How do adults learn? – Methods for sustainable learning
Permanent access to what we learnt is granted if the information we absorb is transferred from short to long-term memory. Everyone knows this is not always successful: While most people remember their best friend’s birthday or their own wedding day, fewer remember their passwords or phone numbers especially those that are on speed dial in the phone. Whether we can remember something depends on what and how we learn. The following article presents methods that enable sustainable learning.
What do we forget and how quickly
Family life, professional and private appointments, smartphone messages, social media … – our brain has to process many stimuli and information every day. In the previous article of this series, you learned that these impressions are absorbed by the ultra-short term memory, which works like a filter: While important information is passed on to the short-term memory, unimportant information is filtered out directly. After only a few seconds this information is no longer retrievable. One reason for this is that the short-term memory – also known as the working memory – has only a limited capacity. After 15 to 20 minutes it needs a break. Then it can again store new information.
Filtering information has of course also consequences for the learning process. If you try to learn something new, this unfortunately does not automatically mean that you are successful. This is confirmed in various studies:
- Probably the best known examination on forgetting comes from the psychologist Herrmann Ebbinghaus. In 1885, in self-experiments, he learned meaningless words and sentences by heart and tested how long he could remember them:
- In 1990, Christian Michel and Felix Novak investigated whether the category of the learning content has any influence on the forgetting process. They assessed what their subjects memorised after 30 days and came to the conclusion that principles and regularities can be remembered particularly well. Similarly, poems and prose are also well remembered, whereas meaningless syllables are almost all forgotten after a month:
- In 2014, Spiegel Online, a German news portal, investigated how well eight students can remember the vocabulary of a foreign language. The test persons were given the task of learning 100 Danish words – a language that none of them was familiar with. To memorise the words, they used different learning methods. After an hour, it was checked how many of the learnt vocabulary they remembered. The result: Out of a total of 26 words, the students were able to reproduce 19 to 24 correctly. The number of correctly recalled words depended on the learning method used. Most of the words could be recalled correctly by students who associated the vocabulary with images, or who memorised the vocabulary with the help of association phrases.
Different conclusions can be drawn from the three studies: While the first shows that we cannot remember everything we learn, the second study demonstrates that the learning content matters for our memory processes. The third study comes to the conclusion that our memory can be improved when using the right learning method. Reason for us to take a closer look at the different learning methods. In the following section, you will get to know which methods support sustainable learning.
Sustainable learning #1: Repetition and application
Unused knowledge is not retained permanently in long-term memory. If you want to remember new information sustainably, you have to repeat and apply it. Repetitions signal the brain that the repeated information is needed. Furthermore, it is important to look at the learning content from different perspectives. This way a neuronal network is created which strengthens memory performance and the ability to remember. The following diagram shows what happens to the forgetting curve when the learning content is repeated several times using different exercises:
If you want to learn something efficiently, for example the vocabulary of a new foreign language, you have to repeat it regularly. While short intervals are important in the beginning, you can later take more and more time between the individual repetition phases to retain the learning content in long-term memory.
A good way of repeating is to apply what you have learned. Regular practice is essential, for instance, when you want to learn how to use a computer program. The same applies to soft skills: It is not enough to practice in theory. You also need to try them out practically and integrate them into your everyday life to get accustomed to it and to consolidate new behaviours.
Sustainable learning #2: Mnemonics
One of the oldest methods to remember words and objects is mnemonics. It was invented in ancient Greece more than 2000 years ago. Mnemonics work with memory aids, such as rhymes, rhythms, memorising sentences or visualisations. With their help, it is easier to store and retrieve information in the long-term memory.
No matter which mnemonics you use: Practice makes perfect. No technique will work ad hoc. But the more often you apply the methods, the easier it will be for you to learn.
1. The loci technique
Probably the best known mnemonics is the loci technique. This can be used in everyday life, for example to remember the shopping list. But it is also suitable for memorising facts that are difficult to remember.
- A good start into this method is to associate body parts with the terms to be learned. You can remember the products you want to buy by imagining your arm is a leek or your leg is a chicken leg, etc.
If you want to learn more facts than there are body parts available, you can also memorise the learning content with the help of a route that you follow in your mind. For example, you can imagine a room and associate the learning content with prominent points in it.
- Imagine, for example, a room in your apartment. Then imagine to walk through it, and associate prominent points with the items from your shopping list. In the supermarket you can then think about the room again and walk the chosen route in your mind to remember the respective learning content
The method “memory palace” works similarly. With this learning method you mentally create a place where you keep the things you want to remember. In contrast to the loci technique, however, you do not follow a specific path, but rather place the things you want to remember in different rooms.
2. Memorising sets and acronyms
It is often easier to memorise terms if you link them to sentences. The sentences you use should be easy to remember. This can be achieved, for example, by using rhymes or by forming sentences in which the words begin with the same initial letters as the terms you want to remember.
- The sequence of the planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) is easier to remember with the sentence “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos.”
- With the sentence “How I wish I could recollect pi easily today.” you can remember the first nine digits of Pi (3.14159265) using the number of letters per word.
Another method to remember information is to create acronyms, i.e. abbreviations formed from initial letters of several words. This way you can memorise a single word in which each letter stands for an important piece of information.
- To help students remember the names of the five Great Lakes of North America, they can use the acronym “HOMES”: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior.
- You can remember how to set your goals with the help of the term”SMART” = Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant, Time bound.
3. Mnemonic tricks
Mnemonic tricks can be based on language, stories or images.
- While stalagmites grow up from the ground, stalagtites hang from the ceiling. This difference can be remembered by giving stalagtites the property “tired”: stalagtites are tired and therefore hang from the ceiling to rest.
- The African continent is larger than the subcontinent of India. The ears of African elephants are larger than those of Indian elephants.
4. Visualisation of learning content
Another good way to learn content sustainably is to link it with images.
- To learn how to count in Japanese, you can link numbers to images that you associate with vocabulary and phonetic words:
5. Memory stories
In memory stories, the content to be learned is embedded in a story you made up. The more memorable and creative the story, the easier it is to remember it. You can either include the terms directly in the story or use their initial letters.
- To remember the countries of South America, a possible story could begin like this: “Arnold (Argentina) is eating chilies (Chile) for lunch. After work he is bowling (Bolivia) with his colleagues. Unfortunately, later he forgets his car in the parking lot (Paraguay) …”.
Sustainable Learning #3: Storytelling
Another method for sustainable learning is storytelling. In contrast to memory stories, this is the telling of a (personally) experienced story by the teacher, the learners immerse into to understand the context. Stories create images in our minds that trigger feelings of compassion, sadness, happiness or fear, for instance. In addition, stories are entertaining, captivating, and can lead to individual insights. Storytelling can also mean explaining a complex topic simply by using analogies. This triggers associations that enhance the imagination and / or empathy of the listener or reader.
All this makes the learning process particularly sustainable since it addresses emotions. If learning content has an emotional value, it can be easily transferred from short-term to long-term memory. The reason for this is that the hippocampus, which is the connection between these two parts of our brain, functions like a filter that is particularly permeable to emotions. That is why we find it easier to learn when we are enthusiastic about a topic than when we are not interested in it.
Conclusion and outlook
You see that there are various methods for sustainable learning. It is, however, important that you find a method that you personally like and that makes you learn easily and successfully. In the next article of this series you will learn how we at ICON use our knowledge on sustainable learning for our e-learnings.
Have you already found a method for efficient learning? Or do you have further tips that contribute to sustainable learning? Please share them with us in the comments. We are looking forward to your feedback on this topic.