Five sure-fire ways to improve learning

In this episode we’re going to explore learning and dig into what the evidence-based research tells us about what helps us learn new concepts. As we were developing this episode, we were initially thinking about those people who attend our workshops or forums. But much of this material is applicable if you are doing some part-time study or if you have children or friends doing more formal study at school or university.  

We hear lots of people talking about all kinds of things when it comes to improving our ability to learn, and you can check our recent mythbuster blog post for examples of what does not work! 

A couple of years ago there was a post on Donald Clark’s blog, which inspired this post about learning. It was this sentence which inspired us: “Learners are delusional when it comes to judgements about their own learning”! We’ll put a link to that in the notes. 

It’s a great line and unfortunately the research is there is back it up, exactly as Donald Clark says. When it comes to learning we tend to think we know what helps us learn… all-nighters anyone? Cramming? Re-reading and highlighting text books? Maybe it’s just us, but it was eye-opening to start reading some of the research and to realise we and others around us had not been using effective processes for studying! 

In this post we will go through five ways to help people learn – starting with two that have the most support from research… spaced practice and retrieval practice. 

Let’s look at spaced practice first. As the name implies, this is distributing your learning over time. Stop thinking you can learn it once and then it’s magically caught inside your head. So as we now know, cramming the night before the exam is not an effective learning strategy! Instead, we should revise the material over time, such as after one day, one week, one month, three months and then at six months, if we want it to really sink in. In the context of exams, the research shows that the benefits of spaced practice kick in after a delay. So if you plan ahead and do the spaced practice, ideally you would then sit the exam a day or two after the last practice.

Why is spaced practice important? Well apparently it’s because we’re boosting our storage strength, which means we’re more likely to retrieve it later. 

The second element is retrieval practice. This is about recalling information over and over again (but spaced out over time as we outlined earlier). This helps strengthen our memory. And the best way of doing this? By doing tests! And we know some of you are shuddering at this point – but remember we are delusional about our learning! 

There are lots of different ways of doing this but one is writing questions on palm cards, with the correct answer on the back, perhaps as just a list of bullet points so you know you’ve covered the important points. Testing allows you to practice retrieving information in the way you would during the exam. If the exam asked you to highlight the important elements on the page, then highlighting the sentences in the textbook would be useful – but unfortunately that’s not how any of the exams we have sat have worked! So we need to practice for what we will be asked to do during the exam. A series of quick practice tests can force us to practice getting that information back out of our head. And the results are clear in the research… this helps people learn! 

There’s a couple of key resources which are well worth having a read through and which we have drawn on for this post. The first is a book called “Make it stick: the science of successful learning” by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel. The second resource is a book called “Understanding how we learn: a visual guide” by Weinstein and Sueracki. As usual, we will put links to these resources in the notes. 

So we’ve covered spaced practice and retrieval practice. Now we want to touch on a third idea, interleaving or mixing it up. This is basically switching between ideas or types of problems, instead of single-mindedly focusing on one thing for too long. Again the research is clear. And you switch around even before you’ve completely covered one topic or before you think you have got it. It makes your brain work and that is great for learning! An example is if you have a process of 10 steps you are teaching people. Typically you would start at one and work through to 10. Interleaving means maybe practising step one a few times, then going to step three, then seven and so on. Basically building a series of exercises that circle around the key skills.

The thing with this is that it feels slower to learn. And people do not necessarily like it! But remember the research says it is effective so you need to stick with it. 

The fourth idea is elaboration. This is embracing the difficult and trying to come up with the answer yourself without being told it. The key thing here is you have to know some of the background to be able to come up with the answers yourself. As long as you get corrective feedback when you have taken a wrong turn, forcing your brain to work like this leads to more learning in the long run. So when you are learning a new concept, take the time to stop and ask yourself questions about how and why things work. In the ‘Understanding how we learn’ book, they give examples of using ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. One is learning about the Pearl Harbour attack. The questions are: 

  1. How did this attack happen?
  2. Why did this happen?
  3. What was the result of this historic event? and
  4. Why is this event important?  

The goal is always to help you explain the main concepts of whatever you are learning.

The fifth idea for effective learning is that of always seeking feedback. This is one thing that has stood out, primarily because listening to people talk about this has highlighted that we tend to think of feedback as being negative – like the grade from an exam. But the learning research says that seeking corrective feedback helps you learn. An example in the book ‘Making it stick’ talks about working alongside a more experienced partner – and there are lots of ways that happens in the world, such as first officers flying planes with Captains (more experienced pilots) alongside them. We have been thinking about how to do this as enablers of change. And really it is taking advantage of situations to get feedback from colleagues wherever you can. For example, Denise has been co-facilitating with a colleague and asking for feedback from her. Another example is the APEN mentoring scheme where you can be paired with someone who has more experience than you in a particular area. Of course this does not have to be from an older person to a younger one. A proficient young social media user could mentor an older person wanting to use these tools more effectively.

So we have touched on five concepts that can help people learn. What can we take away from this as enablers of change? Well the first thing is to remember that giving people what they think they need is not necessarily going to help them learn – remember that we are delusional about our own learning! However this isn’t a licence to torture people, but it is being clear about why you might be running a workshop in a particularly way or moving them onto the next step, because you know that interleaving helps and that you’ll come back to what you were just covering. 

A second thing is that doing short quizzes with people is helping them retrieve information and helping identify gaps in their knowledge. Now as mostly we’re dealing with adults, the trick is to make sure this doesn’t look and sound like something bad that happened to you at school! So we need to make quizzes fun, and just part of how you do things. 

And the final thing to remember is that drowning people with information is not helpful. Lab Wilson, a facilitator and trainer Denise has worked with in New Zealand, says that we need to focus on topping up, not tipping in! Remember, people come with their own experiences. A good adult learning principle is to start by finding out what they already know, rather than assuming you have to tell them everything.

So you’ve read our thoughts on learning and some ideas we have picked up from the research in this area. Now we would like to hear yours! We don’t want this just to be a one-way conversation so join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us. Add a comment below this blog post and tell us what you’ve learnt from the research on learning and what have you used in your day-to-day practice that has helped.

Thanks folks for reading this Enablers of change blog post. Remember to tell your friends if you’ve liked what you read, so we can get more people into the conversation about enabling change.

Resources

Brown, Peter C., Roediger III, Hery L., and McDoniel, Mark A. (2014). Make it stick: the science of successful learning. Harvard University Press.

Weinstein, Yana, Sumeracki, Megan, and Caviglioi, Oliver (2018). Understanding how we learn: a visual guide. Routledge.

Donald Clark blog http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com/ and particularly this post: http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com/2018/11/

The Learning Scientists: https://www.learningscientists.org/

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Graham Harris
Graham Harris
4 months ago

Thanks John and Denise – a great set of concepts on learning. I particularly like the concept of topping up, not tipping in.

David Jago
4 months ago

This is so, so true! And my (ahem) anecdotal evidence from high school proves it.   I was pretty fortunate that assessment in my years 11 & 12 was basically either essay assignments or end of semester exams. For the former I would happily go off to the Uni library and compile excellent essays. For the latter, I would swot up the night before and my you-beaut short term memory did the rest.   Almost all the short term stuff is long gone. A surprising amount of the assignment stuff still sticks after 40+ years.   So yes, I reckon… Read more »