With “Learning,” Once is Not Enough

Recently, I presented a synopsis of a book that a number of folks in the audience had actually already read.  I know they would be there – I knew that they had read it.  The book was Mastering the Rockefeller Habits by Verne Harnish – a very good, and useful book.

These people in the audience who had read the book were coaches for the Gazelles organization.  These coaches are smart, helpful — they provide great value to their clients.

But here was the interesting thing:  after my synopsis, each of them said something like this:  “I didn’t remember that this was in the book” — and then they would refer to a specific point, or quote, that I included in the synopsis.

When I present a synopsis of a book to a second, or third, or fourth audience, I frequently have the same experience.  Even as I am speaking, I have an “I didn’t remember this was in this book” moment.

So, here is the problem.  We always have something new to read, to learn.  And we always have something we’ve already “learned” to “remember,” even “re-learn.”

Good news.  We’re not idiots – we’re normal.  This is one of the points made in this article about student’s learning habits from the NY Times: Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits by Benedict Carey.  Here’s the key excerpt:

Cognitive scientists do not deny that honest-to-goodness cramming can lead to a better grade on a given exam. But hurriedly jam-packing a brain is akin to speed-packing a cheap suitcase, as most students quickly learn — it holds its new load for a while, then most everything falls out.

“With many students, it’s not like they can’t remember the material” when they move to a more advanced class, said Henry L. Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s like they’ve never seen it before.”

When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.

No one knows for sure why. It may be that the brain, when it revisits material at a later time, has to relearn some of what it has absorbed before adding new stuff — and that that process is itself self-reinforcing.

“The idea is that forgetting is the friend of learning,” said Dr. Kornell (Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College and the lead author of the study). “When you forget something, it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it.”

The research is clear – reading/hearing something once is not enough.  You have to re-visit, re-ponder, re-learn over and over again.

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