Being smart means being a good learner. While we are taught many things in our school careers, it is rare that we are actually taught how to learn.
Learning covers a broad range of skills and processes that come together to help us take in new information and then use it in the challenges and opportunities of our daily lives. This article includes a few key concepts to help you better understand how to make the most of learning: how to be smart about getting smarter.
The Ins And Outs of Learning: Encoding and Retrieving Information
There are two main parts to learning new material:
- Encoding or taking in the information
- Retrieval or getting the information out
Often, we spend most of our time trying to take in, or encode, information – by reading, reciting, listening or watching. However, the most powerful way to get new material to stick is to practice retrieving it from your memory. After all, this is what you will have to do on the test, or in life, to actually use the information.
Tips For Effective Encoding
- Connections are King: The best way to learn something new is to connect it to something known. This helps our brains make sense of the new information and encode, or store, it better in our brains. In addition, the more connections an idea has, the better we are able to get to it: imagine trying to get to a central location with many different possible routes, versus a remote location with only one narrow road leading to it.
- Mnemonics for New Learning: A mnemonics is a memory device, often using silly or bizarre phrases to help remember facts, names, or a sequence of events. For example, to remember the 9 planets of our solar system, try: My Very Excellent Mother Jackie Sent Us Nine Pizzas.
- Say it Loud, Say it Proud: An oral recap of what you’ve learned can help your brain process and store new information. Create a habit of telling someone (partner, parent, friend) what you’ve learned. More of a loner? Summarize what you learned today into a tape recorder.
- Focus Pocus: A large part of being “smart” is knowing what to block out and how to inhibit our reactions to incoming information. We develop deeper, more sustained knowledge when we don’t have to switch our attention from stimulus to stimulus. While studying, turn off phones, close unneeded PC windows, and try not to engage in unrelated conversations.
- Gimme a Break: Our brain needs time to process and integrate new information. With constant stimulation, we learn less; with down time such as sleeping, walking in nature (not the busy, stimulating city), or being quiet, we learn more. Taking a quick (5-15 min) break at regular intervals while studying or doing homework can lead to much more productive learning. So when your 2nd grader asks for a cookie 5 minutes into homework time, she’s just being a good learner. 🙂
Tips For Retrieval Practice
- To Err is Awesome: Making errors can actually help the brain learn – as long as they are corrected. Every time you make an error, your brain is going to pay a lot more attention to the correct answer than it would if you were just “studying” it.
- Test Early, Test Often: Because errors make such an impact, testing yourself is the best way to study. Give yourself a pre-test, even before you’ve looked at the material. Correct your errors, study, take the test again. Rinse and repeat.
- The Write Stuff: Practice retrieving information by writing it or saying it out loud to another person. This engages a different part of your brain than just “thinking” the answer to yourself.
- Each One, Teach One: For students of all ages, “playing teacher” can be a very effective way to study. Have young students teach you how to do a math problem or show you how to read long vowels: ask a lot of curious questions and help them explain the answers when they don’t know. If you are an older student, try teaching a younger sibling or friend to make sure you really “get it”.
The Illusion of Mastery: For students who know it today and forget it tomorrow
One of the most common conundrums presented by students is the mystery of disappearing knowledge. It may seem that the student is an expert one day and then forgets everything the next, as if their mind were a sieve.
This is because practicing a skill over and over can sometimes create an illusion of mastery, where the information is available in our immediate memory, but does not get encoded into our long-term memory. Young students may find themselves spending hours on extended homework that seems to lead nowhere. Older students may find themselves cramming for tests, but then forgetting everything as soon as the test is over (which makes studying for the next exam even more difficult!)
Conquering the Illusion of Mastery
There are two important concepts for conquering the illusion of mastery:
- Spaced Practice and
- Mixed Practice
Spaced Practice means practicing a new skill in small chunks over an extended period of time. Giving the brain small chunks of new information at a time helps it better incorporate the new skills, just like it’s easier to swallow smaller bites of food. Spacing learning out over a longer period of time gives your brain time to rest and refresh.
Mixed Practice means mixing the new, more difficult skill in with older, mastered skills. For example, when learning a new math skill, students may practice by mixing in the new type of problem with other, known types of problems. This helps build connections between old and new skills, as well as give the brain a break, similar to choosing a running course with a balanced mix of difficult hills and easier flats. Not to mention, students gain a boost of confidence as they adeptly solve easier problems amid the difficult ones.
This is the opposite of cramming. While cramming before a test may help you in the short term, the information won’t stick for the long term: it creates an illusion of mastery. Spaced and mixed practice allows information to fully integrate into your knowledge base for now and for future use.
Knowledge builds on itself: the more you know, the easier it is to learn. This is because our brain thrives on its ability to make connections between old and new knowledge. Be sure each new skill is solidly placed so that the next set of skills has something to connect to!
Tips for Spaced Practice
- Set a longer time for homework. Allow for breaks and alternate activities to help create “pockets” of time to learn the new skill.
- Split up the new information into pieces and master one at a time.
- Create shorter stints of studying during the week before a test, break the material into smaller parts, and allow your brain time to rest in between. The information will be more firmly encoded in your memory and will stick around for future use!
Tips for Mixed Practice
- For math, create practice worksheets that mix in new problems with old.
- Use flashcards that are a mix of known and unknown items. This is particularly effective for vocabulary, history facts, or spelling.
- For large amounts of information, you may wish to incorporate just a few new elements in with the old. For example, in a stack of 10 vocabulary words, incorporate 3 new ones at a time. Don’t try to learn all the new material at once.
Sleep On It: The importance of sleep in learning
Sleep performs many critical functions for learning and memory. For children and adults alike, skimping on sleep has significant consequences on our ability to focus, take in new information, retrieve old information, and regulate our emotions.
The magic of sleep can be described as follows:
- Consolidation: After acquiring new information, sleep helps us to consolidate and integrate what we’ve learned. This is why it is much more important to study the night before a test, and then sleep on it – a full night – than to cram in one more study session early in the morning.
- Clean the Slate: Sleep prepares us for new learning. During sleep, your brain clears the short term-memory files and sends them to long-term storage. This allows space for new information when we engage in a new day.
- Continuous Processing: Our brains keep processing information long after we have left it. This is why you may have the experience of being stuck on a problem one day, and finding the “obvious” answer the next.
- Emotional Regulation: Emotions are powerful communicators of the most important information in our world. Unfiltered, they are mostly geared to make us flee, fight, or freeze so we can survive. In everyday life, we can use this information to make good decisions, but it is rare that we are actually in danger of survival. Without adequate sleep, it is difficult to accurately evaluate and react to new emotional information. When we are anxious, angry, or upset, our brains will actually shut down new learning and prioritize protecting us from whatever is making us feel badly. When we are at full capacity and well rested, we can regulate emotions and keep our learning centers open for business.
For the full benefits of sleep, children need an average of 10-11 hours of sleep each night. Adults typically need 7-8 hours. Many adults and older children may argue that they need less, but optimal brain functioning requires consistent and sufficient sleep so that all of the above can happen.
A Note About Teens
Teenagers may need even more sleep, as their brains are in a heavy stage of development. However, in the teen years our sleep cycles shift (as if adolescence wasn’t difficult enough!) It is not abnormal for a teen to be most awake and alert at 11pm and sleep in until 1pm if allowed.
This means that many teens suffer the ill effects of limited sleep during high school and college because they are required to function outside of their natural circadian rhythm. They may forget more, struggle with school in ways they hadn’t before, and have severe difficulties regulating their evolving emotions. Teens have to work especially hard to make sure they are getting consistent and sufficient sleep.
A Note About Screens
At the end of each day, our bodies go through a specific process that readies our brain for the consolidation, cleaning, processing and restoration mentioned above. Around the time we should fall asleep, we release melatonin which makes us sleepy.
LED and LCD screens inhibit the brain’s release of melatonin. That means, it’s more difficult to get sleepy, and more difficult to fall into the deep restorative sleep we need to function at our best.
Many of us claim to fall asleep best while watching TV or reading on our devices, but if our brain was not allowed to go through the right process to get to sleep, we will struggle to get quality, deep sleep.
Consider having all bedrooms be screen-free. This means no TV, phones, computers or tablets. Create a space where everyone, adults and young people alike, can leave their electronics for the night. If you are a parent, you may have to make the same screen-free commitment.