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Review: The Most Powerful Untapped Learning Tool A Student Has

Even in the days of “revolutionary computerized learning systems,” “smartphones, smart cars, smart houses,” and so much more marketing hype, few new technologies have used simple, established educational psychology principles to optimize learning.

Anyone reading this post is interested in learning something. Few have had any research experience in educational psychology to be able to show what does and what does not work.

Ebbinghaus Curve of Forgetting

The most oft-quoted image is the Ebbinghaus Curve of Forgetting. Over one hundred and forty years ago, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was able to show that, without practice, information is forgotten the more time goes by, eventually stabilizing at a minimal level of knowledge remained. Practically, we can all see this, as we have trouble remembering mundane details from many years ago. Conversely, with studying, we can understand why learning something once, then never reviewing or practicing again, is a sure way of forgetting most or all of it.

However, even Ebbinghaus realized that this was not a hopeless phenomenon. The more practice was done, the more information was retained. Later, more researchers found that the same amount of practice done over time (spaced practice) had better effects than practice all at once (massed practice).

Practically speaking, we also see this phenomenon in school and in real life. Learning a language, playing sports, practicing a musical instrument, and a wide range of skills is best done with daily practice instead of only a few times a week. The only exception to this rule is when limitations, such as physical limitations of heavy weight training, make daily practice impossible.

What Does This Phenomenon Mean for Being a Better Student?

If nothing else, this means that a serious student should realize several things:

First, if you want to be good at something, you must be willing to practice every single day.

If you speak to the most rigorous sports programs, performing arts programs, and schools, they are often made to practice every single day, sometimes even demanding more work on nights, weekends, and holidays. Despite books like the 4-Hour Work Week showing ways to further your efforts, the real world shows many cases that defy these rules. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, top politicians in Washington D.C., Wall Street bankers, special forces military units, and a range of other top-performing people work well over the standard 40 hours a week, sometimes into the 80+ or even 100+ hours a week mark. If these people who are exceptionally intelligent, driven, well-resourced, and have access to the best technology must work almost every waking moment to do exceptional things, we must do it, too.

Second, be willing to review early, often, and each day.

Many students who have trouble with difficult courses, especially math and physics, often feel they have problems learning the material. Interestingly, when many of them can manage time better, get extra help each day before or after school, do homework at night, and tutor on weekends, they are often impressed that their performance has improved dramatically over a semester.

Many people who feel they have problems with learning, memory, etc. have not reviewed as often and in detail, as would be helpful. Third, Realize that the Best Development Happens Where “Reviewed Information Meets New Information”

In language studies, this is called “input + 1.” Prior material in the language must be reviewed, often practiced with a warm-up. Then, new material is carefully and systematically presented, practiced, and produced with students. Often, at this critical point, teachers make the mistake of speaking too much about irrelevant matters, giving anecdotes that do not make sense or simply giving material that is too deep or challenging for the current level (“information overload”). Given material far too tangential or complex, a student in that situation will often feel stressed, overwhelmed, bored, and may even experience “zoning out,” “daydreaming,” etc., because the level of engagement is too difficult. The brain is essentially trying to rest and re-engage at a proper level.

Real-world examples are often used. If I am out of shape and want to train for a marathon, should I start running for over ten hours until I collapse from exhaustion? If I want to tan, should I spend hours in the desert sun without sunscreen until I must go to the hospital with deep burns? When I weight train, is it necessary to try and lift five times what my maximum strength limits are?

The answer to these questions is “of course not, as doing far too much, far too fast” would only cause injury, counter-productiveness, etc.

Fourth, Try to Get With the Pace of the Course

Some experienced teachers say “the pace of the course” is the most important thing when designing a course. In some ways, this is very true.

Many students say that being a student can feel like a conveyor belt. If material moves too quickly, a student can feel overwhelmed and unable to keep pace.

Conversely, if a teacher is off the pace, they may move too slowly, focusing on basic concepts without going deeper or waste time on tangential topics with little instructional value.

“Pacing” is where experienced teachers can truly shine. Like a song, movie, or marching band, it is essential to have a clear course, plan steps accordingly, adjust to changing conditions, and move neither too slowly nor too fast and unpredictable. In fact, words like curriculum and course were used because an academic course was seen as a literal path, like a walking trail, to be done with a goal in mind, a starting point, and many carefully planned and executed steps along the way.

Hopefully, you will find teachers who can properly assess your starting level, set appropriate goals for you, have step-by-step plans, review early, often, and each day, and adjust to the ever-changing situation.

We all wish to be successful. We all have our own goals. Hopefully, we will have excellent teachers and support along the way. Make sure to build up your prior knowledge with plenty of reviews, and do not overwhelm yourself with your lofty aspirations. The fifteen hundred-year-old proverb “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” is as true today as it always was: make sure your mind is well-supplied with review and rest to make sure it can take full advantage of this next step, into a journey towards your best self.

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