On Learning..

Robert Bjork has some counter-intuitive ideas on learning. Here are some excerpts from an interview with him:

“People tend to try to learn in blocks,” says Bjork, “mastering one thing before moving on to the next.” But instead he recommends interleaving, a strategy in which, for example, instead of spending an hour working on your tennis serve, you mix in a range of skills like backhands, volleys, overhead smashes, and footwork. “This creates a sense of difficulty,” says Bjork, “and people tend not to notice the immediate effects of learning.”

Bjork explains that successful interleaving allows you to “seat” each skill among the others: “If information is studied so that it can be interpreted in relation to other things in memory, learning is much more powerful,” he says.

Similarly, studying in only one location is great as long as you’ll only be required to recall the information in the same location. If you want information to be accessible outside your dorm room, or office, or nook on the second floor of the library, Bjork recommends varying your study location.

“If you study and then you wait, tests show that the longer you wait, the more you will have forgotten,” says Bjork. That’s obvious — over time, you forget. But here’s the cool part: If you study, wait, and then study again, the longer the wait, the more you’ll have learned after this second study session.

Bjork explains it this way: “When we access things from our memory, we do more than reveal it’s there. It’s not like a playback. What we retrieve becomes more retrievable in the future. Provided the retrieval succeeds, the more difficult and involved the retrieval, the more beneficial it is.”

Along these lines, Bjork also recommends taking notes just after class, rather than during — forcing yourself to recall a lecture’s information is more effective than simply copying it from a blackboard. “Get out of court stenographer mode,” says Bjork. You have to work for it.


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