THE BLOG
01/30/2015 02:33 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

Forget What You've Learned About Learning

Let's say you've just taken a training class on your company's new benefits program and you want to make sure you remember the key points. What's the better strategy?

A. Thoroughly review the reading material, highlighting all the key concepts.
B. Talk to your partner that evening about how the changes will impact your current benefits and then briefly check the reading material to make sure you were accurate.

Or perhaps there's a new process you need to learn for your job. Which method do you think would help you best remember the process one week later?

A. Read the material explaining the process three times, all in one sitting.
B. Read the material once, quiz yourself on the key points, and check if you were correct.

If you chose "A" for either scenario, you're following popular learning strategies. Unfortunately, those strategies of highlighting and cramming that most of us honed so well in college aren't nearly as effective as the "B" choices.

That's according to "Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning," which refutes much of the conventional wisdom about the best way to learn. Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel have written an invaluable book for both learners and educators or corporate training professionals. They present the latest research in cognitive psychology through real-life stories and offer practical advice on how to remember more of what you learn.

Many of us believe we learn better when we cram information or repeat a new skill over and over again, but learning becomes stronger with strategies that may initially feel uncomfortable. For example, spacing out learning over several days or switching from topic to topic creates better long-term retention.

Re-reading material over and over again while highlighting key concepts is a common learning strategy. But familiarity with the text doesn't mean you have mastered the material. Repetitive exposure isn't nearly as effective as strategies that take less time.

"Make it Stick" describes more effective learning strategies such as:
Elaboration - the process of finding new layers of meaning in new material
You will remember new material better if you try explaining it to someone else in your own words, as in the benefits example in our quiz. You might also come up with a metaphor or visual image for the new concept. Or try what I'm doing now--writing about what you've learned will help you remember it.

Retrieval - trying to recall an idea, method, or technique from memory
You can retrieve what you've learned through quizzes, practice tests, or flash cards. Retrieval strengthens the neural pathways associated with a given concept and guards against the illusion of knowing something you don't. The authors found that middle school students given short, daily quizzes on some of the material presented in class averaged 92% on semester and final exams for that material compared to just 79% on class material that wasn't quizzed.

Generation - attempting to solve a problem or answer a question before being shown the solution
For instance, filling in a missing word in a sentence will help you remember the content better. Learning by doing is also a form of generation because you're trying something new without having all the answers. Trying to answer the quiz questions at the beginning of this blog without knowing the answers is another example.

Mixing up your practice
Allowing time to elapse between practice sessions makes it more potent, producing better retention. It's also a good idea to study a variety of topics at the same time, which the authors call "interleaving." It may feel better to thoroughly study one concept before moving on to the next, but mixing things up improves your ability to discriminate later between different kinds of problems and select the right solutions.

Fortunately, these types of techniques are all things good corporate trainers and teachers use in their courses. But if you aren't lucky enough to take a course utilizing these types of techniques, you can still practice them on your own. For example, quiz yourself as you read about a new procedure and later, reflect on how it might impact your job.

Business communicators can also improve retention of the information they deliver by understanding these concepts. For example, don't just send managers an email detailing a new policy--provide talking points they can use to elaborate on as they discuss the policy with their teams. Or write a blog that asks questions and invites participation.

Lifelong learning is a given in today's job market. Anyone who wants to become more effective at presenting or retaining information and ideas should check out "Make it Stick."