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A Better Way to Learn?

Olga Khazan of the The Atlantic recently had an interview with Ulrich Boser, author of Learn Better.

Boser shares some tips on what are some effective strategies for learning new material, and what are some ineffective ways.

For example, Boser notes how useful it is to explain a new concept to ourselves, quiz oursleves, or teach someone else the concept. All of these approaches are much more effective than highlighting or simply re-reading the new material.

I’ve always felt that the best way to learn something was to try and teach someone else, and it is nice to see some cognitive research that supports such a notion.

Boser states, “The other thing that’s particularly helpful about teaching other people is that you have to think about what is confusing about something, and how you’d explain that in a simpler way, and so that makes you shift the way that you’re thinking about a certain topic.”

Boser notes that it’s also helpful if you can make what you are trying to learn more salient, more meaningful to you. He also suggests that learning should be a bit difficult; when we are challenged, we better develop our skills.

Another helpful suggestion was to distribute learning over time. This means that if we know we are going to forget some knowledge that we have just acquired, we should revisit that knowledge at some point before we forget it. Doing so enables us to retain that knowledge for longer periods of time.

Finally, Bose points out the value of finding some time for reflection, noting that there’s one or two studies that have found that reflection can be more effective than practice itself.

I can see the value and relevance of all of the ideas that Boser shares in this article, particularly as both as a teacher and a student.

As a teacher, it seems like there is value in assigning homework, and then having a test on that material at a future date. Doing so would require the student to revisit the material at least a second time, which seems to aid in the learning process. It seems like it would also be helpful if I could think of a way to have students teach the material on occasion. The problem I see with that is that the students would get very familiar with the material they are teaching, but most likely not nearly as familiar with the material they would not be teaching. I’d also like to somehow include reflection in the learning process, I’m just not sure how to do that, or what it would look like. It’s got me thinking though…

As a student, I agree that re-reading something doesn’t help too much with the learning process, particularly for fields that require problem solving, such as math or accounting. I tell my students all the time that the best way to learn accounting is to practice, practice, practice. While I may not have followed such advice when I was in college 40 years ago, it seems to be working well as I take classes now as an older adult.

If only I knew then what I know now…

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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