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Published on January 13, 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.

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.

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

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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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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

5 Proven Memorization Techniques to Make the Most of Your Memory

5 Proven Memorization Techniques to Make the Most of Your Memory

Do you forget stuff every now and then? Are you trying to enhance your memory but not sure how?

All you need is the right memorization techniques to make the most of your memory.

The human brain is fascinating. More specifically, the vast interconnections within our mind. Mendel Kaelen compares the human brain to a hill covered in snow,

“Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill. As one sled after another goes down the hill a small number of main trails will appear in the snow. And every time a new sled goes down, it will be drawn into preexisting trails, almost like a magnet. In time it becomes more and more difficulty to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction.”

The intent of Kaelen’s discussion is to think of new ways to temporarily flatten the snow. Kaelen remarked,

“The deeply worn trails disappear, and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways.”

The idea here is to temporarily rewire your brain, or as Michael Pollan remarked in How to Change Your Mind,

“The power to shake the snow globe, disrupting unhealthy patterns of thought and creating a space of flexibility-entropy-in which more salubrious patterns and narratives have an opportunity to coalesce as the snow slowly settles.”

So, how can we rewire our brain allowing deeply worn connections to disappear and new connections to form? The answer is quite simple. We must change the way we store information in our mind.

    Let’s examine 5 specific memorization techniques that will change the way you think and remember information.

    1. Build a Memory Palace

      What is it?

      The method of loci[1] (aka memory palace) is a method of memory enhancement using visualizations with the use of spatial memory. It uses familiar information about your environment to quickly recall information. It is a method that was discussed by Cicero in an ancient dialogue called De Oratore.

      How to use it?

      Ron White discusses in How to Memorize Fast and Easily: Build a Memory Palace, that it’s essentially a room or building that you have memorized and you use locations in the room to store data. Ron informs us,

      “You memorize locations in a room and then you later go back to those locations to retrieve the data that you want to remember.”

      Example

      An easy 5-step example, in the form of a Wiki, can be found at Artofmemory.com. Let’s examine the the steps:

      • Step 1. Choose a place that you know well. For example, your house or office.
      • Step 2. Plan the route and pick specific locations in your route. For example, your front door, bathroom kitchen, etc.
      • Step 3. Decide what you want to memorize. For example, geography, list of items, answers for a test, etc.
      • Step 4. Place one or two items, with a mental image, and place them in your memory palace. Exaggerate your images. For example, use nudity or crazy images forcing it to stick in your mind.
      • Step 5. Make the image into a mnemonic.

      You can learn more about this technique here: How to Build a Memory Palace to Remember More of Everything

      2. Mnemonic

        What is it?

        A mnemonic is a memory device that aids in retention and/or retrieval of information. Mnemonic systems are techniques consciously used to improve memory by helping us use information already stored in long-term memory to make memorization easier.[2]

        How to use it?

        Mnemonics make use of retrieval cues to encode information in our brain allowing for efficient storage and retrieval of the information. The trick is to learn how to easily create mnemonics. If you find that you struggle with creating your own, try the following website: Mnemonic Generator.

        Example

        I recently came across a video using mnemonics to memorize countries. Memorizing Countries using Mnemonics is a video created as an introduction to a class for using memory techniques to learn the names of countries on maps.

        I actively search for videos that provide enormous educational value, yet receive very little exposure. At the time of this writing, this video has received less than 4k views. Let’s examine the video.

        Goal: Create a mnemonic to memorize the countries in the Caribbean (just the countries you need to learn).

        Step 1. Looking at a map – write out each country (for which five were chosen).

        Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico.

        Step 2. Write the first letter of each country vertically.

        C

        J

        H

        D

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        P

        Step 3. Create a sentence or phrase.

        Cubs

        Just

        Hate

        Doing

        Push-ups

        Cubs just hate doing push-ups. (Cuba Jamaica Haiti Dominican Republic Puerto Rico)

        3. Mnemonic Peg System

          What is it?

          According to Artofmemory.com, a mnemonic peg system is a technique for memorizing lists and it works by memorizing a list of words that are easy to associate with the numbers they represent.[3] These objects are the pegs of the system.

          How to use it?

          The trick is to create a Number Rhyme System with each number having a rhyming mnemonic keyword.

          Example

          Let’s look at an example of a Number Rhyme System:[4]

          0 = hero

          1 = gun

          2 = shoe

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          3 = tree

          4 = door

          5 = hive

          6 = sticks

          7 = heaven

          8 = gate

          9 = line

          Another technique like the Peg system is the Number Shape System.[5] Here you are assigning mnemonic images based on the shape of the number. Watch the following video for an example of this system: Number Shape System for Memorizing Numbers.

          4. Chunking

            What is it?

            Chunking is a way to remember large bits of information by chunking them into smaller pieces of information. We are more likely to then remember the information when we put the small pieces back together to see the entire picture.

            How to use it?

            In the video Chunking – A Learning Technique, we can see that there are several ways to chunk information.

            Example

            Let’s examine a simple example using a nine-digit number.

            Step 1. What is the number you are trying to remember?

            081127882

            Step 2. Cut the number into smaller pieces through chunking.

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            081 – 127 – 882

            Let’s look at one more example from the same video.

            “Piano teachers will first demonstrate an entire song to students. They will then ask their students to practice one measure at a time. Once the part has been learned and the neural connections in the brain have been built, then students go on to the next measure. After all chunks have been played separately, they are combined until the entire piece is connected.”

            5. Transfer of Learning

              What is it?

              Transfer of learning is a way to learn something in one area and apply it in another. Authors of Thinking at Every Desk, Derek and Laura Cabrera inform us about the transfer of learning,

              “If a student has a high transfer skills, she can learn one thing and then teach herself 10, 50, or 100 additional things.”

              How to use it?

              There are two specific ways to use it:

              1. Vertical Transfer (aka Far Transfer). Think of learning something in grade school and applying it another grade or later in life.
              2. Horizontal Transfer (aka Near Transfer). Think of learning a concept in history and applying it in math.

              Example

              I provide a detailed step-by-step example for this technique in this article:

              Learn How to Learn: How to Understand and Connect Difficult Ideas Easily

              The Bottom Line

              The key to using the techniques discussed here is to remember that we must actively think about information.

              We cannot simply drill information into our brain through rote memorization. We must change the way we think about memorization. We must find a way to “shake the snow-globe” in our mind or flatten the snow so that we can create new learning paths.

              Or as Derek and Laura Cabrera point out, we must insert “Thinking” into the equation,

              “Information X Thinking = Knowledge”

              More About Enhancing Memories

              Featured photo credit: Nong Vang via unsplash.com

              Reference

              [1] Remember Everything: Memory Palaces and the Method of Loci
              [2] The Learning Center Exchange: 9 Types of Mnemonics for Better Memory
              [3] Art of Memory: Mnemonic Peg System
              [4] Art of Memory: Number Rhyme System
              [5] Art of Memory: Number Shape System

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