Learning How to Learn. Methods for Improving Learning Efficiency.

Learning How to Learn. Methods for Improving Learning Efficiency.

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"Education is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think." Albert Einstein

Back in the day, when I decided to step into the programming world, I took some time planning to avoid the bumps that came my way in the past. I knew that software development would be the hardest, most memory-consuming, and brain-twisting subject I had ever learned. Therefore, my first question was:

  • Are there better ways to learn? If yes, what are the best methods for improving learning efficiency?

Aside from complexity, it was obvious that I would be learning from dozens of sources (digital and physical) and different settings (home, commute, office). This would create a mess of notes, links, and media across books and multiple devices, leading to the second question:

  • What tools do I need to excel in studying without drowning in materials to maximize the takeaways I learn?

In an attempt to answer these questions, I came across a few mindblowing studies and materials that left me wondering, why on earth this isn't taught in schools yet?! The "system" or methodology I acquired after my research satisfied me. I still use it and find it highly efficient. After reading, you will be able to improve your learning skills, and the outcomes will help you improve at whatever you are trying to excel in.

Why standard learning methodology is broken

Rereading

One of the most common revision techniques that students use in their studies is rereading when they repeatedly get back to the source of information to remember more details from it.

There have been lots of studies analyzing its efficiency. Some of them are listed in the list of references.

J. Dunlosky, one of the authors of "Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques..." research summarized:

Based on the available evidence, we rate rereading as having low utility... although rereading is relatively economical with respect to time demands... when compared with some other learning techniques rereading is also typically much less effective.

Given that a few pieces of research have shown that rereading has low utility, I concluded not to waste time doing that.

Highlighting and underlining

Highlighting is another very popular studying strategy. Luckily, several solid pieces of research were done on highlighting I could get advice from as well. Summarizing the same research "Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques...":

On the basis of available evidence, we rate highlighting and underlining as having low utility...

It may actually hurt performance on higher-level tasks that require inference-making.

It feels productive to colorize the book and gives a sense of a safety blanket. You know that whenever you need this information in the future, you will easily find it in the book. The problem is that you create a reference to that highlighting point but need to put the piece of knowledge in your long-term memory instead. On another note, will I remember the highlight location, given so many materials to come in the future? The research says we could be doing more efficient things.

Summarizing method (note-taking)

This is my favorite part of the conclusions I've made. My laziness screams when I have to summarize. All teachers in my life advised this technique to solidify the material. What a relief it was to learn there is a better way to learn than summarizing.

Even though a few studies are concluding that students who summarize the topics well, perform slightly better than others, it's hard to test this. As you can imagine, different people have various quality of their summaries. Hence you never know if it helps or not.

Another conclusion by J. Donlosky from the same research says:

On the basis of the available evidence, we rate summarization as low utility.

It can be an effective learning strategy for learners who are already skilled at summarizing; however, many learners (including children, high school students, and even some undergraduates) will require extensive training, which makes this strategy less feasible.

The "why"

Before going straight into the methods, let's recap what is at stake if we keep learning ineffectively. We could have been doing the same as always, reading, highlighting, taking notes; it brought us to where we are, we survived, and why bother, right?

Well, try learning something dense in terms like medicine, programming, or formulas-rich like mechanical engineering or architecture. The chances are you'll end up with something like:

  • Low competitiveness. Always in need of an external resource to rely on (books, notes, google).
  • Wasted time and money on content consumption. Consumed a ton of materials and felt like you got it but ended up with a blank mind in front of a practical task.
  • Limited career choices and a mediocre path. If your brain doesn't form enough neural links between bits of information, you can't be flexible and creative enough to offer something new to what exists.
  • Zero to low return on investment in education. You are consuming professional content daily, paying for new courses, and piling notes to save all of that for a particular moment in the future when they will be helpful. In reality, you use only a fraction of it on some lucky day.

Any topic, especially programming, requires a lot of effort to remember concepts and facts that become a platform for future practice and innovation. However, practical tasks appear surprisingly uncommon when they are not placed well enough in the memory and adequately massaged.

Sub-conclusion

  • Common learning methods provide the direction and a sense of a safety blanket but fail when you need to take knowledge into practice.
  • Rereading and highlighting should be thrown away due to low utility and least effective learning methods.
  • Information seems handy, but when I need it, the memory returns "404 - Page Not Found".
  • Summarizing can help if you are trained and have developed a high-quality output, but there are more effective options.

Since we learned what not to do, let's find methods that beat the above by eternity and don't require groundbreaking efforts.

The Most Effective Learning Formula (by far)

Effective Learning = Active Recall + Spaced Repetition

1. Active Recall

Active Recall means that to start solidifying the information in our memory, we need to take it out without external help.

This is the opposite of standard methods like note-taking or rereading when you passively get back to something. Active Recall forces you to go through the jungles of the memory (neural links) and build the speedway, so the moment you need to remember something, you have a straight, green light path to the memory slot with the required information.

To prove the point, below is the result of a study made in 2010 by Andrew C. Butler (Journal of Experimental Psychology) comparing how different students handled the test. Half of the students took a practice test after the study session (blue bar), and another half used typical studying methods, such as rereading, highlighting, etc. (white bar). SCR-20221030-jar.png

Students who did the practice test (active Recall) had 30-60% better results than those who didn't. This was the first "Aha!" moment. Now I know something that will give me an edge, comparing not only to my previous way of learning but also to others who are still learning ineffectively.

On one side, I have to make the mental effort to recall material after each study, which isn't the most pleasant thing to do, as the brain is lazy (a.k.a. energy efficient). But on the other side, I don't have to waste time rereading material, writing it down, organizing, and remembering notes' location. What a time saver!

Active Recall Strategies

I found a few strategies that work well within the Active Recall strategy.

My favorite one is the Cornell note-taking system. Instead of taking a note by writing down what just was heard or read, the better strategy is to write down questions about the paragraph or a chapter while reading. After finishing reading, watching, or listening, you should close the source and do your best to answer the list of collected questions. If not possible, get back and revise, close the source and try recalling it again.

By this, instead of mirroring what was just consumed, you should have your version of the studied material in your voice and your words. This also helps to iron the road and build new neural links around the fact or concept.

TOOL TO USE

I like using Notion as a collection of questions and answers on any material I come across and want to make sure to memorize. No matter where I am, I can snap a question on my phone or laptop and be sure it is accessible whenever I need it.

2. Spaced Repetition

The Forgetting Curve

Active Recall is by far the best method to grasp the learning material and place it in your brain. However, it still doesn't solve the problem of forgetting stuff in a week, month or year (!sic).

No matter how well you understand and recall, you will forget things exponentially.

The main idea of the forgetting curve and how we can take advantage of it is that every time we interrupt it, we reset it for a more extended period. In other words, the more often you recall things, the longer they will not be forgotten.

This is called flattening the forgetting curve. spaced-learning-retention-curves.png Source: Practical Psychology

The problem with our memory is that we retain only about 80% of the information after 24 hours from studying something. In three days, we retain only 60%; in 6 days, more than 80% is gone. How crazy and, unfortunately, relatable this is, I thought! This is like working hard to earn $1,000 and having more than $800 evaporated in one week without spending a dime.

That is where spaced repetition comes in. I like to think about it as insurance. You have to pay for it by making mental efforts, but you are confident that whatever you placed into the spaced repetition system, and more importantly in your brain, will stay there.

The study above suggests repeating new material in at least 1, 3, and 6 days gap between repetitions. This allows the brain to start forgetting the material between repetitions, and when the active recall day comes, you have to force some brain power to take this information out of the brain and flatten the forgetting curve.

To summarize Spaced Repetition, the more times we actively recall, the more spaced out our repetition becomes, and the more likely we are to encode this information in our long-term memory.

TOOL TO USE:

To incorporate and automate spaced repetition, I use the flashcard tool Anki App. I make sure to transfer all notes (questions and answers) from Notion into the Anki app and resurface them daily based on the spaced repetition.

Summary

Here are the answers to questions I made myself in the beginning:

Q1: Are there better ways to learn? If yes, what are the best methods for improving learning efficiency?

  • To improve our learning efficiency and maximize our chances of solidifying new knowledge long-term, we need to transition from traditional strategies, such as rereading, copy-paste note-taking, highlighting, and summarizing. The science suggests two strategies for this transition to happen: Active Recall and Spaced Repetition, which we discussed above.

My outcomes

Here are a few things I highlighted after incorporating these strategies into my learning:

  1. Started remembering way more information.
  2. Use whatever I learn more often in practice.
  3. Increased confidence in my learning abilities.
  4. Identified the power of deep learning instead of remembering many facts.

I noticed that sometimes I only understood something once I placed it into the AnkiApp. In a few days of recalling the complex topic, I surf through it in theory and practice.

Q2: What tools do I need to excel in studying without drowning in materials to maximize the takeaways I learn?

  • Notion + Anki App + some new habits

How I did it

By building these three simple habits:

  1. Note the facts and concepts as questions and answers.
  2. Add notes to AnkiApp or a similar app of your choice (Anki is the best IMO).
  3. Incorporate studying Anki cards into the daily routine. I like doing it the first thing I start my computer in the morning, which takes 15-30 mins to complete.

So far, I have more than 600 flashcards (questions and answers) in my AnkiApp. The most fascinating and satisfying part is that I can randomly open anyone and give the correct answer on the spot.

Resources

Continue learning

  1. How to study for exams - Evidence-based revision tips (highly recommend)
  2. How to Study for Exams - Spaced Repetition | Evidence-based revision tips (highly recommend)
  3. How To Use Anki Like A Pro (highly recommend)
  4. Make It Stick - The Science of Successful Learning
  5. Learning How to Learn (optional but super helpful)

Research References

  1. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology (Dunlosky et al 2013)
  2. Effectiveness of highlighting for retention of text material (Fowler & Barker 1974)
  3. A powerful way to improve learning and memory (Karpicke, 2016)
  4. Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping | Science (Karpicke & Blunt 2011)