There is a good chance that, back in the day, you were not taught the most effective ways to learn. Certainly that seems to be the case today. In a an article in American Educator, Kent State professor John Dunlosky reports that the texts used in education schools do not really prepare teachers very well for teaching their students effective lifelong learning strategies. The current textbooks, Dunlovsky writes,
do not adequately cover the strategies; some omit discussion of the most effective ones, and most do not provide guidelines on how to use them in the class- room or on how to teach students to use them.
To help address this issue, Dunlovsky and a group of academic colleagues set out to determine which learning strategies really do seem to be most effective. They investigated a list of 10 strategies, some chosen for the list because there seemed to be existing evidence they are effective, others chosen because they are popular with students, but possibly not very effective.
Two strategies, in particular, stood out as effective:
- Practice testing: self-testing or taking practice tests on to-be-learned material.
- Distributed practice: implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time.
Another three showed significant promise, though merit more research in the opinion of Dunlosky and his colleagues:
- Interleaved practice: implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session.
- Elaborative interrogation: generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true.
- Self-explanation: explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving.
Read on, and I’ll discuss how each of these might apply in your own lifelong learning. I’ll also discuss the five practices that were not so effective – some of which you almost certainly make use of regularly as part of your learning.
Here are the strategies that Dunlosky says are clearly effective or show signs of being very effective:
1. Practice Testing
Testing yourself as you learn is one of the techniques I cover in the “accountability” chapter of 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner. The idea is that, by making yourself actively retrieve information from memory, you bolster long-term retention.
In addition, as Dunlosky points out, the practice of testing yourself during the course of learning helps you identify the areas where you may need more study or practice.
So how do you test yourself during the course of learning?
You are most likely familiar with one of the most tried and true methods: flashcards. Use flashcards to capture key terms and concepts as you learn so that you can return to them periodically. The term or concept goes on one side of the card and an answer or brief explanation on the other. The cards should be reviewed regularly, and for maximum effectiveness, you should make yourself fully recall the answer or explanation – potentially even write it out – before flipping the card.
Technology, of course, can help with the flashcard-type approach. Consider using a site like Quizlet to create Web-based cards. Memrise is another option. Its learning engine is based on many of the principles I cover in this post, and with the paid version, you have the ability to use the platform to create your own private courses.
Finally, working with an accountability partner or group can be a great option. Collaborative learning provides opportunities for questioning each other, role playing, and demonstrations – all forms of practice testing.
(Note: If you are interested in the testing effect, you may also want to see Taking the Testing Effect Beyond the College Freshman: Benefits for Lifelong Learning.)
2. Distributed Practice
“Cramming” is a time honored tradition of students everywhere, but while cramming may get you through an exam, it is not much good for real learning. If you want to retain what you learn over the long term, the most effective approach is “distributed practice” – basically spreading your learning efforts out over time rather concentrating them into a single “massed” session.
Dunlosky stresses, though, that distribution is not simply a matter of repetition, as important as that is. No, the repetition needs to be effortful. It should involve actual recall – as with the approach to flashcards discussed above. Or, it should require performance – that is, actually trying to do whatever it is you are trying to learn.
Readers familiar with the concept of “deliberate practice” will recognize a strong connection between Dunlosky’s findings and the work of Anders Ericsson. In addition to Dunlosky’s article, I encourage you to read How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? 8 Keys to Deliberate Practice in which I expire the topic of practice in greater depth.
With respect to applying distributed practice to your lifelong learning, I’d suggest that thinking of lifelong learning as a continuous practice or habit is key. Simply reading a book, attending an event or watching a video is likely to have little impact. You have to return to the material covered in those learning experiences repeatedly over time. This is a key reason that effective note-taking is so important.
Again, technology can be helpful. I use Evernote, for example, to create notebooks related to specific learning experiences of topics, making it easier for me to return to these and review them over time. You may also find it useful to use a site like “Lift” to help hold you accountable for developing a habit or practice over time.
The following are the three additional strategies that Dunlosky says show promise of being very effective.
3. Interleaved Practice
Interleaved practice basically takes the concept of distributed practice a step further, Rather than practicing the same sorts of problems or working with the same sorts of materials over time, the interleaved approach involves mixing different types of materials or problems. I’d argue this approach aligns quite well with the reality of dedicated lifelong learners, who often pursue many leaning paths at once.
It is possible that even when practice is spaced out over time, focusing on a single type of material or problem can have a sort of “massed” practice effect because the content covered in any given session starts to feel familiar quickly. We may quickly get a sense of mastery, but in reality, we may not be challenging ourselves at a level that will help maximize long-term recall.
Dunlosky suggests that the interleaved approach may be most useful when it comes to learning that involves problem solving – like, for example, mathematics. Distributed learning significantly improves performance over massed practice when it comes to problem solving, but interleaved practice requires a learner not only to solve a problem bus also to determine what type of problem it is. As Dunlosky puts it:
This seems like the real key: when a new problem is presented, students need to first figure out which kind of problem it is and what steps they need to take to solve it. This is often a difficult aspect of solving problems.
While it is quite easy and quite common for lifelong learners to pursue learning in many areas at one time, making interleaved practice a part of your ongoing learning obviously requires some reflection, planning, and organization. And how how helpful it is may also depend significantly on your specific learning pursuits.
While I won’t claim to have mastered, or even significantly implemented the interleaved approach to any great extent myself, I can say that I have notices a benefit to interleaved review of my various learning activities. Namely, it tends to spark ideas that I feel certain I would not otherwise have had. Although not addressed by Dunlosky, I am inclined to think that interleaved approaches to learning could contribute significantly to creativity and innovation.
4. Elaborative Interrogation and 5. Self-Explanation
Dunlosky addresses these two strategies together – which makes sense, given how closely related they are. Elaborative interrogation involves making an active effort to explain why something is true. Self explanation involves connecting new information to existing knowledge. As Dunlosky puts it,
One reason these two strategies can promote learning and comprehension and boost problem-solving performance is that they encourage students to actively process the content they are focusing on and integrate it with their prior knowledge. 
Dunlosky also notes that elaborative interrogation, in particular, is effective because “it simply involves encouraging [students] to ask the question “why?” when they are studying.
Long time readers here will know that I have written quite a bit about asking questions in general and asking “why” in particular. I’ve also advocated thoughtful review, reflection, and elaboration as part of effective note-taking. The research done by Dunlosky and his colleagues lends further support to these practices. Out of the strategies covered here, these are arguably the simplest and easiest to incorporate into your lifelong learning immediately.
5 Less Useful Learning Strategies
Dunlosky and his colleagues also looked at five other strategies, each of which they found less useful for various reasons. These were:
Rereading and highlighting: These are probably two of the most common studying strategies there are, and for the most part, they are ineffective. I’ll point you to Dunlosky’s article for the details, but the bottom line is that these are really only useful as a prelude to the more effective strategies above. For example, highlight as a way to identify what you might want to test yourself on. Or, when re-reading, use elaboration and self explanation and test yourself.
Summarization: Summarization involves “paraphrasing the most important ideas within a text.” It actually can be effective, but it requires some training and quite a bit of effort to do it well. As a result, Dunlovsky and his colleagues viewed as less useful than the five strategies covered above.
Keyword Mnemonic and Imagery for Text: Like re-reading and highlighting, these strategies are also quite popular. Indeed, they are at the core of Memrise, a “learning engine” I wrote about recently. Both involve using imagery to help the student remember words or concepts. There are benefits to this strategy, but they are limited. Dunlosky writes that
Mental imagery does increase retention of the material being studied, especially when students are tested soon after studying. However, research has shown that the benefits of imagery can be short-lived.
The strategies are also not widely applicable. They tend to work well when engaged in activities like memorizing a list of items, but don’t hold up as well with complex concepts. I’d also argue that they can be hard to do well consistently – a point I made when writing about Memrise. (The major benefit of Memrise, in my opinion, is not it’s “memes” but the fact that it employs distributed practice.)
So, the bottom line with these five strategies is that they may have a place in your lifelong learning practice, but probably not as significant a place as you might have thought.
Time to Get Strategic
One underlying message in Dunlosky’s work is that learning benefits greatly from identifying and constantly using effective strategies. So, if you haven’t been using the effective lifelong learning strategies covered here, I encourage you to begin embracing them today. And, if you have been using them, keep fine-tuning and developing your strategic learning skills.