Three Learning Hacks You Should Know About

Learning is rad. Who doesn’t enjoy learning something new? Who wouldn’t wish to learn a second/third/fourth language, or the timeline of key events in the Battle of Hastings? If such a person exists, I don’t want to meet him.

But learning can be hard. Hence, learning hacks. In this article I will outline three learning hacks that have helped me to hone my learning ability, and will help you to hone yours too. Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Spaced Repetition

What is it?

To understand what spaced repetition is, and why it is so effective, it’s helpful to first learn about a guy called Hermann Ebbinghaus. Ebbinghaus, or ‘Ebby’, as he may or may not have been known as to his friends, was a German psychologist who, among other things, experimented on his own ability to recall information. He would test himself by memorising a list of nonsense syllables, and then seeing how many of the items he could recall. He would periodically retest, so that he could see what effect time had on his ability to recall. He plotted his findings in a graph that looked a bit like this:

Note that at the start of the graph, when the newly memorising information is fresh, the level of retention is very high. But after a short period of time has elapsed, it decreases markedly. This is why you can remember a new concept or piece of information right after you have learnt it, but can’t a week later. Or why you can read a book, and enjoy its central thesis, but barely even remember its title after a year or so.

Now this graph, known as the ‘forgetting curve’, is very insightful. But the next graph is straight up orgasmic.

This is the same graph, but with a key difference. Instead of only learning once, and then simply testing again and again, the subject learns the new material once, and then periodically reviews said content. Notice the miraculous effects of this simple retesting:

  • After each review, the level of retention goes back to the highest level.
  • Notice that the gradient of forgetting decreases after each review. This implies that after enough reviews, that gradient will eventually become a horizontal line.
  • Notice that the space between reviews is not even, but is getting larger.

What this means is that by simply reviewing previously taught material, you can banish the deadly foe of forgetting. After enough reviews, learnt material becomes encoded into the long term memory where it shall hence reside forevermore. This practice is known as spaced repetition.

The great thing about spaced repetition is that the ‘spaces’ between each repetition gets larger and larger. This means that you will eventually reach a point where you can review learnt material every year, two years, decade, etc.

How you can use it.

You can put the science of spaced repetition into practical use by ensuring that you review previously learnt material alongside newly taught stuff. So if you’re learning 1000 words of French vocabulary, for instance, spend an hour learning the first 25 words or so. Then, next time you study, spend half an hour reviewing the first 25 words, before spending another half hour learning 10 new words. Then, the next time you study, spend half an hour reviewing some of the first 25 words and some of the next 10 words, before moving on to another 10 new words. And so on and so forth.

If you like studying with physical index cards and that sort of thing, you can try the Leitner system, which is a method of spaced repetition. Alternatively, there is a mobile app, Anki, that applies the science of spaced repetition automatically to your learning. It’s essentially a set of digital flashcards, that uses an algorithm to adjust each card’s review time, based on your confidence in correctly recalling the information that they contain.

2. Interleaving

What is it?

Interleaving is a very simple learning hack that nonetheless has some decent academic credentials supporting its efficacy. If we think about learning something through a number of distinct topics, we might imagine a learning journey looking something like this:

If you have been at school, or worked in an educational setting, you might recognise this kind of thing. It’s very simple. You just teach one topic, and then move onto the next topic.

The problem with this model, though, is that by the time you’ve finished teaching and learning topic three, the content that was covered in topic one has been long forgotten.

Interleaving is a remedy to this conundrum. Displayed visually it might look like this:

This way, the same topics are covered, but they are interwoven with one another. So you learn topic one, and then move on to topic two and three. But then you recap and review parts of topic one, and maybe add some more detail, before doing the same with topic two, and so on.

In some ways this is a harder way to teach and to learn, and can be slightly less satisfying. When learning history, for instance, it feels more natural to move in a chronological fashion, rather than jumping back and forth like some irritating cricket. Nonetheless, studies have shown that interleaving can have a positive effect on learning. So give it a go.

How you can use it.

You can use interleaving by thinking carefully about the structure of what you are learning (or teaching). Plan for opportunities to re-teach and re-learn topics, and interleave them with one another. Try to find connections between the links, so that the interleaving doesn’t just seem arbitrary. If you can find those links, the learning will be deep and effective.

3. Dual coding

What is it?

Dual coding was first proposed as a model of memory by Allan Paivio in 1971, but it has found significant application in the world of education and learning. Dual coding is actually used a lot, even if you don’t recognise the phrase. Allow me to explain what it is, briefly.

If you think about it, when we learn, we usually use the audio channel or the visual channel. Learning via the audio channel means listening to words spoken by a lecturer, teacher, colleague, etc. The words go into our ears and perform some kind of magic in our brains by which we learn something. Learning via the visual channel happens when we read a text on our own. Similarly, words enter our brain via our eyes, magic happens and we learn something.

Both these channels are good, hence the smiley face in the picture below:

But when you combine the two, that’s known as dual coding. What it means is that you are learning via two ‘channels’ simultaneously. An example of dual coding would be a biology teacher displaying an image of a cell on a big screen, whilst simultaneously explaining the different features of it. So students are learning visually and verbally at the same time. Another example would be an video that explains a concept (such as conjugating Italian verbs) via an animation with a voiceover. Simple, right? And for sure it occurs organically enough in the process of teaching and learning. All the same, it’s helpful to know that it has a name, and that it has been proven useful.

The audio channel and the visual channel are both noble. But the audio-visual superhighway is next-level. (Don’t be put off by the demonic looking figure).

How you can use it.

If you are a teacher or a learner, you probably already are using dual coding. But it’s helpful to be intentional about it. Some ways that you can use dual coding in your learning is by:

  • Drawing an image that represents some content to be learned, and then explaining it verbally to someone else.
  • Watching animated videos with voiceovers.

Well there we are. Three learning hacks. I have found them useful, both in my career as a teacher, and in my individual studies as a learner. I hope you find them useful too.

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