Learn To Learn: The Science Of Successful Study


Photo Credit: Jewish Press

I passed by the school where I studied as a boy
and said in my heart: here I learned certain things
and didn’t learn others. All my life I have loved in vain
the things I didn’t learn. I am filled with knowledge,
I know all about the flowering of the tree of knowledge,
the shape of its leaves, the function of its root system, its pests and parasites.
I’m an expert on the botany of good and evil,
I’m still studying it, I’ll go on studying till the day I die.
I stood near the school building and looked in. This is the room
where we sat and learned. The windows of a classroom always open
to the future, but in our innocence we thought it was only landscape
we were seeing from the window.
The schoolyard was narrow, paved with large stones…
Now it outlives us, as if in a museum,
like everything else in Jerusalem – Yehuda Amichai


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Yehuda Amichai’s poem speaks about school and learning, and ultimately about how learning is eternal and continues throughout our lives “till the day [we] die.” In their book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, author Peter Brown and psychology researchers Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel write about the importance of learning – and how to do it right.

There are some immutable aspects of learning that we can probably all agree on: 

First, to be useful, learning requires memory, so what we’ve learned is still there later when we need it. 

Second, we need to keep learning and remembering all our lives. We can’t advance through middle school without some mastery of language arts, math, science, and social studies. Getting ahead at work takes mastery of job skills and difficult colleagues. In retirement, we pick up new interests. In our dotage, we move into simpler housing while we’re able to adapt. If you’re good at learning, you have an advantage in life. 

Third, learning is an acquired skill, and the most effective strategies are often counterintuitive.

That learning is an acquired skill is perhaps a controversial idea. However, if it is true it means we can learn how to learn well! And, that’s just what their book sets out to do: to provide tools, strategies, and stories to help students, teachers, and trainers learn more effectively.

Before we understand how to learn effectively, the authors lay out three common myths about learning:

Mechanical repetition does not develop memory. When you repeat something over and over again (without any real understanding of what it means), you are not necessarily learning anything. The quality, type, and timing of the repetition (spacing out the repetition) is just as important as the number of times you repeat the information.

Recall is not the same as understanding. Just because you can say something does not mean you actually grasp it. Learning through rote question and answer without any comprehension behind the questions or answers is useless later on.

Creativity and knowledge are not separate. In order to be creative, you must have knowledge, and knowledge must be learned. Therefore, people who believe they don’t need to learn anything because they have great creative powers are mistaken. Knowledge forms the base from which creativity is mined.

Now that we understand some of the myths about learning, what are some of the ways that we can actually learn better?

Don’t just read, retrieve. Instead of dreading and avoiding tests and quizzes, embrace them during your learning process. Forcing yourself to retrieve information makes it stick! So, use informal quizzes to test yourself. Ultimately you’ll remember the information more easily.

Mix it up. Don’t stick with one type of problem or one topic. Instead, move from topic to topic and test yourself. Creating connections between different parts of your brain will help you retain the information in the future.

Lean into the hard stuff. When you make a mistake, treat it as an opportunity for learning. When you look for easy ways out, you are only dumbing down the learning process and learning less.

Be honest with yourself. If you don’t know something, don’t pretend you do. This ties into the previous points of testing yourself and leaning into the hard stuff as well. The only way to learn is to avoid illusions of knowing – avoid your comfort zone – and you’ll discover all that you really can learn.

Perhaps most importantly, if you haven’t already adopted one, try working on developing a growth mindset. What’s a growth mindset? Dr. Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford University and the author of the book Mindset: A New Psychology of Success explains that growth mindset is the belief that you can grow and learn, rather than the belief that your abilities are fixed and unchanging. In other words, if you believe that you have the ability to learn, you will!


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