everything you thought you knew about learning is wrong

in Becoming an Expert

Everything You Thought You Knew About Learning Is Wrong

What if everything you knew about learning was wrong?

In a recent article on Wired, Robert Bjork, the director of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab, claims there are extreme flaws in the best perceived ways to learn.

Let’s dive right in.

Should You Focus on One Skill at a Time?

Bjork recommends “interleaving”. Instead of working on a single task for a full hour, such as a tennis serve, you should be mixing it up with multiple skills at the same time. Weaving in backhands, forehands, and volleys with your practice serves will help you progress whether you realize it or not.

“This creates a sense of difficulty,” Bjork said. “And people tend not to notice the immediate effects of learning.”

One piece of this advice shouldn’t be taken too far though. All of the things you are practicing at the same time should relate to one another. 

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 said. There’s one caveat: Make sure the mini skills you interleave are related in some higher-order way. If you’re trying to learn tennis, you’d want to interleave serves, backhands, volleys, smashes, and footwork — not serves, synchronized swimming, European capitals, and programming in Java.

Does It Matter Where You Study?

Apparently where you are studying does matter. Professor Bjork says that if you want to be able access your skills or knowledge in more locations, you should be practicing and studying in multiple places.

By studying in your dorm room, a library, and out in a park you should theoretically be more capable of recalling the knowledge you’ve tried to store away for later.

Should You Learn Close to a Deadline?

Studies from Bjork also show that the further away from the time that was spent studying leads to less knowledge retained. This means that the optimum time to study is as close to the time when you need it as possible.

Does this mean that all the teachers that told us not to cram were wrong? Maybe, but let’s dig further.

What also matters is how many times you practice/study/learn. That is where getting started early would help because you would have more chances to perfect a skill or understand a complicated lesson.

Specifically interesting is the fact that when you repeatedly study the same material or practice the same thing your learning is exponential. The Wired article goes on to say:

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.”

Now that is something I wish I had know in college…

What About Note Taking?

Another interesting piece of the article is about when you should actually take notes when trying to learn something.

Most people take notes during a class as a way to retain what they hear. In fact, after class note taking is the better way to go. 

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… “Forget about forgetting,” said Bjork. “People tend to think that learning is building up something in your memory and that forgetting is losing the things you built. But in some respects the opposite is true.”


What have you discovered about how you learn best? Does it line up with the research by Professor Bjork above?

Share your experiences in the comments below this post and please share this essay if you enjoyed it.


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