I remember that, when still at university, some subjects could not be studied merely with what we consider “conventional” methods. To give an example, animal anatomy was interesting even by the book, but on the exam our professor would come with the model of a bone and test our knowledge asking about that piece of a corpse.
For fields such as anatomy, single-handed notions aren’t enough to learn. Knowledge is built in relation to other facts. In the case above, the position of such bone in the whole body, its function, its composition. It was not enough to know the body by its description: we needed to observe it, feel it in order to know it very well – and achieve a good grade.
All those are information that you develop by studying the whole and the part at the same time. Similarly, other fields such as language and architecture can be interpreted this way. The problem is that, in most cases, we are taught how to study the wrong way.
“I’m an army doctor, which means I could break every bone in your body while naming them.”– What could be an unorthodox learning experience with Dr. John Watson (Sherlock)
The issue with Repetitive Memorization (aka Rote Learning)
At school, we are/were often required to memorize an uncountable quantity of information. The size of required knowledge per subject may depend on the teacher’s requirement, depending on how fussy they are. That is, in return, a huge cognitive block for people. Not only learning becomes a mandatory activity, it has consequences too. Externalizing the purpose of the learning (in matter of grades, to say) has some side effects on how our memory works.
When the goals of learning aren’t intrinsic, is already difficult to make the information stick. The structures involved in memorization do consider multiple factors, such as its usefulness and how sensational that is.
That brings us on the problem of rote learning. The idea behind is that repeating the same information more and more times, we will be able to memorize it better. But a technique based solely on repetition does not overcome the way our mental structures work.
We are more likely to remember the false anecdote of Newton’s apple, than the formula of Universal Law of Gravitation (and even less, the year it was formulated). Whereas we can memorize both the fun fact, the law and the date, majority of the information will leave us past its immediate use (the exam).
Taking the example of school once again, rote learning can be useful to pass an exam, but is going to doom knowledge. Information are stored temporarily, but if we don’t give them a meaning, our brain is not going to store it. That can make the difference between successful scholars and professionals against mediocre ones.
Is there any valid alternative?
Of course, there are many. But first, we need to take into consideration two facts:
Learning requires Memory. Rote memorization isn’t exactly the most effective way to achieve knowledge and skills. Yet, it is important to acknowledge that long term memory plays an essential role.
Memory is only one factor on Learning. For instance, we think of memory only as a storage function. We may not know it, but information is firstly fragmented into small parts, analyzed for understanding, and then recomposed in a fashionable way (or rather say, memorable?) for our brain.
The three tactics I want to propose today are those proposed from Richard Feynman to his students. Prof. Feynman was a Nobel prize winner in Physics who dared to challenge rote learning, favoring instead creative and critical thinking.
Such techniques can maximize our learning process. They can make us feel less bored and engage our attention with a purpose.
Trick #1: Learn how to teach to a kid
This is particularly helpful when we are learning something new, especially if abstract. Textbooks and eLearning may propose articulate notions, so it all goes down to break the wall of this academic approach to its bricks. By simplifying the wording used to describe a fact, we try to catch its essence. We also must consider that our memory retains, in average, a group of 5-7 bits of information at once, thus the shorter, the better.
- What are the most difficult words in here?
- Why do I struggle to understand this specific part?
- How can I write in a way to remember permanently the same concept?
I have already said that sensational information (such as colorful, emotional, funny etc.) are those that we remember the most. So, we can try to encode weird images and use associations to strengthen the concept we want to learn. Once we are able to explain it easier, sure we are not going to forget it. But most importantly, we can pass that knowledge upon the others (like our kids).
Trick #2: Use multiple angles (and dig in when necessary)
The biggest issue students have is their lack of curiosity. This is such a helpful quality in learning: being linked to intrinsic motivators, it is a powerful factor of engagement for our attention. Sticking on the given textbook or course can be problematic, maybe we simply do not like how the author expresses the knowledge. Luckily, many others surely have written or spoken about the same topic. YouTube is populated with people that are willing to share their knowledge (i.e. complex notions translated for children’s understanding).
A natural consequence of looking at the same thing from different perspective is that in your research you can actually find more. There is a chance that you get that detail that you missed before, or you haven’t heard about but now gives to the whole a clear sense.
- What is my level of understanding right now?
- Where else I can find information on the matter?
There is a dark side on this practice, and it is to get lost within the infinity of sources. At the beginning, make sure you do not exceed and stick to 2-3 additional sources, or you may risk getting off-road.
Trick #3: Simplification for Complexity
That is, at the end, the sum of the previous two tricks. At first, we learn the basics of something, and we try making it simpler. We can repeat that over and over, until we manage to encode the key information – that is, the one that will stay in our memory. We can add visualization, or repeat in our mind the sequence of information inversely, from the effect to its cause.
The next step is to add more layers to what we have learned. That is by researching for more. The point is not to overload ourselves with useless information, rather to confirm what we are trying to learn with supportive facts. For example, knowing compounds of a word in a foreign language will strengthen the memory of its root. If we are studying anatomy, we may look for histological, functional, or physiological peculiarity about an organ. If we are studying history, we may associate to a fact some of our favorite music or reading of that time to enrich the context.
Just one more advice
The way we look at learning is often considered a school thing. In facts, we are learning constantly, that we want or not. Our brain isn’t something that we can freeze upon command. We learn new processes, rules, way of working and skills every day. Often, we are expected to pass the knowledge to our colleagues.
The 3 tactics described above are done faster than the time needed to read about them. What is best is that they are universal and do not relate only to high school or university.
As a matter of facts, adults are less engaged if they can’t put what they learn to use. Giving to knowledge a purpose is a great brain hack to not waste time with forgettable things.
Also, you will see how compelling and less awkward your presentations will be once you master knowledge in a way that no question will make you waver. And how fast you will be able to catch up with new one!