Tips for being a better learner

Overview: Your degree teaches you ‘what’ you need to to know, but does it teach you ‘how’ to learn? Taking charge of your learning includes learning more about ‘how’ to learn. In this post, I extract ideas from a recent publication I read on the topic. Reading time ~ 15 minutes.

I just finished reading a paper by Bjork, Dunlosky, Kornell (2013) titled ‘Self-regulated learning: beliefs, techniques and illusions’. Link provided to full article.

My goal in reading the paper was to delve further into the world of the science of learning.

Why? – I maintain a document called ‘Evidence-based study and exam preparation tips‘. In it I like to collect study strategies that help students become better learners. I see this as having dual benefits. First, improved academic performance. Second, improved self-confidence and wellbeing. My hope is that by encouraging students to develop effective study habits, they have the experience of changing their behaviour and experiencing positive impacts as a result.

Isn’t that the role of lecturers?

Education settings like school and university tend to focus on content – the ‘what’ you need to learn. There is widespread variation between courses and degrees on the extent to which lecturers also cover content on ‘how’ to learn. The result is many of us (myself included) were never explicitly taught how to learn. We just wing it essentially, and hope that the study habits and strategies we’ve picked up along the way are sufficient. But often they are not. And the strategies we engage to learn new material is important. I’d hate for someone who is actually bright and capable to think that higher education wasn’t for them because they mistook poor study strategies for limited ability.

And so I try to stay connected to the science of learning through sites like Learning Scientists, Retrieval Practice and review publications like the one discussed in this post.

Truth is, I got right into this paper! What I particularly liked was how clear the article was in terms of what we, as learners need to appreciate, and how it explored the many learning traps we can fall into. I’ve tried to summarise those key points below.


The context

The article starts by acknowledging that a lot of learning nowadays is self-initiated and self-managed, meaning students have to take charge of the learning process. Even when you are at university, where the overall learning experience is managed by a topic or course coordinator, much of the responsibility for engaging with the topic/course sits with you 👦👧🏽

You have to select how much time to allocate to study, when to watch lecture content, how to approach assignment completion, the study strategies you’ll use to prepare for exams.

It was the shift to online learning because of COVID that brought this into stark focus for many students. Without the clear structures of face-to-face lectures, tutorials and peer interactions, students had to manage their own consumption and learning of course material. As you may have discovered, this isn’t always easy.

As more of us take charge of our own learning, it is important that we understand ‘how’ to learn. Most courses/degrees focus on content (what needs to be learned) but don’t pay much attention to how to learn. It is taken for granted that we already know that. But many of us were never explicitly taught how to learn. If we learn those strategies and techniques however, it means getting more from any learning process.


The article argues that to become a truly effective learner one must: 

  1. understand how memory works
  2. know what activities improve memory
  3. effectively monitor and adjust one’s use of learning activities in an ongoing fashion
  4. be aware of common traps

So let’s take a look at each of those……..


How does memory work?

The fundamental idea to takeaway here is that learning requires two key memory processes – encoding – in which we get the information into our heads, and retrieval – in which we get the information out of our heads.

Because human memory doesn’t operate like a hard drive, where an exact copy of information is laid down and then retrieved in its original format, there are rules for each process.

When encoding, new memories are connected to existing ones. New information is connected to already learned information. Thus we can’t simply just read or listen to new content and lay it down verbatim, we need to actively work to process it. This means understanding it, interpreting it, connecting it to ideas/concepts we already know, our own lives, looking for interrelationships between content and taking the time to elaborate concepts.

So if you were learning the structure and function of the liver you might:

  • picture the human body in your head and locate where the liver usually sits, in relationship to other organs
  • connect the functioning of the liver to everyday events you know well (i.e. what does my daily coffee do to my liver?)
  • bring to mind family or friends who have had liver problems and understand what those were and what caused them

The more actively we process new information and find connections between it and what we already know, the better encoded that information will be.

Encoding is only half of the equation though. Retrieval is the other half. Retrieval is the capacity to remember that information at a later date.

Practising retrieving information (e.g. getting a friend to test us on the content we’ve learned, doing practice tests) is not just a way of testing how well we learned that information, it is part of the learning process itself.

The more times we practice retrieving information, the better we will have learned it.

So laying down good memories = meaningful encoding + practising retrieval


Activities that enhance encoding and retrieval

A number of activities improve encoding and retrieval. A bunch of them are captured in our Evidence-based Study and Exam Preparation Tips document. A bunch are described in the article.

  • Focusing on meaning when learning new content (e.g. what implications does this content have to my life, or the lives of people I care about)
  • Making connections between new and already understood concepts
  • Organising knowledge into some kind of overarching framework. As an example, when I learn new methods for improving mental health and wellbeing, I try to fit it in to a bigger model of human mental health that I’ve built over time.
  • Collaborative interactions, that is, studying and learning with others
  • Spaced rather than massed practice – meaning you study concepts regularly over time, rather than cramming in individual sessions
  • Interleaved, rather than blocked study sessions – meaning you switch between topics in a given day, rather than dedicating the whole day to a single topic
  • Vary the conditions of one’s own learning – taking the opportunity to study and learn in different settings (one day at home, one day at library)
  • Self-testing – using flash cards or practise tests to regularly assess what you’ve learned

An interesting concept that the article describes is ‘desirable difficulties’. Some of the strategies described above can be difficult and time-consuming to do well, which means in the short-term the learning experience is more difficult. However, because the strategies are more effective, medium and long-term retention of materials is improved, hence they are desirable. This idea pops up again in the ‘common traps’ section below.


You need to be in charge of this process

As we are learning, we need to be monitoring our progress, as well as adjusting our study routines in accordance with what we observe.

A simple example of this is to use regular self-testing to ascertain what material we have learned effectively and then shifting our attention and focus onto material that isn’t encoded as well. If you have any topics where there are regular quizzes, this is probably an attempt of the topic coordinator to provide you with such an opportunity – to track your learning progress and make adjustments/ask questions as necessary.

Thus learning isn’t necessarily a perfectly linear and routinised process where you follow the exact same study structure each day. Rather, you need to be keeping track of your learning progress and making adjustments to what is being studied and how, based on the tracking.


Some common traps

One thing I think the article did really well was highlight the different traps we can easily fall into when managing our own learning. Some of my favourites are included below.

Familiarity with content can give the perception that we’ve learned it

When we’re reading content (e.g. an article, textbook chapter) for the second or third time and it feels familiar and safe, that can mistakenly convince us that we’ve learned that material well. It is possible that we have just got better at recognising it. We can’t really know how well we’ve learned content until we test ourselves (or get someone else to test us) on whether we can articulate that content in a free recall situation.

Ease of learning is not equal to quality of learning

As discussed previously in this post, the most desirable learning activities (e.g. spaced practice, self-testing, detailed organisation of new knowledge) tend to be experienced as the most difficult. When we rely only on those activities that feel easy (e.g. re-reading) we aren’t learning material as effectively as we could.

Assuming that mistakes and errors are bad

Making mistakes and errors in exams or assignments isn’t ideal. But making mistakes and errors whilst we are learning is actually a good sign. Errors and mistakes help you identify the limits of your knowledge, help highlight/spotlight the correct answers, and show you that you are pushing yourself hard. The more errors and mistakes we make whilst learning, the more likely it is that we’ll end up with a strong understanding of the necessary material.

The lure of cramming

Cramming for exams remains a top strategy of many students. It is fast, is obviously better than no cramming, and it can certainly give the illusion of well learned material. It is why it remains a top strategy. The catch (or the cost) is that material learned during cramming sessions is generally not well retained over longer time periods. It is why I did very well on my year 12 economics exam, but barely remembered any of it a year later.

In the hustle and bustle of university life we forget that the knowledge and skills we are acquiring are actually intended to be maintained over time, not just long enough for exams and assignments. But it is easy to forget this when assignments are due and exams are imminent.

Whilst I think it might be hard to convince students not to cram content the night before exams, I would encourage you (in addition to cramming sessions) to engage with that material in a more continuous way throughout a semester (i.e. spaced learning). Start developing routines that involve you revisiting material from each topic through the semester. This way you don’t have to abandon your cramming, but you are supplementing it with space practice over the course of the semester.

Thinking that memory for content is stable

Let’s assume that reading the above has convinced you to spread your learning out over the semester – win!! But you should be aware that memories, in the absence of regular retrieval can weaken, so make sure that material you have learned earlier in the semester is revisited regularly. You might feel like you mastered it in week 2, but by week 10, you probably need a refresher. Mastery at one point doesn’t guarantee mastery at a future date if you aren’t retrieving that material regularly.


Closing statements

In the original article, the authors talk about memory as being essentially unlimited. What’s important is the attitude and techniques we bring to the learning process.

If we ignore the quirks of how memory works, fail to properly monitor our learning as we go, or rely on ineffective learning strategies, that unlimited data storage can feel like an illusion.

I encourage all students to allocate a bit of mental bandwidth to learning a bit more about the learning process. I hope this article, and our Evidence-based Study and Exam Preparation Tips guide are useful in the process.

I also recommend consuming some of the resources of the Student Learning Support Service (SLSS) here at Flinders.

If you have questions about learning theory and practice, feel free to post in the comments below.

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