We’ve only begun to scratch the surface here of the many variables that affect the quality and content of learning (Mullin, Herrmann, & Searleman, 1993). But even within this brief examination of the differences between people and the activities they engage in can we see some basic principles of the learning process.
The value of effective metacognition
To be able to guide our own learning effectively, we must be able to evaluate the progress of our learning accurately and choose activities that enhance learning efficiently. It is of little use to study for a long time if a student cannot discern between what material she has or has not mastered, and if additional study activities move her no closer to mastery. Metacognition describes the knowledge and skills people have in monitoring and controlling their own learning and memory. We can work to acquire better metacognition by paying attention to our successes and failures in estimating what we do and don’t know, and by using testing often to monitor our progress.
Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense to talk about whether a particular encoding activity is good or bad for learning. Rather, we can talk about whether that activity is good for learning as revealed by a particular test. For example, although reading words for meaning leads to better performance on a test of recall or recognition than paying attention to the pronunciation of the word, it leads to worse performance on a test that taps knowledge of that pronunciation, such as whether a previously studied word rhymes with another word (Morris, Bransford, & Franks, 1977). The principle of transfer-appropriate processing states that memory is “better” when the test taps the same type of knowledge as the original encoding activity. When thinking about how to learn material, we should always be thinking about the situations in which we are likely to need access to that material. An emergency responder who needs access to learned procedures under conditions of great stress should learn differently from a hobbyist learning to use a new digital camera.
The value of forgetting
In order to not forget things, we employ a variety of tricks (like scribbling a quick note on your hand). However, if we were unable to forget information, it would interfere with learning new or contradictory material. [Image: Andrea Maria Cannata, https://goo.gl/ylTbGG, CC BY-NC 2.0, https://goo.gl/qOP7mj]
Forgetting is sometimes seen as the enemy of learning, but, in fact, forgetting is a highly desirable part of the learning process. The main bottleneck we face in using our knowledge is being able to access it. We have all had the experience of retrieval failure—that is, not being able to remember a piece of information that we know we have, and that we can access easily once the right set of cues is provided. Because access is difficult, it is important to jettison information that is not needed —that is, to forget it. Without forgetting, our minds would become cluttered with out-of-date or irrelevant information. And, just imagine how complicated life would be if we were unable to forget the names of past acquaintances, teachers, or romantic partners.
But the value of forgetting is even greater than that. There is lots of evidence that some forgetting is a prerequisite for more learning. For example, the previously discussed benefits of distributing practice opportunities may arise in part because of the greater forgetting that takes places between those spaced learning events. It is for this reason that some encoding activities that are difficult and lead to the appearance of slow learning actually lead to superior learning in the long run (Bjork, 2011). When we opt for learning activities that enhance learning quickly, we must be aware that these are not always the same techniques that lead to durable, long-term learning.