The science behind effective learning

Do we always retain what we learn? How can learning be made effective?


Reading lessons/notes repeatedly, to simply cram and pass the exam! Practising 30 to 40 examples of the same concept in succession, before moving forward (aka mass practising)! Does it all sound awfully familiar? We have all done this at some point in our academic life. While these strategies somehow helped us get through exams, did learning really happen?

So what works in learning? How do people really learn? What does science say about how we can learn best? These are some questions we will try to answer here.

Enabling retention and shunning mass practice

How much do you remember of that webinar you attended last week? How much will you remember a week after? Like most others, you would have probably forgotten as much as 70% of what was discussed, within the first week itself. Crazy, right?

Think about this: long-term retention of learning is what enables performance but the process of forgetting militates against it! Re-reading and mass-practice are simply not good learning strategies, as they work on short-term memory and are hardly engaging.

Researchers have found that ‘Retrieval’ is a better way to learn and enable retention. It involves deliberately trying to recollect learning from memory. It requires the learner to reconstruct the components of skills/material from long-term memory, rather than mindlessly repeating them from short-term memory. This creates mental models (connection of ideas) that are essential for mastery.

Deploying the retrieval learning strategy is super easy! The three simple tools to be employed are:

  • Tests: Periodic low stakes app-enabled quizzes on the concept(s) can make the learner think and provide feedback afterwards.
  • Reflection: Retrieval of past experiences, connecting them to new ones and rehearsing what one may do differently next time is a great exercise for skills training.
  • Flashcards: Use of flashcards for self-learning is an efficient technique.

Moving beyond learning styles

“Tailor the content to the group’s learning style. People learn best in their preferred modes of learning!” Trainers get to hear this a lot.

Some may try to get stuck with the kind of typology to use- VAK, Kolb’s Cycle or something else? They may invest hours to get a repository of redundant content that they may use after having evaluated the group’s learning style. How cumbersome!

When the feedback comes, it shows no great improvement and dismal retention of learning. So what went wrong?

How to get that instructional design right?

  • Think about your school days. Wasn’t Geometry best taught visually and English Literature best taught verbally? The content dictated the effectiveness of the format. Why should corporate training not abide by this?
  • It is difficult to concentrate on anything for too long. Why not change the teaching strategies (say shift between activities to work individually/ in pairs/in a group) or teaching tools, (such as recall questions, circle of knowledge, and so on) after every couple of minutes?
  • Finally, some people learn better than others, while others have difficulty setting aside irrelevant and competing information that prevents them from creating a workable mental model. Here, embed questions in texts to help readers focus on the main ideas.

Also, see research by Pashler, McDaniel and others (2008) to know more about the popular myth of how designing for learning styles is ineffective.

How do the best learning courses get it right?

Everyone had that teacher who bellowed, “Write what I have dictated in class and reproduce it in the identical way in the test”. Their course was a disaster, as reading additional material was penalised and rote learning was promoted. Alas, most of us had many such teachers.

What those following this method failed to realise is that:
• The ability to rephrase a concept is the litmus test of whether one has really understood the concept!
• Learning must develop discrimination skills — to assess the context, identify key ideas, discriminate b/w problems and then apply the correct solution!

Therefore, to ensure effective training and education:
• make your tests/practice sessions interleaved (mix the practice of two or more concepts instead of doing them individually) and varied (change the conditions associated with the usage of the concept — practise negotiating skills within a commercial setting and a distributor setting);
• use generation exercises, that is, solve a problem or answer a question using your own creativity and resources, before being shown the solution; and
• connect new learning to previous experiences (refer example quoted in the first para)

Ultimately, if science dictates our instruction instead of intuition or popular practices, we will be capable of creating transformative learning solutions.

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