Learning strategies

While everyday and advanced strategies are also useful for learning, there are many strategies specifically for study and formal learning

Tell a friend what you learned

  • A single instance of retrieval, right after learning, is enough to significantly improve your memory, and stop the usual steep forgetting curve for non-core information.

A study involving 60 undergraduate students confirms the value of even a single instance of retrieval practice in an everyday setting, and also confirms the value of cues for peripheral details, which are forgotten more readily.

In three experiments involving 20 undergraduate students, students were shown foreign or otherwise obscure movie clips that contained scenes of normal everyday events. The 24-second clips from 40 films were shown over a period of about half an hour. After a delay of either several minutes, three days, or seven days, the students were questioned on their memory of the general plot, as well as details such as sounds, colors, gestures, and background details that allow a person to re-experience an event in rich and vivid detail.

In the second experiment, students were given a brief visual cue, such as a simple glimpse of the title and a sliver of a screenshot, on testing. In the third experiment, students recalled the information soon after viewing, in addition to the later test.

Researcher found:

  • Peripheral details were, unsurprisingly, forgotten more quickly, and to a greater degree.
  • But those given cues did better at remembering peripheral details.
  • Cues didn’t significantly affect the memory of more substantial matters.
  • Those who retrieved their memories soon after viewing showed no forgetting of peripheral information.
  • Interestingly, these students still assumed they had forgotten a lot (confirming once again, that we're not great at judging our own memory)!

The finding confirms the value of even a single instance of retrieval practice, even without any delay. Note that memory was tested after a week. For longer recall, additional retrieval practice is likely to be needed — but it's probably fair to say that it's that first instance of retrieval that has the biggest effect. I discuss all this in much greater detail in my book on practice.

It's also worth thinking about this in conjunction with the earlier report that there's a special benefit in recounting the information to another person.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-01/bu-wta011717.php

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Repeating aloud to another person boosts recall

  • The simple act of repeating something to another person helps you remember it, more than if you just repeated it to yourself.

A Canadian study involving French-speaking university students has found that repeating aloud, especially to another person, improves memory for words.

In the first experiment, 20 students read a series of words while wearing headphones that emitted white noise, in order to mask their own voices and eliminate auditory feedback. Four actions were compared:

  • repeating silently in their head
  • repeating silently while moving their lips
  • repeating aloud while looking at the screen
  • repeating aloud while looking at someone.

They were tested on their memory of the words after a distraction task. The memory test only required them to recognize whether or not the words had occurred previously.

There was a significant effect on memory. The order of the conditions matches the differences in memory, with memory worst in the first condition, and best in the last.

In the second experiment, 19 students went through the same process, except that the stimuli were pseudo-words. In this case, there was no memory difference between the conditions.

The effect is thought to be due to the benefits of motor sensory feedback, but the memory benefit of directing your words at a person rather than a screen suggests that such feedback goes beyond the obvious. Visual attention appears to be an important memory enhancer (no great surprise when we put it that way!).

Most of us have long ago learned that explaining something to someone really helps our own understanding (or demonstrates that we don’t in fact understand it!). This finding supports another, related, experience that most of us have had: the simple act of telling someone something helps our memory.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-10/uom-rat100615.php

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Improve learning with co-occurring novelty

  • An animal study shows that following learning with a novel experience makes the learning stronger.
  • A human study shows that giving information positive associations improves your memory for future experiences with similar information.

We know that the neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in making strong memories. Now a mouse study helps us get more specific — and suggests how we can help ourselves learn.

The study, involving 120 mice, found that mice tasked with remembering where food had been hidden did better if they had been given a novel experience (exploring an unfamiliar floor surface) 30 minutes after being trained to remember the food location.

This memory improvement also occurred when the novel experience was replaced by the selective activation of dopamine-carrying neurons in the locus coeruleus that go to the hippocampus. The locus coeruleus is located in the brain stem and involved in several functions that affect emotion, anxiety levels, sleep patterns, and memory. The dopamine-carrying neurons in the locus coeruleus appear to be especially sensitive to environmental novelty.

In other words, if we’re given attention-grabbing experiences that trigger these LC neurons carrying dopamine to the hippocampus at around the time of learning, our memories will be stronger.

Now we already know that emotion helps memory, but what this new study tells us is that, as witness to the mice simply being given a new environment to explore, these dopamine-triggering experiences don’t have to be dramatic. It’s suggested that it could be as simple as playing a new video game during a quick break while studying for an exam, or playing tennis right after trying to memorize a big speech.

Remember that we’re designed to respond to novelty, to pay it more attention — and, it seems, that attention is extended to more mundane events that occur closely in time.

Emotionally positive situations boost memory for similar future events

In a similar vein, a human study has found that the benefits of reward extend forward in time.

In the study, volunteers were shown images from two categories (objects and animals), and were financially rewarded for one of these categories. As expected, they remembered images associated with a reward better. In a second session, however, they were shown new images of animals and objects without any reward. Participants still remembered the previously positively-associated category better.

Now, this doesn’t seem in any way surprising, but the interesting thing is that this benefit wasn’t seen immediately, but only after 24 hours — that is, after participants had slept and consolidated the learning.

Previous research has shown similar results when semantically related information has been paired with negative, that is, aversive stimuli.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-09/usmc-rim090716.php

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-06/ibri-eps061516.php

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Errorless learning not always best for older brains

October, 2011

New evidence challenges the view that older adults learn best through errorless learning. Trial-and-error learning can be better if done the right way.

Following a 1994 study that found that errorless learning was better than trial-and-error learning for amnesic patients and older adults, errorless learning has been widely adopted in the rehabilitation industry. Errorless learning involves being told the answer without repeatedly trying to answer the question and perhaps making mistakes. For example, in the 1994 study, participants in the trial-and-error condition could produce up to three errors in answer to the question “I am thinking of a word that begins with QU”, before being told the answer was QUOTE; in contrast, participants in the errorless condition were simply told “I am thinking of a word that begins with QU and it is ‘QUOTE’.”

In a way, it is surprising that errorless learning should be better, given that trial-and-error produces much deeper and richer encoding, and a number of studies with young adults have indeed found an advantage for making errors. Moreover, it’s well established that retrieving an item leads to better learning than passively studying it, even when you retrieve the wrong item. This testing effect has also been found in older adults.

In another way, the finding is not surprising at all, because clearly the trial-and-error condition offers many opportunities for confusion. You remember that QUEEN was mentioned, for example, but you don’t remember whether it was a right or wrong answer. Source memory, as I’ve often mentioned, is particularly affected by age.

So there are good theoretical reasons for both positions regarding the value of mistakes, and there’s experimental evidence for both. Clearly it’s a matter of circumstance. One possible factor influencing the benefit or otherwise of error concerns the type of processing. Those studies that have found a benefit have generally involved conceptual associations (e.g. What’s Canada’s capital? Toronto? No, Ottawa). It may be that errors are helpful to the extent that they act as retrieval cues, and evoke a network of related concepts. Those studies that have found errors harm learning have generally involved perceptual associations, such as word stems and word fragments (e.g., QU? QUeen? No, QUote). These errors are arbitrary, produce interference, and don’t provide useful retrieval cues.

So this new study tested the idea that producing errors conceptually associated with targets would boost memory for the encoding context in which information was studied, especially for older adults who do not spontaneously elaborate on targets at encoding.

In the first experiment, 33 young (average age 21) and 31 older adults (average age 72) were shown 90 nouns presented in three different, intermixed conditions. In the read condition (designed to provide a baseline), participants read aloud the noun fragment presented without a semantic category (e.g., p­_g). In the errorless condition, the semantic category was presented with the target word fragment (e.g. a farm animal  p­_g), and the participants read aloud the category and their answer. The category and target were then displayed. In the trial-and-error condition, the category was presented and participants were encouraged to make two guesses before being shown the target fragment together with the category. The researchers changed the target if it was guessed. Participants were then tested using a list of 70 words, of which 10 came from each of the study conditions, 10 were new unrelated words, and 30 were nontarget exemplars from the TEL categories. Those that the subject had guessed were labeled as learning errors; those that hadn’t come up were labeled as related lures. In addition to an overall recognition test (press “yes” to any word you’ve studied and “no” to any new word), there were two tests that required participants to endorse items that were studied in the TEL condition and reject those studied in the EL condition, and vice versa.

The young adults did better than the older on every test. TEL produced better learning than EL, and both produced better learning than the read condition (as expected). The benefit of TEL was greater for older adults. This is in keeping with the idea that generating exemplars of a semantic category, as occurs in trial-and-error learning, helps produce a richer, more elaborated code, and that this is of greater to older adults, who are less inclined to do this without encouragement.

There was a downside, however. Older adults were also more prone to falsely endorsing prior learning errors or semantically-related lures. It’s worth noting that both groups were more likely to falsely endorse learning errors than related lures.

But the main goal of this first experiment was to disentangle the contributions of recollection and familiarity to the two types of learning. It turns out that there was no difference between young and older adults in terms of familiarity; the difference in performance between the two groups stemmed from recollection. Recollection was a problem for older adults in the errorless condition, but not in the trial-and-error condition (where the recollective component of their performance matched that of young adults). This deficit is clearly closely related to age-related deficits in source memory.

It was also found that familiarity was marginally more important in the errorless condition than the trial-and-error condition. This is consistent with the idea that targets learned without errors acquire greater fluency than those learned with errors (with the downside that they don’t pick up those contextual details that making errors can provide).

In the second experiment, 15 young and 15 older adults carried out much the same procedure, except that during the recognition test they were also required to mention the context in which the words were learned was tested (that is, were the words learned through trial-and-error or not).

Once again, trial-and-error learning was associated with better source memory relative to errorless learning, particularly for the older adults.

These results support the hypothesis that trial-and-error learning is more beneficial than errorless learning for older adults when the trials encourage semantic elaboration. But another factor may also be involved. Unlike other errorless studies, participants were required to attend to errors as well as targets. Explicit attention to errors may help protect against interference.

In a similar way, a recent study involving young adults found that feedback given in increments (thus producing errors) is more effective than feedback given all at once in full. Clearly what we want is to find that balance point, where elaborative benefits are maximized and interference is minimized.

Reference: 

[2496] Cyr A-A, Anderson ND. Trial-and-error learning improves source memory among young and older adults. Psychology and Aging. 2011 :No Pagination Specified - No Pagination Specified.

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A midday nap markedly boosts the brain's learning capacity

February, 2010

Students given a 90-minute nap in the early afternoon, after a rigorous learning task, did markedly better at a later round of learning exercises, compared to those who remained awake throughout the day.

Following on from research showing that pulling an all-nighter decreases the ability to cram in new facts by nearly 40%, a study involving 39 young adults has found that those given a 90-minute nap in the early afternoon, after being subjected to a rigorous learning task, did markedly better at a later round of learning exercises, compared to those who remained awake throughout the day. The former group actually improved in their capacity to learn, while the latter became worse at learning. The findings reinforce the hypothesis that sleep is needed to clear the brain's short-term memory storage and make room for new information. Moreover, this refreshing of memory capacity was related to Stage 2 non-REM sleep (an intermediate stage between deep sleep and the REM dream stage).

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The preliminary findings were presented February 21, at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Diego, Calif.

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Definitive review of the Mozart effect

July, 2010

Finally a definitive review making clear the limits of the Mozart effect (namely that it's a very small effect when it occurs, and it only occurs in very specific circumstances).

Some years ago I wrote an article discussing the fact that the so-called Mozart effect has proved very hard to replicate since its ‘discovery’ in 1993, but now we have what is regarded as a definitive review, analyzing the entirety of the scientific record on the topic (including a number of unpublished academic theses), and the finding is very clear: there is little support for the view that listening to Mozart improves cognitive (specifically spatial) abilities. First of all, in those studies showing an effect, it was very small. The size of the effect of the specific Mozart sonata used in the original study (Sonata KV 448) compared to no stimulus was similar in size to the effect of any music compared to no stimulus. There was a small significant effect for the Mozart sonata when directly compared to other music, which probably reflects the fact that the types of music used in different studies varied widely. Some types of music are doubtless less arousing than others.
There was also a large difference in the results from laboratories affiliated to Rauscher (the original researcher) or Rideout compared to other laboratories. Rauscher and Shaw 1998 did in fact emphasize that the effect required exact replication of their original study design.
I have to say that if this (small and very specific) effect depends so heavily on getting the procedural details exactly right, it’s of little practical use. I think the main lesson we can learn from all this is that your emotional state affects cognition (a well-established effect), and that you may find some types of music are best for ‘getting you in the mood’ for mental work.

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