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Why we fail to use the best learning techniques

person struggling to study

If you google ‘good study techniques’, you’ll quickly run into two things: spaced repetition and active recall. My original plan for this article was to write how the techniques work, and why you should use them. But there’s already tonnes of material out there for that. I particularly like these two videos from Ali Abdaal (and wish his recent videos were more like this). So I’m not going to waste time repeating it.

Instead I got to wondering why we fail to use the best learning techniques, even when we’re entirely convinced we’ll achieve more by using them. I’m guilty myself. I’ve wasted hours trying to learn languages from reading books, passively listening to language podcasts, and scrolling through vocab lists. Even though I know I can learn quicker if I do it properly.

Thankfully there are lots of ways we can take advantage of how our brains work to make ourselves use better techniques, even in the face of these obstacles. In this article, I’ll go through the problems we have in sticking to effective learning strategies, and how we can beat them.

Why we don’t learn as well as we should

The reasons why we fail to use the best learning techniques are similar to the reasons we fail to do anything we know is good for us. We could say similar things about why we don’t work out more, eat well, or save more money for the future. But here’s how they apply to learning specifically, and how you can combat them.

Problem 1: They have higher up-front costs, and the gains are in the future

Setting up a system to do spaced repetition requires a bit of work up front – even if that’s just downloading software like Anki and using someone else’s decks. Making your own flashcards and learning how the software works is a whole new level of effort. Reading through a chapter of a textbook requires no advance preparation, and even taking notes on it requires less effort than actually creating something new.

When costs are obvious and immediate, but the benefits are far off and intangible, it’s hard to get ourselves motivated.

Solution 1: Make your set up a slow burn rather than a heavy lift

Don’t try to set up your whole system for spaced repetition in a single day. You could start with a handful of flashcards, either that you’ve made yourself, or that you’ve got from someone’s Anki deck. There are loads of good, free software options available, which means you don’t have to spend hours making paper cards.

You can also try adding a few cards each day on top of practising the ones you’ve already made. Over time, you’ll build a big deck without making it seem like a huge task to get started.

This also helps avoid the feeling of having to do things perfectly, and stopping when you have your first failure. Building up gradually gets you in the habit of succeeding, and makes each ‘repetition’ less daunting.

Solution 1.1: Give yourself intermediate rewards

Most things worth striving towards have rewards that are far in the future – sometimes years away. So a good way of reinforcing your studying is by giving yourself intermediate rewards. These can be as basic as creating a to do list or plan, and crossing things off. You can also use things like habit trackers. Or you could ‘allow’ yourself a pleasurable treat when you’ve completed a certain number of ‘reps’. The reward is up to you.

Problem 2: It’s hard to change ‘bad’ study habits

Changing deeply-ingrained habits is hard. If your schooling was anything like mine, you got into a lot of ineffective habits that are hard to shake.

Solution 2: Use implementation intentions

Understanding how habits work can help. I recommend reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits. But as a shortcut, I like using implementation intentions and social pressure.

Implementation intentions is just a fancy name for committing to doing something. Having the idea of using better study techniques usually isn’t enough. Writing a plan down increases the likelihood you’ll follow through, especially if you mark in a calendar exactly when you’ll do it.

Solution 2.1: Use social pressure

Telling others what you’re going to do can make it more likely you’ll do it. You can also arrange to study with someone, so you know you’ll be letting them down if you don’t do it. If you’re struggling, you might even want to go to the extreme of paying a forfeit if you don’t follow through on your commitment. These can be especially helpful if you’re not usually bothered about studying hard, but social pressure is motivating for you.

Solution 2.2: Set reminders

We might just forget, rather than deliberately miss a session. Thankfully, technology doesn’t forget. Spaced repetition software usually has notifications to remind you to do your learning. Or, as above, put your learning in your calendar and stick to the schedule.

Problem 3: We’re good at doing low-energy tasks for a long time, but bad at doing high-energy tasks for a short time

Doing spaced repetition is a bit like high-intensity interval training (HIIT). You run your arse off for twenty minutes, rather than doing a slow jog on the treadmill for an hour. Most people find it harder to do the intense stuff, because you know it’s going to hurt.

Solution 3: Break your studying down into even smaller chunks

Whatever chunk of time you give yourself for ‘traditional’ studying, you’ll want to make it smaller for active recall sessions, which are more cognitively demanding. I like to use the Pomodoro Technique for this (25m work, with a 5m break), but you can go as small as 5m. If you’re using a software tool, change the settings so you only have to do a little bit each day at the start.

Problem 4: We’re tired when we come to do the learning

If you don’t have good sleep, diet and exercise, chances are you’ll struggle to have the energy for the most effective learning strategies. These techniques do require higher bursts of energy, but if you’re not capable of them because of poor habits elsewhere in life, you’ll likely default to less efficient ways of learning.

Solution 4: Plan your learning for when your energy is highest

We all have times in the day when we’ve got more or less energy. It’s affected by your chronotype i.e. whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, but also things like food intake and exercise habits. Finding when you have most energy, and planning your short, intense bursts of learning for these times can help. You can also do your learning just before sleep to help consolidate your memory.

Solution 4.1: Consider how important your learning is to you

It’s easy to say “sort out your sleep, diet and exercise and your learning will be better”, but that’s a whole set of separate topics. The fact is, we don’t always prioritise those things because they’re not as important to us as having a good time in the moment. What is worth remembering here is that every time you sacrifice these things, you’re also sacrificing your learning.

As a student, I often made the choice to sacrifice sleep, diet and exercise, telling myself that I could make it up by working through the tiredness. But there’s always a cost. Could I have been better off overall with 10% fewer nights out? Almost certainly. Sitting down and reflecting on your values, rather than deciding what you want to do in the moment (when you’ll be biased towards present pleasure) is a good way of doing this.

Problem 5: Our educational culture is built around the old methods

In school, you’re primarily taught through textbooks and big chunks of reading material. You have a syllabus of information you’re expected to know, and you get marks for how well you know it. University (at least for arts subjects) is built around lectures and book reading. So it’s understandable that we go through these dense materials with a highlighter and make notes. It’s the intuitive way of breaking down the information.

Solution 5: Turn old materials into new methods

There’s little one person can do to change the whole educational culture. If your university syllabus is essentially a long list of books, like mine was, then it’s harder to take advantage of the best methods for learning.

But you can still use flashcards to learn quotes from books, important arguments, and chunks of important content you can include in essays. Instead of slavishly making notes on dry lectures, you can make a list of questions the lecturer is trying to answer. Then, at the end of the lecture, write down everything you remember for each question. Most lectures are online these days, so you can fill in any gaps later.

Problem 6: We forget what a big difference these techniques make

Although we might read the science on why it’s better to use spaced repetition and active recall, that information isn’t at the forefront of our minds when we come to study. At university, I would spend time trying to sharpen my study skills, but wouldn’t always make plans for how I would implement that learning.

When it comes to doing the work itself, we slip into old habits unless we deliberately try otherwise. It’s not like we consider the best technique and choose not to do it – rather, we forget to think about how to do it at all.

Solution 6: Remind yourself of the evidence

The evidence in favour of spaced repetition and active recall is strong, so it’s worthwhile reminding yourself of that from time-to-time. A particular favourite of mine is this graph, taken from Dunlosky et al (2013):

We can see that – at least in these experiments – students who did practice tests did more than 50% better1 than those who re-studied. Why not try printing that off, and sticking it next to wherever you do your learning?

Solution 6.1: Build your new techniques into a system

If you want to remember something, it helps to build it into a system you’re already using. For instance, you could have a recurring weekly calendar appointment that says ‘do practice test’ for the exam you’re working towards. You’ll won’t have to remember the effective learning technique, because you’ll see it in your calendar.

Problem 7: We give up whenever we miss one practice session

Because we know how powerful these study techniques can be, we think we should be applying them to the maximum. When we first learn of them, we often want to change everything about how we’ve studied for years.

But doing anything 100% perfectly is draining, and unsustainable for most of us. So when we first slip up and don’t use the technique we should be using, or have a day of defaulting to bad habits, we throw the baby out with the bathwater and decide to give up on the better methods entirely.

Solution 7: Reframe the techniques as a tool, rather than an obligation

Once you learn of a better way to learn, it can be easy – logical even – to think you should be doing all your study like that. But that creates a pressure that is counter-productive, especially if it means you aim for 100% perfection but give up when the system breaks down.

If instead you think of the techniques as tools to help you when you feel like using them, that’s still an improvement on what you were doing beforehand. It’s better to use a tool 30% of the time for a month that it is to use it five times and then never touch it again. Progress is more important than perfection.

And remember if you miss a session you plan to do, don’t beat yourself up, but focus on not missing the next one.

Problem 8: Anxiety around studying makes us make bad decisions

Especially when you’re at school, and there isn’t much to measure you by in life apart from your grades, it’s easy to mistake your mark in a test for your worth as a human. This can make you anxious when it comes to studying for those tests. When we’re anxious, we’re more likely to default to the easy and the tried-and-tested, rather than a new and more challenging tactic. That’s even when you know the new technique will likely lead to better results.

If you don’t have any level of anxiety about your studying, then you won’t be motivated to try something new that requires more effort in the short term. This probably doesn’t apply to most people, but if you’ve always succeeded with less effective strategies, or you don’t think academic success is important, then there’s little immediate reason to change.

Solution 8: Reduce your anxiety with meditation and journalling

Writing down your fears about studying is likely to reduce them, as it changes them from something that’s part of you, to something that you can articulate and put onto a page. There is some evidence that meditation reduces anxiety, and it may also improve your focus when studying. You can also try reframing your anxiety as a positive: it shows you care and are motivated to do well.

These things are not a substitute for getting professional help if you’re suffering from poor mental health. If that’s the case, working on your mental health is probably the best thing you can do to succeed at learning.

Problem 9: Fear of failure

You can’t fail at underlining, but you can fail at active recall (or at least it seems like you’re failing, even if you’re actually learning more). And failure is never nice. So by keeping within your comfort zone, you don’t have to face failure, and the prospect that you might fail in whatever important exam you have coming up.

Solution 9: Remember that failure is how we learn

The research on active recall suggests that it’s struggling to retrieve items from your memory that actually helps encode them. And if you’re struggling to recall them, you’re bound to fail from time-to-time. If you aren’t doing, you haven’t made it hard enough for yourself. Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking explains how it is failure that drives us forward as a species, and how fear of failure holds us back in many areas.

Problem 10: Self-sabotage

Some people deliberately don’t study hard, so that they have an excuse if they don’t do well. If this doesn’t apply to you, then I’m sure you’ll know someone who does it. Self-sabotage is a perverse way of protecting your ego – when you do fail, you can tell yourself it’s not because you aren’t smart, but because you didn’t try hard.

Solution 10: Remember that talent isn’t that important

It’s becoming widely acknowledged that most people we regard as talented actually put in a lot of graft. There are lots of case studies, from Tiger Woods to The Beatles that show that true greats all had plenty of practice, as well as innate gifts2. So telling yourself that never failing shows that you’re talented is, well, bullshit. See also Solution 9.

Problem 11: It sounds harder than it is

Setting up a whole system and following it with the perfect spacing seems difficult. And there are initial set up costs, and effort involved in active recall. But the scientific language around these concepts can make it sound harder than it actually is.

Solution 11: Commit to trying it, and giving up if you don’t like it

More times than not, if you get started on something, you’ll build some momentum and be able to carry on without much effort. Objects in motion stay in motion. So to get started, try committing to just a short session. Again, setting a time budget can be useful to make the first go less daunting.

It’s worth remembering you don’t need to use these techniques perfectly, or for all your learning. Chances are you’ll still do miles better using them a little bit than you would reading through notes. It can also be useful to think of it as being like a shortcut, or a way of studying less, rather than studying harder. Most people don’t want to work harder, but we all want to work smarter.

Conclusion

Of course, the best thing you can do to stay on track with using spaced repetition and active recall is to come back to this article and remind yourself of these tactics. It might be the best thing you ever do for your learning!

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Footnotes

  1. i.e. an increase of 50% or more on the scores attained by the restudy group
  2. See Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Matthew Syed’s Bounce. You don’t have to buy into the 10,000 hours rule to see that talent is not solely genetic.