Almost everything you know about how to study and learn is probably wrong!
New advances in neuroscience have offered us concreate techniques for becoming more productive learners.
We have two major problems as a humans when it comes to learning:
We delude ourselves and our memories are fallible.
The truth is that we’re all hardwired to make errors in judgment. Good judgment is a skill one must acquire, becoming an astute observer of one’s own thinking and performance is a must.
Unskilled and unaware of it, incompetent people lack the skills to improve because they are unable to distinguish between incompetence and competence. This phenomenon, of particular interest for metacognition, has been named the Dunning-Kruger effect after the psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger.
Their research showed that incompetent people overestimate their own competence and, failing to sense a mismatch between their performance and what is desirable, see no need to try to improve. (The title of their initial paper on the topic was “Unskilled and Unaware of It.”) Dunning and Kruger have also shown that incompetent people can be taught to raise their competence by learning the skills to judge their own performance more accurately, in short, to make their metacognition more accurate.
Are you as good at things as you think you are?
- How good are you at managing money?
- How good of a driver are you?
- What about reading people’s emotions?
- How healthy are you compared to other people you know?
- Are you better than average at grammar?
But psychological research suggests that we’re not very good at evaluating ourselves accurately. In fact, we frequently overestimate our own abilities. We judge ourselves as better than others to a degree that violates the laws of math. When software engineers at two companies were asked to rate their performance, 32% of the engineers at one company and 42% at the other put themselves in the top 5%.
In another study, 88% of American drivers described themselves as having above average driving skills.
These aren’t isolated findings. On average, people tend to rate themselves better than most in disciplines ranging from health, leadership skills, ethics, and beyond.
American Idol effect:
So who’s most vulnerable to this delusion? Sadly, all of us because we all have pockets of incompetence that we don’t recognize. People lacking knowledge and skill in particular areas suffer a double curse.
First, they make mistakes and reach poor decisions. But second, those same knowledge gaps also prevent them from catching their errors. In other words, poor performers lack the very expertise needed to recognize how badly they’re doing.
Welcome to American Idol tryouts.
The paradox of memory
How does memory work? From the book Make It Stick, in a nutshell:
- During encoding, new information is received by your brain in the form of chemical and electrical charges. These are encoded into memory traces (or mental representations of the patterns you’ve observed), which are held in your short-term working memory. Most of these memory traces are forgotten.
- During consolidation, material is placed in your long-term memory. Your memory traces are reorganized and connected to past experiences and knowledge in your long-term memory to give them meaning. This process strengthens and stabilizes the mental traces.
- During retrieval, you fetch material from your long-term memory. This concurrently strengthens the memory traces and reconsolidates them by connecting them to the new learning.
However, it is a confounding paradox that the changeable nature of our memory not only can skew our perceptions but also is essential to our ability to learn.
There have been numerous studies of this phenomenon, including surveys of fifteen hundred Americans’ memories of the September 11 attacks. In this study, the respondents’ memories were surveyed a week after the attacks, again a year later, and then again three years and ten years later. Respondents’ most emotional memories of their personal details at the time they learned of the attacks are also those of which they are most confident and, paradoxically, the ones that have most changed over the years relative to other memories about 9/ 11.
Intellectually honest learning
Most important is to make frequent use of testing and retrieval practice to verify what you really do know versus what you think you know. As a learner, you can use any number of practice techniques to self-test your mastery, from answering flashcards to explaining key concepts in your own words, and to peer instruction.
The key is to use any testing as a tool to retrieve learning from memory, rather than a dipstick or a form of judgement of how much someone knows. As you learn something, pause occasionally and ask yourself what you’ve learned and how they relate to what you know. Instead of rereading materials, use quizzes (self-testing or a third-party test) to retrieve knowledge and skill from memory.
Set aside time to quiz yourself regularly on past and new materials on a topic you wish to master.
Remember to check your answers and so you can correct your mistakes. This effort will build your neurologic connections and in turn you will increase your ability to learn.
By investing $1 in yourself and by learning how to learn you will start to lay the foundation for lifelong learning.
If you invest in this course you will have access to the Learning Frames website, other fee online courses, a 5 step study method handout and insights into the Learing Frames System for personalize self-directed learning.
- Analyze your past learning experiences
- Be mindful of what you learn
- Make a plan to learn something new, something that will impact your life or something you are passionate about.
Frame your life with purpose, passion, action, and grit!
Sign up here to receive a free Conference Learning Tool Kit handout that will help you reframe your learning and maximize your next conference experience.
Learn more about my new book The Learning Maze: A New Framework For Personalized Learning, which will be published soon.