The Fundamentals of Learning

“Repetitio est mater studiorum” – or “repetition is the mother of learning”. It’s an old Latin phrase that might be a little dusty, but it’s also one that captures a relevant insight into the mechanism through which we start learning new things. Think about acquiring a new language, for example: by repeating a new phrase over and over, we slowly crystallise it in our memory for future use.

Learning is a fundamental condition of human nature that we all engage in from birth. We learn perpetually throughout our lives, though the intensity may vary at different times. When learning a new language, we’re engaging with the content, imbibing information and solidifying it in an active and deliberate manner. Even when we might think that our minds have switched off - while watching an abysmal yet entertaining reality television series, perhaps - we’re still absorbing information and learning passively (albeit less intensely).

Still, learning the heavy content can prove challenging sometimes. So, then, how can we make it easier and learn more effectively? How can we not only absorb but retain information better? Fortunately, research explains how we can do just that – and it goes beyond mere repetition.

1. Learning in bursts

While in university, it might make sense to cram a semester’s worth of content into a single night before an exam. A tried-and-true strategy, it often gets the job done. But if we want to truly absorb and assimilate our learning long-term, one interrupted marathon is rarely the best solution. By incorporating breaks, we can learn an appropriately-sized chunk of content, take a pause to let it digest gradually, before then returning to learning. This is similar to the Pomodoro Technique, but without the strict 25-minute working block and 5-minute break timings. After all, you’re the best judge on how long you should spend on learning materials before pausing (depending on how engaged you are with the content, how difficult it is, and how many distractions there are around you, among other things).

While learning a new language, someone may learn a few new related verbs and their conjugations, before taking a break and then practising them in a sentence.

2. Triangulation and reflection

As an investigative journalist, it’s good practice to glean accounts from multiple sources rather than just one to build a more compelling and robust story. It’s much the same with learning; gathering complementary information from multiple sources, if possible, serves to corroborate our learning. This is called triangulation, a method in which we can validate our learning from various approaches. However if we learn information from one source and a second source conflicts with the first, we begin a process of reflection by which we question the content and engage with it on a deeper level. This, in turn, forces us to form our own understanding of the content, rendering that learning process more meaningful.

We could deepen our learning of a new language by both reading new phrases in text and listening to the same phrases in a podcast.

3. Making it real

Some of us may be conceptual thinkers, meaning abstract ideas are quite easily grasped. However, many people also need to transform these abstract ideas into something real to truly enhance that learning. Often, this could be reformulating content to make it personal to you, or even describing that content through use of metaphor. Imagery has been posited time and time again as a powerful tool with which we relate to and represent content.

We may benefit from translating vivid, personally meaningful events that we’ve experienced into that new language.

4. Teaching someone (or re-teaching yourself)

Explaining your newly learned content to someone else (or back to yourself) has consistently been demonstrated as one of the most effective techniques for bolstering that information. It forces you to transmit that new information in a clear way, often in your own words and reasoning. This, then, allows you to develop your own perspective of that content.

Simply teaching someone else some phrases or explaining the some of the grammatical nuances in that new language can strengthen our understanding.

So, try using these techniques next time you’re embarking on a new learning journey. It might begin with repetition, but the best learning occurs with deep engagement with the content.

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