How to become a super-learner – whatever your IQ

NOTE: This post originally appeared on Medium.

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.

Interview and quiz in The Times

I’m thrilled to have a piece and interview in The Times about the publication of my book, The Intelligence Trap.

Incidentally, the profile piece says that I coined the term “cognitive miser” – which is a misunderstanding. It’s a term that is commonly used by psychologists to describe this kind of lazy thinking. But on the whole I felt like the piece offers a really nice introduction to some of the the themes that I’ll explore.

If you enjoyed the article, you can pre-order the hardback and e-book from Amazon and Waterstones. It’s released in the UK on 7 March, and in the US this summer.

In case you are interested, the sources of The Intelligence Trap quiz questions can be found below:

Sirota, M., Kostovičová, L., Juanchich, M., Dewberry, C., & Marshall, A. C. (2018).
Measuring Cognitive Reflection without maths: developing and validating the verbal
Cognitive Reflection Test.
https://psyarxiv.com/pfe79/

Thomson, K. S., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2016). Investigating an alternate form of the
cognitive reflection test. Judgment and Decision Making, 11(1), 99
https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2016-09222-009

Stanovich, K. E. (2009). Rational and irrational thought: The thinking that IQ tests miss.
Scientific American Mind, 20(6), 34-39
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/rational-and-irrational-thought-the-thinking-that-iq-tests-miss/

Bruine de Bruin, W., Parker, A. M., & Fischhoff, B. (2007). Individual differences in adult
decision-making competence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(5), 938-956
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17484614

The Intelligence Trap

Exciting news! I’m writing a book, called The Intelligence Trap – Why Smart People Make Stupid Mistakes, and How to Avoid Them. It will be published by Hodder and Stoughton in the UK, and my agent is currently negotiating the foreign rights in various territories.

Needless to say, I’m thrilled. Ever since I first took an IQ test to attend secondary school, I’ve been fascinated by the ways we assess cognitive ability, and that interest has only grown since I became a science writer. Psychologists and neuroscientists are now finding many skills and thinking styles that have been neglected by our old definitions of intelligence, but which turn out to be crucial for personal and professional success. Crucially, these skills can all be nurtured and cultivated – whatever our IQs, we can all think a bit more wisely.

Combining analyses of historical events, personal narratives, and philosophy, I’ll be show-casing this new discipline – sometimes called “evidence-based wisdom” – and exploring the ways that it can be applied by individuals, businesses and whole societies.  These discoveries have already transformed my understanding of my own thinking, attitudes and behaviour – and I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity to bring them to a popular audience.

Stay-tuned for future updates! In the meantime, you can check out more details on The Bookseller’s website and you can read the BBC article that first set me on this path.

UPDATE (23/03/2017): We’ve just sold the rights in Brazil (Sextante) and Italy (Ponte Alle Grazie)!