About effective learning (Part 6): Spaced retrieval practice

In the previous posts of this series, I shared with you my personal experience with effective learning as well as some learning strategies that I found to be super helpful whether in school or life in general, because yes life is the biggest school out there, we’re constantly learning sometimes the easy way but often times the hard way.

What does retrieval practice mean?

Ok, this one doesn’t feel very cool, to be honest! But it’s super important and it saves a lot of time.

Basically, it just means that you should be frequently testing yourself on what you are learning. It’s not comfortable, it actually scares us because it causes us to feel stupid sometimes and even useless some other times. But the thing is you are most likely to remember something if you try to recall it once or twice more than you would if you read it five times or sometimes even ten times.

In fact, after reading that thing you’re trying to learn once or twice, self-quizzing is far more helpful than additional rereading. Let’s say you’re trying to learn how to solve a math problem, if you keep looking at the solution to that problem for an hour, you might think that you know it and that you’ll be able to do it on your own. But the odds are you’re most likely going to forget it after a while, or at least you’re going to forget a part of it and you won’t be able to continue on your own. However, if you had tried to do it on your own, without checking out the solution nor your previous notes, your brain will be forced to form a stronger memory of that concept or problem you want to be solving.

How does it feel?

It is frustrating to push yourself to do so because it’s not rewarding, you don’t feel smart or important at that time. It feels awkward because we like to think that we understood all of it. It also might feel more productive to keep reading that thing you want to be learning than to go through those “aaaaah, I don’t know” moments in your head. But it’s actually quite the opposite!

Avoiding illusions of knowing
In his book Make it stick: The science of successful learning, Peter C. Brown says that the familiarity of the text that comes from rereading creates an illusion of knowing but these are not liable indicators of the mastery of the material. It is a misleading indicator that you have learned and it creates a false impression that you master the material. However, quizzing provides a reliable measure of what you’ve learned and what you have not yet mastered. A practice of recalling a new learning secures it in memory and helps you recall it in the future. If you do that frequently during the time of the course of the skill you’re learning, you’ll need little studying time for exams.

This is not just for students, it applies to everything you want to know about!

But that doesn’t apply only to school, it applies to everything you want to learn whether it’s a new skill, a sport, a concept, a DIY thingy, whatever it might be! I mean you can watch hundreds of videos of those dance moves you’re trying to learn or that painting skill you want to be able to master, but it would just take a lot of your time and you might find yourself thinking that you know it all but fail drastically if you try. However, if you study something after you have failed to recall it you’ll remember it better than if you study it without trying to recall it. And so, if you watch that video, for example, two or three times and then go ahead and try to do it for yourself, you’ll be faced with what you learned, what parts you still have to focus on, you go again and watch it another time and then go again and try to remember what you learned and put it to practice. You’ll find that overall, you learned more by going through the material, quizzing yourself, and then going through the material a few more times than you would if you tried to keep going through the material over and over again for a long time.
And so, yes self-testing is key for effective learning, it saves time, and although it might take a lot of mental energy at first, your memory of that thing will be stronger than ever!

Ok one more thing
And this is just a bonus! Consider to space out those self-quizzes, by just keeping a considerable time between practice or recall sessions. It might be helpful to establish a schedule of self-quizzing that allows time to elapse between study sessions. Determining how much time to allow to those sessions and the spacing between them depends on the type and the complexity of the material you’re trying to learn but also on the deadlines that you might have to respect. I talked about why this is important in a previous post about long term and short term memory and about the importance of alternating the focused and diffuse modes, make sure to check it out here.

What about you?

So these were some of my favorite effective learning strategies that I found to be very helpful. Like I said before, most of us do some of them by intuition without really knowing if and why it’s effective, so I just wanted to share with you some insights about that. I really hope it was helpful for you.
What about you? What is your favorite learning strategy? Please share with me in the comment section below, I would love to know more about what you’re doing to learn more effectively.

Until next time, stay blessed.

Salaam!

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