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Learning

There are things that are hard, impossible even, to learn. Something like inspiration for example. How easy would it be if I could just look up how to be inspired to write the perfect start to an essay and use it whenever I write one? Unfortunately, the inspired words to write an introduction for this paper were not coming until I realized that even this was inspiration of sorts. On the other hand, luckily, there are a great many things that one can learn. Things like swimming or mathematics, or even learning itself. 

From the moment we are born humans learn. Babies spend hours looking at their hands and once they develop the muscles to move their heads and their bodies they spend hours looking around and figuring out how the things in the world around them work. Everything must be grabbed, (almost) eaten and thrown around. Babies are the best learners there are, they absorb an entire language just by listening and literally figure out from scratch how to move their bodies. And who could forget, if they are not doing this, they are sleeping, which, turns out, is one of the most important things for effective learning (Born et al., 2006), something students would be well advised to keep in mind, yes I am talking to you :D. 

Once they move on from babyhood, they turn into children whose favourite word is why and everything is questioned, from the colour of the sky, to why dinosaurs are extinct when they are so cool or why mommy and daddy know so much. As time goes on these children will go to school, where they learn social interaction and such things as trigonometry and how to analyse poems. Eventually, all this learning culminates in their entry to university or with the learning of a trade, where learning becomes their full-time job. Compared to school, learning suddenly becomes something that can no longer be done on the side if one wants to do well. And so, especially in university, we turn to highlighting, re-reading, cramming and pulling all-nighters in an attempt to make sure to do well on the exam tomorrow that we started to learn for today. Attempts like these are of course futile, the problem is, however, that many of us do not know much better. Neither in school nor at university (so far) was I taught how to learn properly. For institutions that focus on such a thing, this seems like a remarkable oversight. It is not that there are no better “tricks” or more precisely learning strategies, it is just that no time is spent on teaching them. Luckily for us, cognitive psychology has figured out what we can do better to make sure that the information we want to learn actually sticks.

To understand why the techniques that are commonly mentioned in the literature work, it is helpful to look into how our brain learns. Making memories is divided into three steps: acquisition, storage and retrieval. For a piece of information to be successfully learned, these steps are all needed. Take the name of a distant cousin as an example, you probably know it and if someone told you, you would instantly recognize it but it just doesn’t come to mind. Here we have a problem with retrieval - you surely know the name, given that you can recognize it but you don’t actively know it. This is the case with a lot of information we theoretically have stored but practically cannot recall. Something similar we find in re-reading, one learning strategy that is often used by students and almost more often ripped apart by researchers as terribly ineffective. (Dunlosky et al. 2013). When re-reading we often feel like we know what we are reading, in that we recognize the content, but if someone were to quiz us on it we’d hardly recall anything. The problem with re-reading is that it is a shallow way of processing information (Reisberg, 2018), we do not meaningfully and deeply engage with information. We understand the words but not what they mean apart from their face value. 

Neural connections between two cells are often compared to paths that connect two points. At first, there is no path, no connection, but once it is formed it becomes progressively easier to walk it. I want to expand this image by adding the importance of background information, something that makes learning new information much easier. 

Imagine that you just moved to a new city. The movers just brought in the last crates and now you are hungry. You hadn’t had the time yet to find the nearest supermarket yet but you know that saw one near a church out of the car earlier. You are feeling adventurous and decide to try and find the supermarket without using your phone. So think back to where the church must be and make your way there. After some searching, you finally find it, from here is just a few more meters and you are at the supermarket to finally get your well-deserved meal, moving can be tough.

New information is essentially a path like the one you took to the supermarket. The church is background information in our example. Because you can attach the new information to some other piece of background information, you strengthen your memory of the path. Background information serves as a memory aid that makes it easier to relate new information to it (Reisberg, 2018). An example I recently observed was my brother as he tried to memorize Latin vocabulary for his medical studies. Given that English has stolen a lot of Latin words, such as rabies or scabies, he had an easy time remembering these words as he already knew them in English and so he spent less time learning them than other words that are not English.

Here we are doing the opposite of shallow processing, i.e. deep processing. This means that we are engaging with the information at hand in a meaningful way, we try to make sense of it in context (Reisberg, 2018). 

This meaningful engagement with information is what makes some learning strategies more effective than others. It turns out that children with why as their favourite word learn so quickly because they are doing something the literature calls elaborative interrogation. When asking ourselves why the things we know or want to learn work the way they do, we are required to go back to our background knowledge which in turn makes it easier for us to remember information. (Dunlosky et al., 2013)

This seems to me like an indicator that we should dispense with some of the learning techniques that most of us students use in favour of returning to our inner child.
Another thing that I think we would do well to copy from children is to return to a more active state of being, especially when it comes to learning. Children are always out and about, trying to figure out how things work. This would serve us well too, as active engagement is just another aspect of meaningful engagement. A paper by Marc Augustin (2013) explains that through actively recalling information we find it much easier to retain the information. Instead of re-reading for example, which barely helps to memorize information (Dunlosky et al., 2013), should we ask ourselves questions, i.e. test ourselves if we can actually recall the information or if we have just passively stored it. Self-testing is currently viewed as the most effective learning strategy there is (Dunlosky et al., 2013; Augustin, 2013; Reisberg, 2018, Camp, 2020).
This effectiveness stems from several causes. To begin with, we are forced to actively recall the information to be able to answer it. This means that we strengthen the neural pathways meaning that we can recall it even more easily next time. It also means that if we do not recall immediately, we have to activate our background knowledge to trace back what we have already learned. This also makes retrieval easier. Self-testing also points us to where we are still lacking. If we find that we struggle to answer certain topics, we can devote more time to them so we know them better in the future. 

There is one more learning strategy that is commonly mentioned in the literature, which is spaced repetition or distributed practice. This is essentially the opposite of cramming. Instead of trying to force all information into our heads in one sitting, we schedule out learning sessions a few days apart. I view this one as a sort of meta-strategy because apart from the timing of your studying it doesn’t prescribe a certain way of studying. To achieve full effect from a study session it would then seem ideal to combine self-testing and spaced repetition. This could even be combined with interleaved practice which has the student alternate between topics essentially performing short-term spaced repetition (Dunlosky et al., 2013), to create the ultimate learning strategy. 

As you can see, there is more to learning than just highlighting and re-reading. I like to think of learning strategies as similar to diets. Most work you just have to stick to them long enough to reap the benefits. All these strategies aim to allow us to learn information for the long-term instead for just the next exam, something I certainly have been guilty of that I have grown to dislike as I am not here for the grades but to actually learn something. This realization took me some time to arrive at. I hope you, dear reader, will get there quicker than I did.
 

Good luck learning!


 

References for nerds :D:   

Augustin M. (2014). How to learn effectively in medical school: test yourself, learn actively, and repeat in intervals. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 87(2), 207–212.

Born, J., Rasch, B., & Gais, S. (2006). Sleep to Remember. The Neuroscientist, 12(5), 410–424. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858406292647

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). What works, what doesn’t. Scientific American Mind, 46-53. 

Reisberg, D. (2018). Cognition: Exploring the Science of the Mind (Seventh Edition) (Seventh ed.). New York City, United States of America: W. W. Norton & Company.

Camp, G. (2020, December 1). Video clip Homework assignment 1 Maastricht University selection Medicine [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-_cUBwxbkM&feature=youtu.be


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