January 31, 2022
How We Learn: 6 Science-Based Tips to Maximize Comprehension, Memory and Learning
Individually, we can differ in what works best for us when it comes to learning. But sometimes, what we think we know are just common misconceptions we suffer from, as studies show. Some of our well-intentioned but unproductive habits are learned.
For instance, do you prefer studying in complete silence?
Do you have a designated workspace?
Do you know for sure if studying up late into the wee hours of the morning works (or fails) every time?
If you have a total of 10 hours to study a subject, is it better to consume most of it one go, or is there a way to optimally distribute that time among days?
In his book How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, science journalist Benedict Carey answers these questions and more, with the help of scientific studies as well as his own experiences.
- Make Sure You Have A Satisfactory Sleep Schedule
If there is one thing scientists and other experts agree on is that you need to wake up rested. To achieve this, you need to regularly get a good night’s sleep—especially the night before you are learning, and the day you need to remember what you have learned.
Why? Because you also need to be able to recall and apply what you studied.
So, no matter how busy you are, put an effort into getting as much sleep as you need - which depends on several factors like age, sleep quality, and beyond - on a regular basis.
In 2007, Harvard and McGill University researchers conducted a study on memory. Participants in two groups looked at pairs of different colored eggs, and each pair had a different ranking. The participants had no trouble remembering when they were tested right after. But then came the “twist.” They were tested again after being given a certain amount of time between their studying and the test-taking.
The crucial distinction was one group’s “time between” included a night’s sleep. The other group didn’t sleep; They just took the test in the evening after they had studied that morning. Which group tested better do you think? Yes, you guessed it: the group that slept. Their scores were 93% vs. 69%.
So, it was proven that sleep matters when it came to memory. But not all stages of sleep are created equal - different stages of sleep are more important depending on the types of tasks you are looking to perform.
You don’t sleep in the same manner throughout the night, hence the stages of sleep: There are 4 stages of sleep: 3 Non-REM (rapid eye movement) stages and 1 REM stage.
Meaning, if you have an exam tomorrow and still need time to study, whether you should stay up late studying or rise with the birds depends on the nature of the subject.
Learning a new language and need to remember a lot of vocabulary? Then go to bed early. But if you need to think creatively, you’ll be better off studying longer into the night.
The reason for the dissimilarity is simple: REM is associated with creative thinking and occurs within the first 1,5 hours of going to sleep. During REM, you are not sleeping deeply and this is when your vivid dreams occur.
We’ve looked at the relationship between sleep and learning. Now, let’s move on to some other practical ways to learn faster and more effectively.
- Spice Things Up: Why Routine Might Discourage Learning
Whenever someone feels stuck on any kind of project or learning activity, the first piece of advice offered is usually “Change things up.”
Whether we make the change by working on the subject at a different time or another venue, this tip has scientific merit.
Take a minute to think about how you like to learn.
Do you like to study in complete silence, or do you put music on? If you put a song on, does the genre matter? Do you feel you learn better or worse if the song has lyrics?
Various experiments and studies have been conducted throughout the years, testing the effects of the environment on both learning and later remembering the materials the participants studied during the sessions.
The experiments and studies varied things up and tested different environmental cues, going even as far as testing learning underwater vs. on land.
And certain findings were not so surprising. For instance, participants who learned with music in the background did better than the group who studied without music, even if the music that was played during the learning vs. during the testing were not the same.
But it is difficult, if not impossible, to recreate your learning environment when you are being tested. Therefore, scientists have concluded that there is only one thing you can trust to increase your success: Change your environment as much as you can as you learn. Change venues, deploy different note-taking methods, play with the noise, and so forth. As Carey concludes: “Each alteration of the routine further enriches the skills being rehearsed, making them sharper and more accessible for a longer period of time.”
- Distribute Study Time
Known as distributed learning or the spacing effect, psychologists recommend that you don’t study all at once.
While a lot of us tend to procrastinate and leave the studying to the absolute last minute, our memory serves us better if we don’t cram.
Even if last-minute learning occasionally serves us with immediate results such as higher test scores, it makes it harder for us to retain the information as time passes by.
Think about how so many of us think we are bad at remembering people’s names. It’s because we tend to hear the new acquaintance’s name repeatedly in a short period of time, but then it’s not mentioned again. By the end of the party, if not by the end of the introductory conversation, our memory has already failed us. But what if we learned their name, then heard it again an hour later, and once more before the end of the night? Chances are, we would remember the next time we see this person.
So, if you want to keep what you have learned with you for a long time, space it out. Review after a certain time has passed. The more repeating, the better.
- Quiz yourself and explain what you’ve learned to others help cement what you know.
When you studied in school, you probably found your comprehension of and fluency in a subject increased after you tried teaching it to someone else.
This is because, as researchers have found time and time again, reciting information is more effective for memory retention than simply reading information. A form of self-examination, the concept is called pre-testing. Among the researchers was Colombia University psychologist Arthur Gates who noted that “the best results are obtained by introducing recitation after devoting about 40% of the time to reading.”
Studies also show that even if you were tested about a subject before studying, this pre-test would later help you learn and remember better.
- Get Interrupted!
We’ve often been told that distractions and interruptions are the enemy of productivity, as well as efficient learning.
The good news is, this is also a common misconception.
Your breaks can be short or long. It can be a physical exercise, an unrelated errand, or simply switching from one thing you need to learn to another.
These interruptions clear your head. It might even help you become more focused without you noticing.
In addition to several studies, author Benedict Carey found this to be the case when he took his daughter to work one day. While he was busy writing, his daughter opted to note down his behavior. He thought he had only completed his assignment, but his work trance included phone calls, involuntary physical movements, breaks and beyond.
More interrupted time gives us clarity, more freedom, new ideas, and fresher perspectives. Writers are often advised to take a break when they feel blocked, but this piece of advice is sound for any learner of any subject.
- Improve Your Perceptual intuition
Often in life, we are required to make snap judgments in complex situations. Take a professional baseball player. How does he decide so quickly whether to swing at a fastball? There is so much information to take in at once: how high is the ball? How fast is it traveling? Is it curving?
Chess players and pilots also have this incredible, fast decision-making capability. And they weren’t born with it. It’s acquired through perceptual learning, which leads to perceptual intuition.
To acquire perceptual intuition, “we can use perceptual learning modules.” These help us block out the noise and focus on what matters. (Perceptual learning modules are visual aids like pictures or short videos.)
We covered some of the learning misconceptions and how to increase your comprehension as well as your performance in an efficient matter.
What happens if you test the study findings and some of them don’t necessarily work for you? You go back to your tried and tested methods, knowing you’ve truly optimized how you learn. And that’s no small feat.
- Benedict Carey, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens (Paperback, Random House, 2015 edition.)
- Eric J. Olson, M.D., **“How many hours of sleep are enough for good health?”, Mayo Clinic.