April 20, 2024


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How We Learn (1)

Image from Monitoricef.com

By Victor Chijioke

ASUU is on strike. Forget that it might not end soon. Like many others, I believe that you owe it to yourself to use your free time in this period to learn (or be reminded of) how to learn. 

If you’re that student that has not abandoned your books or succumbed to the “school na scam” mantra, then this is for you. If you still manage to put in a few hours every day or week to do academic learning, this is for you.

Every striving student on the path to academic success wants to know what works in learning and what doesn’t. No one has discovered it all, as there are a bunch of people — cognitive scientists, educators, psychologists — carrying out research and discovering new ideas about what learning involves, the effective ways of learning that already exist and how they can be improved upon.

Either way, here are some insights into how the learning process works, garnered from various resources on cognitive science, learning theory and student advice.

If you’re someone who’s interested in the science of learning, here are some insights that can help improve your learning experience.

1.  Forget to learn

Every minute of the day, the brain is fed with vast amounts of stimuli. It is the primary work of the brain to make sure that you only notice important stimuli and forget the rest of the clutter. A part of the brain called the Reticular Activating System has been noted to be primarily responsible for this filtering function.

Out of the noticed and processed stimuli comes information. Even at the level of information, you don’t get to assimilate all ‘information’, because not all are deemed essential by your brain.  That’s why you have to ‘concentrate’ to learn. Concentration is the process of keeping out unneeded stimuli. Focus is achieved when you have succeeded in keeping out distracting stimuli and are processing the needed stimuli into information.

Retrieval Strength and Storage Strength

Your brain keeps important information and weakens the retrieval strength of unimportant information with time.

When memory is properly stored, it has high storage strength. When the same piece of information is recalled from time to time, it has high retrieval strength

Storage strength is relatively stable when compared to retrieval strength. Speedy weakening of retrieval strength leads to the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon:  “I know it, I just can’t remember.” That gets quite annoying when it happens, doesn’t it?

Recent and properly learned information will have high storage strength and high retrieval strength. If not recalled from time to time, the retrieval strength weakens with time until it is almost zero.

If information is not properly learned – a process called encoding, it will have low storage strength. Information with low storage strength will be difficult to retrieve. And information that is difficult to learn by retrieval can make studying, in general, difficult. That’s just one of the reasons why quiz and recall, or what I’ll call ‘testing’ in the next part of this article, might not be optimal if you haven’t understood the material.

From the foregoing, we can infer that even after a long time, one does not totally forget. If you have had information once stored in memory, you might have a slightly better chance of relearning the information than someone who has not learned at all.

So if you’re thinking that your reading is a total waste of time, it definitely isn’t.

 Retrieval strength and storage strength weaken with time, so it is definitely necessary to consolidate your knowledge by dusting up your books regularly and not just reading, but learning.

As much as learning is important, forgetting is also important.

The human brain works by filtering, and as such, it must be good at temporarily forgetting other information that can get in the way of learning new things. To use an analogy, the brain pushes unneeded information to the back of your mind to allow you to remember what you need.

The author of How We Learn, an educational book containing ideas on how to make learning better, gives an example of someone learning to drive on the left side of the road after moving to a different country. Such a person would have to temporarily forget how to drive on the right side of the road (since it’s not needed in a new territory) so he doesn’t go against the law or mistakenly harm anyone.

If he moves back to his home country after many years, where he is required to drive on the right side of the road, he will find it easier to get back to it compared to someone (say, a friend who lived in a foreign country where he left) who has never driven on the right side of the road.

The human brain was made to remember what’s important and forget the rest. You can’t remember everything. As you learn, you forget.

This means that…

 2. Only stuff that’s placed in context emphasized and re-emphasized is remembered

Your brain tends to remember information that you use regularly. Your brain only finds it easy to remember stuff that’s linked to other things. It only clearly remembers stuff that can be thought of from different perspectives and is grounded in prior knowledge. 

You must have heard about the Forgetting Curve of Hermann Ebbinghaus. The ‘you forget up to 50% of what you learn within the first-day’ tripe? The curve was the result of a series of experiments Ebbinghaus did on his own memory while trying to find out how fast people forget.

Well, Ebbinghaus didn’t learn valuable information, he learned data in the form of meaningless three-letter syllables! In other words, he learnt exactly the kind of stuff that the brain forgets easily: gibberish; words not placed in a meaningful context.

Ebbinghaus wanted to know how fast people forgot and he did just that. He found out that people forget really fast when they learn what the brain classifies as rubbish!

Therefore, this implies that if you learn information (bits of data  processed as  a single set and linked in your brain to other sets) rather than a series of datum (a memory bit that is processed alone and not linked to anything in your previous knowledge), you have a higher chance of remembering that needed information for as long as you want, if you continue to retrieve it from time to time. 

 –––To be continued…

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