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How We Really Learn

February 12, 2016
Dr. George Watts, Laurie Blazek


Think back to a time that you set a goal for yourself. You set out to improve personallyor professionally by taking an on-line or live course. You attempted to learn to play an instrument, train for a race or other sporting event, learn a foreign language or develop better patterns of eating, sleeping or exercising. How did it work out? Were you able to accomplish your goal? Did you successfully learn a new, complex skill and/or incorporate a permanent change in behavior into your daily life?

Many people with good intentions don’t reach the finish line. The question is why? Was it that you were just too busy to follow through? Was it a lack of accountability, motivation or laziness? Or, did you simply set the goal too high? It could be any or all of those things but it could also be something else.

Much scientific research has been conducted on how people learn and permanently change behavior. Here is a simple scenario. Suppose you attended a sixty-minute lecture and one week later you were tested on the material. Now, suppose you attended three, twenty-minute lectures with five minutes of down time between each lesson. Again, one week later, you were tested on the material. Under which scenario do you believe you would learn and retain the most information?

This experiment has already been conducted many times and the conclusion is always the same. People enjoy a twenty-minute chunked presentation more, recall more information immediately after and retain more information a month later. Your brain best absorbs information (builds new neural connections) in twenty-minute chunk learning. Learning is like physical exercise in the sense that you can only do so much before you must rest. Stretch your brain for twenty minutes, rest for five. Then stretch for another twenty minutes and rest for five…you get the idea. Anything more than about twenty minutes you get tired and distracted.

The research clearly shows that frequent breaks in learning improve mental agility. But here’s a key factor. Breaks must be mentally disengaging. Examples would be sitting quietly with your eyes closed at your desk, getting up and looking out the window at a great view, taking a walk or talking to a co-worker about an enjoyable topic unrelated to the learning. Going onto Facebook, checking text messages or watching television are not disengaging, i.e., you are not relaxing your brain.

Another factor in successfully learning complex skills or creating permanent behavioral change is the total length of time you are being trained. Do you think you would be more successful learning a language or sport over a three-day intensive immersion or over a three to four-month period of time? Would a 30-hour course taught over three days be more effective than the same course spread out over 3 to 4 months taught in 20 minute increments? The answer is obvious. It is not what is taught that is critical. It is how its taught and what you’ve learned that is critical!

Henry David Thoreau intuitively understood what a neural super highway is. He said “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives”.

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