We continue to learn our entire lives. Research shows ways to do it better, but this means changing our habits.
Learning — we do it all the time, when reading messages, hearing the news, starting a new job, and in a host of other circumstances. Then there is formal learning, in classrooms and when studying for assignments.
Most people learn how to learn when they are young, and continue with the same methods for most of their life. What if there are better ways to go about it?
Benedict Carey is a long-time science writer, and since 2004 has written for the New York Times. Gradually, he became interested in research on how people learn, and set out on a quest, contacting leading researchers on learning. He was surprised to find that, according to the latest research, what he had done during high school, long sessions of concentrated attention on study topics, was really not all that effective. In his book How We Learn (Random House, 2014), Carey provides an accessible guide to key practical findings from learning research.
Carey makes his account engaging by telling stories about pioneering researchers who developed ideas taken up later. He then spells out the implications for learners, whether they are in schools, universities, jobs or everyday life.
The spacing effect
Which is better: studying for two hours in one session, or for two sessions of one hour each on two different days? The answer is clear: two separate sessions are better, whether you want to learn facts or skills. This shouldn’t be news. In athletics, where learning techniques make the difference between winning and losing, training is normally spaced out. Runners do not postpone training until the day before the race.
Yet generations of students have crammed for exams and other assignments. As an undergraduate, I stayed up all night on several occasions to write essays. It was the only time in my life that I drank coffee! The trouble with cramming is that nearly everything learned is quickly forgotten. Spacing out study is more efficient: you can learn more in less time and retain it longer.
But what’s the best sort of spacing? If you have two weeks to learn the names of the bones in the body, and want to spend a total of two hours studying, is it better to use two sessions of an hour, twelve sessions of 10 minutes, or some other breakdown? And how should the study sessions be spaced? Should one be just before a test? Or, if long-term retention is the goal, what’s the best option? Carey examines what is known about spacing. In general, more spacing is better, but there is still much to be discovered about the optimum spacing for learning different sorts of material.
The testing effect
If you don’t know anything about a topic – for example, Chinese history in the 1700s – then surely the best way to learn about it is to start studying. Actually, though, you’ll learn more efficiently if you take a test on the material before you start, even though you just guess at the answers. Somehow this primes the mind to pay more attention when you do start studying. This is a really strange research finding.
Educationists commonly talk about two types of assessment. Summative assessment measures learning whereas formative assessment is designed to improve learning. Actually, though, all assessment is formative to some degree: it is a method of learning.
Formal assessment is designed by teachers. But there’s another type of testing: self-testing. When you’re studying, you can test yourself regularly. Or you can try to explain the topic to a friend. Testing yourself can overcome the fluency illusion, in which you have the incorrect belief that you know something because it seems familiar. Carey writes:
These apparently simple attempts to communicate what you’ve learned, to yourself or others, are not merely a form of self-testing, in the conventional sense, but studying – the high-octane kind, 20 to 30 percent more powerful than if you continued sitting on your butt, staring at that outline. Better yet, those exercises will dispel the fluency illusion. They’ll expose what you don’t know, where you’re confused, what you’ve forgotten – and fast. (p. 103)
Many students think they’re learning only when they’re studying. Therefore, it doesn’t matter when they study, even if it’s at the last moment. It’s just necessary to put in enough hours. The spacing effect shows that something can happen in between study sessions: the unconscious mind engages with the material, and you don’t even notice it happening. There’s another aspect to this process, called the incubation or percolation effect.
Here’s the trick. When studying a topic intensely, it’s actually better to interrupt the process before finishing, and leave the mind to chew away at it before the next session. In terms of writing, this means not finishing an essay, but instead leaving it incomplete for the time being.
When a task isn’t complete, the mind won’t let it alone, so in the long run you learn more by being interrupted at odd times while pursuing a task. Carey:
… we should start work on large projects as soon as possible and stop when we get stuck, with the confidence that we are initiating percolation, not quitting. My tendency as a student was always to procrastinate on big research papers and take care of the smaller stuff first. Do the easy reading. Clean the kitchen. Check some things off the to-do list. Then, once I finally sat down to face the big beast, I’d push myself frantically toward the finish line and despair if I didn’t make it.
Quitting before I’m ahead doesn’t put the project to sleep; it keeps it awake. (p. 147)
The incubation effect is used by great creators who bore away at a problem for weeks or months and then take a break – and this is often when the best ideas pop up. The challenge is to trust your own mind and treat interruptions to significant tasks as opportunities rather than sources of worry.
The usual way of learning is to concentrate on a particular task until it is mastered, and then go on to the next task. It sounds logical, but actually there’s a more productive technique, which is to mix up the tasks.
Carey describes the technique of interleaving. Here’s a typical research protocol. One group of students learned artistic styles by looking first at six paintings by one artist, say Braque, and then six by another, say Mylrea, and so on through twelve artists. A different group of students saw exactly the same paintings for the same length of time, but mixed up in a random sequence. At the end, students in each group were shown paintings they had not seen before and asked to name the artist. Which group did better? It was the ones who saw the paintings in a random order.
This outcome has been reproduced in numerous studies involving discrimination. During the learning phase, students exposed to interleaving don’t feel like they are learning, but actually they improve faster.
“That may be the most astounding thing about this technique,” said John Dunlosky, a psychologist at Kent State University, who has shown that interleaving accelerates our ability to distinguish between bird species. “People don’t believe it, even after you show them they’ve done better.”
This much is clear: The mixing of items, skills, or concepts during practice, over the longer term, seems to help us not only see the distinctions between them but also to achieve a clearer grasp of each one individually. The hardest part is abandoning our primal faith in repetition. (p. 164)
Athletic coaches long ago figured out that exercising a particular muscle too much at a time is not productive, so they mix up training, switching between different muscle groups. The studies of learning artistic styles show that mixing things up is a more general learning strategy, with applications in many areas.
Carey also discuses other factors that enable faster and longer-lasting learning. These include perceptual learning, which happens without having to think about it, and the role of different sleep cycles in consolidating learning.
Sleep helps to form memories.
It is fascinating that there are ways to speed up learning in a wide range of contexts, for example pilots comprehending the implications of different instrument panels or language students learning Mandarin.
It is tempting to think that it would be possible to take advantage of several of the techniques described by Carey and quickly become a much more efficient learner. If you are in the hands of one of the researchers or skilled practitioners using one of the techniques, such as interleaving or perceptual learning, then you have an advantage. But to take the initiative to adopt these techniques on your own is another matter.
One of the key considerations is habit — and many people’s learning habits are deeply entrenched. It can be quite challenging to replace one habit with another, though there is good research on how to do this.
To better understand the challenges of adopting some of the techniques presented by Carey, here I’ll discuss how they relate to the high-output writing programme I’ve been using for several years.
Robert Boice, a psychologist and educational researcher, addressed the problem of low research productivity. Many of his important studies date from the 1980s.
He observed newly appointed academics and noticed that most of them struggled in the demands of the job, but a few were highly productive in research and furthermore were less stressed than their colleagues. Boice thought the techniques used by these productive new academics might be taught to others, and he showed how this could be done.
Boice’s approach was elaborated by Tara Gray and turned into a twelve-step programme. The core of the approach is doing some writing every day or nearly every day, but not too much. Boice advocated stopping while still fresh, in order to have energy and enthusiasm to continue the next day. A central theme in Boice’s approach is moderation, to overcome the syndrome of procrastination and bingeing.
Gray says to start writing from the very beginning of a research project. For example, in doing a PhD, you should start writing the first day, rather than spending a couple of years first reading and collecting data. The slogan here is “write before you’re ready.”
How does the Boice-Gray approach to writing measure up in relation to the techniques described by Carey that enhance learning? First is the spacing effect: it’s more productive to space out learning sessions. That is actually the foundation of the writing programme: it is designed to overcome the usual approach of procrastination and bingeing.
Second is the testing effect: it is productive to use testing as a form of studying. In the writing programme, daily writing is done without looking at texts or stopping to look up references. You might have a few dot-point notes, but otherwise everything has to come from your head. In effect, it is a type of testing of your memory of what you want to say. For example, if you’ve read some articles the previous day, you write about them without consulting them: it’s a test, and a powerful learning tool.
Third is incubation. This is central to the writing programme. In between writing sessions, the unconscious mind is going over what to say next. In one of Boice’s studies, he looked at the number of creative ideas produced by academics in three conditions: no writing, normal writing (bingeing) and daily writing. No writing was worst for generating new ideas, normal writing was twice as good and daily writing was five times as good. The writing programme might be seen as turning the incubation process into a routine.
Another facet of incubation is that you learn more when you interrupt your study before finishing. This happens every day in the Boice-Gray programme, and can be enhanced by a simple technique. At the end of your daily writing session, finish in the middle of developing an idea, perhaps even in the middle of a paragraph or sentence. This incomplete expression of an idea serves to stimulate thinking, and often by the next day your unconscious mind has come up with a way to complete the thought.
Fourth is interleaving: learning about a range of different topics at the same session. This is not usually part of the writing programme, but could be incorporated into it. Usually I write about the same topic from one day to the next, gradually writing the draft of an article or chapter. But sometimes I feel a bit stuck and switch to a different project and topic, coming back to the other one when I feel ready, which can be days, weeks or months later. No doubt interleaving can be used in other ways to improve writing productivity.
Fifth is mixing up learning contexts: you can consolidate your learning by studying in different surroundings and times of the day. The idea is to embed your learning in different environments. This is different from what’s usually recommended in the writing programme, which is to have a routine and stick with it. I think this difference points to an important factor not addressed by Carey: how to motivate continued effort at learning.
The practice of doing just a small amount of daily writing is designed to reduce the barriers to beginning a session. To add pressure, Boice asked academics to report to him weekly with a log of the minutes they had written each day and the number of words they had produced each day. This accountability process made a huge difference. Daily writing combined with reporting a weekly log to Boice improved productivity by a factor of nine compared to the usual procrastination-bingeing approach.
The technique of varying the learning contexts is worthwhile if your writing habit is well established. But few writers seem to have such a solid habit. Writing while travelling would seem like an ideal opportunity to vary contexts, but Gray reports that when travelling, away from the usual routine, writing at all is a challenge for her, and many others have told me the same.
The message here is that the techniques described by Carey are highly worthwhile and should be investigated by anyone for whom learning is important. However, a key consideration is how to turn a new learning approach into a habit. If you can do this, you’ve truly learned something worthwhile.
Meanwhile, generations of students are carrying on in their usual approach, and so does most teaching. There is important research being done on learning, and Carey has pointed to some of the most practical findings. When these will affect schools and training programmes is another matter. Not soon, I suspect. So read How We Learn, pick one or two techniques relevant to your needs, and become a more efficient learner – and enjoy it too!
Thanks to Don Eldridge for helpful comments.