Learning How to Learn (And 20+ Studies)

I’ve been interested in cognitive science and effective learning methods for years. I’ve read multiple books and articles and put many ideas to test. So I thought I’d synthesize my notes into the blog post, add references to scientific studies, and share it with you.

TL;DR

Effective Learning Strategies

  • Distributed learning: study less in each session but more frequently
  • Active recall: actively test your knowledge and skills
  • Distributed recall: space the tests in time and adjust the intervals based on performance
  • Interleaving: practice multiple related yet different skills/concepts simultaneously
  • Elaborative interrogation (quiz-and-recall): ask yourself questions and use the material you’ve learned to answer them
  • Self-explanation and the Feynman technique: explain what you’ve just learned in simple terms

Physiology and Brain’s Health

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Nutrition

Disclaimer and Introduction

I have no formal background in cognitive science or neuroscience and this has been more of a side interest. My understanding is limited and I still need to learn how to effectively and consistently apply all these ideas to practice.

That being said, I found some of the methods described in this article very useful. For example, I’ve used them to learn foreign languages, the basics of programming, and various disciplines covered during the two-year MBA program.

Effective Learning Strategies

Strategy #1: Distributed (Spaced) Learning Practice

In short, it’s better to distribute one’s practice over a period of time than cram it into one day.

In one study elementary school students were asked to study in one of the three ways: massed, clumped, and spaced.

  • Massed = four lessons at a time
  • Clumped = two lessons on one day and two lessons on the next day
  • Spaced = one lesson per day for four days

The “spaced” group performed best, followed by the “clumped” group:

Another study compared comprehension scores under three different conditions:

  1. Read a text once (“single”)
  2. Read a text twice (“massed”)
  3. Read a text twice with a week-long gap (“distributed”)

When tested immediately, the second group performed best. But when tested with a delay of two days, the third group performed best.

This method is also superior for learning motor skills.

How to apply this in practice:

Create a learning schedule or find time to practice a little bit every day or every few days instead of cramming all your learning into one or just a few days.

If you’d like to learn more, read the Wikipedia article on distributed practice.

Strategy #2: Active Recall (Retrieval) Practice

It might be more effective to actively retrieve the information you’ve already learned than passively re-read or try to learn it once again.

One study that compared a method that emphasized study sessions with a method that emphasized tests and found the latter to be more effective for delayed recall.

  • SSSS = four study sessions
  • SSST = three study sessions, followed by one test
  • STTT = one study session, followed by three tests

Even imagining that you might be tested on the material you’re learning might help improve the recall.

How to apply this in practice:

If a few days ago you learned how past tense works in the Spanish language, try to remember the rules or even test yourself on your knowledge — instead of simply re-reading the same material once again.

You can read more about the active recall practice on Wikipedia.

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Book Notes: Superforecasting

Just finished reading “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction” by Philip Tetlock. The book is similar to Nate Silver’s “The Signal and The Noise” in many ways.

I’d definitely recommend this one if you’re interested in the application of the scientific mindset to forecasting of future events.

Here is a quote to give you sense of what to expect:

“Suppose someone says, “Unfortunately, the popularity of soccer, the world’s favorite pastime, is starting to decline.” You suspect he is wrong. How do you question the claim?

Don’t even think of taking a personal shot like “You’re silly.” That only adds heat, not light. “I don’t think so” only expresses disagreement without delving into why you disagree. “What do you mean?” lowers the emotional temperature with a question but it’s much too vague. Zero in. You might say, “What do you mean by ‘pastime’?” or “What evidence is there that soccer’s popularity is declining? Over what time frame?” The answers to these precise questions won’t settle the matter, but they will reveal the thinking behind the conclusion so it can be probed and tested. Since Socrates, good teachers have practiced precision questioning, but still it’s often not used when it’s needed most.”

Book Notes: Waking Up by Sam Harris

I just wanted to share some excerpts from Waking Up by Sam Harris that I listened to a couple of months ago. It is a great book that covers so many topics: mindfulness, meditation, neuroscience, cognition, emotions and others. It is worth reading in its entirety and I am personally planning to re-read it. So here are some notes:

“Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.”

“There is now little question that how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes. Our minds—and lives—are largely shaped by how we use them.”

“My mind begins to seem like a video game: I can either play it intelligently, learning more in each round, or I can be killed in the same spot by the same monster, again and again.”

“How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives. Mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages—but a growing body of scientific research now bears it out.”

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2 books about brain: What best neuroscientists can teach us about memory, creativity, society, productivity, work & leadership

Not a long time ago I wrote a post about My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. And during last couple of months I listened to and read 2 more: Brain Rules by John Medina and Your Brain at Work by David Rock. Unlike Jill, they don’t tell their own stories but try to give real life recommendations based on neuroscience research.

John focuses on general principles rules of brain functioning which he covers relatively briefly. David on the other hand provides more of a deep dive in various situations that we face daily, mostly at work but views them through the prism of our brain and its biochemistry. Social concepts, such as status, reward and others are explained through things like oxitocin, dopamin & epinephrin.

Those who find such topics interesting can find my notes below. Plus, a couple of great videos of authors’ talks and one fun Slideshare presentation.

1. Brain Rules by John Medina

I used the actual “brain rules” by John from his website as the basis for my notes and briefly tried to explain main idea of each one.

John Medina

EXERCISE | Rule #1: Exercise boosts brain power.

John recommends various kind of physical activity, especially aerobic one, including long walks. He states that if participants of business meetings walked on treadmills with 1.8 mile/hr speed, they would come up with much more creative ideas, not to mention increased memory and overall well-being. By the way, John takes his own medicine. It took him 15 minutes to adapt to replying to emails while walking.

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Review of awesome My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor

Finished listening to My Stroke of Insight by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor today. It appeared to be as interesting as I expected, so I’d like to share it with you.

Jill is a Harvard PhD who built a highly successful career in science. Everything went just perfect till the moment when she got a stroke on one of her mornings. As a result, she lost almost all of her cognitive and physical skills, but survived. Moreover, eventually she finally recovered which took more than 8 years. Step be step she learned everything: from speech recognition, to walking and reading.

Jill Bolte Taylor

The Book tells her personal story and gives a basic understanding of our brain. According to author our brain functions can be separated by hemispheres: left and right. Right one lives in a present moment and is responsible for our sensory feelings, intuition, and perception of universe as a whole. Left one in turn is our rational mind, future planning, past evaluation, speech, critical thinking, etc.

After the stroke Jill lost functions of left hemisphere. The most interesting part is that despite the loss of cognitive functions, she describes her experience with sincere rapture. She emotionally tells us about feeling of “deep inner piece and bliss” and expresses ideas that I highly connected with a topic of mindful meditation that kind of follows me last month. BTW, here are two awesome Google Talks about it: first, second. I even decided to listen to book of the latter one, but that’s a separate story.

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