4 Strategies For Remembering Everything You Learn

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If you’re going to learn anything, you need two kinds of prior knowledge:

• knowledge about the subject at hand, like math, history, or programming

• knowledge about how learning actually works

The bad news: Our education system kinda skips one of them, which is terrifying, given that your ability to learn is such a huge predictor of success in life, from achieving in academics to getting ahead at work. It all requires mastering skill after skill.

“Parents and educators are pretty good at imparting the first kind of knowledge,” shares psych writer Annie Murphy Paul. “We’re comfortable talking about concrete information: names, dates, numbers, facts. But the guidance we offer on the act of learning itself — the ‘metacognitive’ aspects of learning — is more hit-or-miss, and it shows.”

To wit, new education research shows that low-achieving students have “substantial deficits” in their understanding of the cognitive strategies that allow people to learn well. This, Paul says, suggests that part of the reason students perform poorly is that they don’t know a lot about how learning actually works.

It’s a culture-wide issue.

Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel, psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis  and coauthors of “Make It Stick: The Science Of Successful Learning,” say that “how we teach and study is largely a mix of theory, lore, and intuition.”

So let’s cut through that lore. Here are learning strategies that really work.

Force yourself to recall.

The least-fun part of effective learning is that it’s hard. In fact, the “Make It Stick” authors contend that when learning if difficult, you’re doing your best learning, in the same way that lifting a weight at the limit of your capacity makes you strongest. 

It’s simple, though not easy, to take advantage of this: force yourself to recall a fact. Flashcardsare a great ally in this, since they force you to supply answers.

Don’t fall for fluency.

When you’re reading something and it feels easy, what you’re experiencing is fluency.

It’ll only get you in trouble.

Example: Say, for instance, you’re at the airport and you’re trying to remember which gate your flight to Chicago is waiting for you at. You look at the terminal monitors — it’s B44. You think to yourself, oh, B44, that’s easy. Then you walk away, idly check your phone, and instantly forget where you’re going.

The alternative: You read the gate number. Then you turn away from the monitor and ask yourself, what’s the gate? If you can recall that it’s B44, you’re good to go.

Connect the new thing to the old things.

“The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to prior knowledge,” the “Make It Stick” 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.”

When you’re weaving in new threads into your pre-existing web of knowledge, you’re elaborating. 

One killer technique is to come up with real-life examples of principles you’ve just uncovered. If you’ve just learned about slant rhyme, you could read poems that exhibit it. If you’ve just discovered heat transfer, you could think of the way a warm cup of cocoa disperses warmth into your hands on a cold winter’s day.

Reflect, reflect, reflect.

Looking back helps. In a Harvard Business School study, employees who were onboarded to a call center had 22.8% higher performance than the control group when they spent just 15 minutes reflecting on their work at the end of the day.

“When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy,” HBS professor Francesca Gino tells us. “They feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they’re doing and what they learn.”

While reflecting may seem like it leads to working less, it leads to achieving more.

The surprising benefits of reading before bed

3986164316_9c49f5310c_oViviana Calderón/flickr
Reading before bed can reduce stress by 68%.

We’re all commitment-phobes. We scan, we skim, we browse, but rarely do we read.

Our eyes ping-pong back and forth from facebook posts to open chat boxes, unclicked emails to GIFs of dancing cats, scanning for keywords but barely digesting what we see. Average time spent on an online article is 15 seconds.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center revealed that one-quarter of American adults hadn’t read a single book in the previous year.

And that’s a shame because those who read consistently exhibit significantly greater memory and mental abilities at all stages in life. They’re also better public speakers, thinkers and, according to some studies, better people in general.

Cracking open a book before you go to bed could help combat insomnia, too: A 2009 study from researchers at University of Sussex showed that six minutes of reading reduces stress by 68% (more relaxing than either music or a cup of tea), thus clearing the mind and readying the body for sleep.

The reasoning, per psychologist and study author Dr. David Lewis is that a book is “more than merely a distraction, but an active engaging of the imagination,” one that “causes you to enter an altered state of consciousness.”

It doesn’t matter if your book of choice is by James Patterson or James Joyce, fiction or fact, so long as it you find it fully absorbing. Because when the mind is engaged in a world constructed by words, tension evaporates and the body relaxes, paving the way for sleep.

Encouraging Teenagers to Read, by Choosing Books From the Non-Y.A. Shelves

CreditJessica Lahey

My sons have always been voracious readers. One started early, the other started late, but once they got going, both were hooked. Then, one day this winter, I looked around my teenager’s room and noticed something was missing. Where books once littered his room, I now find guitar picks, running spikes and dirty socks.

I’ve learned from experience that encouraging my children to engage in anything I want them to do requires a lot of finesse. When I’ve come right out and recommended books I think they will like, those titles are immediately blacklisted from their mental card catalog, because my very endorsement taints them with a mom-approved stink.

My solution is to “seed” my older son’s room with a wide range of books for him to find on his own time and on his own terms. I consulted with my local bookseller, Brenda Leahy, who curates a list of teenage recommendations selected from outside the Young Adult section of the bookstore. Once armed, I scattered the literary bait all over my son’s room.

Once I’d set the trap for my own son, I asked Daniel T. Willingham, author of “Raising Kids Who Read,” for more advice about how to help keep children reading as they get older, and how to entice those who have strayed from books back into the reading life.

Make reading for pleasure a priority at home. Early in elementary school, teachers tend to give children a choice about what they read, but once they hit third grade, students are asked not just to read for pleasure, but to learn. Consequently, teachers begin to dictate what — and when — children read. This shift in purpose and focus can color the entire reading experience until it reaches its lowest point around Grade 10. There will be plenty of required reading assignments at school, so model reading for pleasure at home, particularly as children get older.

Don’t offer rewards for reading. Research shows that while rewards can jump start reading, they ultimately have a detrimental effect on both motivation and attitudes toward reading for pleasure. Schools commonly offer pizza, stickers and ice cream parties in exchange for pages read, but these rewards don’t encourage students to read over the long term. Worse, they teach them to prize rewards over reading and value what has been read over what is being read. Treat reading not as the path to a golden ticket; but as the golden ticket itself.


CreditJessica Lahey

Give children the power of choice over the books they read for pleasure. Have a wide variety of books available and accessible at home and in school, but don’t push your preferences or judge what a child chooses to read. For those who are truly resistant, Dr. Willingham wrote in an email, “Our first job is to get them open to the idea that print is worth their time.”

Ditch the rules! Children need to be able to abandon books they don’t like, peek at the endings, and read books they love over and over again. “Don’t nag, praise, criticize content or otherwise control your child’s reading,” Dr. Willingham writes in his book. Rules are control, and control is the death of intrinsic motivation.

Think outside the Y.A. section of the bookstore. After a year of unsuccessful attempts to entice one eighth-grade boy with the offerings on my independent bookshelf, I finally succeeded with a nonfiction book about baseball, his favorite sport (“The Last Best League” by Jim Collins). If sports are not your kid’s thing, how about science? Try, “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson or “What If?” by Randall Munroe. If a child loves animals, try “Following Atticus” by Tom Ryan or “Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived” by Ralph Helfer. You get the idea. Follow the enthusiasm in order to discover the book, rather than the other way around.

It’s been two weeks since I seeded my son’s room, and I am happy to report that the experiment has been a success at home. He has devoured two books so far this week (both on running: “The Sports Gene” by David Epstein and “14 Minutes” by Alberto Salazar) and when I took the two he rejected (“Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher and “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew B. Crawford) to school, they were were snapped up by students as soon as I put them on the shelf. My victory was short-lived, however, as later that day, my students deemed the day’s assigned reading “boring” and “stupid,” thus proving the point about the power of choice, and reminding me that when it comes to teaching and parenting, progress is always two steps forward, one step back.

A full listing of the Dartmouth Bookstore’s “Adult Picks for Teens” is available here.

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