Learning How to Learn

The New York Times reported a study in Science that found that testing yourself on material you have learned is a good way to improve retention. Then they published a set of letters about it.

John Taylor Gatto, whose books I like, wrote:

Real learning is measured only by utility, by application. In the case of this research, the success claimed for practice testing is being measured by further testing — not by any real-world application.So what? Nobody should care whether memorization is enhanced by practice testing or not.

I disagree. Every day I study Chinese. A lot of that study is memorization, such as what characters mean. Learning what the characters mean while studying in my apartment really does help me understand what they mean out in the world. I care a lot how to memorize better.

A Pace University professor and “director of learning assessment” wrote:

Studying, not test taking, is the key to learning. . . .Testing, particularly standardized testing, does nothing to enhance knowledge and hinders the development of an appreciation for learning that should begin in school and last a lifetime.

I couldn’t disagree more. After I have studied Chinese, frequently testing myself on what I’ve learned  turns out to be essential to long-term retention. Without those tests — say, daily for a week, and less often after that — I forget what I’ve learned.

Standardized testing is especially helpful because it helps me see what works and what doesn’t work. It makes it easier to compare various conditions, in other words.

“Development of an appreciation for learning that should begin in school . . . ” Should? I enjoyed learning long before I started school.

It has taken me a few years to figure out how to learn Chinese. Now I think I am on the right track but these letters illustrate what my self-experimentation also taught me: Experts say the darndest things.

6 Replies to “Learning How to Learn”

  1. “an appreciation for learning that should begin in school and last a lifetime.”
    That sentence is so wrong that it could nearly only come from someone who’s blinded by thinking academically.
    All young children have a appreciation for learning. It’s school that kills the appreciation instead of school that creates the appreciation.

  2. I don’t understand the distinction they make between studying and testing. When you take a vocabulary test, you’re presented with some words and attempt to define/translate them. When you study vocabulary using flash cards, you look at a vocabulary word and attempt to define/translate it. So studying is often already a kind of testing.

  3. David, in a classroom the difference is pretty obvious: students are taking a test or they aren’t. With flash cards, I agree, you can hardly study them without testing yourself. But there are many other ways to study Chinese besides flash cards. When it comes to Chinese, the learn-by-testing advice isn’t trivial. Should I spend 20 minutes staring at lists of English words and their Chinese counterparts, should I spend 20 minutes copying characters, should I spend 20 minutes listening to a tape, or should I spend 20 minutes testing myself?

  4. Thanks for mentioning that, Justin. I was curious who runs the Mnemosyne Project but couldn’t figure it out from the website. That they are collecting memory data makes it seem like an academic project — something done by a professor somewhere.

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