Here are some techniques that apply to anything you want to learn. They work on facts, concepts and behaviors. I think of them as a Top Ten list.
You can only learn what you attend to. Attention is either-or. Either you can watch TV or read. You can’t do both simultaneously but you can switch back and forth. In general, people are horrible multitaskers. Only those who have a developmental disability like ADHA come close to multitasking.
Attention requires focus. Pick something you have to learn. Choose one task and improve it. You can choose free throws or dribbling or jump shots. Focus on one task, concept or collection of facts.
There are many quotes on the value of focus. Alexander Graham Bell is attributed as saying: “Concentrate all your thought upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays to not burn until brought to a focus.” Or maybe you prefer Anthony Robbins: “Focus on where you want to go, no on what you fear.” I like Dorothea Kopplin’s observation that “No one ever gets anything worthwhile by accident.”
Attention also means to avoidance. Avoid doing things that aren’t needed right now. Use external memory aids. Don’t try to recall everything you need at the store; write it down. Don’t write down everything the prof says, choose the most important. Keep track of things that pop up in lecture, in the notes and in the book; if it shows up three times those are items that need your attention. In general, avoid the footnotes.
If you can’t avoid it, reduce it. If you can’t avoid stress, minimize it. If you can’t avoid your crazy relatives, limit it. If you have a choice, choose a short list to learn. If you have to eat something you hate, pick the smallest piece. If you have to carry an elephant, pick a small one. When in doubt, avoid or reduce your cognitive load.
Learning is like putting a boat in a bottle or pushing an elephant through a straw. You must break it up into small pieces and then reassemble. The only way to learn lots of stuff is in small bits.
Joseph Jacobs was an English school master looking for a way to test his students’ intelligence. In 1887, he came up with a technique he thought would it. It doesn’t predict intelligence but it does show how many items we typically can hold in memory.
Jacobs invention is called the digit span. I say a series of numbers in one second intervals. At the end, I ask you to recall them. For most people, this number is 7. Our working memory holds about seven items. It doesn’t matter if they are letters, words, numbers or symbols. Seven, plus or minus two, is the norm.
George Miller’s famous article (The Magical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two) built on that idea and extended it. Miller found that if we cluster items into groups of 3 or 4, we can hold about seven combinations (chunks) in memory. The technical name for this technique is chunking.
Chunking is taking a longer string of numbers, for example, and dividing it into clusters of 3-4 items. Instead of trying to remember 2065551212, we can chunk it into 206 then 555 and then 1212, making the whole string easier to remember.
Notice that we don’t chunk it into 20 65551 212. The middle section is too long. We could use 20 65 551 212 but three or four items in a chunk seems to work best. Too many twos is too small. Five is too big.
Chunking can be seen in our perceptual system. If we see a cast of dancers on stage with some space between them, we cluster them into subgroups. When we enter a room, we look for your friends huddled in a group. Chunking is using this natural pattern recognition process of our brain to improve our learning.
Surely one the best known and least used learning techniques is backward chaining. People use forward chaining automatically and never think about its brother.
Forward chaining is starting at the beginning of a song and working your way through. You lean one phrase and then add the next. The advantage of forward chaining is that it feels natural. Of course, you learn ABCD and then add EFG. That’s the “proper” way to do things. Since you practice the first section over and over, you know the beginning well but you are less sure as you go.
Backward chaining starts with the last phrase and adds toward the beginning. Since you practice the last part the most, you feel more and more confident as you sing the song.
If you wanted to learn the Gettysburg Address, a speech given by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It is well known for its beauty and brevity. At 272 words, it took Lincoln under two minutes to give it.
Here is how you would use forward chaining. You’d learn:
Four score and seven years ago
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
See the problem? The beginning is the best known. You’re likely to forget the end.
Let’s do it with backward chaining. We start with the ending:
–and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
It gets better as you go. All you need it to kick it off and it’s all downhill from there. Much easier.
Backward chaining is how animals are taught chains of behavior. You always teach the last link in the chain first and then add things to the front of it.
Backward chaining is also how you teach kids with autism or brain damage to put on their clothes. You start with the ta-da! The Velcro tabs are closed and you celebrate. The shirt is slipped over the head, you close the Velcro tabs and you celebrate. The shirt is held in the hands, slipped over the head, you close the Velcro tabs and you celebrate. The shirt is taken from the drawer, held in the hands, slipped over the head, you close the Velcro tabs and you celebrate.
Backward chain a child’s morning routine. First practice picking up the backpack and leaving the house. They add brushing the hair. Then it is brushing their teeth, brushing their hair and picking up the backpack. Then it is eating breakfast, brushing their teeth, brushing their hair, picking up the backpack and leaving the house. The length of the chain added depends on the child.
Do you want to add a new good habit to your life? Put it before something you already do. Backward chain your morning routine. When in doubt, backward chain it.
#4. Don’t Forget
Which is easier: canning an array of fruits and vegetables, or storing them?
Which is easier: learning something or keeping it in memory? The hard part is putting things into memory. Getting them there is relatively easy.
One way to make sure it is stored well is to retrieve a memory. In fact, retrieving a memory is better than another learning trial. The best thing you can do to remember things is to keep them in memory. Never let them disappear.
If you’ve learned a list, pull it out of memory every once in a while and see if it is still there. If it isn’t, relearn it and don’t wait as long for the next retrieval. If it is there, you can expand the amount of time before the next retrieval. When in doubt, don’t forget.
My youngest daughter remembers coming out of the hospital in a wheel chair. She remembers being wrapped in a blanket and riding in her Mom’s lap.
She remembers the picture, not the actual event. Babies are wrapped tightly with a blanket over their heads when going out for the first time. And parents hold them tightly against them, not facing them outwards.
Chances are you don’t remember much of your childhood, at least not without the aid of photos and videos. Our brains are great processors but not very good storage facilities. If you want your kids to remember their childhood, put up lots of pictures around the house. If your spouse is on active duty and away from home, put up more pictures of them.
The nice thing about this expanded rehearsal or expanded retrieval technique is that you are sure you know the material. You are sure because you periodically check.
#5. Distributed Practice
You wouldn’t think your basketball or football team was reading to play if they waited until the last minute to practice. If they tried to cram all of their training in the night before the big game, you’d think them crazy. You’d be right.
To perform well consistently requires consistent practice. Just as sports teams distribute their practice over weeks, the learning of history or science is best when it is distributed over time. Cramming is an indication of poor planning.
You’re heard that is takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something. But more accurately it takes 1 hour a day for 10 years. Massing the hours is not the answer. The solution is slow and steady. One hour a day, every day.
#6. Encoding Specificity Principle
Humans are interesting processors of information. We use every environmental cue we can find to limit what we store. If we only need information in one setting, we don’t expand its accessibility to other areas.
They found that scuba divers who were examining a ship’s hull and listing repairs couldn’t easily remember the list when they surfaced. The solution was to take tablets to write on. But the principle of learning is that environment matters. We use cues to recall.
One reason drug addicts find it difficult to return home is that everything reminds them of drugs. All of their friends, houses, cars and even lighting conditions are triggers for reusing. The drugs and the environmental cues have been associated. And it is hard to break those associations.
Ever break up with someone and then every little thing reminded you of them? It is the cues of association at work.
The best way to learn is to practice under the conditions you must perform. Rehearsal for school plays would be better if more of them were dress rehearsals. The best way to train soldiers for battle is war games. The best way to study for a test you will take in a quiet room is to study in a quiet room.
If you can’t match environments, pretend. The scuba divers were able to remember most of their lists if they closed their eyes and pretended to be underwater again. If you can’t sing to a crowd, sing to your teddy bears.
The general term is state dependent learning. You usually hear it explained that if you learn something when you’re drunk you have to be drunk again to remember it. It’s a poor example in real life because drunk people don’t encode things very well. Their body is too busy trying to process the poison.
A better example is that when you are depressed, you tend to remember more depressing events. You recall more people who were mean to you. You remember fights from long ago. This is why living with a depressed person is no fun.
We know we adapt to the environment but we usually don’t do anything about it. Encoding specificity reminds us to pay close attention to what we do where. You will sleep better if you don’t watch TV in there too. Match the input and output environments.
A couple of researchers (Tulving & Thompson) show that the usefulness of a retrieval cue depends on the nature of the initial encoding. Where you learn is important. You will learn to perform in that type of environment with all of its cues.
In another study (by Barclay) people got one of two sentences. They received either “The man lifted the piano” or “The man tuned the piano.” After a period of waiting, those in the study were given the hint of “something heavy.” This cue helped those who received the “lifted piano” version but not the other group. The context cues just before we try retrieval is cue sensitive.
#7. Switch Tasks When Tired
Stopping when you’re tired is usually good advice. But sometimes it isn’t a possibility. You can continue to make progress by switching to a different kind of task.
Have you ever noticed that you get diminishing returns. You’ve put in time but progress seems to be slower as you go. Over time the performance on each trial gets worse. The more you work the less you achieve.
In a study, researchers (Keppel and Underwoord, 1962) had subjects learn lots of lists on the same general subject. And, as you would expect, their performance went steadily down. What’s going on here is called interference. In particular, it is proactive interference. Proactive interference means that the things you’ve learned before are starting to proactively get in the way of learning new stuff. It is the past coming forward.
When the subjects received a list covering a new category, their performance bounced back up, not as high as the first trial but nearly so. It was as if their brains reset. Switching when you are tired can help you continue to make progress without totally stopping.
Proactive interference happens in musicians who practice a lot. I have a friend who plays bass professionally. He is always practicing. But at some point the brain is getting the messages scrambled. Instead of writer’s block it is musicians block. The brain needs to rest so it can consolidate what it knows.
To get a release from proactive interference, switch to a different task, preferably something quite different. Switching from one type of chemistry to another is like switching from bass to guitar. It is too close. It would be better to change to something entirely different, such as history, math or cleaning your room.
In contrast to proactive interference, retroactive interference is studying something new only to find out you can’t remember the old stuff. It gets frustrating to have to relearn old insights but overall retroactive interference is helpful.
Retroactive interference allows us to get on with our lives. When you get a car, you can’t remember how to managed so long without one. When you get a computer, you can’t remember what it was like using a typewriter. When you learn new ways to think, you can’t remember how bigoted and smallminded you used to be.
#8. Aim Higher
Our brains try to maximize our effort. They don’t want to do more than they have to. We have to trick them. Set a higher criterion.
Baseball players practice and warm up with heavier bats or swing two or three at once. Profession bowlers warm up with a heavier ball than they usually use. Football players run stadium steps even though there are no steps in the field of play. If you can jump 10 feet, 7 feet will seem easy.
In a now famous study, researchers (Goldstein and Chance, 1971) studied people’s ability to recognize photos. They found that 71% of their subjects recognized formerly presented face. But only 33% recognized previously presented snowflakes. If you want to remember snowflakes it will require more work. Recognition isn’t equally difficult. You have to adjust your effort to fit the material.
Many students study until they can recognize the answer. The theory is that on a multiple choice test, particularly if it is not well constructed, all you need is to see the right answer.
But this approach doesn’t work with fill in the blank, open ended or well-crafted multiple choice items. I work hard at designing my tests. I never use packaged test banks. My goal is to make the tests fair but not easy.
I tell my students to study for my multiple choice tests as if they were short answer items. The ones that do, seem to do well.
Weirdly we have “negative recognition.” We know something didn’t happen. We don’t have to look item by item in our memories to know we don’t know the word “skjpffler.” Somehow we know it isn’t in there.
This is a related principle. Students often stop too soon. They have studied the notes and read the book. They have a general understanding of the material. But if the test requires the application of specific knowledge, you’re sunk.
The reason we stop is that we become confident before we become competent. Give yourself practice tests so you know where your level of competence is. Teach someone else. Study groups, after everyone has done their own work, can be great if you try to explain a concept to another student. Teach it so someone else helps you understand it better. Don’t have a study group, teach your friends, your date, your parents or your teddy bears.
#10. Warm up
Like sports and physical exercise, it is good to warm up before starting learning and mental exercise. Essential this means that what you do just before you perform impacts that performance.
In learning this principle is called priming. It occurs automatically and unintentionally. It is an example of how prior experience improves performance. This is robust phenomenon; it works on a wide range of tasks. Priming doesn’t use the hippocampus so it works even if there is damage to the cerebral cortex.
Here’s how it works. If you are presented a fragment of a word or picture, the perceptual identification of later stimuli is more easily perceived. It is like priming a pump; it is readying the system to receive information.
In word-stem completion task, a subject is presented the first few letters of a word and told to say the first word that comes to mind. Usually it is the primed word. Or subjects are given a sample of letters and then are told to provide a word that fits __l__p__a__t. Given the right combination of letters, people tend to fill in the blanks with elephant.
This is the kind of process that aids in anagram solving or unscrambling letters. It also helps make lexical decisions, such as categorizing strings of letters as either words or non-words. It is not affected by changes in typeface, font size or mirror reflections.
Priming effects are modality specific. It depends on preserving the surface features of the initial presentation. So if you present things auditorily and test it visually, priming doesn’t work as well.
Since your brain using incoming information to aid in future decisions, warm up before you take a test or make major decisions. The day of the test, solve a few practice problems or paraphrase an article. Pick something that is similar to the material that will be on the test.
For decision making and planning sessions, warm up with some chess or play a couple rounds of poker. Again, anything that helps get your thinking going will help you doing those tasks later.
Oprah Winfrey says she takes five minutes every morning to center herself. She says it helps set her intention for the whole day. This too is a type of priming or warm up.