One of my interests is integrating theories of education and learning with research in psychology and cognition, as I believe both are intertwined and connected in various ways. The learner is often influenced by the state of his or her psyche and the psyche is influenced by the ways of learning. Anxiety, for example, plays a big part in one’s learning, as it narrows one’s attention and forces one to be on the flight or fight stance, hence exhausting available resources. Our cognition, problem solving, and memory also if utilised to its optimum potential can make one a better learner.
As students are opening up a new academic chapter with spring term, it is the perfect time to learn how to utilise mental resources innate to them by using the science of psychology to learn better. Research in cognitive and education psychology has found effective learning techniques for students to improve their learning.
These finding are recent and have been discovered in 2013 by John Dunlosky and his colleagues in a large review. Dunlosky and his colleagues evaluated the effectiveness of ten learning strategies. They found some strategies to be more effective than others. Some of the results were shocking to me, as some techniques I have been using for years, and realised, after reading the review, that there are more effective tools available for use. These strategies, he promises will improve your learning outcomes.
Elaborative interrogation was found to have moderate utility. As I have written before in Find Your Inquisitive Thrust, there is an inquisitive nerve in all of us where we are attuned to seeking explanations for why things are the way they are in our everyday life. The power of explanatory questioning can allow for information to be stored in our memory and can promote learning. The way elaborative interrogation is implemented is through generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true. As you ask a question, you try to articulate an answer that is generated from information you have processed and knowledge you have restored. Yet, this technique requires that one has accumulated enough knowledge to answer questions.
Another technique with moderate utility was self explanation. This technique was found to be useful when used while one is studying rather than used after studying. It consists of reiterating the information in the learners own words and based on their understanding of it.
A technique of high utility was practice testing, and although it sounds counter intuitive to practice for a test you are taking, it was shown to be the most effective technique. Just like before taking the SAT’s or GRE’s you are encouraged to do as much practice tests as you can, doing the same while studying will increase free recall. By creating questions from the material you have to study for and after using some of the other techniques mentioned, answering the questions without looking at the answers will encode the information into your memory and reinforce it.
Another high utility technique is distributed practice which is something I am guilty of falling short of. This suggest, spacing your learning and avoiding cramming all the information at one time. Making a study schedule for an exam, and cover a topic every day, provides the resources available to study one topic at a time. Distributed practice incorporated with other techniques can be very effective. The least effective techniques were highlighting, re-reading and imagery use for text learning.
Encoding, recalling and recognising information in our memory is a major process in learning and Joshua Foer, in his book Moon Waking with Einstein, talks about his experience in the U.S. Memory Championships, in which he participated in to learn the secrets and tricks of memorisation. What he found is valuable and useful for our learning in everyday life, from memorising our to do list, to memorising our next exam., Joshua looks at ancient history techniques of memorisation and goes back to 15th century.
The secret he found was elaborative encoding, which entails taking the kinds of information our brains are not good at encoding like lists and numbers, and transforming them into memories our brain were built for, like visual imagery. As well as taking boring information that goes into your memory and turning it into something exciting, meaningful, and so different that it is impossible to forget.
Elaborative encoding is used in a memory palace, which is a technique used for the memorisation of any chunks of information. A memory palace is any physical place that one is familiar with, with its rooms, doors and hallways. Objects are placed in that space, which represents what you want to remember. The more eccentric these objects are the more memorable they are. “The idea is to create a space in the mind’s eye, a place that you know well and can easily visualize, and then populate that imagined place with images representing whatever you want to remember”- and this is known as a “memory palace” writes Joshua.
In his book, Foer tries to memorise a to-do list. He chose the house he grew up in as his memory palace, which is a space he likely knew very well, and placed the items of the to-do-list around the home in the order of the rooms and table. He visualised each item, with its dimensions, ensuring objects are multi-sensory and descriptive with a colour and smell, vivid and engaging processing the image and giving it as much attention as possible. So, when the information had to be retrieved, all he had to do was retrace his steps and the objects pop into his head. This is achieved with actual visualization of the items in the physical space.
Understanding the mental recourse we are equipped with as well as understanding how our cognition functions provides us with a rich toolbox of ways to become efficient and effective. Although there are no guarantees that these techniques can work for everyone, experimenting of what works best for you can be very informative for the type of learner you are. Everyone has a different style of learning, some people are more visual than others, some prefer auditory. When a person is equipped with intention, motivation and effort the conditions of learning are there for success. Good luck!