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Learning genius: Use this strategy to learn anything

Let’s have two students of equal ability. You take one of them and I take the other one. Let’s expose them to, or teach them…

Let’s have two students of equal ability. You take one of them and I take the other one. Let’s expose them to, or teach them the same content and see who’s going to master the content better. I can bet my last account balance that my student would master the material better and remember it longer; because I will teach mine with the best-known learning strategy ever invented. This is not an empty tat. And I am far from being a boastful teacher. It is what science says. And the same technique is available to you too.

The day before writing this, a former workshop participant called to send Eid greetings. But he also wanted to tell me that the technique I taught them (a federal government agency) works. My friend is preparing for his postgraduate degree and therefore used the technique beyond work. “It works,” he said, “whenever I want to remember, I just paused and it simply comes back to me!”

What is the evidence? There are many studies that agree with what the caller was referring to.

John Dunlosky and his colleagues wanted to determine the best learning strategy ever invented. That is, which study method gives you the best value for the time invested? One good way to know this is to go to the extant literature. So the researchers analyzed 100 years’ worth of literature published on learning methods. It took them three years to finish their work. For their work, they employed what is called meta-analysis. That is the analysis of the analyses or, analysis of what has been analyzed before on the subject of learning techniques by scientists.

In doing that they considered many learning methods such as note-taking, highlighting with a pen or marker, mind maps, concept maps, re-reading, cramming, etc., and came out with one answer: retrieval practice. I know it sounds fancy. But there is even a fancier term for it, it is called test-enhanced technique.

But a more down to earth name for it is testing or practice exam.

Yes, to remember most of what you learn, the best way to do it is to test yourself. There are many effective ways to do this, so we’ll talk about them shortly.

In his interview with Think101x Courseware of edX, Dunlosky said: “We chose the strategies for two reasons. Some of them that we wanted to evaluate, we thought they probably did work, but why not check out the evidence. A couple of other strategies, however, we knew students use a lot. We wanted to know are these really effective strategies or should they be doing something else instead? It turns out that highlighting and rereading don’t have a big bang for the time buck. The one that we find that is really effective and others have spent a hundred years of research showing how effective it is, is just retrieval practice.”

The author/teacher who has taken this insight seriously is Mark Myers, the author of three web development books including “A Smarter Way to Learn JavaScript.” A subtitle of his books is: “a new approach that uses technology to cut your effort in half.”

He claimed that you’ll learn 400 per cent better if you used the technique he has adopted for his books. Although John Dunlosky and colleagues excluded technology-based strategies in their analysis because they wanted to include only the methods that every student can use, Myers tied technology to retrieval practice for the readers of his books.

The result is that he has thousands of satisfied readers who have successfully mastered the lessons in his books.

Also, for centuries, Muslims have also been using this technique for Qur’an memorization. They study verses of the Qur’an and try to retrieve them from memory. When they make mistakes. They open the book, correct themselves, close it and try to retrieve from memory again. This is the way millions of Muslims have memorized over 6,000 verses of the entire Qur’an.

Why it works

I think the retrieval strategy works for two reasons. It forces us to focus and to engage more with the material rather than passively reading it.

Also, it gives us the opportunity to make mistakes. And research has shown that making mistakes in learning is good for us. When we make mistakes, our brain cells fire and grow, said Jo Boaler, author of Math Mindset.

How to do it

There are many ways to do retrieval practice. One easy way is to cover the material you’re reading and try to recall what you learned from memory. Another way is to use flashcards. Concept or terms on one side and their meaning on the other. Some textbooks also have questions at the end of chapters. But there are two problems with this. One is that questions come after too much material has been covered and the questions are usually too few.

The best way to tackle this is to use Mark Myers method. His chapters are about two pages long. He then gives you 12 or 20 questions to practice for those pages. And because you practice the questions on his website, you get instant feedback for your efforts. Studies show that retrieval practice works better with feedback according to the work of Cynthia J. Brame and Rachel Biel of Vanderbilt University

Is it different from cramming? Yes. Students use cramming to, well, cram their heads with answers that they need for exams even without understanding the content. After the exams, they forget it all. Retrieval practice allows the material to stick around for a long time.

Is it hard?

Retrieval practice is effortful. It may appear hard. But for every minute you invested, you’ll gain more utility than if you used other methods. Say you and your friend each invested 20 minutes to learn a material. You used retrieval practice while your friend read and re-read the material. You’re likely to understand and remember the material longer than him.

When John Dunlosky was asked if retrieval practice requires more desire from a student, he said: “It absolutely does. It’s very easy for a student to sit there and reread especially when your mind is somewhere else thinking about how fun it is going to be when you finished your exams. While it takes a little more effort that engages you to try to retrieve. The nice thing is out of all these studies that are done to compare rereading to retrieval practice, the time on task was always equated [so the students were using the same amount of time]. Yet, giving the same amount of time in one strategy versus the other, students who were using retrieval practice, using a little bit extra effort, are getting a major increase in their performance.”

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