Learning Strategies: What Does Work?

Word Cloud, LearningI am an avid reader of the New Scientist and have a continuous thirst for learning new things. Last week the New Scientist combined the two with an article on learning strategies.

Yesterday, I highlighted some of the “most common methods to boost learning [which] are surprisingly useless”, as noted by the New Scientist (2015, p.32-35). So, now let us look at some of the learning strategies that do work:

  1. Know when to learn: Older people (60-82) have morning brains, and younger people (16-17) have afternoon brains. Why should timing matter? Research suggests that sleeping after learning a new fact or skill helps consolidate memories.  It is suspested that the “critical window” between learning and sleep is shorter for movement-related learning than for other types of memory. Whether adults can benefit as much as teenagers from these windows isn’t clear. There is evidence that adolescents have a higher capacity to learn – and they sleep better,
  2. Quiz yourself: Research suggests that having to repeatedly recall something rather than just study it score, on average, higher marks (80% vs 36%). Research also suggests that trying to retrieve the information you are learning, rather than succeeding is what matters. Being given
    the correct answer seems, counter-intuitively, to be as big a boost to later performance as remembering it by yourself.
  3. Learn without learning: It sounds too good to be true, but learning does not have to be hard work. You can even do it when your mind is on something else!
  4. Use distractions: Most people probably have an underlying assumption that divided attention is bad. However, learning has a later, skill-retrieval part, with research suggesting that distraction while learning can be beneficial; if you are also going to be distracted when you have to use what you have learned.
  5. Buddy up: Research suggests that you alternate group work with study time by yourself. Specifically, once you have tried to go it alone, you can benefit from the collective wisdom of a small study group of 3-6 people.
  6. Play video games: This may come as a pleasant surprise to the parents of teenage gamers. Gaming is the ideal downtime activity if you are learning to type or play a new sport or instrument – anything, in fact, that involves a fairly constant and predictable structure and requires the coordination of sensory input and physical movements. Just make sure it’s action video games you play.
  7. Chill out: If sleep consolidates memories, would taking a break from studying have a similar effect? If you have just studied a list of vocabulary or perhaps tried to memorise some key historical dates, then taking a proper break afterwards should help you to remember this information,
  8. Pretend to teach: You are likely to remember something better if you think you might have to teach it later. There are many well-known cognitive benefits to asking yourself whether you can recast what you are learning in your own words,and it leads to active retrieval from memory, and helps with organising one’s thoughts as well as identifying knowledge gaps that one needs to fill.”
  9. Do interval training: You have just learned a series of brilliant chess openings, so when should you go back and revise them to maximise your chances of actually remembering them when it counts? “The longer you wait the better, however, there are limits on how long you should wait, but they are very, very long. It is true that waiting makes it harder to remember the information when you come back and test yourself, so it makes your life difficult and can feel like a bad thing. But, the harder it is, the more you learn. So, when you need the information later, for example, when actually piloting that airplane or playing that chess match, you will perform better.
  10. Just do it: Research suggests that students who had forgiven themselves for procrastinating before an initial set of exams performed better in the next set and procrastinated less than students who had not. They also said they felt more positive.


Young, E. (2015) Know It All. New Scientist. 28 March 2015, pp.30-35.


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