Learning the Smart Way

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Type the search term “learning strategy” in Google and within 0.51 seconds you have 591,000 hits.

For 125 years, we have been studying how we, people, learn and how our memory works. That resulted in many so-called ‘learning strategies’. A few remain, regardless of whether they’re right or wrong, and many have died a quiet or sudden death. There are also a number of poor yet very stubborn learning strategies that are promoted and used everywhere, although research has long proved them to be ineffective. One example of such a persistent and useless learning strategy is memorisation. We have all had the pleasure of memorising a poem in school. A monologue from Macbeth, a nonsense poem such as ‘Jabberwocky‘ from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (Lewis Carroll, 1872), you name it. You are most probably still able to recite it (Twas brillig, and the slithy toves…) so, in that way, memorisation works.

However, back in the “good old days” we were told that memorising would improve our memory in general (nowadays we would call it memory training). As if our brains are like a muscle that you can strengthen in a way similar to strengthening your biceps or your abs. That this is not the case at all, was clearly shown by William James – one of the founders of educational psychology – back in 1890. E.L. Thorndike replicated James’ research in 1901 (yes, replication was the norm back then) and came to the same conclusion. However, though we have the proof for 115 years that memorisation does not improve our memory as such, many people have continued to learn poems by heart and many are probably still doing so, with the goal of strengthening their memory.

So, what does work? The answer is found in two recent articles from reputable journals; Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition and Psychological Science in the Public Interest. The studies research ten strategies that are fairly inexpensive (in time and money) and useful in various situations. Let’s take a look at the learning strategies top and flop 5.

Top 5: Effective learning strategies

In sequence of proved effectivity and efficiency:

Distributed practice; studying nuggets of learning content over time rather than cramming all of the content at once. It is even the case that a longer period (such as one or more days) between practice sessions works better than shorter ones. The idea is that the ‘pause’ between two practice sessions strengthens the memory trace.

Practice tests; learners practise with recalling the learning content. This way, learners can more easily avail of the information. When using this learning strategy, it is not only easier to recall the information when required but also to apply the information in other, comparable situations (better transfer).

Overlapping practice; let practice of one topic overlap with studying or practising other topics. For example, learning how to calculate the contents of various objects such as a cube, a pyramid, a cylinder and a sphere. In overlapping practice you wouldn’t first explain the formula for these four types separately and then start practising; instead you’d explain all four formulas sequentially, followed by overlapping practice.

Questioning; challenge a learner (or yourself) to explain why something that’s learned is actually the case. This strategy appears to work because it facilitates the integration of new information into existing schemas in our memory (Piaget called this assimilation).

Explain to self; let learners explain a process or procedure to themselves. The question may be general – “What does, what you have just read, have to do with what you already know?” It can also be content specific: “Why is the counter 4 and the denominator 9 in this step of the solution?” This strategy is similar to the previous and the explanation of why it works is also similar.

Flop 5: Ineffective learning strategies

Visualising; the learner visualises what he or she needs to learn. This strategy could work but only if the learning content is easy (often times that means concrete) to visualise. In addition, it works for memorising but not for being able to apply what was learned.

Mnemonics; this strategy is often used when the learning focusses on the meaning or translation of words or terminology of a specific discipline: the learner devises a “key” in one word and then connects it to the other word. Unfortunately, this time-consuming strategy is not really effective and certainly not efficient.

Summarising; the learner summarises, for example, a text by writing down the main points or key themes. Although learning how to summarise can be a learning objective in itself, there is no hard proof that summarising leads to better learning and a better ability to applying learning content. It only works when a learner is very skilled in summarising, which is hardly the case.

Next, hold tight, two learning strategies that are completely ineffective.

Highlighting and underlining; the learner underlines a gallimaufry of sentences and might use a rainbow of colours to highlight all kinds of stuff in a text. This learning strategy doesn’t improve learning whatsoever.

Rereading; the learner rereads a text to improve understanding. However, although rereading has a positive effect on memorising the text, it doesn’t contribute to a better understanding, let alone applying the information in the text in a certain context.

Rereading and highlighting are as stubborn myths as memorisation!

A major lesson that would be worth memorising is this: Solid research on how people learn contributes a whole lot to the improvement of education and learning design in general! And when science reveals the evidence, we should be willing to let go of the crap!

Or to paraphrase Lewis Carroll in Jabberwocky:

And, has thou slain the Study Crock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
He chortled in his joy.



Carroll, L., (1871). Jabberwocky. Retrieved 13/07/2015 from: http://www.jabberwocky.com/carroll/jabber/jabberwocky.html

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J., & Willingham, D.T., (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, p. 4-58.

Roediger, H.L., & Pyc, M.A., (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, p. 242-248.


6 thoughts on “Learning the Smart Way

  1. Paul Kirschner says:

    They sure are. Things like distributed practice, overlapping, questioning, etc. fit perfectly in how we should learn/instruct in the workplace. Read, for example, my book the Ten Steps to Complex Learning.

  2. Jacob says:

    Children in early years acquire knowledge, words, they do not understand their meaning and later on they develop a mechanism that explains it structure. They repeatedly spoke of words they hear and ask for their meanings, memorise.
    In my view, it a process within its layers there is a particular strategy that could/not work across different content areas.

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