Reframe the way you learn

Never stop learning, life never stops teaching. We do not only learn from high-school or university. We all belong to the school of life. There are more opportunities to learn: life experiences, books, courses. Thanks to modern technology, MOOCs are available to a greater audience. There is no excuse not to learn. A girl from Cambodia with a little smartphone has access to more books than the library of Harvard 20 years ago. At one point or another, we will have to learn skills outside of university. Even after graduating, we will have to learn skills to fit the current needs of business and market. If you are not growing, you’re dying. Someone who remains in a stagnant state will be out of date and obsolete. Decades of research has been done on learning techniques and their effectiveness. The results of these works are huge. We can benefit from these findings. In 2013, cognitive and educational researchers launched a collaboration project to decipher the studies that had been done. The researchers gathered the results of the study in a 55-pages article. The article was published in “Psychological Science in the Public Interest “[1]. The study evaluated 10 learning techniques. Some techniques were believed to be effective like highlighting. But it had been proved not to be that useful. Medical students, do not relay on highlighting often.

We are going to discuss only the most used techniques and not all of them. All the sources are listed below.

1- Self-explanation and elaborative asking

It is the practice of explaining a concept in your own tongue. You have to try to find how it is connected to other information you have. For example, when hearing “it is a process in which a plant converts carbon dioxide and water into sugar. “ Self-asking requires asking why it is true. It must be because every living thing needs food. And sugar is a type of food. The answer has not to be exact. It has been proven even when the explanation is not on mark; it enhances and strengthens the student understanding. Each answer of a question is a piece of a puzzle. By connecting each piece, the big picture becomes clear.

The greatest feature of the brain is to connect dots. Not only we have to connect the new answers, but we also have to connect them to our previous information. We have to ask the question “How can I connect what I learnt to what I knew before?” By not doing that, a piece of a puzzle without borders will be thrown away. The brain cannot preserve an information that cannot be connected to anything else.

Conclusion: Promising. But it needs having previous information about the subject.

2- Distributed Practice

You cannot be an athlete by following a diet and not running. You can understand the main principles on piano. But to play piano, you have to practice. It requires motivation and engagement. The quality of how we practice is also an crucial aspect. Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. Studies has shown that distributing practice sessions lead to better results. The mind has more time to process what it learnt from each session. The skills will last longer. Distributed practice is more useful at processing information deeper. It gives better results when coupled to self-testing.

Conclusion: if it is distrusted on regular sessions, it leads to great results. It can be combined with self-testing.

3- PRACTICE TESTING

The thing that the student fears the most is one of the most effective methods. After finishing a test, whether it was a disaster or a success, we feel we have a better grasp now on the concepts. It challenged our understandings. We have to put in action what we learnt. The student should do self- tests in distributed intervals and in a regular basis. Let’s say each month. The empirical evidence about the benefits of distributed testing are tremendous. Yet, the common mistake of students is to wait for the final exam. The only remaining option is trying to absorb as much information as possible in a short time. This habit is called “cramming”. Educators discourage it. It has poor long-term retention of a module. A student may have an average or a good mark. But, what he learnt will last for a short period only.

Conclusion: Self-testing in distributed intervals is beneficial. Educators warn against cramming in one night. It has terrible long-term retention.

4- INTERLEAVED PRACTICE

Have you ever wondered if you should study one chapter in one block or study disparate chapters of different nature? This practice is suitable to sharpen solving-problem skills and has benefits on long term retention. Focusing on one chapter only can make which tool to use obvious. If you study about hammers, the problems presented in that chapter will need the use of hammers. But real life problems tend to be more complex. Which tool to use is not easy and a hammer is not always the best solution. Interleaved practice will help the student to identify the right instruments to use. Even though it gave great results for math and concept learning, it needs more research to be done.

Conclusion: Promising for solving-problem modules. It needs more research.

5- HIGHLIGHTING

Highlighting is marking some phrases we feel we need to learn or to memorize. Highlighting and underlining proved to perform poorly on its own. It has been shown that highlighting failed Air Force trainers and undergraduate students. But these results were about using highlighting and underlining alone. It is not a reason to thrown your highlighter pen away. Highlighting is only the beginning of the journey. A common mistake is to mark some phrases and then close the book thinking you grasped all the information. You should return again to the highlighted concepts and restudy them with better strategies.

Conclusion: perform poorly or worse on its own. It must be coupled with other effective strategies.

6- REREADING

Rereading is suitable to recall a concept and refresh the memory. But it doesn’t enhance the understanding concepts. To better recall, rereading is helpful by doing it at distributed intervals. For the time it rereading needs, spend it on other effective strategies.

Conclusion: Suitable for recalling, but does not enhance understanding. Distributed rereading is helpful, but time can be invested in other better strategies.

7- SUMMARIZATION

Summarizing comprises paraphrasing the key ideas of a text with our own voice. It has been proven good in writing exams but less useful on multiple choice questions. In a study[2], students were divided into two groups. For the first group, Teachers gave 5 sessions on summarizing and note-taking. 50 minutes each session. The second group didn’t receive coaching. The students who received coaching retained better what they learnt. It is a useful strategy for persons skilled at summarizing. Compared to the other effective strategies, summarizing is less beneficial. However it is better than highlighting and rereading.

Conclusion: It demands training on how to summarize. Good to generate answers but useless in multiple choice tests. Less effective compared to the good learning strategies.

The willing to learn is a choice. The best strategies are only effective if the students are motivated. First, pick one strategy and try it. Experiment other strategies and see which one works better for you. As Da Vinci said: “The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding”.

[1] Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology, http://journals.sagepub.com/stoken/rbtfl/Z10jaVH/60XQM/full

[2]Some Effects of Summarization Training on Reading and Studying, https://www.dropbox.com/s/eekzjt8zrnwr7f3/rinehart1986.pdf?dl=0

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