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Learn Smarter in 2020

by Jonathan Barrios / January 1st, 2020

Learn Smarter, Not Harder ✅

If you're struggling with the old-fashioned "massed practice" approach to learning, and find yourself re-watching tutorials over and over, cramming for tests, and re-reading material in quick succession, then follow these steps to learn smarter, not harder.

In this short article, I'll share the most effective learning strategies backed by cognitive scientists, designed to improve the quality of your learning right away. These ideas may seem counterintuitive at first and also may not feel as good as the old fashioned way, but you'll learn much faster than the "massed practice" approach.

My name is Jonathan Barrios, I'm a software development instructor at Treehouse in Portland, Oregon, and I'm interested in science-based learning strategies. The resources I'll draw from in this article are primarily from the Leaders of Learning course taught by Richard Elmore from HarvardX via edX and the book, Make It Stick, by cognitive scientists Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel. I highly recommend both resources if you want to learn more about the growing new field of Neuroeducation.

Retrieval Practice vs. Massed Practice

Learning itself has been a challenge even for schools, so it's easy to understand why teachers and learners are drawn to what feels productive-- unfortunately, that isn't effective. The same applies to feeling unproductive, which is usually a symptom of actually being productive. Yikes. On top of that, we've been told that we all have different learning styles (auditory, visual, etc.), but the empirical data doesn't support this. Confusing, right? No worries, we're going to clear all of this up by learning smarter.

Learning Smarter

The goal of this short article is to help you identify “Massed Practice” methods and replace them with the “Retrieval Practice" sessions. Then, you'll learn how to use strategies such as interleaving, spacing, retrieval practice, and reflection to track your productivity results. All of this may sound like a lot to learn, but I'll break it down into four action steps so you can start using them right away.

Action Steps 🔥

  1. Believe In Yourself
    The short answer is believe in yourself. Here's why: You build new brain connections as a result of trying to solve problems, and when you don't give up, you create even more brain connections, improving your ability. If you believe you can do it, you persist. If you don't, you may not be as motivated to keep trying. The short version is; it takes grit from self-belief. On top of that, beware of learning illusions. Learning illusions give you the impression you are learning when you're not, and that's precisely why tracking your progress and keeping yourself accountable is paramount. Don't worry if this sounds overwhelming; you got this.

  2. Interleaving
    Interleaving is alternating between two or more different subjects. It may feel unproductive, but that's the unintuitive part I mentioned earlier. Remember, it's OK to interleave your practice with other learning, spaced over a time length that works best for you. Learning HTML, CSS, JavaScript & PHP at the same time makes sense because they're different but related topics. You could also learn HTML and CSS together then JavaScript and PHP if you prefer studying two subjects at a time. Break it up to use what works best. Mastery is a gradual process, so be patient and stay engaged.

  3. Spaced Retrieval
    Don't re-read right away, space it out. The idea of “space retrieval” is to forget just enough of what you learned, so retrieval requires reasonable effort to recall. Here's why this works better than "massed practice"-- The brain isn't a muscle that gets stronger with use; instead, the neural pathways get stronger with retrieval and practice. The brain’s neural connections grow the most when you exert reasonable effort retrieving memories, so spaced retrieval provides just enough resistance to make it stick. Using a calendar to schedule a self-quiz for yourself once a week is a great way to help you stay on track.

    Example Self-Quiz:
    i. What's the main idea?
    ii. What are the new ideas?
    iii. How would I teach or explain this to someone else?
    iv. Do I know something about this idea, in any way?

  4. Reflection
    Reflect on how your learning by mentally reviewing your strategies, testing and habits. Do you see results? How can you improve? How do you study? How do you practice, "Massed" or "Spaced"? Where are your weaknesses? Retrieving from memory will expose your blind spots and serve as a useful tool to see your progress. So be sure to test and reflect often.

Smart Learning is Training 💪

For example, pilots need to keep their certifications up-to-date and use the interleaving of simulators and spaced retrieval from memory by taking certification tests. Continual testing ensures that during an emergency, pilots will have the information they need when they need it most. This type of practice is training-- the results of learning that are continually tested and validated.

"Practice doesn't make perfect-- interleaved spaced memory retrieval practice sessions with reflection makes perfect."

Thank you for reading. I hope you find this tutorial useful and exciting. I know I did when I discovered the learning strategies in "Make it Stick" and the "Leaders of Learning" course through HarvardX via edX. As always, happy learning! 🚀

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