I have just finished Episode 5 in my flexible learning experience. Episode 5 was called Learning to Learn, not only useful for my own learning but how to set up learning for others as part of my job as educational designer. I learnt a great deal, in actual fact I learnt that I haven’t been learning in the right way – at least not the right way for long term memory gain. Block learning, note-taking, highlighting and re-reading apparently do not serve much of a purpose in learning for the long-term. Sure you can do well on an exam by cramming the night before the exam, however in a month (or so) after your exam you will have forgotten what you have learnt.
Another element of this is that both teachers and students falsely believe that good performance is due to the technique of block learning. In actuality only short memory is measured in the performance, not long term memory. This equally applies to learning new skills and concepts. In a study people were shown 6 pictures by different artists. The group that was shown the pictures in a block had more trouble identifying the artist when shown a random new picture. The people who were randomly shown the pictures by different artists had more success identifying who painted the new picture. However, people self identified that they would learn better if the pictures were shown in a block of the same artist before moving onto the next. This effect is called the fluency effect. It relates to our false learning strategies such as re-reading or note-taking. By re-reading an article we tend to understand it better because we have already read it. We mistake this ‘fluency’ for understanding the article and it’s concepts.
Input less, output more
Bob Bjork describes four learning strategies that will enhance your learning for long-tem gain – he calls these desirable difficulties. As part of writing this blog post I am not referring to my notes or re-reading, listen to the content. I am trying to use the learning methods described in the course. So I write the following with the caveat that it might not be entirely correct but this is the way I have understood it. This is one of the desirable difficulties that Bjork describes, retrieval strategy.
This desirable difficulty is created when trying to recall a concept without looking at your notes, or re-reading/watching the content. At this moment in time, I am trying to recollect what this strategy is and am trying to convey it to you. The process of me trying to retrieve the information is vastly more powerful in me learning the concept (even if I get it wrong) than if I had just looked up the answer. Of course this method is more difficult, it requires more effort but it is therefore a desirable difficulty.
In a slight segue, I feel that because everyone is connected to the internet with ready-made answers by googling it, the skills of retrieval by only using your own brain is even more crucial than ever if we are going to improve learning. Especially learning on our own.
Ways you can increase your retrieval opportunities:
- Flash cards – write the concept on one side and try to remember what means without looking at the answer until you have retrieved your version
- Discuss the concept with a friend
- Ask and answer questions with other students
- Summarise a reading
- Teach someone else what you have learnt
- Provide examples
- Test yourself
Spacing is another desirable difficulty that will aid long-term learning. Spacing is the antithesis of block learning. As an example, imagine you wrote an essay the night before it was due, you wrote it in 7 hours. If you had spent the one hour over 7 days or maybe even weeks you would retain the information longer even though the total time spent is the same.
I struggled with this strategy as I currently tend to delve into a topic head on and might not immerse until I have completed all the content. I believe (desperately trying to retrieve 😉 this learning strategy means we need to mix up our activities so that they are not all logically organised like in a textbook. I think, content needs to be mixed up but also that we ourselves need to involve ourselves in different activities. Maybe mixing up two subjects or learning another skill. Interleaving also refers to mixing up where you learn – the environment. As learning is context sensitive by learning something in a novel environment or way will help us to retain the information better but also to transfer the information to other domains.
There was a 4th strategy and I am sitting here desperately trying to retrieve what it was. It is so tempting to look at my notes as I wrote this down but I am trying to resist. I think it is integrated practice. I’m going to put this down but will follow up this post with one where I correct my errors as I do not want to mislead.
Relate the ideas that you have learnt to your own life. Rather than watching or re-reading content, practice what you have learnt.
This is one of the hard things in online learning, learning by yourself. You do not have others to discuss things with. Thus we are left with discussion with colleagues, friends and family who may or may not have the interest. Discussion boards seem hopelessly inadequate as the asynchronous ‘discussion’ is not really a discussion. Even a blog post is the same. Really I would have preferred to do this on my own but I wanted to highlight my struggles with this ‘new’ learning methods. In reality, I could just persist with my note-taking, re-reading and block learning and perform well enough for my course. However I am REALLY interested in learning for long-term memory and how to create conditions/designs so that others will learn in this better way too beyond a course term.
Thus I am trying to output more and input less even if it does lay bare my difficulties.