What Real Learning Is (and How to Do It)

We often view learning as a means to an end, but learning is an important end in itself. Use these strategies to sharpen your learning skills and improve your academic performance.

The report card from your last term may be a rude — perhaps even chilling — reminder of the brutish realities of formal education and impending cold weather.

To paraphrase the former president of the University of Chicago, the main objectives of school aren’t fun, football, and fraternities. At a bare minimum, school is about cultivating fundamental skills such as communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving.

Learning is a crucial skill in its own right, and rarely is it explicitly taught. Most people will figure it out on their own one way or another, but many people do not. The Collegiate Learning Assessment, a test designed to measure gains in basic skills over the course of a college education, found that 36 percent of college students appear to have learned very little in four years.

Luckily, the study of studying is also a thriving field of academic research. The National Academy of Sciences combined findings from pedagogy, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience into a major publication titled “How People Learn” (2000). The Chair of Psychology at Samford University summarizied similar findings in a short, digestible web series on Youtube.

Think of the following article as a distillation of those two publications — and much other related material — and a field guide to concrete practices that should improve your chances of excelling during the school year.

Common Misconceptions About Learning

First, let’s identify and correct some myths about how learning happens:

Learning comes quickly.

Skimming isn’t the same as reading, and memorization isn’t the same as comprehension. Cramming after a bout of procrastination can work in cases that don’t require deep comprehension, but it isn’t a smart or sustainable way to learn things in the longer term; only hard and consistent work is.

That said, the raw amount of time spent poring over details is not the most important factor in learning, either. There is a real difference between “smart” studying and “hard” studying.

Competence in a discipline comes from knowledge of facts.

Expertise (and its lesser cousin, competence) does involve commanding a deep reservoir of factual information, but the pieces of information can’t be isolated. The difference between useless knowledge (e.g., trivia) and useful knowledge (e.g., expertise) is that useful knowledge consists of facts and concepts organized in some coherent and interrelated manner.

Rote memorization is a tool to help you get started, not a goal. You’re not finished just because you can recall an endless sequence of facts (or even because you can describe things in excruciating detail) if you have no sense of how they relate to one another.

Competence is a matter of innate talent.

Most people are capable of competence in most areas with the right instruction and learning technique. For instance, if you’re “not a math person,” it’s more likely the result of poor instruction and badly-designed curricula than it is the result of dyscalculia.

Math is an example of a discipline that entails an almost entirely cumulative learning process. Without solid foundational skills, advanced subjects within the discipline become more difficult — if not impossible — to master.

If you do find yourself struggling because you never properly developed the foundational skills in a particular subject (even if through no real fault of your own), then you have no choice but to revisit those fundamental skills. There is no shame in seeking help — even in college, about a quarter to a fifth of students take remedial coursework.

You can also get a tutor to help you strengthen your foundational knowledge, as well.

Learning styles are critically important.

Learning styles, while a popular framework, are not critically important — at least not in the sense that people generally think. People do have preferred ways of ingesting information, but education researchers have yet to find a valid way of identifying and measuring exactly what the fundamental learning styles and their consequences are.

In any case, learning is deeply context-dependent — you can’t learn to dance simply by reading about it, for instance, even if “verbalizing” is your preferred style.

The takeaway is to avoid thinking too much about whether a particular kind of instruction fits your “style.” Instead, improve basic mental skills such as working memory, focus, and processing speed, as they are measurably related to learning. Mental skills, like muscles, can be exercised.

Multitasking is a good idea.

Should this even be a surprise? Studies have consistently found that, barring a few cognitive anomalies (to the tune of a lucky two percent of the population), people just don’t function efficiently with constant distraction. This is especially true when you are doing something that requires concentration, like exploring new material.

There are reasons that some states have legal injunctions against texting and driving. Learning is harder than driving, even if the consequences for poor learning aren’t lethal.

So, What Can You Do? Deep Processing and Metacognition: A Step-by-Step Guide

Deep processing can be described as the relating of new knowledge to existing knowledge. In pedagogy, this is also known as “constructivism.” Deep processing involves four steps:

  1. Elaborate: How does this concept relate to other concepts?

  2. Differentiate: How does this concept differ from other concepts?

  3. Make It Personal: How can I relate this concept to personal experience or knowledge? Is there some way I can anchor this knowledge to something I am already familiar with?

  4. Retrieve and Apply: How am I expected to use or apply this concept?

These steps form a fairly straightforward progression from shallowness to depth.

While there is no way around rote memorization as a beginning, shallow step, memorization is not the ultimate goal of well-known study methods such as note-taking, flashcards, and highlighting. The purpose of those activities is to produce mental anchors and cues that serve as shorthand for elaboration, differentiation, personal anchoring, and retrieval and application.

The end goal of studying is to be able to say the following things about yourself with respect to the subject material:

  1. I am attuned to details and patterns that someone unfamiliar with the material might miss.

  2. I have a deep reservoir of knowledge that is organized in a coherent and internally consistent manner, starting with general principles and extending into applicability.

  3. I can apply the knowledge in a manner that’s sensitive to context.

  4. It doesn’t take me much time, effort, or attention to retrieve factual knowledge. I know the material well enough that the rest of my mental energy can be applied directly to solving the problem at hand.

But how will you ever know if you meet those standards? Or, what is metacognition?

Metacognition sounds like a piece of arcana out of a dog-eared philosophy text, doesn’t it? In a sentence, metacognition is the ability to evaluate your own competence in a subject. The best way to do so is through stress-testing (before the actual test, of course) your grasp of the material. In a formal class setting, the most basic way to undertake this is by solving textbook, homework, and practice-test problems — that’s what they’re for.

More generally, when you “quiz” yourself, you should generate questions of increasing difficulty that begin with basic factual recall and progress to analysis, comparison, critique, and application. Attempting to teach, tutor, and quiz other people through group work is also a great way to test your own ability.

Concluding Remarks

What I’ve written is a brief template for lifelong learning both in and out of the classroom. It isn’t easy, and it should be no surprise that people generally aren’t experts or even “competent” at everything, or maybe even most things. They don’t have to be.

But it is absolutely crucial, if only for the sake of personal satisfaction, to be good at something. Whatever it is you choose to be competent in, remember the concepts of “deep processing” and “metacognition,” think about them, and you should be in a better place than you were before.

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