Learning ability is probably the most important skill you can have.
Take it from Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel, authors of “Make It Stick: The Science Of Successful Learning.”
“We need to keep learning and remembering all our lives,” they write. “Getting ahead at work takes mastery of job skills and difficult colleagues. … If you’re good at learning, you have an advantage in life.”
And to learn something is to be able to remember it, say the authors, two of whom are psychology professors at Washington University in St. Louis.
Unfortunately, lots of the techniques for learning that we pick up in school don’t help with long-term recall – like cramming or highlighting.
To get over these bad habits, we scoured “Make It Stick” for learning tips.
Here are the takeaways:
1. Retrieval: Bring it back from memory
When you’re attempting to recall an idea, method, or technique from memory, you’re retrieving. Flash cards are a great example: They force you to recall an idea from memory, unlike a technique like highlighting where you’re not burning anything into your brain. The reason retrieval is so effective is that it strengthens the neural pathways associated with a given concept.
Psychologists call it the “testing effect“: When you try to recall a piece of information, it becomes easier to remember in the future. The authors explain that academic exams don’t have to be just a way to evaluate students – they can also be a learning tool.
2. Elaboration: Connect new ideas to what you already know
When you try to put a new idea into your own words, you’re elaborating.
“The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to prior knowledge,” the authors write, “the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.”
For instance, if you’re in physics class and trying to understand heat transfer, try to tie the concept into your real-life experiences, say, by imagining how a warm cup of coffee disperses heat into your hands.
3. Interleaving: Varying your subjects
When you work on a variety of things at once, you’re interleaving. If you’re trying to understand a subject – from the basics of economics to hitting a pitch – you’re going to learn better if you mix up your examples.
A sports case: Batters who do batting practice with a mix of fastballs, change-ups, and curveballs hit for a higher average. The interleaving helps because when you’re out there in the wild, you need to first discern what kind of problem you’re facing before you can start to find a solution, like a ball coming from a pitcher’s hand.
Generate your own ideas when you’re stuck before talking with your boss.VFS Digital Design/Flickr
4. Generation: Answer before you have an answer
When you try to give an answer before it’s given to you, you’re generating. “By wading into the unknown first and puzzling through it, you are far more likely to learn and remember the solution than if somebody first sat down to teach it to you,” the authors write.
In one study, students who looked at paired words like “foot-shoe” had a harder time remembering the second word later than students who looked at clues like “foot-s–e.”
In an academic setting, you could work on finding your own answers before class starts. In a professional setting, you could supply your own ideas when you’re stuck before talking with your boss.
5. Reflection: Evaluate what happened
When you take a few moments to review what happened with a project or meeting, you’re reflecting. You might ask yourself a few questions: What went well? Where can you improve? What does it remind you of?
Harvard Business School researchers have found reflective writing to be super powerful. Just 15 minutes of written reflection at the end of the day increased performance by 23% for one group of employees.
6. Mnemonics: Use hacks to recall
When you’re using an acronym or image to recall something, you’re using a mnemonic. The hall of fame includes abbreviations – Roy G. Biv for the colors of the spectrum (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet) – and rhyming, like “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
“Mnemonics are not tools for learning per se,” the authors write, “but for creating mental structures that make it easier to retrieve what you have learned.”
7. Calibration: Know what you don’t know
When you get feedback that reveals your ignorance to you, you’re calibrating. “Calibration is simply the act of using an objective instrument to clear away illusions and adjust your judgment to better reflect reality.”
This is necessary since we all suffer from “cognitive illusions”: We think we understand something when we really don’t. So taking a quiz – or gathering feedback from a colleague – helps you to identify those blind spots.
For a deeper dig into the science of learning, make sure to pick up “Make It Stick.” It’s an illuminating read.
Drake Baer contributed reporting on a previous version of this article.