Sometimes the best way to learn a new idea is to first “unlearn” an old idea that’s hindering the new one. This is certainly the case with principles of learning, because there are many misconceptions about how people best acquire knowledge and retain it. Below, we identify and deconstruct some of these misconceptions and replace them with ideas you can use to help you learn deeply.
Myth 1: Talent Is Everything!
If you believe that your learning abilities are fixed, you’ll put up mental blocks that hinder your learning. For example, if you usually get straight A’s, you may avoid taking intellectual risks that take you out of your comfort zone or jeopardize your perfect record. Similarly, if you believe you are not good at something, like math, you may avoid really trying or lower your expectations.
But students who have a “growth mindset” toward learning, and who believe they can really improve over time and with effort, are the ones who who tend to take more chances, progress faster, and see risk and failure as part of the learning process. “Research suggests that students who view intelligence as innate focus on their ability and its adequacy/inadequacy, whereas students who view intelligence as malleable use strategy and effort as they work toward mastery.”
Bust the Myth
- Know that your beliefs affect your behaviors. Cognitive psychologist Dr. Stephen Chew calls these “beliefs that make you stupid.” Watch his video, below, for suggestions on how to overcome these beliefs.
- Apply what you learn in practice. Practice builds accuracy and fluency. This fluency also builds the confidence and flexibility to apply what you’ve learned in different situations. Professor of mathematics, Michael Starbird, describes how practice leads to deeper understanding in the following video:
- Feed your curiosity. Ask questions, perform experiments, talk to experts, work with others, make mistakes, and explore your questions from many different angles. This helps develop a mindset of growth and will take you farther in your development.
Myth 2: I Only Need One Good Method for Studying
If your tried-and-true study strategies aren’t working, use a different approach. Monitor your learning by measuring your knowledge against what you expect. Before you start studying, think about how it will go. Predict your homework and test results, and see if you’re accurate or not. Notice when your expectations fall short of reality, or overshoot it, and adjust your approach accordingly. This is called “metacognition,” and it’s an important part of deep learning.
Bust the Myth
- Reflect on your studying by asking yourself these three questions: What did you do? Was it effective? What can you change? Practice self-testing, described in the following video:
- Test your perceptions. After an exam, make a prediction of how many questions/problems you answered correctly. When you get the test back, see how your score matched with your prediction. If you were way off, consider changing your study strategy to incorporate more self-testing, spaced study sessions and varied approaches to practice.
- Use strategies like generating your own questions and creating concept maps. Need some guidance? Take a look at the following video by Dr. Stephen Chew:
Myth 3: If It’s Easy, I Must Be Learning
When faced with familiar terms or examples, you might find yourself feeling like you really understand the material. But in fact your brain might really just be responding to the fact that it has seen this exact material before. This is called the familiarity trap—when everything seems familiar and your brain doesn’t have to work so hard and so it feels like you’ve mastered the material, even though you haven’t. Try to mix things up as you’re studying.
More and more evidence suggests that confusion is where deep learning lies. It might even be that some level of confusion actually activates the parts of your brain that regulate learning and motivation, helping you achieve a greater level of understanding. If you’re not confused, you might not be learning.
Try not to let yourself get discouraged if it feels like you aren’t understanding something. Not understanding can be a good sign. For a brief explanation, see Learning Goes Through the Land of Confusion by Rhett Alan, a physics professor at Southern Louisiana University.
Bust the Myth
- Retrieve—don’t regurgitate. Develop your own test questions, ask yourself questions, solve sample problems, and analyze for deeper meanings. Need some good questions to ask yourself? Try this: Why is this answer important? What does it relate to? How does this answer connect with what I already know? Can I elaborate this answer? Can I illustrate it with an example? Retrieving what you’ve learned from your memory helps you strengthen connections and relearn each time you do it, that is, every time you retrieve something from memory, you’re essentially re-learning it and creating different pathways for retrieval. The more paths you create to knowledge, the more likely it is that you’ll find a way there when you need it. You can find some more at the Teaching Professor Blog.
- If you’re confused, don’t give up. Working hard to understand a problem or to figure something out isn’t a bad thing, and it will likely lead to a deeper understanding of the material, which will stay with you for a long time. This is especially important if your other courses build on that concept you are grappling with. If you need help developing new strategies, the following video might do the trick.
Myth 4: Planning My Learning Is a Waste of Time
Being a self-directed learner requires planning. Answering the five questions from the graphic, above, can help to build a disciplined approach, which will help you tackle your academic work.
Planning can also help you develop a workable schedule for studying. “Research shows spacing study episodes out with breaks in between study sessions or repetitions of the same material is more effective than massing such study episodes. Massing practice is akin to cramming all night before the test.”
Planning reduces stress, helps you avoid cramming, and builds skills in metacognition. Planning is an important part of any career or occupation, so learning to plan well contributes to your overall competency. Even learning to plan takes practice, so start early!
Bust the Myth
- Target your studying: Try to study key themes, and take what you know about the exam structure into account when you’re planning. If you know you’ll have an essay, write outlines! If you have to solve problems, go over homework or make up your own problems.
- Review or practice throughout the term. Without regular review, you may have to relearn a large portion of the course right before the final.
Myth 5: Failure should be avoided at all costs
“Every success is built on the ash heap of failed attempts.” This reminder from Prof. Michael Starbird (University of Texas at Austin) offers a good reason not to fear failure. Failure doesn’t often feel good, but it may be your best teacher in helping you learn deeply. In fact, in the book 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, authors Edward Burger and Michael Starbird say that failure is an important foundation on which to build success.
But seeing failure as an opportunity for learning requires a fresh mindset. Once you make a mistake, you can ask, why is THAT wrong? Failure is an important aspect of much creative work, though it goes by a different name: iteration. Iteration is important in refining, working though problems, starting small, and refining until more can be added. Iteration is a feature of work in design, science, technology, and really any field where innovation is important.
Bust the Myth
- Use failure as an opportunity to rethink and relearn. Ask yourself why you got it wrong and what happened. What is an alternative approach? How might a new approach be more successful? Watch Prof. Michael Starbird’s video about making mistakes as a strategy for learning:
- Give yourself permission to fail. When working through problems or studying unfamiliar concepts, consider allowing yourself to fail nine times before getting it right. This may free your mind to think creatively about solutions without the pressure to “get it right.” You may find that repeated failures may actually lead you to new insights about the problem that you can take into other contexts.
Additional Study Techniques
The following are additional study techniques you can use to work your brain, raise your grades, perform well on assignments, and, most important, learn deeply.
- Consider real-world applications. Use what you are learning when tackling real world events or problems, or consider real-world applications of what you’re learning. Reflect on how the skills and knowledge you are building can be used beyond college. This creates more pathways in your brain and can help keep you motivated.
- Monitor your learning. Self-monitoring your learning includes evaluating, planning, and reflecting on your learning strategies and approaches. Reflecting on what you’ve done helps you see the value of certain strategies that leverage your strengths and improve on your weaknesses. It also increases your sense of control over outcomes.
- Seek specific and meaningful feedback. Ask for and use feedback from instructors, teaching assistants, and peers to adjust your learning and studying techniques. This can help you avoid studying and working very hard without results.
- Chunk the information you’re studying. With chunking, you break the concept you’re struggling with into smaller pieces, and sort those pieces by theme. Focus on understanding these chunks and they’ll be much easier to digest. Test yourself 5–15 minutes later. Mind maps and visual note taking can help with chunking.
- Set priorities. Set realistic goals and prioritize your studying by surveying your syllabus, reviewing material, and identifying the most important topics covered in the class, or areas you’re struggling with.
- Create association maps. Mind maps and concept maps can lead to meaningful learning, as they force you to reorganize and make sense of the information. Redo your notes as a diagram or as a concept map.
- Make connections. What you’re learning ideally applies to the real world. Make connections between course concepts, different courses, and real-world situations. If you’re having trouble understanding something, ask yourself how these concepts apply to your life.
- Ask questions to reduce bias. Check your thinking by asking questions about what you’re learning. What’s being said? Who is saying it? Why are they saying it? Who else says this? What do I believe? Why do I believe it? What’s missing? Asking good questions helps us solve problems, make thoughtful decisions, and think creatively.
- Dweck, Carol (2009) Mindestonline.com Retrieved: May, 10, 2014. ↵
- Ambrose, S.A, Lovett, M.C. (2014) Prior Knowledge is More Than Content: Skills and Beliefs Also Impact Learning, in Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (Editors). (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Available at the Teaching of Psychology website: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php. ↵
- Clark, C.M., Bjork, R.A. (2014) When and Why Introducing Difficulties and Errors Can Enhance Instruction, in Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (Editors). (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Available at the Teaching of Psychology website: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php. ↵