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Forget to Learn: The One Surprising Science-based Key to Durable Learning


Here is how to really mess up your own learning, according to science: put your faith in fluency. "Fluency" is the term cognitive psychologists use to describe the momentary (and it turns out delusional) feeling "hey, I got this!" after you have reread something several times. You know the feeling, you have "gone over your notes/practice problems" many times and you are feeling good. Or you have "gone over that important presentation" many times are feeling like you got it.

You don't. Distrust this feeling of "fluency."

Rereading and repetition are the conventional wisdom--and they don't work. Sorry. But I have good news about what DOES work. Read on.

The bottom line: you have to forget to learn

I can sum it up in one sentence: we don't learn by what goes into the mind, but by what comes out of it. Read that again. It sounds counterintuitive but we really do need to forget in order to learn.

We need to

  1. learn something

  2. forget it

  3. recall it

Depending on how important the information is, we may need to do this many times, maybe teach it to others, put it into our own words, and apply it to other things we know.

A good simple rule: 1/3 of your time should be spent reviewing new material and 2/3 should be spent in recalling new material.

Forgetting...that's the one key to durable learning. For other surprising and practical learning tips, read on.

This is a summary of "Make it Stick"

Brown, Peter C. (2014). Make it stick : the science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts :The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,

This book changed my approach to learning and teaching. And what do I personally do with the knowledge I gained from this book? Two main things changed right away: (1) I read a lot but now have replaced some reading time with recall time and (2) I ask my students to recall information (at the beginning of class, without notes), elaborate, generate and apply new knowledge much more frequently and use more frequent low stakes testing.

3 Keys to Durable Learning

1. Do what works - recall it, rehearse it and link it to what else you know

Retrieval, rehearsal and elaboration is what we should be doing. The more we force our minds to recall information (to "go get it" from where it is in mind) the more we will own it and consolidate it into our longer-term memory. Retrieval practice can take the form of just closing a book or notes and forcing yourself to recall them. Or it can be teaching it to someone else or testing or quizzing yourself.

Rehearsing is practicing the use of new knowledge through either visualization, simulation or embodied action.

Elaboration is the connecting new knowledge with existing knowledge.

How to do it - spaced practice, interwoven and varied

The researchers differentiate between massed, blocked practice and spaced, interleaved practice. The research is very clear that the latter is superior but often feels less effective.

Massed, blocked practice can be illustrated by the young student learning how to write code and just keeps trying the same thing again and again and again. Many believe that this focused, vigilant approach is laudable and therefore effective for learning. While it might be a sign of resilience, it is not a sign of learning.

What is more effective is to spacing and what they call "interleaving". Spacing refers to taking breaks and pauses between practice sessions. Ironically, spacing leads to some forgetting which turns out to be very important for learning. Interleaving refers to the mixing up of skills or concepts or areas of knowledge. It is more effective for the student to practice coding for a time, then switch to, for example, learning about hardware, and then go back to coding. A golfer should not just practice one swing again and again. This gives the feeling of "fluency" but the superior way of practicing would be to practice your irons for 15 minutes, switch to woods, then to putting, then to chipping and repeat.

Varied refers to a surprising finding from years of research: consistency is overrated. I know we have heard we should "get a quiet place to study and get into the habit of using it as your place to focus". But it turns out that varying the places where you study and learn is actually better. Go to the library a few times but then also try reviewing or testing yourself (or others) on the same information in a classroom.

Other Cool Stuff to incorporate and keep in mind

  • The "testing effect" or the recall practice effect is very effective in moving thoughts and ideas from the short-term memory to the long-term memory part of the brain.

  • Frequent "low stakes" testing and low stakes quizzing with slight delays in feedback provide better learning and are often rated higher by students.

  • The learning cycle: new information is encoded into memory traces and then consolidated and organized and then connected to existing information and through retrieval and use it enters the long-term memory from the short-term memory. The translation of sensory input into mental models is called "encoding" and "memory traces".

  • Consolidation is the process of new knowledge becoming organized and solid within the brain much like a rough draft becoming a final draft.

  • Failure is key to learning. This is true not just because you learn from failure but because the search for answers and solutions itself prepares the mind for learning.

  • Contextual interference is when learning is interrupted or haulted for the sake of reflection and consolidation. For example, this could be when a lecture is stopped to see what students are learning or misunderstanding. Or it could mean reviewing information in a different order than was presented in class or for a teacher in a different order than was presented in a book.

  • Generation is important mental effort of thinking forward to a solution before the solution (or even the process for developing a solution) is provided.

  • Variation is changing the context and methods for teaching and learning.

Rule learning and structure building. This is what great learners do. They don't just learn new knowledge, but use new knowledge to create larger mental models and frameworks that can applied creatively and expansively across contexts. For example,

  • one kid might learn from buying cheap fireworks and re-selling them to his friends for a profit. And he might learn simply: cheap fireworks can make me a profit. Where can I get more cheap fireworks?

  • Another kid might have the same experience and achieve a higher level of learning by creating rules and structure-based lesson: if I can buy something of value at a lower cost and resell it at a higher price, I can make a profit. Where else can I apply this new money-making rule?

A word on learning styles: there is no peer-reviewed research to suggest that learning styles correlate to improved learning. In fact, some research has shown that varying learning methods, even for those with a preferred method, improves overall learning.

2. Commit to the three keys to powerful life-long learning:

  • Embrace a growth mindset: research suggests performance and learning are improved if you tell yourself (or your team, your students, your kids, etc.) the truth about the mind's "plastic" nature, that it is always growing and can be changed through practice. Your mind is changing and changeable!

  • Practice like an expert: It is true what you coach (or music instructor) said: practice like you will play and you will play like you practice. Simulate how the new knowledge, skill or value will be used in the "real world" and practice that as much as possible. Vary the settings, opponents, conditions, types of songs, levels of difficulty. Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. Determine what your craft is and practice it as often as you can, in as many ways as you can and get feedback from the best people you can.

  • Construct memory cues: mnemonic devices (rhyming, etc.) and memory palaces are powerful cognitive technologies used by "memory athletes"

3. Guard Against Illusions of Learning

We are experts at deluding ourselves. Motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, memory inflation, false consensus and a whole host of well-document psychological mechanisms can keep us from understanding the truth of what we know and don't know, how we come across to others and what is really happening around us. How can we guard against these "illusions of learning"?

The book suggests the following:

  • Test yourself with regularity using somekind of objective measures

  • Compare yourself to high-performing others in your field

  • Gain feedback from others you trust and who will be painfully honest with you

  • Use information from real-world settings and experiences. The simple habit of reflecting on your day can help you see your performance more objectively. Were you really as good as you thought you were? Or were you really as bad as you felt? Make notes on specific strengths and weaknesses in your performance.

Final Word - Wrestle the Bear

The harder the mind works, the more durable the learning. That is a simple but perhaps inconvenient finding of the research. John McPhee's immortal words in his advice to a young writer with writer's block published in The New Yorker (April 29, 2013): "Delete the whimpering and go wrestle the bear."

Dive into it. Remember the simple rule at the beginning as a good starting point: 1/3 of your time to review material and 2/3 of your time to recall the information without notes, link it to what you already know and apply it.

Special gift if you made it this far.....this infographic summarizes the book "Make it Stick"

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