician Jordan Ellenberg. By all accounts, he was a boy genius, and at least according to newspaper legend, Ellenberg was reading road signs at the age of three. By the age of eight, he could do high school-level math. He aced the math SAT, with the Washington Post dubbing him a “true genius” at seventeen. Today, Ellenberg is a professor of math at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a collection of well-regarded articles and books to his name.

But even geniuses like Ellenberg find value in struggle. They also have to spend hours fighting to understand an area of mastery. When Ellenberg was a child, he was a little skeptical of this hard-edged aspect of learning, and for him, struggle was a sign that someone lacked intelligence. In this view, the term “hardworking” is almost cruel, if not rudely derogatory: It meant that people couldn’t learn.

When I sat down with Ellenberg in a coffee shop in Washington, though, it was clear that he now believed something very different about the nature of building a skill. After spending years working at the highest level of math, he realized that learning demands hard work. It requires difficulty. “You have to have an incredible tolerance for failure,” he told me.

The implications of this idea for parents, teachers, and anyone studying anything are pretty clear, and it goes well beyond the idea of “grit” that’s become the latest education fad in many schools.

Most importantly, learning isn’t playtime or a matter of amusement. People learn more when they stretch their skills and knowledge in ways that make them uncomfortable. 

For their part, schools should also be sure to normalize academic struggle and help students understand that even geniuses have to struggle to understand. Many of history’s most powerful minds have made this point, and it was Aristotle—the star pupil of Socrates, the tutor of Alexander the Great—who once argued that “learning is no amusement but is accompanied with pain.”

The truth behind Aristotle’s words are a difficult educational pill, no doubt. But we will gain a lot if we’re honest with ourselves about what it really takes to develop a sense of mastery.


-Ulrich Boser

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