Without the ability to learn, we would be a pretty useless species. The most exciting advances in artificial intelligence come from introducing the ability for machines to learn for themselves and apply that knowledge to future problems, because we know that advanced learning is a major turning point in human evolution. Some even worry that if robots learn too well, it could usher an intelligence explosion that signals the end of humanity. But machines and existential catastrophes aside, in our own little way, humans have been learning successfully for hundreds of thousands of years. We teach each other how to use new tools, from the most primitive hammers and knives, to the more remarkable modern tools at our disposal like smartphones. We also teach each other the rules for living in our societies, producing cultures within which we can develop functional laws and economic systems. Effective learning and knowledge-sharing is the ultimate path to prosperity.
The brain treats tasks during learning very differently to how it treats them after mastery. Take the example of learning to drive a car. On your first few lessons, driving a car is quite difficult. It requires you to learn several different motor skills, including adjusting foot pedals at the right time, shifting gears smoothly, keeping the steering accurate, and keeping your eyes on the mirrors. At the most demanding times, you have to do all of this at the same time. When you are unfamiliar with these tasks, you need to pay a lot of attention as you perform them. You may remember the utter exhaustion you felt after each of your early driving lessons as you walked back through the door of your home. This is not because driving a car is a physically strenuous activity. It is because of the draining mental effort you had to put into learning each of the new motor skills required to drive well, under the pressure of other more impatient and experienced drivers behind you.
The prefrontal cortex in your brain, an important area for learning new rules, was highly active when you were learning to drive. It is involved whenever you try to master a new task, and will sit behind much of your conscious effort and mental exhaustion during learning. When you become an experienced driver on the other hand, things are a little different. If you are a regular driver, you do not sit paying attention to the gear stick each time you shift it, or the timing of how you release your foot on the clutch pedal. At this stage of task mastery, your prefrontal cortex and effortful focus are no longer so involved while you perform the activity. Other areas including the striatum (a cluster of cells deeply buried under your cortex) and the deeper cells within your cerebellum (the “little brain” hanging off the rear underside of your big brain), can take over in running the activity “offline” for you (at least for motor learning). The task becomes more automated, and allows you to spend your spared mental energy thinking about how the cloud in the distance looks rather like an elephant, or how you should have phrased something differently during that argument earlier.
The principle of employing a lot of mental effort when learning something, and gradually reducing that effort as we become experts, is true across many types of learning. But can we make life easier for ourselves during that early stage of high mental effort?
For children learning to read and write, computers can be a hindrance, at least when it comes to recognizing letters. In one study, researchers took a group of 76 children aged 3–5 and trained half of them to copy letters of the alphabet by hand, and the other half to copy the letters by typing on a keyboard. After 3 weeks of learning, only the older children showed progress in recognizing letters in a test, but within that older group, those who learned through handwriting performed significantly better than those who learned through typing. When you write letters by hand, there are specific motor signals and movement-related sensory signals that come into play. Writing the letter X requires a very different manual action to writing the letter S, whereas typing the two letters on a keyboard requires practically identical actions. So when typing, you need to rely solely on the visual difference between the letters in distinguishing them (and perhaps a little on their different locations on a keyboard, but this is still limited compared to the actions required in handwriting).
The richer and more unique signals associated with written letters may therefore assist in learning them. Adults who are taught to handwrite new unseen characters also have a strong advantage in later recognizing those characters, compared to adults who learn the characters through typing. This advantage holds true even when the two groups see the letters for the same amount of time.
Handwriting rather than typing also happens to be good advice for university students. Students frequently take their laptops to class, with the excuse that they can search the internet for class-relevant material during class to aid their learning. However, perhaps surprisingly, class-related internet usage does not correlate with class performance, suggesting there is no real benefit to bringing that laptop to class. What’s more, perhaps unsurprisingly, irrelevant and nonacademic usage of the internet is common when students use their laptop in class. And the more they do this, the worse their class performance gets. So there you have it. Taking your laptop to class likely gives you little to no academic benefit, and the constant temptation to check Facebook, or examine the latest funny cat videos, gets in the way of effective learning.
There is one other important principle you may want to keep in mind when taking on a new learning challenge: testing works. Our school systems are built around exams at the end of the year that test your progress and potentially set you up for your later life. Although the high-pressure, now-or-never nature of exam grading has its painful downsides, you do learn more effectively by being tested. Imagine the following two scenarios:
Scenario 1: I give you a list of words to remember, and give you a couple of seconds per word to study them. 1 minute later, I repeat this exact study session. Finally, 5 minutes later, I run through these same two study sessions again with you.
Scenario 2: This starts the same way as Scenario 1 with a study session. But 1 minute later, instead of a repeat study session, I test you on the words, asking you to recall as many as you can. Finally, 5 minutes later, I run through the same study and test sessions again with you.
If I gave you an exam 2 days after each of the scenarios, testing how many words you could recall from the study list, the second scenario would likely provide you with the best performance. This is referred to as the testing effect in experimental psychology. Testing leads to more effortful processing of study material and stronger elaboration on the meaning of words. These positive benefits outweigh the advantage of seeing material for a longer time with additional study sessions.
So restudying alone seems like a mistake, but students often add to their woe by also cramming their study material into the last couple of days before a big exam. This style of massed study performs worse than spacing out your study sessions. If you really want to remember something over the long term, you should separate your study sessions of the material by days or even weeks. Give yourself a chance to process the material and consolidate your memories before jumping into another revision session. With cramming in quick succession, your brain is likely to habituate to your notes and become less effective at reinforcing existing connections.
Learning helps us to succeed and lead happier lives. It drives positive academic and career progress, along with a more fulfilling sense of accomplishment in everyday life. Whether we are trying to learn a new language, a new sport, or something new in history class, there are specific things we can do to make it easier for ourselves. Motivation is undoubtedly a major player in our ability to learn something new, but understanding how our brain facilitates learning can also give us an extra nudge towards success. So go ahead and get learning. But save yourself some pain by doing it the easy way.