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Last Updated on September 2, 2020

6 Effective Learning Techniques that are Backed by Research

6 Effective Learning Techniques that are Backed by Research

The world we live in is a constantly evolving one with new disciplines and skills arising every year. With so much to learn and so little time, employing the right learning techniques is essential.

But here’s the kicker:

Most of what you were taught in school about learning is wrong.

In fact, research shows that most learning techniques used by college students are utterly ineffective.[1]

The same research outlined a handful of learning styles that are actually useful. So, in this article, I’ll be explaining those methods and a few others that have worked for me in acquiring a diverse skillset.

By the end of this article, you’ll be aware of all the learning styles that you need in order to learn anything effectively.

The Best Learning Techniques

Most people go with basic learning techniques like reading and highlighting. But what if I tell you that both are useless?

You see, your mind needs a lot more than that to retain info. According to research, here are the best learning techniques:

1. Distributed Practice

Remember in college when you used to have a big test and you’d pull all-nighters just to pass it? Well, the chances are that the next morning, you didn’t even remember half of what you studied.

But even if you did, you’ll probably forget everything by the next day.

Now, this works fine in an academic environment where your sole purpose might just be to pass an exam. But this gets tricky when you’re trying to learn a skill.

Because you can’t just cram a skill… it takes time to perfect whatever skill you want to learn, be it a sport or playing a musical instrument.

That’s where distributed practice comes into play. In this learning technique, you’re supposed to distribute your learning sessions such that a considerable amount of time passes before you start learning again.

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You might be wondering:

How much time should I give before I start my next learning session?

Well, anything over a day should work well. So, if you’re learning to play the violin, you can have sessions on alternate days.

What that does is it switches your mind from focused to diffused mode of thinking. In the focused mode, you’re actively learning (ie playing the violin). But in the diffused mode, you’re waiting until the next session and thinking about what you learned in the last one, how it worked and what mistakes you were making.

2. Practice Testing

Back in college, I had a professor that everybody in class hated. And why wouldn’t they; he took 2 tests every week!

And you know what?

The whole class scored the highest in his subject. That’s the power of practice testing.

In this method, you’re intentionally putting practice sessions or studying material away and challenging yourself to recall what you’ve learned without any aid.

An interesting thing about practice testing is that you’re often going to suck at the actual test. But once you make that mistake, it’s easier to rectify and remember it.

A lot of people are scared of testing themselves because they’re afraid to have their weaknesses exposed.

But that’s the whole point of practice testing; to highlight your weak spots so you can work on them.

Additionally, practice testing allows you to shift what you learned from short-term to long-term memory.

You don’t need to have an actual test in a proper testing environment, though. Depending on what you’re trying to learn, challenge yourself to try or answer as much as you can about what you’re learning.

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Keep a track of your performance in those tests and try to compete with your own self if you don’t have others to compete with. As I say, “your biggest competition resides in the mirror”.

3. Interleaved Practice

This is one of the most interesting learning techniques for me… partly because it provides me a reason to learn two things at once.

In interleaved practice, you revise or practice something alternatively.

Let’s say you’re learning to speak French. On a particular day, you won’t practice that skill all in one go.

Instead, you’ll study a bit of French and then divert your attention towards some other skill before you get back to studying French.

Like the distributed practice method, this technique also allows you to switch between focused and diffused thinking method.

However, the interleaved learning technique offers another benefit; it makes things harder for you to remember and practice.

And we all know that the harder you make your practice sessions, the better you’ll learn.

4. Self-Explanation

Till now, we’ve discussed some valuable learning techniques that work in almost all types of learning.

Self-explanation, although not that universal a method, is still one that shows promising results.

In this technique, you explain to yourself what you’re trying to learn. This is more applicable when studying academic or theoretical material.

Self-explainers teach themselves just like a teacher would. So, if you’re trying to learn Accounting for your business or are working on different marketing techniques, try explaining to yourself how and why they work.

You’re not supposed to worry too much about whether your explanations make much sense or not. In fact, you probably won’t even know where you’re headed when you start explaining yourself.

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But as you do, you’ll uncover details and concepts that you didn’t even know existed. This method is especially useful for deep thinkers and conceptual learners.

5. Elaborative Interrogation

Elaborative interrogation[2] is a similar learning style to self-explanation. Hence, it’s more applicable to theoretical learning as well.

In this method, you consistently question yourself while learning. So, if you stumble upon a particular technique or solution, you ask yourself questions like, “why?” and try explaining the answer to yourself.

In the previous example where you were trying to learn Accounting, you might ask questions like, “why is XYZ Business profitable?” and explain it in terms of your Accounting knowledge.

A major drawback of this method is that it consumes a lot of time. Regardless, it’s useful for those that have it.

6. Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice, a method put forth by the Learning Scientists,[3] is similar to a lot of other techniques on this list. However, it maintains a separate position on our list because it primarily focuses on the time when you’re not actually learning.

Allow me to explain:

In retrieval practice, you try to recall what you’re learning after the studying or learning session. This challenges your mind to recover whatever info it has on the topic without an actual practice or testing environment.

Retrieval practice will give you a good idea of how you would act out if you’d have to use your skill or knowledge in a real-life scenario.

And if you want to learn a powerful strategy to supercharge your learning ability, I recommend you take a FREE Learning Fast Track Class offered by Lifehack. It’s a 20-minute intensive class called Spark Your Learning Genius, and will surely upgrade your learning skills right away. Find out more about the Fast Track Class here.

What About Learning Techniques that Don’t Work?

Now that we’ve covered all the learning methods that are scientifically proven to be effective, let’s quickly cover some common learning techniques that are utterly useless.

And I’m not saying that myself; studies have concluded that these methods do not have far-reaching practical applications.[4][5]

The first and foremost useless learning technique is highlighting and underlining. Research shows that both these methods do not help improve learning.

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Secondly, we have mnemonics. This technique involves memorizing keywords in a particular order to remember a complex concept.

Although studies found this method to be useful in certain situations, it didn’t have a lot of practical use.

Surprisingly, re-reading is another learning method that’s deemed useless by researchers. Although repetition is the key to learning,[6] research suggests that rereading isn’t much of a useful repetition method.

If repetition is what you’re after, I’d suggest you try (and retry) practice testing.

Creating and Expanding a “Mix” that Works for You

Fixating yourself too much on one learning technique will cause a lot of problems.

Why?

You’ll become too rigid in your approach to learning.

You see, successful people have fluidity in their character. They learn to adapt and mold according to what’s needed.

Depending on what you’re trying to learn, you may have to use different learning styles. For that, you need to be adaptable in order to approach these methods.

So first, understand what learning styles work for you–this is your “mix”. Now, assess which learning techniques you should work on and try to expand.

This doesn’t mean you need to be perfect in all the learning techniques mentioned in this article. However, knowing which learning styles work for you and which ones you need to work on is pivotal for rapid growth.

More About Learning Effectively

Featured photo credit: Eliabe Costa via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Published on March 29, 2021

How To Apply the Stages Of Learning (With Free Worksheet)

How To Apply the Stages Of Learning (With Free Worksheet)

Are you keen to learn new things but find it hard to do so?

Perhaps you lack the confidence to begin learning something new or you’re unsure how to improve your existing skills.

Let me state this upfront: Most people find it difficult to learn, so you shouldn’t feel bad if you’re one of these people.

And the good news is, in the next few minutes I’ll introduce you to the stages of learning. This knowledge will help you break through your learning challenges and turn you into a super-learner.

Let’s dive straight in…

What Are the Stages Of Learning?

There are 3 stages of learning in total, and each stage can be broken down as follows:

Stage 1: Cognitive Learning

In this first stage, known as cognitive learning, the learner observes and listens and makes connections based on knowledge they’ve already gained, either consciously or subconsciously.

Cognitive learning engages students in the learning process, getting them to use their brain to make new connections from knowledge already stored in their mind. This helps them develop problem-solving skills and improve comprehension.

Knowledge in this stage can be acquired through any of the following methods:

Implicit Learning

This takes place when the learner is unaware of the fact that they’re actually learning. It’s devoid of specific instructions, but instead, relies on visual and verbal cues — which usually take place in a social setting.

To give you an example of this, think of a child learning to speak. Typically, they learn the building blocks of their language (or languages) in a social setting without being formally taught by a teacher.

This organic form of learning leads to knowledge that is successfully retained over many years, regardless of any psychological changes the learner experiences.

Implicit learning is effective for skill reproduction and is also independent of IQ and age.

Explicit Learning

This takes place when a person actively seeks out opportunities to learn. Although — like implicit learning — this relies on visual and verbal cues, it doesn’t have to involve a teacher.

Take riding a bike for example.

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Someone wanting to acquire this skill might attempt to learn on their own by mimicking the actions of existing riders. These are visual cues. However, they may also ask someone for guidance on getting started. These are verbal cues.

Explicit learning is a great way to train the brain to learn new concepts and to solve problems.

Collaborative Learning

This type of learning is most commonly used in educational institutes. It involves collaboration between the tutor, the learner, and other students.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the process:

The tutor imparts knowledge and helps the learners to make sense of it. This usually involves the learners being asked to discuss the newly acquired information and to connect it to knowledge they’ve already gained.

Collaborative learning improves learners’ creative thinking, verbal communication and leadership skills. It also helps boost learners’ self-esteem, as well as exposing them to different points of view.

Cooperative Learning

In cooperative learning, students have to interact with each other and the tutor.

The structure is such that learners must follow their tutor’s instructions. The tutor will then observe and assess the learners to make sure they are learning the aim for skills and knowledge.

This style of learning works best when practical knowledge is being shared. For example, sports fields and music rooms are both excellent cooperative learning settings, as they allow tutors to give hands-on demonstrations as well as being able to watch their students try out their new skills.

Cooperative learning helps students increase their retention power, build relationships and boost their self-confidence. In addition, it offers opportunities for social support and helps improve attitude and tolerance towards authority and those who are seen as different to others.

Observational Learning

This style of learning involves the acquisition of knowledge through observation and imitation of others.

Many people are drawn towards this style. That’s because it makes learning an enjoyable activity, encourages social interactions and enhances memory.

Want to learn more about observational learning? Then check out our article: How to Use Observational Learning to Learn Effectively

Meaningful Learning

This type of learning is the opposite of rote learning. It occurs when a concept has been understood fully and is being applied in practice.

For instance, think of a chemistry student who learns from his tutor that mixing certain chemicals can result in an explosive reaction. Once the student knows this, it will prevent them from mixing those chemicals in the lab.

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Meaningful learning requires the linking of new information to previously acquired knowledge. It is constructive and encourages learning through different techniques.

Stage 2: Associative Learning

This style of learning is where the brain is conditioned to learn or modify responses — taking into consideration stimuli offered. It occurs when old and new information is linked to each other, with ideas and experience reinforcing each other.

Associative learning emphasizes acquiring knowledge from the environment and reinforces optimal behavior.

Let’s look now at the different forms of conditioning of associative learning:

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is where the brain is trained to associate a certain desired consequence to an action.

For example, at work, it could be a cash bonus if an employee meets their targets. In the home, it could be extra screen time for kids if they finish their homework.

Classical conditioning can help to modify undesirable characteristics in the learner and can also be used to help overcome phobias.

Operant Conditioning

This type of conditioning follows the idea that certain actions will result when there is a punishment or reward at the end.

Just think of how school usually operates…

We’re rewarded with a certificate and qualification when we pass a course; but if we turn up late for lessons we may well be punished by being sent to detention!

If this concept sparks your interest, then be sure to read our article: Positive Motivation vs Negative Motivation: Which One Is Better?

Extinctive Conditioning

This is when the brain is trained to not expect a previously expected response when certain conditions aren’t met.

A rock band dropping a song from their live set due to it failing to enthuse their audience is a good example of this style of conditioning.

Extinctive conditioning can also be used to modify existing behavior that may be undesirable.

Discriminative Conditioning

This is where the brain is trained to reliably expect a certain outcome to a stimulus.

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A simple example of this would be training a dog to remain still at the command “wait”.

Moving on from associative learning, we come to the third and final stage of learning — the stage that gives a learner the most freedom.

Stage 3: Autonomous Learning

This is the stage of learning where learners gain knowledge through independent efforts and develop an ability to inquire and evaluate away from the influence of tutors and peers.

Learners at this final stage have enough knowledge and power to control their learning.

Typically, they look for sources that will help them make decisions based on their own understanding of the matter. In addition, learners at this stage take responsibility for setting their own targets and goals.

Autonomous learning causes learners to learn through their own will and passion. These learners have the freedom to create their own learning plan and strategies to achieve their aims. They’re also aware of their learning style and can self-evaluate.

Why Should You Care?

When you understand and apply the stages of learning you can expect to see many benefits, including:

  • Improving your memory
  • Boosting your confidence
  • Speeding up your learning time

It goes without saying that you’ll also be able to expand your knowledge and outlook, as well as being able to teach others, if that’s what you’re drawn to do.

So, if you’re ready to learn how to apply the stages of learning — then let’s jump in!

3 Steps to Applying the Stages Of Learning (Free Worksheet)

You don’t need to be super smart to become a fast learner. It’s actually a skill that anyone can learn. You just need to understand and apply the different stages of learning. Once you understand this process, you’ll be able to learn want you want — within the time you want.

Before I show you how to apply the 3 stages of learning, I recommend you download our free learning worksheet – you can grab it here: Learn Faster With the Stages of Learning (Worksheet) as I’m going to walk through the guide with you:

Step 1: Name the ONE skill/knowledge that you’re taking up

Think for a moment about the ONE skill/knowledge that you’re trying to take up.

Once you know what it is, jot it down.

As an example to help get you started, let’s pretend that you want to learn how to drive.

Step 2: Break it down into sub-skills

When you’re trying to take up a new skill or knowledge, there’s definitely more than one thing that you’ll need to learn.

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Continuing the driving example, you’ll need to learn and understand the rules of the road and the practicalities of driving. These will include starting and stopping a car, clutch control, gear changes, braking and reversing — to name but a few.

And of course you’ll need to reach a certain level of driving proficiency to enable you to pass your country’s driving test.

So…

Please spend a few moments thinking about the sub-skills of what you want to learn, and then jot them down.

Step 3: Assess your personal inventory

In this final step, you should look inward and assess your own abilities.

This is essential to help you understand your current skills, and to see what you lack and what you can strengthen. You can also use this step to throw out limiting thoughts such as constantly comparing yourself to others.

Coming back to the driving example, you might spend some time assessing your current knowledge of road safety (you may already be a cyclist who knows the rules of the road) and your confidence levels.

To make this step easy and accurate, we’ve produced a free worksheet that will enable you to come up with concrete actions that you can take to bridge the gap between your current stage of learning and your target one.

Download the worksheet now: Learn Faster With the Stages of Learning (Worksheet)

Bottom Line

Understanding and applying the stages of learning is sure to boost your confidence and speed up your learning. What previously took you months to learn; you’ll now find you can learn in just a few weeks.

With your mastery of learning, a whole new world of knowledge and skills will be opened up to you.

You’ll be able to learn a musical instrument or a new language. And if you’re already studying at college, you’ll be able to streamline your learning and get the possible grades.

Life belongs to the learners, so take control of your life and your learning by downloading our free worksheet right now: Learn Faster With the Stages of Learning (Worksheet)

Happy learning!

Featured photo credit: Le Wagon via unsplash.com

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