5 Learning Strategies
These strategies will help you spend less time learning and more time remembering. It has helped me well, so now it will help you too.
When it comes to ‘learning to learn’ and effective learning strategies, there is still a world to be won. Many pupils do not know how to learn and what works or does not work when preparing for tests. Unfortunately, there is little discussion with pupils about the way they learn and what can be improved.
This is partly due to the fact that teachers themselves are not always aware of learning strategies that work. And part of it is that there is simply too little time set aside at school to reflect on ‘learning to learn’.
In this blog, I will take a first step towards increasing knowledge of learning strategies. First, I will give a short explanation about memory, then I will describe what scientific research has shown not to work when it comes to learning, and finally I will share some proven learning strategies that do work. However, let me first state my definition of the term ‘learning strategy’:
“Learning strategies are concrete ways of learning that students consciously deploy in order to make learning run as smoothly as possible; they thereby learn ‘how’ they should and can learn” (taken from ‘Self-regulated learning’ by Pieternel Dijkstra).
So learning strategies should not be confused with executive functions (e.g. planning and organising) and preconditions for a well-functioning memory (such as sleep). Now that that is clear, let me give a brief insight into how our memory works.
When it comes to learning, we can divide memory into two dimensions:
1) our ability to store information (storage strength);
2) our ability to retrieve information when we need it, whether in the short or long term (retrieval strength).
The good news is that no memory is lost; no computer can match the awesome power of our brains to store information. The less good news is that it is much more often a struggle to retrieve the information it contains when we need it. The so-called ‘retrieval strength’ is often much lower than the ‘storage strength’.
The trick, therefore, is to ensure that we not only learn in such a way that we store the desired information in our memory, but that we also make it easier for ourselves to retrieve this information.
In order to actually do the latter, we need to In order to actually do this, we need to learn actively; the memory needs to be put to work so that the connections in our brains become thicker and stronger. Let me first describe ‘what doesn’t work’ and strangely enough is often used by students.
What does not work
Our pupils often learn inefficiently and only for the short term. This is often due to the fact that they start learning too late (poor planning) and when they do, it is done ‘passively’.
By ‘passive’ learning, I mainly mean that pupils do not put their memory to work hard enough. They make it too easy for themselves, so that the memory does not experience the urgency to remember something of what they have learned in such a way that it is easy to recall it.
An often-used learning strategy is, for example, to reread (or in some cases read for the very first time) text and notes, either with or without a highlighter. The effect of rereading is that the memory only tells the learner whether the knowledge is recognised and not whether the information can be retrieved without the text.
Checking whether you understand something with the text is actually too easy for the memory to store learning material in such a way that you still remember it a day or two later without a book. Learning based on recognition, therefore, turns out to be a poor predictor of successfully remembering and recalling information.
The above method of learning creates the illusion for students that they have mastered the material (also called the fluency illusion). We all know the student who scores a bad mark on a test and exclaims indignantly: “but I had studied so well and I ‘knew’ everything”. Parents sometimes add that their child is not to blame for the failure because they themselves checked whether their child had mastered the material.
People (children and adults) appear to be poor at realistically assessing their own knowledge and skills, partly due to the use of ineffective learning strategies.
In addition to re-reading text, it is not a good idea to ‘cram’ learning material in one long session. Research shows that a student with this strategy may score well in the short term for a test, but soon after that the material has completely disappeared from his (long-term) memory.
Recalling at a later time this ‘stamped in’ information does not seem to go well and that is not reassuring with a view to, for example, the final exam.
Summarising is also discouraged as a learning strategy, mainly because learning the skill ‘summarising’ correctly takes a lot of time and effort. In practice, this time and space is often not offered. Students miss the essence of the material in their summaries and either write too much or too little. If a pupil does manage to make a good, representative summary, this is often done in a passive way, namely with the text added.
It would be more effective to make the summary based on what is in the memory and to supplement it later where necessary with the help of the textbook and notes (see also ‘active retrieval’, further on in this blog).
What does work — proven effective learning strategies
Fortunately, there are also learning strategies that significantly increase the chances of successful learning. Learning strategies that stimulate ‘active learning’ and are valuable for every student. In this blog, I will mention five of them.
1. Spread the learning — the spacing effect
It makes more sense for learners to spread their learning over several sessions. So instead of one three-hour learning session, it is better to have three one-hour learning sessions, preferably on different days. A learner will learn for the same amount of time (three hours) in both cases, but will get a higher learning efficiency by spreading the learning; the material is stored better, can be retrieved more easily later and for a much longer period of time than when learning is done in one single session.
So what makes staggered learning work better? It has to do with the fact that the memory has to work harder. In fact, you consciously forget (part of) the material because you only look at it one or more days later. The memory then has to work harder to retrieve the material and this strengthens the necessary connections in the brain and thus the memory.
You can compare the effect of memory with maintaining a beautiful green lawn. It works better to give a limited amount of water at intervals, rather than a large amount all at once, which completely floods the lawn and prevents a large part of the water from being absorbed.
Spreading learning times is therefore more efficient than trying to learn everything in one session. Of course, it would be ideal if a student did not only do this just before a test, but much earlier. For example during a lesson series. This can be done by pausing at the end of the first lesson to reflect on what was covered and what was learned. Then, after the second lesson, the pupil revisits both the material of the second and the first lesson and learning accumulates.
An important condition for the use of this learning strategy is that a good planning is made beforehand. As a teacher, you are of great added value to the pupil in this respect. Share your lesson and learning objectives for a certain topic in advance, so that the pupil has an overview of the learning material.
You can also integrate this strategy naturally into your lessons by regularly reviewing what was covered in the previous lesson and encouraging your students to use their memory to actively recall material. This brings us to the second strategy.
2. Active retrieval — generate the material yourself
Active retrieval is a good learning strategy to prevent students from creating the illusion that the material is already there. Active retrieval basically means producing the material again without seeing the textbook or notes.
This might involve explaining the material aloud to yourself or another person or writing it out for yourself again (e.g. important key concepts, connections, diagrams, formulas). You can then place what has been reproduced next to the book or your notes to check to what extent the material has been memorised. The advantage of this is also that you know what you do not know. The chances of a student fooling themselves are considerably reduced.
Only when a student is able to reproduce the material without the aid of textbooks or notes (even a day or even a week later) can he assume that the material is well remembered.
3. Variety in what is taught
Pupils often learn the material subject by subject. Only when they feel one topic is well covered do they move on to the next topic. The disadvantage is that this way of learning makes the memory lazy, because our brains are geared to recognising ‘new’ information.
Think of the time you bought that brand new car or that beautiful pair of shoes. Chances are, for a short time, you suddenly saw the same car or the same pair of shoes everywhere. After a while, however, the novelty wore off and the recognition disappeared.
If you want to stimulate the brain, including the memory, and keep it alert, do a lot of mixing. In the classroom, for example, the teacher can mix things up after dealing with a few topics and have students do practice exercises with a new topic for each exercise.
When learning and testing themselves, students should alternate as much as possible, i.e. after an exercise on one subject they should immediately move on to an exercise on another subject. And when learning for several tests, it is also advisable to alternate subjects. So don’t first learn everything from economics and only then go on to maths, but alternate between economics and maths subjects. So mix things up.
4. The Pomodoro technique and Parkinson’s Law
When a pupil starts learning, the brain needs some time to start up, sometimes up to 15 minutes. Every time a pupil is disturbed, the process starts all over again (so getting a message on the smartphone is already fatal). So it can happen that the concentration needed for good learning is not achieved.
In addition to minimising distractions (get rid of that phone!), the pomodoro technique offers a solution. This technique involves setting a (cooking) alarm clock (not the one on your smartphone) for a short 25-minute block of time. This is the time you give yourself to complete (part of) a task.
Setting this limited block of time motivates you to achieve your goal and not to get distracted in the process. A short half hour is nice and clear and you know that there will be a short break afterwards. After a break of no more than 5 minutes, you can schedule one or more blocks, if you wish. After four blocks, it is advisable to take a longer break (‘spreading learning’) and remember to alternate different topics/courses during these blocks (‘varying what is taught’).
If ‘learning time’ is not staggered, Parkinson’s Law comes into play. This means that you yourself make sure that the (learning) work fills all the available time (“…work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”) and the chance of distraction is many times greater. I regularly hear students say that they endlessly postpone work because ‘there will be time later’ and that they do not define their time, with the result that they learn too little and, on top of that, experience a lot of stress because they have not yet learned.
5. Sleep as a learning strategy
Strictly speaking, sleep is not really a learning strategy, but it is an absolute condition for the proper functioning of the memory. Without sufficient sleep, the other learning strategies can also be more or less consigned to the wastepaper basket. That is why I have included sleep in this overview.
It is also said: “Sleeping is learning with your eyes closed”. While you sleep, your brain works hard at processing what has come by that day. Everything is carefully analysed, connections are made and information is neatly stored. Sleeping well is therefore essential and ensures that information is stored better and can be retrieved more easily. Lack of sleep disturbs this process considerably.
We need the parents to carefully monitor the number of hours of sleep. After all, a tired pupil is a pupil who stores much less in his/her memory. This also means that the smartphone and tablet should be kept out of the bed. The ‘blue light’ from these types of devices disrupts the production of the sleep hormone melatonin and, as a result, reduces the number of hours of deep sleep. If you do take your phone to bed with you, it is a good idea to look for apps that reduce certain harsh shades of light at night, thus reducing the negative impact on sleep (searching for ‘flux’ in the app store will give you plenty of options).
And if a student has started learning too late, it’s always better to stay up a bit longer in the evening rather than getting up early in the morning to learn. What is learned in the evening is properly processed during sleep. It is then more likely that a student will be able to say something meaningful about the material learned the next day.
Ensuring that you and your pupils are aware of these learning strategies is, of course, no guarantee that pupils will actually use them. This is one of the reasons why our students benefit from a little help and support, for example in the area of planning and setting learning goals. And, of course, cooperation with parents is also essential.