The Art of Learning

Dr Siva Kumar –

Knowing how to learn helps everyone to gather knowledge effectively and quickly to provide lifelong benefits. Psychologists have been investigating numerous learning techniques followed by both humans and other creatures. Dolphin moms start teaching their unborn calves well before birth by singing their names (a signature whistle). Superb fairy wrens (a type of Australian bird) teach a password to their chicks even before they hatch. Later these passwords are used as a call for food. Meerkats teach their pups how to catch their favourite food (scorpions) without getting stung. Firstly, they give demo lessons with dead scorpions, then with live ones without a stinger, and they finally expose the pups to live scorpions (without the pups knowing) before graduating them.
Even one of the simplest forms of life, bacteria, demonstrates a form of learning. Colonies of Escherichia coli, which are found in the human mouth and gut, change their metabolism to adjust with the environment. In a similar sort of way, a very common experiment carried out in education is called Pavlovian conditioning; where dogs are taught to associate the sound of a bell with food, which results in them salivating every time they hear a bell.
There are numerous learning techniques available for us to adopt, ranging from simple re-reading and summarising to self-testing and more. Whilst some strategies are very good and improve student achievement, many others are proven to be time consuming and ineffective. Unfortunately, schools teach students many subjects but never teach good learning techniques. This means that some of the ineffective strategies followed by students can often undermine their success.
Scientists have systematically reviewed more than 700 learning techniques and have identified the top five most successful, which are robust and durable.
These are:
1: Self-testing, which was identified as one of the most effective learning techniques. This strategy demonstrates high utility over a range of contents, formats, ages and retention intervals.
2: Distributed practice: Instead of cramming, it is better to distribute learning over time.
3: Elaborative interrogation, which involves asking questions such as ‘why?’ to make learners inquisitive and facilitate learning. This technique is found to be useful when learning factual information.
4: Self-explanation, which involves generating explanations of what is learnt, reviewing them and relating them to other concepts.
5: Interleaved practice: Most often, students study one topic thoroughly before moving on to the next. However, research has shown that alternating between topics in the same study period improves learning.
They have also identified the five worst learning techniques, which waste time and have proven to be ineffective. At the top of this list, according to the researchers, is highlighting. They explain this technique reduces students’ ability to draw inferences and is only useful early on in the learning process. Second on the list is re-reading, which wastes time and is unproductive. The next three worst learning techniques are imagery for text learning (using pictures to relate to every paragraph, which may not work long term), summarisation (just remembering the main points and excluding unimportant material, which has been found to be ineffective) and keyword mnemonic (which is only useful to learn definitions and terminologies). When I was telling Kiran, a school student, about these techniques, he agreed that highlighting is one of the worst learning techniques and demonstrated it by showing me his book where an entire page was highlighted in yellow, despite highlighting only the ‘important’ parts. When I asked him what his best learning strategy is, he said, “learning from mistakes”, and mumbled, “I can learn best by making as many mistakes as possible”.
I reminded him what Ogden Nash once said: “You are only young once, but you can stay immature indefinitely.”