How We Learn Stuff
Understanding how we learn stuff can make it easier for you to study.
Repetition and Association
Learning by Heart
There are two main ways of learning and every educational system makes use of both to varying degrees.. The first is repetition. This is the one we are familiar with in our early school days when we have to repeat things over and over to remember them or practise exercises and drills. Multiplication tables, spelling tests and so on. Constant repetition builds strong neural pathways.
It is also the learning of poetry and songs ‘by heart’. This kind of memory can be very durable which is why Alzheimer’s patients can often still remember songs and dances from their youth even if they cannot remember if they have eaten breakfast. The drawback to this kind of learning is that it does not stimulate meaningful thought processes. Being able to recite a poem from start to finish does not mean that you necessarily understand it. Some countries, particularly with fairly authoritarian governments, favour this kind of repetitive or rote learning as it produces impressive exam results while at the same time suppressing creative thought and individuality.
Learning Through Association
The other method of learning is by forming associations, using information like building blocks and building up knowledge over time by connecting facts. This is a more meaningful method of learning as you eventually understand what you are remembering and will know it to a far greater depth. This works two ways. The first is by creating artificial associations such as mnemonics to help you to remember a list of facts. Every good boy deserves favour is the one every music student learns.
Interactive and Immersive Learning
The second is by building on existing knowledge and associations. For example, if you are studying the French Revolution in history at school and at the same time read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens and see the film of ‘Les Miserables’, each helps you understand more about the other. Your understanding of the French revolution becomes deeper as you immerse yourself in the subject.
Of course, you still need to know your basic facts to pass the exams but because you actually understand what you are learning, you can think about it, express opinions on the subject and hold a discussion on the subject. This kind of learning encourages students to explore various topics, do their own research and become experts on it.
Good teachers try hard to engage their students’ interest because they know that a student who is interested in a subject will do better. It isn’t, however, just up to teachers. Students can do a lot to help themselves in this regard too. Read around a subject. Organise discussion groups with your friends. Interactive learning in this way builds those associations and is a far more organic way of learning than staring blindly at a textbook in panic as exam day looms.