As I’ve noted before here on Mission to Learn, I am a fan of the courses that the Teaching Company offers, and one of my particular favorites is How We Learn with Professor Monisha Pasupathi of the University of Utah. Recently I returned to the course to start repeating, reviewing, and reinforcing the great material that Dr. Pasupathi covers. Naturally, one great way to support that process – and to be of help to readers here in the process – is to write about. So, here are five lifelong learning power tips I gleaned from Lecture 14, “Integrating Different Domains of Learning.”
If you want to learn well, you should:
Repetition is essential to learning, but simply repeating or practicing material over and over again without a break won’t get you very far – at least not when it comes to retaining what you learn for the long haul. There is a significant body of research supporting the idea that it pays to space our learning activities over a period of time. As the course guide indicates, spacing in this way “appears to make it clear to our brains that we can’t lose track of a skill or ability because we will continue to need it.” If you want to dig deeper on the topic, I recommend a very good report on spaced learning research by Will Thalheimer, PhD. (And by the way, I am engaging in a bit of spaced learning here by going back and repeating lectures I have listened to before.)
There is also evidence that it helps to vary the context in which you study or practice if you want to be able to apply what you learn as flexibly as possible. It is one thing, for example, to develop a great forehand in tennis when a backboard is your opponent. It is quite another to play against a range of other players of varying capabilities, or to play on different types of courts, or in different types of weather . If you really want to become a great tennis player, you need to be able to adapt to all of these variations and many more. The only way to develop this ability is by putting your forehand through its paces in many different contexts.
“Elaboration” involves drawing associations between new information or experiences and what we already know. As I mentioned in an earlier post on accelerated learning, the use of mnemonics is an elaboration strategy with which most people are familiar. The “method of loci” or “mental walk” in which words, phrases, or other materials are associated with familiar places is a classic mnemonic strategy. Reworking and restating ideas – as I am doing in this post – are also time-honored elaboration methods that support deep processing of new material and lead to much greater retention over time.
You should practice and review in a ways that corresponds to how you will ultimately use what you learn. I often, for example, will go over scales or other musical materials visually by reading through them in print or on a digital device. I may even visualize myself playing scales or the notes for a song. While this sort of visualization can be very powerful in helping me learn, eventually I have to be able to pick up a guitar and make it produce the right sound. This involves not only knowing the right notes, but also having all of the necessary motor skills and tactile sensitivity needed to perform effectively. If I never pick up a guitar at all, it is hard to argue that I have truly learned my scales.
Sleep is a topic I touch on in the “Mind Your Body” chapter of 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner, and it is a topic I plan to write a lot more about in the near future. Pasupathi highlights sleep as one of the most direct ways you can support learning because “sleep allows your brain to finalize the various neuronal connections you forged through learning and practice.” (Course Guidebook, p. 104) Additionally, sleep deprivation may interfere with the development of new neurons in the hippocampus – an area of the brain critical to long-term memory. Finally – and this is my own perspective – it is simply hard to be as attentive or motivated when you are tired, and both attention and motivation play a critical role in how well we learn.
So, there you have it. Thanks for indulging me in a brief session of spaced repetition, review, and elaboration in a transfer-appropriate context. Now I think I’ll go take a nap. (And when I awake, I look forward to reading your comments.)
P.S. – Please do comment and share. Also, if you are – or aspire to be – a serious lifelong learner – I encourage you to sign up for my newsletter to get a weekly reflection question.
I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.