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Learning to learn: the ten commandments

At Learning Pool we don’t just dispense learning, we’re in the business of learning too.

That’s why at this year’s Learning Technologies we were eager to hear what Ulrich Boser had to say about the best ways to learn.

Boser, best-selling author and well-known presenter, challenges some of our fondest-held beliefs about the best ways of learning.

He’s less interested in what we learn than how we learn it.  Why is it that there are many things we do every day, like driving or writing, that we don’t get any better at?  Clearly just doing the same thing over again doesn’t work.  You need techniques that actively help you learn better and improve.

Here are Boser’s Top Ten techniques for learning to learn.

Make meaning

Learning has to mean something to you as the learner.  And that requires work.  You need to make sense of it for yourself and not just highlight key facts.

Learning from mistakes can help.  This is particularly true of the ‘hypercorrection effect’.  If you believe something to be true and are shown that it’s not, you’re more likely to remember.

But you don’t need to be shown to be wrong to learn, just engage actively with what you’ve learned.  Explain what you’re learning to yourself or others.  Test yourself regularly on what you know. Make summaries.  Jot down what you’ve learned in your own words.

The blessing or curse of knowledge

How can it be both? Well, the curse is that we can be stuck with the things we know.  We’re so sure of ourselves that we limit our access to deeper knowledge.  Try explaining what you think you know to others and then see if they understand it the way you do.  This may reveal you don’t know what you think you know and open yourself up to learning more.

But there’s no doubt knowledge is a blessing too.  Research has shown that what makes you improve your skills is not so much age, personality or learning style, but simply having prior, raw knowledge.  It may sound obvious when you put it this way but having some knowledge of maths will help you get better at maths.

Honour short-term memory

Everything we learn goes through short-term memory.  But we now know that it’s very limited. Short-term memory can hold only 3 to 5 things at any time.  Now you know why emergency phone numbers are just 3-digits, 999 or 911.

Trainers and teachers need to respect the limitations of short-term memory by breaking learning down into manageable, digestible chunks so they don’t overload learners.

Think about thinking

Thinking about thinking (or meta-cognition) addresses the curse of knowledge: our over-confidence in knowing what we know. Don’t be content to think you know something.  Challenge that assumption by thinking about the process behind learning.

Plan you’re going to learn and how you’re going to learn it. Set yourself targets and goals. Monitor and note what you’re learning as you’re learning it. Imagine explaining it to a child.  Then spend some time reflecting on this process: how could I do this better?

Promote feedback

Feedback is critical, but it can be embarrassing.  Sometimes it means admitting you’re not as good as you think you are – that curse of knowledge.

But constructive interventions from tutors and specialists that pick up on where you’ve gone wrong and what you need to work have been shown to improve learning.  This can help you think about your thinking and open you up to learning more and building on what you already know.

Remember to remember

We forget most If not all of what we learn.  Boser cheerfully told us we’d forget 50% of what he was telling us within 24 hours.  That’s a well-known and long-established fact.  Of course, there’s plenty of stuff it’s good to forget: like where you parked the car last week.

Retrieval of the knowledge we need is what matters.  And forgetting gives us the chance to ‘re-learn’: a process that will make learning stick much better.  Spacing learning, revisiting it after a while when you’re just about to forget it, helps you re-learn and ultimately remember for far longer.

Remembering to remember means you don’t really forget.

Respect emotions

When we learn it’s not just our minds that our engaged, but our bodies and feelings too.  It’s been observed that people lean back when they are thinking about the past, and forwards when thinking about the future.  Effectively they’re thinking with their bodies.

How we feel is central to our ability to understand. If you want someone to learn, you need to make sure they feel safe and comfortable, so they open up to learning.

Gain deeper features

We’re often attracted by the surface features of learning – the details and the facts.  We re-read our class notes.  We take out the highlighter and mark the text.  But this passive approach means we don’t engage with learning at the deeper level.  We’re not making sense of what we’re learning.

Take practice, for example.  In the long term, it’s more effective to mix things up (interleaving) rather than practice tasks in a block.

That’s because mixing elements up makes you identify the deep connections and patterns between them that will help you put learning together.  For example, you have music, maths and French homework over 3 days. Instead of going from one to the other and finishing each, why not study a little or each in one session.

Uncover connections

Boser recommends finding analogies to help us learn. Look for systems and relationships that help connect and map new learning to other things in their mind.

Focus on discovering deep patterns rather than focusing on surface details. You’ll learn new things better if you’re able to compare and contrast them with other experiences.

Reflect, reflect, reflect

With any learning there’s a lot to take in, so give learners time to absorb and reflect on what they’re learning. If you’re giving a presentation, pause for at least 3 seconds to give your audience time to reflect on what they’ve just heard.

Ask learners to discuss and revisit what they’ve learned.  As a learner yourself comment or write on what you’ve been learning.  These reflections help cement and embed learning.

So, what have we learned?

At Learning Pool we’ve taken Ulrich Boser at his word and have revisited and reflected on what he’s said. We’re making the connections with our own learning design and products.

If you want to continue this conversation and explore connections with us, please get in touch and see how we can learn to learn together.

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