When learning any new skill, most people in the West incorrectly assume that their current performance accurately reflects how much they will remember later. The better I perform now, the more I have learnt, and the better I will perform in the future. For this reason, we often look for ways to make our learning easier and more comfortable in the material we study and the ways we choose to practice.
Unfortunately, this is a “metacognitive illusion” and it impairs our memory in the long-term.
Whether you are trying to master a language, a sport, or a musical instrument, psychological research shows that your learning will benefit from so-called “desirable difficulties” and moments of confusion. Although they may momentarily impair your short-term performance, you will end up remembering much more in the future.
The reason is simple: the moment of struggle causes your brain to process the information more deeply, leading the brain to lay down a stronger memory trace that will remain with you, for longer. A wealth of experiments show that applying this simple principle could increase your recall by at least 50% in the weeks and months ahead.
In my new book, The Intelligence Trap, I describe many techniques that can help introduce desirable difficulties and productive struggle into your learning. Here are a few of my favourites:
Beware “fluent”, easy-to-process material. Superficially simple textbooks can lead you to believe that you are learning well, while, in fact, they are reducing your long-term recall. In fact, you will end up remembering more if you study more nuanced material. So don’t always look for the textbook with the nicest diagrams and easy-to-digest bullet points.
Give yourself a pre-test. As soon as you begin exploring a topic, force yourself to explain as much as you already know. Even if your initial understanding is abysmally wrong, experiments show that this prepares the mind for deeper learning later on.
Alternate the subjects or skills you are trying to learn. Most people intuitively prefer “blocked” study — to practice each skill for an extended period of time. That feels more rewarding than “interleaving” — the process of switching between the different topics or skills — which can create momentary confusion as your brain changes gears. Yet scientific studies in all kinds of disciplines show that interleaving is by far the more effective technique, precisely because it makes the initial learning experience a little bit more challenging. If you were studying maths you might switch between different kinds of algebraic problems, for instance. If you were practicing music, you might switch between scales or segments of the piece you are learning. In basketball, you might rotate the shots that you are trying to master.
Vary your environment. If you tend to study in the same place for too long, cues from that environment become associated with the material, meaning that they can act as non-conscious prompts. By altering the places of learning, you avoid becoming too reliant on those cues. In one experiment, simply switching rooms during studying resulted in 21% better recall on a subsequent test.
Test yourself regularly. So-called ‘retrieval practice’ has been shown to boost learning in many domains, since the act of testing forces more active and engaged thinking, which strengthens the memory trace of the material being recalled. So you should incorporate self-testing into every study session.
Learn by teaching. After studying — and without looking at your notes — imagine that you are explaining all that you have covered to another person. The act of explanation forces us to process the material more deeply.
While I was interviewing the psychologists Robert and Elizabeth Bjork, they told me that many people in the West are very resistent to these techniques — even after they have been told of the huge benefits — simply because they dislike the feelings of confusion. But there is now abundant evidence that they really are hugely effective at accelerating your overall learning. I’ve applied these myself while learning the Italian language, and I’ve found thatlittle bit of pain is well worth the long-term gains.
You can read more about their fascinating research, and the powerful ways that many East Asian schools have already adopted this strategy of “eating bitter” in my new book The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Stupid Mistakes and How to Make Wiser Decisions, available now in the UK and Commonwealth and to be published this summer in the USA.