Learning to Learn Better

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It’s exam revision time (that’s British for “studying,”). One of my proudest moments was being named Governor at my old school, Lancaster Royal Grammar (after been booted out at age 16). As students across the UK and the U.S. gear up for their all-important GSCE, A-levels, APs, regents, and SATs, I’m happy to don the academic robes and offer some practical suggestions for exam prep based on a lifetime of learning, studying, memorizing, forgetting, and sometimes getting it right.

Decades of research about teaching, psychology, and memory has taught us how to learn better, and that learning and studying is equal parts science and art. In a recent article in The Guardian, Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield, describes a research study that suggests computer games as an ideal model for studying learning. Think about it: people spend countless hours practicing computer games, and all their actions are automatically recorded and scored. Analyzing how more than 850,000 people learned to play games allowed researchers to test existing theories of learning and suggested some powerful tips and techniques, including:

  1. Space Your Studying:
    “If you want to study effectively, you should spread out your revision rather than cramming,” writes Stafford, who relays how those who took time between games scored higher.
  2. Fail Fast, Learn Fast, Fix Fast:
    The same study showed that the most inconsistent players at the start had better scores later on. One theory is that those players were more interested in exploring how the game worked than simply trying to top the high score each time out. As a result, their learning was more engaged and fun.
  3. Practice What You’ll Be Tested On, the Way You’ll Be Tested:
    Rote memorization is not enough. “If your exam involves writing an essay,” writes Stafford, “you need to practice essay-writing.” [The All Blacks call this “Training to win”.]
  4. Structure information:
    Reorganization the material in some way, an approach called “depth of processing,” is a good way to ensure that material gets fixed in memory. Says Stafford, “Just looking at your notes won’t help you learn them.”
  5. Get Some Shut-Eye:
    Pulling all-nighters is not a good idea. Research shows that getting a full night’s sleep helps you learn new skills and retain information.

In a similarly themed article in the Telegraph, Britain’s “Grand Master of Memory” Ed Cooke also warns of the dangers of cramming. “Let’s say on day one of the holidays you learn a bunch of stuff,” Cooke says. “You could just cram, cram, cram, move on to the next thing and cram, cram, cram. But you’ll basically have to relearn it all again the night before the exam because you’ll have forgotten everything… The biggest mistake you can make is just to keep reading it over and over to yourself.”

As an advertising man, I always come back to the importance of storytelling and the primacy of human emotion—forces that factor into studying techniques and memory. “If a fact means nothing to you, you won’t remember it,” say Cooke. “So when you’re first learning something, it’s important to relate what you’re learning to things you already know. Memories are about connections with other things in your mind—you can’t just put a memory into nowhere. It has to connect with other memories, and that’s a very personal thing.” Some techniques for making learning and studying personal include linking information to anecdotes about people in your life, and deploying memory triggers like rhymes, acronyms, puns, and pneumonic devices.

What parents shouldn’t do, warns the BBC, is offer children bribes, treats, and rewards in exchange for academic success. “Bribery is not a good idea as it implies that the only worthwhile reward for hard work is money and that you don’t trust your child to work hard,” the BBC reports. “Negative messages like these will affect your child’s sense of self-worth.” Just remember—parents, kids, and pedagogues—what all that learning is meant to be for. And good luck this exam season!

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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