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Education research

"Learn how to learn, then you can go far"

Munich, 02/07/2014

In the following interview, LMU psychologist Frank Fischer discusses the role of notecards in effective learning, when to take a break from cramming, and how to profit from failure.

Student (Photo: Jan Greune)What is the secret of successful learning?
Frank Fischer: The most important thing to learn about learning is how to process new information effectively, to link it up with what one already knows, with what is stored in long-term memory. That is the whole secret behind the acquisition of new knowledge. Everything that cannot be related to what we have already committed to memory is sooner or later forgotten, and it vanishes without a trace. Fortunately, there are efficient techniques available that facilitate the activation of prior knowledge.

What kinds of learning techniques are especially effective?
The testing strategy – trying to answer questions set in previous exams – has been shown to work well, for instance. Taking a blank sheet of paper and writing down everything one can remember about a particular topic is also a useful approach.

But won’t that be a fragmentary picture, full of gaps. What about the stuff one hasn’t noted down?
The basic trick in really effective learning strategies is this: Everything that in any way connects the new information with pre-existing knowledge helps one to retain the new data. With the testing strategy, one also trains the ability to recall knowledge. And the act of recalling itself entails a restructuring of that knowledge, which benefits learning.

Some people will devote 10 hours of a single day to revising material. Can one retain what one reads in a long session like that?
It is better to learn over longer periods, and to tackle the different topics in an appropriate temporal sequence. In this way, one can learn more in a shorter time than if one decides to plough through the same amount of material in a single go. In order to retain knowledge for long periods, it is important to have time for reflection, to take breaks from learning – and by breaks I mean intervals of days.

As a rule of thumb, 10% of the time remaining before an exam should be used for rests between learning sessions. In other words, if the exam is 10 days away, I should take a break of a whole day between periods of learning. If you begin to revise 100 days before the exam you can pause for 10 days. That is more effective than cramming every single day.

Is it true that sleep consolidates what one has recently learnt?
As neuroscientists have shown, a lot goes on in our brains when we are asleep. During the night, what we have learned in the course of the day is transferred to stores in another part of the brain, and this very probably involves a degree of restructuring as well, which promotes its retention. Indeed, these processes partly explain why taking breaks that last for several days has a positive effect.

And when one gets off to a late start?
If one only has three or four days left, then the best thing to do is to learn in long sessions, although it is then unlikely that one will retain the material in one’s memory over the longer term. And even when one has to learn en bloc, it is important to take at least short breaks every so often. And if the content isn’t particularly stimulating, you can fire up your motivation by deciding to give yourself a treat when you are through.

Lots of people who do not trust their memories write notes on cards. Does this also help one to learn?
When you make notes, you have to consider what the important points are. You have to abstract, to summarize. If you do that properly, you won’t even have to consult the card, because you will have fixed the content in your head just by making the note.

So the best thing I can do is to write summaries of what I’ve read on little cards?
Unfortunately, summaries don’t always work that well. The problem is that, in order to write a good summary, I need to be able to pick out the essential points, and that often requires knowledge that a beginner doesn’t have. Summaries are most useful for beginners if they have been trained how to write good ones, because that too involves linking new information to pre-existing knowledge. Before attempting to compose a summary, therefore, one might ask oneself the question: Apart from what is in this text, what else do I know about this issue? – And obviously, summaries shouldn’t be too long. One sentence per paragraph or per page has to do the job.

What about highlighting or underlining the important sentences?
On its own, highlighting – even using different colors – is of no use at all. Beginners in any subject have a tendency to highlight far too much. One useful approach that often works for beginners is to restrict oneself to marking, at the most, one sentence per paragraph or per page. But again, deciding what’s important means calling on what I already know. But because the beginner will not always mark the really essential sentence, when it comes to revising, he will not always find the critical point in the marked passage.

Any other useful methods?
Asking ‘Why?’ questions. When they are learning, beginners, in particular, should ask questions like: Why is that so? Why does it make sense that this should be so? One of the most vital skills one can learn in any field is the art of problem-solving. In most areas, it is a good idea to start in a structured fashion, using examples of already worked-out solutions, which allow one to follow step-by-step how someone else approached the problem. Then one can think about what the other guy did, and why he chose to attack the question in that way and not in any other.

What should I do if I have a blackout in the middle of an exam?
That is often because stress induces nervous tension, but this link can be broken quite successfully by using dedicated relaxation strategies. If a blackout does occur, it helps to ask oneself: Where was I sitting when I learned or revised that? What did the source text look like? Recalling the learning situation often jogs the memory enough to resurrect the information.

And when one has made a mess of an exam?
Then the challenge is to draw the right conclusions. Many students are confronted with their first experience of failure only when they get to university. In most cases, failure has nothing to do with intrinsic ability. The problem is taking too little time to prepare or preparing in the wrong way. So one must be willing to change one’s learning strategy.

In other words, if I have learned how to learn, I can be successful at anything, whether or not I have any particular aptitude for the subject?
Differences in intrinsic aptitude are seldom responsible for differences in learning performance. There is practically no course of study in which sheer talent is a crucial asset. If one has learned how to learn, one can go a long way. Many studies have shown that, with the right learning strategies and enough effort, one effectively catch up with those who are more talented, and don’t have to work so hard to attain a given level of competence. Intrinsic talent plays a larger part in the earlier stages, but most of the people who enjoy long-term success in any given field are not those who are exceptionally gifted. Among other traits, persistence, willingness to work hard, and the ability to adapt rapidly to novel challenges, with the help of the right learning techniques, are what really count. Unless I am ready to invest the necessary time and train myself to extend my knowledge and broaden my skills, the talents that I have will count for nothing.

So highly successful people have a different approach to learning?
Those who are unusually successful are constantly developing their knowledge base further, even long after they have completed their formal education or their vocational training. They are in training all the time, using a combination of self-questioning and self-monitoring. They keep up an internal dialog in the background which probes and explains what they are up to. They ask themselves questions like: I can tackle the problem in this way or that. Will that line or attack work or is it likely to cause new problems? What can I change to avoid them? And then they do make the change and observe its effect, they monitor whether it works. And they do this sort of exercise for at least two hours, every day, and often outside normal working hours. That is what distinguishes these individuals from people who have picked up lots of experience in their jobs, but have interiorized it so much that they operate on autopilot for much of the time, and this is an obstacle to further development of this skill.

Professor Frank Fischer

 

Prof. Dr. Frank Fischer is Professor of Education and Educational Psychology at LMU. He has also served as Coordinator of the Munich Center for the Learning Sciences since.

 

 

 

ScienceCast

ScienceCast: Lessons from the laboratory
Most students know more about media technologies than their teachers, but lack the ability to use them effectively, says educationalist Professor Frank Fischer. This underlines the need for training in media literacy. In ongoing studies at the Institute of Education and Educational Psychology at LMU Munich, he and his team are seeking the best ways to provide it.

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