There is a rather important article I wrote regarding “How To Study Effectively” that you’ll find posted within the footer of every page at Conceptual Academy. This article is a summary of what I have learned about learning from my own experiences, published articles, and, more recently, a beautiful popular book called “Make It Stick”, which is itself a summary of effective learning strategies. So for this blog I’m thinking it would be useful to provide a summary of these summaries. My aim here is to edit my article down to its three key concepts in hopes of inspiring you, the reader, to explore these ideas further and to share these ideas with others, most notably, the struggling student.
1. All Learning Requires Effort
To begin, we need to push back any ideas we might have about being limited in our ability to learn. An exceptional set of “smart” genes is not required for any healthy individual to achieve mastery in any chosen field. What IS required is effort. This includes down-to-Earth self-discipline and persistence. Cognitive science tells us that these exertions change the brain’s structure creating new connections and capabilities. Importantly, learning builds upon itself, so the more you learn, the more you can learn. We each have great potential. What matters most is the degree to which we are inspired to develop this potential.
2. Kinds of Memory
Broadly speaking, we have two kinds of memory: short and long, each held at a different location in the brain. Short-term memory, often referred to as “working memory”, is your capacity to hold onto ideas and relationships within an immediate time frame. Most all of us are severely limited in our short-term memory, which is leaky by design. This is to say it’s not a fault that your short-term memory is limited. Rather it’s a feature. We live in the now. We always have. And we always will. It’s easier to make sense of the now without the distractions of the zillion things that have happened in the past and the zillion things that could happen in the future.
Aside from a good sleep and general health, there’s not much any of us can do to increase our short-term working memory. But this should not be of concern. The size of one’s working memory is pale in comparison to the capacity of one’s long-term memory. Long-term memory is that reservoir of knowledge and skills residing outside our conscious thought. While short-term memory is limited (by design), our potential for building long-term memories is substantial, if not boundless.
When we talk about learning, we’re talking about consolidating information that passes through short-term memory into that huge reservoir of long-term memory. Consolidation has its beginnings as you are first introduced to new information. The memory, however, remains tenuous unless you start to work with that information, which can include articulating that information in your own words.
With learning, however, there’s much more involved than just lodging a new thought into some corner of the brain. No thought exists in a vacuum. Rather each thought is pretty well defined by all the surrounding thoughts. In addition to securing a thought to memory, you need the opportunity to build the connections between the new thought and older ones—the new idea needs to be personalized in the context of what you already know. Experience is perhaps the best avenue to the building of these connections, which is how hands-on activities and group interactions can be so effective at strengthening the your ability to learn.
3. Learning is a two-step process
1) Input of information
2) Output of information
The first step is being introduced to the material. This is an input process that is relatively easy to accomplish. Examples include reading a textbook, attending a lecture, or watching a video lesson. This leads to a temporary view of the overarching picture. The second step is trying to express that material yourself. This is an output process that requires a significant amount of additional effort. Examples include, solving problems related to the material or re-articulating the ideas to a friend. This leads to a nuanced, deeper, and more durable understanding of the material. All that you don’t know quickly becomes apparent. This can be uncomfortable and discouraging. It may also feel unproductive. But it’s the beginning of the path to understanding, which, for the struggling student, also leads to better exam scores.
For any learning strategy to be effective, it must encompass both steps. Furthermore, the more effective learning strategies have a stronger emphasis on the more difficult second step. It’s this second step that is the most effective in placing new information into long-term memory, and strengthening the communications between our short and long term memory banks.
Learning is not a simple process of “receive and you shall absorb”, as though we were computers. Rather, learning requires effort. This includes self-discipline and persistence. No one is exempt. That’s the hard news.
The exciting news is that within each of us there lies this massive potential. We can become “smarter”. In fact, as described in Make It Stick, over the past century average IQ’s have risen. As measured on standardized IQ tests, an IQ of 100 today would equal that of an IQ of 118 about 80 years ago. This increase in our overall “smartness” is attributed to improvements in nutrition as well as the fact that we live in a much more intellectually stimulating environment.
How smart you are or wish to be is less a matter of genetic destiny and more a matter of whether or not you live in a social environment that values and supports learning. You have great potential. We all do. That’s what makes us human. We are all built to learn.
Do you think you now “get” the above three key ideas? If so, you should be able to explain them to others. Most everyone, however, will find themselves resisting doing exactly that. Why? Because it requires effort, and sitting smug with fresh ideas placed in your mind feels so comfortable.
After you read a great novel, are you compelled to describe the details to others? Certainly not. A common excuse is that you wouldn’t want to “ruin” some one else’s experience. By remaining silent, those very details, for you, become fleeting. After a month or so, all that remains is the memory of having enjoyed the novel. For a novel, this may be fine. But when it comes to learning details that matter, such as those of art, history, mathematics, and the rules of nature (science) there’s a higher calling to have many of these details at our command throughout our lives. It becomes essential that we follow through with the second step of learning.
What next? How about actually trying to explain the above three key ideas to others? And then as a follow through, how about actually reading the full article on “How To Study Effectively” where you’ll be introduced to a list of specific techniques shown to be effective at making learning durable. Important stuff!