Three Myths About How We Learn

If you were to stroll back into your old elementary school today, you’d probably find that the classrooms look pretty similar to the ones you studied in, and the kids are still learning to read and write the same way you did. Schools change a lot more slowly than other industries. So do we still think about learning the same way we did back when we were in grade school?

Absolutely not, Wired‘s Geek Dad column reported recently. In the piece, Garth Sundem spoke with Robert Bjork, a professor of psychology and the director of UCLA’s Learning and Forgetting Lab, and discovered that scientists are full of new insights into how our brains absorb and retain information. And while the Geek Dad column is more concerned with children’s education (surprise, surprise), it still offers some lessons for us grown-ups, too.

A few common misconceptions about how we learn:

You should study one thing at a time. School is traditionally arranged into single-subject blocks of study, leading many of us to conclude we should devote our learning time to one specific topic, whether than be algebra or literature or Microsoft Access. Wrong move, according to Bjork, who recommends something called “interleaving,” which he explains with an example from tennis:

Instead of spending an hour working on your tennis serve, you mix in a range of skills like backhands, volleys, overhead smashes, and footwork. “This creates a sense of difficulty,” Bjork said. “And people tend not to notice the immediate effects of learning.” Instead of making an appreciable leap forward with your serving ability after a session of focused practice, interleaving forces you to make nearly imperceptible steps forward with many skills. But over time, the sum of these small steps is much greater than the sum of the leaps you would have taken if you’d spent the same amount of time mastering each skill in its turn.

Interleaving works, according to Bjork, because it allows you to better understand how different skills interrelate with each other.

You should have a single classroom or study location. You probably learned chemistry or composition day after day in the same room. Perhaps you train people in the same place day after day. Your materials are handy. Everyone knows where to come. But that’s all wrong, Bjork tells Sundem, who writes, “Studying in only one location is great as long as you’ll only be required to recall the information in the same location. If you want information to be accessible outside your dorm room, or office, or nook on the second floor of the library, Bjork recommends varying your study location.”

You should reinforce learning with steady, consecutive teaching. It turns out it’s best to study a subject, take a long break, and then study it again. And if you think you’ll just forget everything while you’re away from it, then you don’t understand how learning really works, Bjork says. “Forget about forgetting. People tend to think that learning is building up something in your memory and that forgetting is losing the things you built,” he says. “But in some respects the opposite is true.” While you might not be able to recall everything you once committed to memory after not recalling for a while, that doesn’t mean it’s totally lost. Studies show it’s just buried somewhere in your mind, and you’ll recall something you once learned much faster than fresh material.

“You should space your study sessions so that the information you learned in the first session remains just barely retrievable. Then, the more you have to work to pull it from the soup of your mind, the more this second study session will reinforce your learning,” concludes Sundem.

[More on learning and development on The Daily Mindflash.]

Image used under Creative Commons by Flickr user MC Quinn.

London-based Jessica Stillman blogs about generational issues and trends in the workforce for Inc.com, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist.