How We Learn, Whether We Learn

Antonello da Messina, St. Jerome

Coffee aids recall… Antonello da Messina, St. Jerome

An article in the New Scientist has collated the best guesses of psychologists and neurologists regarding the tricky business of learning.

Someone (it is usually attributed to Einstein, but then, what isn’t?) said something along the lines that to continue to do the same thing and yet expect different results is the definition of madness. Yet when we learn we seem to develop habits early, and then stick with those through thick and thin.

But our habits are often wrong. The article makes a list of learning strategies which simply do not work: which, in other words, have no impact on recall in controlled tests. They include:

  • Highlighting and underlining
  • Re-reading key texts
  • Keyword mnemonics
  • Copying out your notes
  • Elaborate mental imagery
  • Personalised learning styles
  • Summarising the material

This is interesting. Some of these were recommended to me at school, over and over, and others were recommended to me when I was learning to teach, but my brain seems to have rejected them in some way, at some level, down the line, and I do not use any of them. And I always assumed it was laziness which prevented me from summarising material in my own words.

So what does work? Chiefly, it seems, testing yourself. Writing a list of words in a foreign language is all very well, but only if you test yourself on it frequently. Environment is also key –  you should mirror learning- and recall-environments by, for example, lacing both with coffee. Sleep, and plenty of it, is important, as is parcelling out your recall tests into longer and longer intervals. And finally, pretending to teach something as we learn it seems to help us organise it better in our heads at the point of storage.

This last one would explain, I suppose, why so many of my (semi-)known-facts are derived from English language course books.