How to learn: Read and don’t forget – Part 1

a hat without a head under it as a symbol of an empty brain

Updated on July 13, 2019 at 2:55 pm by Mehmet Egemen Albayrak

You read a lot. But there is a problem: As much as you read, you forget. First days you feel like everything you’ve read is burned to your memory. Few months pass, then for a moment you need the information from your memory but can’t recall. Do you want to learn how to learn?

In this blog post, we will learn how to overcome forgetting what we read. It has a scientific background with many pieces of research and works very well, I can tell from my own experience.

Everything began with thinking “before I learn anything, I should probably how to learn”. I have a good memory for technical details but I can’t say I have a good memory. I was frustrated to forget a 700 pages book, could only recall a few facts in it.

First I found memory techniques and books like “memory palace”. It was promising with claims like learning Chinese in a few weeks but I read a book which uses this technique and it seemed to me “not so respectable”.

I was looking for something more scientific and found the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. It was promising and when I started to read I saw that it is the right book for me.

Book surprises you. You learn that many things you’ve learned from social media or culture are wrong and the real way of learning is counter-intuitive.

For example, especially with the belief of 10.000 hours theory – which is not accepted widely in the psychology field – people think focusing on one thing and repeating it again and again and again will grant you mastery. This is far from the truth.

Repeating textbooks will give you mastery only on the textbook content, not the field itself. So you develop a false sense of mastery with repeating the text. Also cramming all of those things to your brain is not learning, you will forget almost all of it and you are familiar with that experience. If you cram, you will hit the limits of your memory pretty quickly.

So what should we do? There are many things we can do but the most important thing is spaced retrieval. Trying to retrieve a memory will prevent forgetting it and creates stronger connections in your brain.

Why spaced? In the first days, your memory needs a consolidation time. This may range from several hours to days. To be able to learn it better, you must forget and retrieve. Learning is effective as much as difficulty of retrieval.

You need to extract mental models from the text you read, put it into a bigger context. You must reflect. When you cram you hit the limits of your memory but when you elaborate, explaining something in your own terms, there is no limit of memory. Elaboration what makes Feynman technique successful and it is just a small part of series techniques mentioned in the book.

Reflection, on the other hand, contains elaboration activity, but also criticizing your past experiences thus retrieval and imagining new circumstances. It is more sophisticated and very helpful.

You must do retrieval and reflection more than once, spaced. Another counter-intuitive fact: delayed feedback is better than immediate feedback. When you can’t solve a problem, don’t look at the solution immediately, struggle more.

Erroneous solutions don’t mean you will learn wrong. Receiving correct delayed feedback after struggle will burn the solution into your memory. This constant struggle and delayed feedback are exactly what you do when programming. You must fail to learn better.

In the book, there is a shocking example. Two groups of people are practicing throwing bags at different distances. One group throws 3 units again and again and the other group throws 2 and 4 units. At the end of the experiment, it is expected them to throw to 3 units and the second group was more successful!

These means do interleaved practice. When you reread a text and have the “illusion of mastery”, you feel good and competent. But when you encounter with a difficulty, as in interleaved practice, you feel bad and incompetent that’s why you avoid it. Overcome this illusion and do interleaved practice. At first, you will feel like you don’t get anything but in the end, you will find yourself you learn better.

Interleaved practice helps you discriminate between problems. When I first read about it I immediately thought of deep learning. And don’t fear of failure. That fear occupies your mind and decreases your performance.

This blog post outlines the most important points in the first 270 pages. There is much interesting info in it like knew-it-all-along effect, social influence, false consensus, Dunning-Kruger effect. I can explain them too if you want.

Wait for the last 270 pages and did you like it or found it useful? Answer it in comments, share it for others’ benefit and don’t forget to subscribe by clicking here. I wish you a good day.

Soft Skills learningread

4 thoughts on “How to learn: Read and don’t forget – Part 1

  1. Great article! You literally summarized me.
    May the patience, perseverance, and persistence be with you.

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