What is learning?


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Memory is the mother of all wisdom

Knowing a little about what learning is and how people learn will help you to study and learn efficiently and successfully at Glion. It will also enable you to become a successful life long learner. 

What exactly is learning?

Learning can be defined as assimilating new knowledge or skills and being able to apply them later. Learning and memory are closely linked. If you think carefully about something, you will probably have to think about it again in the future, so your brain stores this information. The point is that your memory is not a product of what you want to remember. Your memory is a product of what you think about. If you do not pay attention to something, you will not remember it. Conversely, whatever you think about, that is what you remember. The implication for your studies is that the more you actively think about the information you want to learn, the more knowledge you will remember and be able to recall in the future when you need it. In short, the more you will learn. Thinking about meaning helps memory and learning.

How do the short term memory and long time memory work together to produce learning?

According to current theory, your brain uses a short term, working memory and a long term memory. Your short term working memory temporarily holds the things you are currently thinking about. The capacity of your short term memory is limited to about seven pieces of information. The capacity of your long term memory is practically limitless, but some of your memories are easier to recall, to bring to your short term memory, than others. What makes some memories easier to recall than others is the number of times you recall the information to your short term memory. This recall forms strong neural networks allowing you to access your knowledge more easily. The implication for your studies is that in order to learn something, you must repeatedly recall it from your long term memory back into your working memory, you have to pay attention to it. You remember what you think about

What does “automaticity” mean and why is it important (particularly during exams)?

Automaticity refers to the amount of mental effort you need to use to recall knowledge from your long term memory where it is stored into your short term memory where you can use it. As a child you had to learn to tie your shoe laces, now you do not think about this action at all, you just do it. Perhaps you learned to ride a bicycle. Again you probably no longer pay attention to how not to fall off, it has become “natural” to you.  The common feature of tying your shoe laces and riding a bicycle,  is that they have become automatic, you don’t think about them at all. Now imagine that you could make the recall of your knowledge automatic, placing no demand on your limited short term memory, freeing up your working memory to concentrate on applying your knowledge. Automaticity reduces stress and the fear of forgetting in high pressure or high risk situations, such as taking exams or giving presentations. The implication for your studies is that increasing automaticity lessens the load on your working memory and helps you recall what you need during exams.

How can I increase the automaticity of my knowledge?

You can find facts in your long term memory and place them in your working memory without effort through constant and repeated retrieval, in other words practice. Professional sports people, trainee chefs and junior doctors know this. With practice, basic knowledge and skills no longer require working memory but become automatic, freeing your working memory to concentrate on a more advanced level of thinking. Practice makes memory long lasting and protects against forgetting. The implication for your studies is that you should recall and apply your target knowledge many times before you need to use it in an exam or other assessment of your performance. 

Why do we forget things? How can we make learning stick?

We forget the things that we do not regularly recall from our long term memory into our working memory. Conversely retrieving knowledge from memory has the effect of making that knowledge easier to call up again in the future. You can use retrieval as a learning strategy by testing yourself regularly on what you know. Repeated retrieval leads to automaticity in which knowledge and skills become reflexive; your brain acts before your mind has time to think. Retrieval practice has a significant positive impact on learning; multiple sessions of retrieval practice protect you from forgetting.

What is the relationship between studying and learning?

Learning can happen naturally and spontaneously but this process is not efficient enough for university level studies. Studying is the process of applying conscious mental effort to thinking about information in order to store it in the long term memory and to be able to retrieve it for use with a minimum of mental effort. The most common study techniques such as reading and highlighting key points are in fact highly inefficient.

So what are efficient study techniques for learning?

1. Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention: it is better to try to solve a problem than to simply memorize the solution.

2. Repeated retrieval makes memories more durable, more easily accessed, and easier to apply in a variety of situations.

3. Spaced out practice in several shorter sessions over several days or weeks is more efficient than retrieval practice concentrated in one or two long sessions (cramming the night before the exam).

4. Varied practice (switching between courses) is more efficient than just concentrating on one course at a time. Varied practice improves your ability to transfer learning from one domain and apply it successfully in another.

Source and for further information

Willingham, D. T. (2021). Why don’t students like school (2nd ed.). Wiley.