top of page
  • Hugo Menard

Common misconceptions about effective learning

As our world gets faster and more complex, there’s a greater desire to be able to learn things quickly. But if we focus on speed and ease when learning, our results long term are often drastically impaired.

Did you ever have the following experience at school?: you’re in maths class, your teacher shows you how to solve a problem and then you have to solve 20 similar problems using that method. You rush through them as quickly as possible, getting better with each problem as you practice applying the formula and going through the steps. Then the teacher explains something else, and again, you use the new formula she’s just shown you to go through another 10 or 20 problems which again are all similar and all designed to get you to practice what you’ve learnt. Then you get given homework to practice some more. As you practice this at home, perhaps one of your parents or a sibling shows you a quicker way to find the solution, a little cheat method that makes everything easier.

It all feels good, you can see your progress, you can show your work, you can solve the problems, but in reality you’ve actually lost true learning. If we want to learn in a way where we’ll not only remember what we learn, but also be able to use all of that learning to solve a wide variety of problems in the real world (rather than being given a process to follow to solve many problems that are all in one section of our maths book), making learning fast and easy is actually the problem, not the solution.

The above method is teaching us to repeat a pattern, rather than understanding the thinking behind problem solving. Understanding the thinking takes longer, it’s messier, it’s harder, it can be frustrating, but it lasts, it works and in the end, when we apply our knowledge in the real world, we get better results.

The benefit of struggling

When we struggle with learning, when it’s slower, when it’s a challenge, that’s when we learn effectively. Giving hints, helping hands and quick cheat ways of doing things can look good in the short term. Hints get people to the result faster, a helping hand means people understand things more quickly, a cheat way means people complete the set of problems more efficiently. However, while all this looks good short term, these methods have poor long term results.

There was a study done to explore how the difficulty of a task affected the outcome. The researchers measured this by seeing how well school students pair the definition of words with the correct word. The participants were divided into two groups, one group was given the definition of words along with the word (eg: “To discuss something in order to come to an agreement”: “Negotiate”). The other group was given the definition of a word but there was a period of time inserted for them to try and come up with the word before it was revealed. Those who had to think and struggle a little, who had to guess at what the word might be, did better when they were tested later on.

An interesting detail here is that the more a student was confident that they had the right word (but actually got it wrong), the better they were able to remember the right word once they learnt it. This suggests that the more difficult it is to learn, the more it sticks in your brain. It’s a bit like growing a muscle: if you pick up a weight that is heavy, that’s when your muscle grows. Nothing much happens if you pick up a feather.

The downfall of getting hints

When we get hints during the learning process, it can look as though we are doing well because we’re seeing progress and it’s more enjoyable because we’re not experiencing the struggle of discomfort as much as we might be. But it turns out, those hints only work in the short term. The reason is, we come to rely on those hints rather than actually learning something for the long term. In the long term, not getting any hints, having to struggle with it (even though that struggle can seem futile and full or errors - making it look like we’re abhorrent failures), means we get better results.

This can even work if you test yourself before learning the material. (I know that seems to make no sense. “What’s the point of testing myself when I don’t know any of the answers? I’ll just get all the questions wrong!”). It works because when we’re struggling to learn something it primes our brain for better learning (even if when we struggle we fail to get the right answer).

The benefit of spacing out your learning

At school and at university, we often learnt one topic for several weeks and then we moved on to another topic, never to revisit the first topic again. But for learning to be effective, it’s best to study something, then stop studying it, then study it again. That space between learning creates the difficulty and the struggle when we try to remember, and that optimises learning.

Here’s one example of this: A study was done where participants were asked to learn Spanish vocabulary. One group learned the vocabulary and was tested the same day. The other group got tested a month later. The experimenters then waited 8 years, in which time neither group studied the vocabulary. After 8 years, both groups were tested again. The results? The group that waited a month between learning the vocabulary and being tested retained 250% more than the group who did it all on the same day.

Another study went as follows: participants had a list of words read to them.

Group A were asked to immediately repeat back the list they had heard.

Group B were asked to repeat back after rehearsing for 15 seconds.

Group C did simple math problems for 15 seconds to prevent them from rehearsing the list of words before repeating them back.

As you would imagine, from best to worst, it went group A, then B, then C. However, when everyone thought the experiment was over, the researchers gave a surprise quiz asking the participants to write down every word they could recall from the list. Now, the exact opposite happened. Group A (the group who repeated the words back immediately) were the worst, group B (who had rehearsed for 15 seconds) was in the middle, and group C (who had done math problems for 15 seconds to prevent them from rehearsing the words) came out on top. The struggle had helped group C transfer that information from short term to more long term memory.

This strongly suggests that repetition is less important than struggle when it comes to learning. When progress happens too quickly, when we learn to quickly and easily and get too many hints along the way, it can make it look like we’re learning a lot - but that’s misleading. Learning is most efficient in the long run, when it is inefficient in the short run. Frustration and struggle is not a sign that you are not learning, but ease and speed might be.

What do you do if you find yourself doing too well when revising material? Wait for a longer period of time before studying/revising that material.

There are some nuances or caveats to this. For example, if we use our imagination and association in learning, we can remember things much more easily and make the process fun. However, it’s often quite tricky to apply these methods to everything we learn. And regardless of this, long term recall may still require us to lift the heavy weight in order to grow the muscle (even if that weight is fun to lift because we used our imagination and association). One way to think about it is that to go fast, go slow. To do well in the long term, do poorly in the short term. However, as studies show, when you do this, even with the information you have just read, you will likely think that doing poorly isn’t effective, and going slow isn’t good.

The research shows we must not look at how we are doing in the short term to evaluate how well we are learning. We need to look long term for a more accurate measure. Just like going on a fad diet may make you lose weight in the short term, but won’t sustain you long term. However, gradually improving your diet and overall health bit by bit may not have astonishing effects short term, but its benefits will be unequivocally superior long term.

Making knowledge flexible

Learning something in a way that we’ll remember it for a long time is not the only consideration of good learning. As the world gets more and more complex and innovations happen at an ever increasing speed, the ability to apply that knowledge across a broad spectrum of problems and situations is also key.

One way of facilitating this kind of knowledge is to avoid learning, repeating or practicing a single skill/process ect, for a blocked period of time. Instead, mix it up. That way, with each situation, you’re looking at the problem and needing to understand the underlying principles before choosing an appropriate method to solve it. It facilitates problem solving rather than just repeating a pattern blindly. Thus, when you see a problem you’ve never encountered before, you’ll be better equipped to solve it.

Here’s a practical example of this: let’s say you are going to a museum where there will be the paintings of a few great artists, and you want to be able to identify the artist just by looking at the painting. To do this, you’ve got photos of each artist's work to study before you go to the museum. Rather than looking at many paintings of one artist in a block (to try and see the through line in their style), and then looking at many painting of another artist in another block etc, mix them up. It’s going to be more difficult when you’re practicing and you will feel like you’re doing worse. But the end result will be better and you will even be more equipped to tell who painted a certain piece even if you have never seen it before.

Here’s another example: let’s say you want to improve your free throw in basketball, and you’re given 100 throws before being tested. Option A, you stand on the free throw line and repeat the same shot 100 times. Option B, you move around the court, and allow for some of those 100 throws to not be at the distance of the free throw line. Which one do you pick? Logically we would think to repeat the shot we want to get good at. But what research has found is that if you move around you’ll get better results come test time.

The reason mixing it up works in all these examples is because when you learn in a block, you’re essentially learning a procedure. But when you mix it up, you’re learning how to differentiate types of problem and see the underlying logic/structure. You learn to adjust what you’ve learnt to the situation (whether that’s recognising a painting or applying just the right amount of force behind a basketball). Learning to adjust and adapt is far more useful than rote learning. Examine the problem before trying to solve it. The ability to do that is a distinguishing factor amongst expert problem solvers. This has been shown to work across a broad spectrum of fields from biology, psychology, aviation, music and more.

Again, studies find that when we do this, we believe that we are doing worse than if we just studied in blocks. But the end results consistently show just the opposite. It’s counter intuitive, but trust the science on this and you’ll be better off.

All of these methods make it look like we’re doing worse now, it slows us down in the short term. But long term, it allows us to be far greater. Going for the short term gain is like getting a child to walk early. It may be impressive right now, but eventually every other kid is going to learn how to walk, and all that effort is really just a waste, an illusion. If you do want to start early, focus less on something like teaching your child how to read (because everyone will get there), instead develop the skill of seeing the deeper context of the material. Move away from trying to master a closed process and towards an open skill that deepens with time. The trees that last the longest take the longest time to grow. So too, the deeper and more useful the skills we learn take a longer time but will serve us better long term.

Resources / references

Range: Why generalists triumph in a specialised world by David Epstein

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

bottom of page