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The Ten Commandments of Learning

Ulrich Boser 0

I recently watched a video of a LeBron James practice session, and during the hour-long training, James kept shooting the same shot over and over again. He launched the identical jumper almost a dozen times. Then he repeatedly threw up the same three-pointer. Then he knocked down fifteen free throws, one after another.

There’s an issue with the NBA superstar’s repetitive approach. It’s not supported by the research, and dozens of studies make clear that James would gain a lot more if he mixed up his shooting. So during his practice session, James should have fired off a jumper and then a three-pointer and then a free throw before returning to his jumper.

Weak practice is an issue that goes far beyond megacelebrities, and I see people learning wrong all the time. People will use highlighters, even though there’s little evidence for either strategy. Or I’ll uncover instructors who advocate specific learning styles. But again, no research supports the approach.

Since my book Learn Better has been released a few months ago, I’ve come to believe that there should be a set of rules for gaining mastery. So if you’re a seventh grader heading back to school—or a basketball phenom looking to win another championship—consider these ten commandments of “learning to learn.”

Thou shall actively make sense. Learning is not a passive process, and in order to make sense of an area of expertise, people have to work to understand the material. They need to deeply engage the area of mastery.

Practically speaking, people should make learning as active as possible. Don’t just reread a text, for instance. Instead, explain the text to yourself. Ask yourself: How would I describe this skill to someone else? What’s notable about this idea?

Low-stakes quizzes can also make learning more active, and studies show that informal exams promote richer forms of understanding. Another strategy is to summarize what you’ve learned. It’s another way to engage in active learning. Same with elaboration, a highly effective approach.

Thou shall honor short-term memory. Known as the brain’s “sketch pad,” short-term memory is the bottleneck of learning. If you want to learn something, you must process it in short-term memory. But if too much information lands in short-term memory at one time, then our cognitive sketch pad becomes overwhelmed.

When it comes to learning, the takeaway is clear: People gain more if they lessen the demands on short-term memory. So if you’re learning something, limit distractions. Don’t listen to jazz. Turn off your cell phone. Stay away from Twitter.

The limits of short-term memory also explains why instructors are so important for learning: Great educators explain skills and knowledge in ways that don’t overwhelm short-term memory.

Thou shall bless knowledge. The memorization of facts and figures has a bad reputation. But mastering the basics can help people learn. It makes people better at critical thinking and the single best predictor of future learning is past learning.

This means that if you’re developing an area of expertise, take time to master the essentials. If you’re studying Chinese, then commit some key phrases to memory. If you’re learning the piano, study the scales. Fundamental skills and knowledge lay the groundwork for richer forms of understanding.

Thou shall think about thinking. We often misjudge our levels of understanding. We’re overconfident about what we know and can do. The solution? Something that experts call metacognition, or thinking about thinking.

More concretely, monitor your thoughts as you learn and ask yourself questions like: What do I know? How do I know? Does this really make sense? Could I explain this idea to a friend? These prompts help promote expertise.

Thou shall look for deep features. When it comes to learning, surface features, or concrete details, easily capture our attention. But people gain a much richer type of learning if they focus on the deep features, or the underlying concept of a field.

If you are learning how to solve this problem, for instance: Jose buys five Snickers and three KitKats. How many sweets does he have? What matters isn’t the candies, which are a surface feature. What matters is the deep feature, or what is 5 plus 3?

The value of deep features explains why we should mix up our practice. If we practice in a blocked fashion like LeBron James (think xxxyyyzzz), we tend to focus on the surface features. But if we practice in a mixed way (think xyzxyzxyz) then, we’re more likely to spot the deep features of an area of expertise.

Thou shall ask for feedback. Always. Get. Feedback. Beginners need feedback. So do experts. Even just writing down your mistakes can lead to dramatic improvements in outcomes.

So if you’re learning something new, be sure to ask a friend or colleague or even an online tutor to review your efforts. Their insights will shine a light on what you are doing well—and what still needs practice.

Thou shall remember to remember. We forget all the time, and people typically forget 50 percent of what they learn within 24 hours. What’s worse, we often forget about our forgetting, and we think that we will remember something but we can’t actually recall it.

To address the unavoidable misremembering, people should spread their learning out over time and regularly revisit skills and knowledge. If you’re learning something new like an important speech, for instance, start early so that you can give yourself time to forget.

Thou shall honor thy feelings. Learning is a deeply emotional activity, and as we develop a skill, we have to manage our emotional reasoning, to account for how we feel.

Be sure, then, to set realistic goals for yourself and establish targets that you can accomplish. Also find students and teachers who can support you in your learning. We all gain a lot more when we feel connected to others.

Thou shall use analogies. Learning is about understanding the relationships within an area of expertise, and so we benefit by looking for patterns, by searching for similarities and differences.

So when you’re learning something new, be sure to engage in compare and contrast. It helps people more easily spot the connections within an area of mastery.

Also look for analogies. They can go a long way to promote understanding and innovative thinking. Want to understand politics better? Look for a marketing analogy. Aim to improve your writing? Search film-making for some potential tips.

Thou shall reflect, reflect, reflect. To gain a richer form of expertise, people need to reflect on that what they’ve learned, and whether it’s chemistry or golf, people gain more if they contemplate their learning.

To promote this sort of reflection, ask yourself reflective questions: How has my thinking changed because of this experience? How does this material all come together? What have I really learned?

The article ran on Amazon.

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