The science of Learning – Top six proven study techniques (Part one)

Brain in jar

One of the most difficult questions to answer is – “How do you know”? This is because it challenges both the logic behind your thinking and the quality of information on which you based your statement or opinion. Is it possible you have taken reliable information and put it together in the wrong way or is the evidence supporting your argument questionable?

Saying something with confidence will lead people to believe that what you are saying is true but without real evidence it is still only an opinion.

The so called scientific method which introduced us to the idea of gathering evidence cannot be attributed to one individual, the high-profile contributors include Aristotle, Ibn al-Haytham, Descartes and Newton. It was clearly an organic process that Newton eloquently described as standing upon the shoulder of giants.

Regardless of the originator, the scientific method has changed the way we think and shaped much of the modern world, from discoveries in medicine, putting a man on the moon and the creation of the internet. But……Not Learning.

Learning science

Although still a relatively new field there are a group of individuals who include cognitive and computer scientists, linguists and educational phycologists who collectively call themselves Learning Scientists. By gathering evidence in the form of data about how students learn they have been able to draw conclusions that are “evidence based”. What can be proven and what cannot. For both students and teachers their findings should be essential reading.

One important point, this does not in any way detract from what a good teacher does, no more than offering advice to doctors on the evidence supporting the success of a new drug.

The top 6 evidence-based study techniques

1. Spaced practice (distributed)

Spaced practice is the exact opposite of cramming, you are effectively taking the same amount of time to study, just doing it over a longer period of time. The evidence shows that if you revisit what you have studied over time it boosts what is called your retrieval and storage strength but if you study in a short period of time, your retrieval strength improves but your storage strength reduces. One implication is that cramming can work but only if you want to retain information for a short period of time, to pass an exam for example. As such it is understandable why students do this, because they have proved in the past it was successful.  If, however you need that information for the next level of study, you may need to learn it all over again!

“The effect is simple: the same amount of repeated studying of the same information spaced out over time will lead to greater retention of that information in the long run, compared with repeated studying of the same information for the same amount of time in one study session.”

Watch this video, it’s an excellent summary.

2. Interleaving

Interleaving is simply studying different subjects or topics as opposed to studying one topic very thoroughly before moving to the next, this latter process is called blocking. However as with spaced practice students might find it harder (see desirable difficulty) because interleaving involves retrieval practice and is more difficult than blocked practice, but the knowledge is retained for far longer. One proven technique is for students to alternate between attempting a problem and viewing a worked example. This is much better than attempting to answer one question after another. Its simply about switching activity.

But be careful, interleaving is best done within a subject, don’t move from Chemistry to Art for example. Unfortunately we don’t have any evidence as to what the optimum time period should be, so that might have to come down to trial and error. If however its too short a time there is a danger you will effectively be multitasking, and as I have mentioned in a previous blog, that simply doesn’t work.

This video by brain hack is excellent

“Interleaving occurs when different ideas or problem types are tackled in a sequence, as opposed to the more common method of attempting multiple versions of the same problem in a given study session, known as blocking.”

3. Retrieval practice

This may come as no surprise to many students and certainly not to anyone who reads this blog, its true tests actually improve memory. The process of reflecting back and having to retrieve a memory of something previously learned is very powerful.  There is also an added benefit, if you are told there is going to be a test, the increased test expectancy leads to better-quality encoding of the new information.

One concern is that while there is little doubt that retrieval practice works, there is some research to show that pressure, perhaps the result of test anxiety during retrieval can undermine some of the learning benefit.

“However, we know from a century of research that retrieving knowledge actually strengthens it.”

Part two, next month

I hope this insight into evidence based learning has been useful, next month I will cover Elaboration, Concrete examples and Dual coding.

And if you would like to find out more here is a link to the article that quotes much of the research to support these techniques.



Learning, Self-control and Marshmallows


In the late 1960s and early 1970s research led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University led to one of the most valuable insights into human behaviour and learning.  It showed that children who demonstrated self-control or if you prefer self-discipline went on to gain higher marks in school, had better social and cognitive skills, a greater sense of self awareness and coped with stress far more easily in later life.

In the actual experiment a child was offered a choice between having one marshmallow, pretzels and cookies worked just as well, immediately or two marshmallows if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes. The child was alone as the tester left the room, they returned later to reward those who had not eaten the marshmallow as promised. Those that still had the marshmallow sat in front of them had demonstrated self control.

It became known as the marshmallow experiment and was the inspiration for further research, in particular why was it that some were able to resist but others couldn’t, were some people born with higher levels of willpower and the ability to exert self-control or could it be learned?

Mischel continued his research and published a book in 2014, The Marshmallow Test: Understanding Self-control and How To Master It, which offers some interesting insight into the nature nurture question.

Delayed Gratification

Later research in particular work by Laura Michaelson et al, in 2013 suggested that delaying gratification may also require trust (social trust) in the individuals offering the future rewards. Michaelson identified that if the children didn’t think they would get a second marshmallow, they would most likely eat the first one. In effect if you don’t believe the person is trustworthy, then even those with “will power” will give in.

This has a significant implication in so much that the ability to delay cannot be hard wired, it is environmental, influenced to some extent by what you believe. There has also been the suggestion that it is logical to eat the first marshmallow, especially if you have grown up in an environment where resource is scarce.

This leads us to the conclusion that there are two potentially important factors at play, firstly self-control and secondly established beliefs.

The ability to discipline yourself to delay gratification in the short term in order to enjoy greater rewards in the long term, is the indispensable prerequisite for success. Brian Tracy

Implications for Learning

Fundamentally delayed gratification is about the belief that short-term pain or at least a little discomfort today will lead to rewards in the future. And that is an important component of learning, yes of course learning should be interesting and enjoyable but there will come a point when it is not. This is especially true when taking examinations, even if you enjoy the subject, sitting a test or exam that you might fail can be stressful and for most is far from a pleasant experience. Learning also requires that you make sacrifices in terms of what you give up, for example not meeting with friends, studying on bank holidays, and generally missing out.

The good news is that as Walter Mischel and others discovered you can improve your self-control by using a few simple techniques.

  • Remove the distraction – if the marshmallow had been taken out of sight, the temptation to eat it would be left to your imagination. The student’s marshmallow is most likely to be a mobile phone, so how about you remove it, not for ever of course that would be unreasonable, just for a couple of hours. An alternative is to distract yourself, rather than thinking about what your giving up, do something else, watch a video on the topic, produce a mind map etc.
  • Have a routine – develop a routine or habit for example, always study for two hours after you get home.
  • Reframe – if you thought that the marshmallow was bitter, the temptation to eat it would go away. It is possible to reframe the distraction as a negative, for example  that mobile phone ringing is someone I really don’t want to speak to….
  • Reward yourself – when you have studied for 2 hours, give yourself a reward, anything you like, a new car might be over the top, but you deserve something.
  • Set goals – perhaps obvious, but if you have a goal not to eat the marshmallow for 15 minutes, then 1 hour, eventually you will be able to resist for days.

The world in which we live seems to be changing, as organisations attempt to satisfy the continual demands of those with a “want it now” mentality.  Having what you want, when you want may seem ideal but those that have enjoyed instant gratification have not always found it a good place to be.

Listen to the man himself talk about delayed gratification and the marshmallow experiment, it’s just 4 minutes.  –  Walter Mischel.




Case study – Omelettes and Cognitivism


If you have actually got as far as reading this first paragraph, there must have been something in the title that caught your attention. Perhaps you were simply curious as to how these three words are connected, or maybe one of the words relates to something you are interested in?

Whatever the reason, you have begun to process information and so engage in cognition, put more simply, you have started to think.

Making an omelette

But first a question, take a moment and think about how you make an omelette? ……….Then in your own words, explain how you would do this? ………. As you might imagine this is not about the omelette but the process you went through in order to answer the question.

The process – There was clearly an element of memory and recall as you thought back to the time when you last made an omelette, you would also have needed to direct your attention to the event itself and use strong visualisation skills, to see yourself actually whisking the egg, adding the salt and pepper etc. However so sophisticated is the human mind you can actually create images of making an omelette based on your knowledge of scrambling an egg! The point being, you have the ability to visualise activities of which you have no or little experience. The mental processes outlined above go some way to explaining Cognitivism. Cognitivism in learning is the study of how information is received, directed, organised, stored and perceived in order to facilitate better learning. Cognitivist believe that mental processes should be studied in order to develop better theories as to how people learn.

Case study is higher level

As you progress up the exam ladder the style of examination question changes. It starts with relatively simple activities that require you to recall something already taught e.g. what is the capital of France? It then moves to questions that test understanding, e.g. explain why Paris is the capital of France? At higher levels you will ultimately come across, Application, Analyse and Evaluation, and it is these higher level skills that a case studies often requires you to master.

I have written about case studies before, firstly, Putting the context into case study and secondly Passing case studies by thinking in words. Here I want to explore how by understanding how people think  (Cognitivism) you can develop strategies to help you answer what seem to be impossible questions.

Application of knowledge

Imagine you have been given a case study that has a large amount of information about the company, the people and the financial position. You have been asked to offer advise as to how the company should improve its internal controls within the HR department. Even though you may not think you know the answer, the process outlined above will give a framework to follow.

  • Firstly, focus your attention on the key words – internal controls and HR deportment
  • Secondly, recall any information you have about internal controls and HR departments
  • Thirdly, deploy strong visualisation skills, seeing yourself in that company, bringing in as much detail as possible to give context, and then use common sense
  • Finally write out your answer – Say what you see, talk through how you would do it, mention some of the problems you might experience and outline the possible solutions

These are cognitive strategies developed from learning more as to how people think, why not give them a go?

And here is how to make an omelette from my favourite instructor, Delia – yet another practical tip, remember last month it was how to make toast.

Learning unleashed – Micro learning


As with many other types of learning, micro learning is difficult to define. At its simplest it can be thought of as small chunks of untethered content that can be consumed in about 5 minutes, 8 minutes tops. Although video is possibly the best example, watch this micro learning chunk on how to boil an egg  it can come in other mediums for example quizzes, flashcards, infographics etc.

Each chunk of micro learning should be capable of being consumed independently but can form part of a larger topic. For example, if you watch the video on how to boil an egg, that could be part of a series of micro lessons, including how to scramble an egg, how to poach an egg, you get the idea. The video might also be interactive and include questions at the end to check that you were paying attention. When fully formed, it’s a complete course, with its own learning objective, content, examples and an assessment. And that is its real value from the perspective of a student, they are getting a well designed chunk of learning available when it is most needed – its learning at the point of need.

Growing in popularity

Organisations are finding that micro learning is popular not just with the “attention short” millennials but all ages. One reason for this is it’s how we like to learn, being presented with information in relatively short bursts. Despite the often quoted falling attention spans being a justification for micro learning, apparently it was 12 seconds and is now only 8, there is little real evidence that this is true. The original research which was attributed to Microsoft is in fact from another organisation, and not easily confirmed.

But if we think of it less in biological terms and more behavioural, there is merit. It’s not so much that attention spans are changing its that we now live our lives at an ever-increasing pace, and so want information and learning to move just as fast. Micro learning also needs to be accessible, in practical terms this means it should work on a mobile device, most likely a smartphone. And because we always have our phone with us, it’s always available. This might be when you have some free time, on a train, travelling to and from work perhaps, or when faced with a problem that requires a skill you don’t have. For example, that boiled egg now needs to be placed on the best toast in the world, but how do you make the best toast? If only there was a short 3-minute video you could watch. But from a learning perspective micro learning has one other big advantage. When you are trying to understand something, you are at your most curious, and if that curiosity can be satisfied before the moment passes, learning will take place more easily.

Micro learning is informal, meaning it is not a structured A to B, B to C process led by a teacher, its student led, requiring the individual to pick the next step in the journey. This can of course be time consuming as the student wanders around, following their instincts as to what is important rather than taking direction from an expert. But if the student has a clear understanding of where they are going and a time constraint, its can be an excellent self managed learning experience.

Micro learning is distilled wisdom

As Mark Twain once so famously wrote “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead,” micro learning is not created by taking existing content and cutting it into smaller chunks. It requires you revisit exactly what it is that needs to be learned, remove everything that is not essential in helping you achieve that objective, then offer up that content in a short easily understood chunk. This will need the help of an individual with a high level of subject expertise and significant experience. It will also, as Mark Twain so succinctly identified take far longer than you might at first thought.

Here are some great examples of micro learning, they won’t take you very long to watch – after all, its micro learning.

  • This is a gamified micro course that trains people to make a Domino’s pizza – click.
  • A free, gamified language app that uses short lessons to help learn almost  any language – click.
  • And lastly, not all micro learning is in a video format – here is an infographic that summarise the key features of micro learning – click.
  • Oh and just in case – how to make toast! – click.

Plastic fantastic – how the brain grows

Stress BallA major new idea was presented to the world in 1991, to many it will mean very little but in terms of improving our understanding of the brain it was a milestone.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) had seen its roots in the earlier MRI, but instead of creating images of organs and tissues, fMRI looks at blood flow in the brain to detect areas of activity and so show how the brain works in real time.

The implications of this for learning are significant because for the first time we were able to identify which parts of the brain were reacting when different tasks were being performed. For example, we know that the cerebrum which is the largest part of the brain performs higher functions such as interpreting touch, vision, hearing, speech, emotions etc.

Brain plasticity

But it is the next discovery that is far more interesting from a learning perspective. For many years the common belief was that brain functionality (intelligence) was to a certain extent hard wired, largely genetic, with a fixed number of neurons. It probably didn’t help that the computer gave us a simile for how the brain worked which was misleading.

That all changed when it became possible to observe the brain and watch how it responded to what it saw and was asked to do. What this showed was that the brain has the ability to generate new cells, a process called Neurogenesis.

Click here to listen to neuroscientist Sandrine Thuret explain how humans can generate new brain cells i.e. Neurogenesis.

This may make sense for children given the basic brain functionality when a child is born, something must be happening to turn them into caring and thoughtful adults. In fact, by adolescence the brain has produced so many synapse, the connections between cells, they have to be cut back or pruned. Hence the term synaptic pruning.  What was perhaps more of a surprise was that growing new brain cells was not just something children could do, adults were able to do it as well.

The classic example is the evidence by Professor Eleanor Maguire from the Wellcome Trust Centre and colleague Dr Katherine Woollett who followed a group of 79 trainee taxi drivers and 31 controls (non-taxi drivers). Their research showed that London taxi drivers developed a greater volume of grey matter i.e.  cell development, three to four years after passing “the knowledge”  when compared to the control group.

Learning about learning

This may leave you thinking, all very interesting but what does it mean for me as a student?

In the same way that people can develop a growth mindset, bringing it within your control, you can do the same with your academic performance. Just because you don’t understand something or pick it up very quickly doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to. This is not to say that some people are not “brighter” than others, it is estimated that around 50%/60% of your intelligence is genetic, but that’s on the assumption your brain cannot change, and what this proves is it can.

And here is one last interesting observation, knowing how the brain works can actually help rewire it. There is evidence that students who know more about how they learn, (meta cognition) will naturally reflect on what they are doing when they are learning which in turn will help grow new cells, how good is that.

Artificial Intelligence in education (AIEd)

robot learning or solving problems

The original Blade Runner was released in 1982. It depicts a future in which synthetic humans known as replicants are bioengineered by a powerful Corporation to work on off-world colonies. The final scene stands out because of the “tears in rain” speech given by Roy, the dying replicant.

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

This was the moment in which the artificial human had begun to think for himself. But what makes this so relevant is that the film is predicting what life will be like in 2019. And with 2018 only a few days away, 2019 is no longer science fiction, and neither is Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Artificial Intelligence and machine learning

There is no one single agreed upon definition for AI, “machine learning” on the other hand is a field of computer science that enables computers to learn without being explicitly programmed. The way it does this is by analysing large amounts of data in order to make accurate predictions, for example regression analysis does something very similar when using data to produce a line of best fit.

The problem with the term artificial intelligence is the word intelligence, defining this is key. If intelligence is, the ability to learn, understand, and make judgments or have opinions based on reason, then you can see how difficult deciding if a computer has intelligence might be. So, for the time being think of it like this:

AI is the intelligence; machine learning is the enabler making the machine smarter i.e. it helps the computer behave as if it is making intelligent decisions.

AI in education

As with many industries AI is already having an impact in education but given the right amount of investment it could do much more, for example

Teaching – Freeing teachers from routine and time-consuming tasks like marking and basic content delivery. This will give them time to develop greater class engagement and address behavioural issues and higher-level skill development. These being far more valued by employers, as industries themselves become less reliant on knowledge but dependant on those who can apply it to solve real word problems. In some ways AI could be thought of as a technological teaching assistant. In addition the quality and quantity of feedback the teacher will have available to them will not only be greatly improved with AI but be far more detailed and personalised.

Learning – Personalised learning can become a reality by using AI to deliver a truly adaptive experience. AI will be able to present the student with a personalised pathway based on data gathered from their past activities and those of other students. It can scaffold the learning, allowing the students to make mistakes sufficient that they will gain a better understanding.  AI is also an incredibly patient teacher, helping the student learn from constant repetition, trial and error.

Assessment and feedback – The feedback can also become rich, personalised and most importantly timely. Offering commentary as to what the individual student should do to improve rather than the bland comments often left on scripts e.g. “see model answer” and “must try harder.” Although some teachers will almost certainly mark “better” than an AI driven system would be capable of, the consistency of marking for ALL students would be considerably improved.

Chatbots are a relatively new development that use AI.  In the Autumn of 2015 Professor Ashok Goel built an AI teaching assistant called Jill Watson using IBM’s Watson platform. Jill was developed specifically to handle the high number of forum posts, over 10,000 by students enrolled on an online course. The students were unable to tell the difference between Jill and a “real” teacher. Watch and listen to Professor Goel talk about how Jill Watson was built.

Pearson has produced an excellent report on AIEd – click to download.

Back on earth

AI still has some way to go, and as with many technologies although there is much talk, getting it into the mainstream takes time and most importantly money. Although investors will happily finance driverless cars, they are less likely to do the same to improve education.

The good news is that Los Angeles is still more like La La Land than the dystopian vision created by Ridely Scott, and although we have embraced many new technologies, we have avoided many of the pitfalls predicated by the sci-fi writers of the past, so far at least.

But we have to be careful watch this, it’s a robot developed by AI specialist David Hanson named “Sophia” and has made history by becoming the first ever robot to be granted a full Saudi Arabian citizenship, honestly…..


Concentration – the war in the brain


One of the most important skills in learning is the ability to concentrate. If you could focus your attention on a specific task for long periods of time you would be able to absorb more content, more quickly.

But concentrating is not easy. The reason is partly because we lack the ability to manage distraction. I have written before about focus, information overload and the problems with multi-tasking, but this is a large and fascinating subject.

The war in the brain

Improving concentration has a lot to do with attention, which in some ways is an invisible force, but as we have found before neuroscience can help us gain insight into the previously unknown. For example, most of us will have what is called a priority map, a map of the most visited places in our brain. Its value is that it can be used to identify how we prioritise incoming information and as such where we place our attention. It’s worth stating that attention a is a limited resource so how we use it is important.

Take this attention test and find out your level of attention.

The problem is that these maps change based on how “relevant” the information is, and relevancy itself is dependent on three systems that continually compete with each other. I know this is getting complicated but stick with it, concentrate!

The executive system – Sitting in the frontal lobe, this is the main system and orients attention according to our current goals. For example, I need to learn about double entry bookkeeping, so I will place my attention on page 4 and start reading.

The reward system – As you might imagine this is the system that offers us rewards. A reward can be as simple as the dopamine rush you get when checking your mobile phone, the problem is, you should be reading page 4! And its made worse by the fact that the brain’s attention naturally moves to flashing lights, which you often get when a text comes in.

The habit system – This system operates using fixed rules often built up over time by repetition, perhaps it’s the reason you keep looking at your phone just to check that you haven’t had a text even though you know you haven’t because you would have seen the flashing light….But most importantly the habit of checking, created by you has once again distracted your attention, when you should still be reading page 4!

Hence the term, war in the brain, these systems are in competition for your attention. The result is exhausting, you don’t finish reading page 4, and feel tired even though you have achieved very little.

How to improve concentration  

Some of the methods below will seem obvious and there is of course no magic bullet, however because there is a scientific reason as to why these might work I hope you will be more likely to give them a go.

  1. Reduce distraction –  if you have to make a huge amount of effort to check your mobile phone, the reward you get from checking it will diminish. The simple advice is don’t have your phone with you when studying or anything else that might occupy your thoughts. Also have a space to study that is quiet, with simple surroundings and nothing interesting that might be a distraction. Finally, although there is mixed evidence on playing music or listening to white noise in the background, it may be worth a try.
  2. Set goals – this is to support your executive system, write down your goal and don’t make them too ambitious.
  3. Relax and stay calm – it’s hard to concentrate when you are feeling high levels of anxiety. Methods to help with relaxation include, deep breathing, click this video its very helpful, and of course exercise which I have written about in the past, because of it being a natural antidote for stress.
  4. Avoid too much stimulation – novelty seeking behaviours for example playing video games can become imbedded in your reward system. They can make studying appear very dull and unrewarding especially if you have played a game immediately before getting down to study. Keep it for afterwards, by way of a reward perhaps.

And if you would like to find out more watch these: