The Science of Learning

Most of us want to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible with as little tedious study as possible. While this might sound subversive, it is not. What we need to do is drive some of the embedded myths of learning out and make way for some of the new discoveries within the science of learning.

A number of these new discoveries are in a book called, Study Smart: 10 Ways to Master the SAT/ACT Using the Science of Learning by Nicholas C. Soderstrom an assistant professor at Dickenson College and an expert in human learning and memory.  Dr. Soderstrom has compiled key   principles from a number of experts, supported by extensive footnotes citing verifiable peer reviewed research.

I remember growing up  and hearing that, if you do not have a knack for math or basketball, you will never be able to make much headway in either. While those with talent undoubtedly have an edge, a main concept in learning science roundly disputes this belief: gaining a growth mindset. When Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, studied at length what separated those who succeeded from those who did not, the single factor that rose to the top time after time was grit: setting a goal and never quitting; that is the crux of a growth mindset. 

Carol Dweck in her book Mindset, The Psychology of Success tells us that our minds are learning machines if we accept challenges, recognize that we are in charge of our learning, that failing is part of learning, and that, indeed, practice does make perfect. Even those blessed with natural ability, like Kobe Bryant, must build their talents to reach the highest levels of performance: few, in fact, have a work ethicclose to Kobe Bryant’s. By having a growth mindset, your learning is set to improve rapidly.  

Another learning adage is review the material five times for an A-- not so according to learning science. Reading the material repeatedly is a waste, whereas testing the same material boosts learning significantly. In the world of learning science, testing is the best means of measuring the ability to retrieve information: especially if one wants to remember that information long term.

In a study from the journal of Psychological Science, three separate groups of students received a passage to study over four short study periods. The first group read the passage 14 times and recalled 40% of the material. The next group read the passage 10 times, tested once and recalled 56% of the material. The third group read the passage three times, tested three times and recalled 61% of the material.

The testing effect can be amplified if the schedule of testing is spread out with ever-longer gaps. This is called expanding retrieval, which by the way is a superb means of increasing the acquisition of foreign language vocabulary. Expanding gaps between tests forces the brain exert more energy in retrieving the answer making the learned information stick all the better.

Moreover, the power of testing extends to pre-testing material as well. Most students perform dismally on pretests of material, yet when tested later on the same material, pretested students scored 10% higher. A likely reason for this outcome is when pretested material is introduced to a class, the pretested students take note, recognizing the importance of the material.

These are only three of the ten pieces of learning science in Dr. Soderstrom’s Study Smart. I haven’t even touched on interleaving, mixing problem types to improve problem solving; keeping learning fresh by studying in different locations and varying practice problems; and using active learning.  

As the demands to command swaths of knowledge quickly escalate, knowing how best to approach the material is a distinct advantage it might be useful to develop such study skills and strategies by implementing the tried and scientifically true approaches in Study Smart.