Teacher of psychology, author, researcher.

How To Learn - Sources

Many thanks for completing my survey on memory and learning.

You may be interested in feedback on your responses.

The first set of questions replicated the work of Simons and Magnusson, and concerned general (not teaching-specific) knowledge about memory.

The remaining questions specifically concerned teaching and learning:

Page One

- There are ways that you can improve learning, but they all involve spending more time studying.

This may seem obvious but is not actually true. Experiments into memory nearly always keep study time constant, but can still demonstrate impressive improvements in memory for information depending on the way that the study is done.

- Most learners have a good idea of how practice/study will impact on their recall.

This is generally not true, according to a variety of research on metacognition. See in particular Kornell & Bjork (2007) who note that "the task of becoming a metacognitively sophisticated learner is far from simple; it requires going against certain intuitions and standard practices, having a reasonably accurate mental model of how learning works, and not being misled by short-term performance" (p.223).

- When reviewing a topic, it’s best to give learners open questions rather than multiple-choice questions or verbal summaries.

True; the 'testing effect' is the reliable finding that a test is superior to simply being exposed to the material again, and the majority of studies (e.g. McDaniel et al., 2007) have found short-answer quizzes to be superior to multi-choice as they require active retrieval.

- You can expect a bit of forgetting after a class, but the majority of information will still be remembered after 2-3 weeks.

Forgetting of lesson material is actually very rapid, if nothing is done to prevent it. The classic forgetting curve suggests forgetting of up to 90% within this timeframe, but it can depend on the type of material and on other factors.

- The best way to learn something is to go over it repeatedly within the same hour, to ensure that the learners have really got it.

Although this may be a useful task in some circumstances, it is not the best way to learn something because performance over the short term is a poor indicator of long-term learning (Soderstrom & Bjork, 2015), and in addition, this type of activity fails to take advantage of the reliable benefits of spacing out learning over multiple study sessions

- Learners will benefit if you mix up lots of different types of problems rather than doing one type of task at a time. 

This is the case, at least for most situations. Interleaving of tasks has been shown to be helpful for maths learning (Rohrer et al, 2015) as well as for inductive learning. 


Page Two
- Learners are in the best position to judge what and how they should study.

Similar to Q1/page 1 - no, learners make many mistakes when regulating their own learning. Learners tend to select easier to-be-learned items, and stop studying when they perceive that they are no longer learning, but this approach may not be effective (Metcalfe & Kornell, 2005) especially as it focuses on short-term performance. When it comes to study techniques, Hartwig & Dunlosky (2012) found that most learners use techniques that are out of step with the strategies which are supported by research, but also that those who do use such strategies gain better grades. The work of Yan et al (2016) has shown that even when learners both try out a superior strategy (interleaving) and are given an explanation of why it works, they still tend not to use it. Therefore learners do not seem to be in a good position to decide what and how to study. 

- It’s always best to simplify things for learners in some way, because making something easier helps it to be processed into long-term memory.

No, this is not the case. In fact, many factors which slow down learning or make it harder are actually beneficial can improve learning - these are what Bjork (1994) refers to as desirable difficulties (see video clip).  

- As a teacher, it is wise to wait until learners have almost forgotten things before you go over them again.

Yes. Although many teachers review soon after teaching, a longer delay would be more beneficial - and the risk of waiting too long exceeds the harm done in re-visiting material too soon (Cepeda et al, 2006).

- Multiple re-readings are more useful for learning than doing lots of tests.

They are not. A study by Roediger & Karpicke (2006) compared multiple-re-readings with multiple tests, and found that when performance after a one-week delay was taken into account, testing was much more effective than re-reading. It is likely that beyond the first reading, there is very little benefit from subsequent repetitions. Testing, in contrast, promotes active retrieval of information (see Karpicke et al, 2014, for a discussion of theoretical explanations behind the testing effect).

- Good study advice for learners should include telling them to finding a place where they are comfortable and to do all their revision there.


- A learner’s current performance on a task is not a reliable guide to their long-term learning.



Page Three
- One of the best ways to remember something over the long term is to focus on its meaning and how it links to other things.
- If a learner guesses and is not correct they may remember the wrong answer, so it’s best to avoid guessing/predictions during lessons.
- Including extra information or examples in a written passage makes it harder for learners to remember the main points.
- Ultimately, learners form new memories through frequent repetition.
- It makes sense to do a homework task soon after the material is done in class.
- Once learners have got a question wrong and then been corrected, they will be able to predict whether they will get it right in future.


How to Learn: References and answers to questions from the book.

Answers to review questions