[00:00:19.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than three million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode, we discuss a highly counter-intuitive approach to learning that flies in the face of the way you think you should learn and how it might transform your learning process. We explore several powerful evidence-based learning strategies that you can start to apply right now in your life. We explain why you should focus on getting knowledge out of your brain instead of into it and what exactly that means. We share a number of powerful memory strategies that you can use to supercharge your brain and much more with our guest, Peter Brown.
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In our previous episode, we discussed the incredibly important thing that everyone, including you gets wrong about presence. We explored how to prime yourself for the best performance in the moments of pressure and high-stakes situations where other people are watching and judging you. We looked at the results from thousands of experiments over the last few decades to uncover the fascinating truth about power and powerlessness.
We shared the exact strategy you can use to shift your brain into the mode that allows you to view the world as more friendly, helps you feel more creative and makes you into someone who takes action. We dug deep into all of this and much more with our previous guest, Dr. Amy Cuddy. If you want to face the hardest moments of your life with a sense of power and confidence, listen to that episode.
Now, for our interview with Peter.
[0:03:13.0] MB: Peter is a bestselling author and novelist. He's the author of five books, including Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Peter's work turns traditional learning techniques on their head and draws from recent discoveries in cognitive psychology to offer concrete techniques for becoming a more productive learner. His work has been featured in The New York Times, the American Public Radio, The New Yorker and much more.
Peter, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:36.9] PB: Hey, Matt. I’m really happy to be here with you. Thank you.
[0:03:39.6] MB: Well, we're very excited to have you on the show. Obviously, you chose a great title for the book, being very similar to the title of the podcast. As somebody who's a novelist, I'm really curious how you came to write a book about the applications of cognitive psychology to learning.
[0:03:56.1] PB: Yeah. It seems an odd choice, but I've always been a guy who was interested in learning new things. I was between writing projects and meeting with my brother-in-law who’s name is Roddy Roediger, Henry Roediger. He’s a internationally acclaimed cognitive psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis.
He was getting at the end of 10 years leading a group of his colleagues at different universities in a series of empirical studies into what teaching and learning strategies need to better retention of the new material. Roddy's filled his memory. He was telling me that what they had found over this decade of research, which of course is built on prior research and so forth was non-intuitive. It suggests that most of us go about learning in the wrong way if we follow our intuition.
He just caught my attention. He said, “We're trying to figure out how to get this research out to a broad audience.” We decided to collaborate. The third author is one of his colleagues and other cognitive psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis, Mark McDaniel. The three of us set out to capture the findings from this large body of scientific research in a form that was highly anecdotal and engaging, so we could get it to a broad public audience. That's how I got into it.
I think Jerry Jeff Walker once said, there's some driveways in life you just have to back out of with your lights off. I wasn't sure when I got into this writing this science book if this might be one of those driveways for me, but actually it turned out well. That's how I got into it. I had to learn the science well enough to be able to elaborate on it, describe it and so forth. It was a great opportunity for me, both to learn about learning and to actually experience it again in tackling something unfamiliar.
[0:05:51.5] MB: Let's begin with the two or three biggest ideas that came out about learning and then we'll dive into each of those and do a little bit more deep digging.
[0:05:59.9] PB: Yeah, that's a great idea. Most of us intuitively think that learning is about getting knowledge and skills into the brain. If you weren't learning to stick, really the challenge is practice at getting learning out of the brain. When you encounter something new, it takes hours or days for that new knowledge to move into your brain and get consolidated into long-term memory. That process, if you could cause that consolidation to happen from time to time, it really pulls forward the most important information that connects it to what you already know.
The act of wrestling with the material by trying to explain to someone else, retrieving it from memory, that's what builds learning that sticks. The big idea number one is, about getting it out and not about getting it in. Correspondingly, a second really big idea in this book is that we want to try to make learning easy, we want to make material very clear, easy to understand. It turns out that when learning is easy, it doesn't stick. You think it will, because it seems obvious, but there are some kinds of difficulties that feel like they slow it down and you feel like I'm not getting it.
They cause you to wrestle with the material in ways that actually strengthen its connections to what you know and deepens your grasp of it and makes it stick. That's a second big idea that some kinds of faculties are desirable. Not all kinds, but some kinds and I could talk more about that. For me, at the end of several years of working through this, the third big idea for me is that intuition leads us astray.
When we go to the golf course and try to hone our 20-foot putt, we hit that 20-foot putt over and over until we feel we've got it, we made it stick. When we're reading a chapter on preparing for an exam, we reread that over and over and memorize the phrases and so forth. Even if we do well on an exam, shortly after in both of those examples, the learning doesn't stick. It builds on short-term memory in the case of golf – the golf course, it hasn't been consolidated, but your intuition says, “I've got it. When I come back, I'm going to be able to do well.”
Whereas, if you mix up your 20-foot putt with other strokes and then have to come back and try it again and recall from memory what was it about this 20-foot putt, that effort, your performance is clunky and you walk off the course thinking maybe you're not getting it. When you come back actually, you have more improvement because that retrieval practice and mixing up a practice has caused the learning to be consolidated better.
You cannot just rely on what feels constructive if you're either in athletics, or any motor skills, or semantic learning, the kind that we do in classrooms. That's a problem, because students often end up, or any learner often ends up with faulty judgment of what they know and can do.
[0:09:10.8] MB: The upshot of that ideas is this notion that oftentimes what feels like we're learning the most can actually be sabotaging, or learning, or that we're not learning as much and yet, when we often feel we're not learning because it's challenging or difficult or we're doing lots of things at once, we may actually be building richer and better memories. Is that correct?
[0:09:31.3] PB: That's exactly correct. Anybody who spent a length of time in a foreign country struggling to master a language they're not familiar with in various settings, in getting that panicky feeling and embarrassment, ultimately will find themselves in an unexpected situation where they're speaking rather fluently. They’re maybe using some idioms that didn't even know they knew, because of this ragged, patchy, difficult way of wrestling with the problem.
One of the great things about being a human being is the brain is wired to wrestle with this stuff once you've engaged it in the problem. When you attempt something that's difficult, your brain will continue to work on that problem while you sleep. The big issue is to engage in it in a way that's mentally rigorous. Then to give your brain some time to work on it and come back to it at another time and that's up. It's not intuitive, but it is highly effective.
[0:10:29.7] MB: Before we dig into each of these buckets a little bit more, I want to understand how memory is created and stored. Can you tell me a little bit about that process, how it goes from short-term memory to long-term memory and how the hippocampus gets involved and how our lack of understanding of that can often confuse what we think is effective learning from what really is?
[0:10:49.6] PB: Right. Yeah. The hippocampus is the portion of the brain where memory is formed, but it's stored in various parts of the brain depending on whether it's a motor skill, or semantic learning, that the actual physiology is something that neuroscience is helping us understand that right now. I mean, there's a tremendous amount yet to be learned. The cognitive psychologists know from the evidence of the studies if you do this, the following things will happen.
How it happens in the brain, we're still learning. It seems to be like this that you encounter some new knowledge or skill, the experience of it is laid into your hippocampus and what's called traces, memory traces. The brain tries to make sense of those traces. It fills out gaps, tries to figure out how it connects to what you already know. Any new learning can't be learned if you can't connect it to something you already know. That's part of this process of rehearsal that goes on in the brain with new information and the movement and connection of that into other parts of the brain.
Now memory has a couple of components; one component is the knowledge of skill is connected through your neurons, to other pieces of knowledge that you have. The more connections you can make to current knowledge, the more thoroughly embedded the new skill or knowledge will be in your brain.
There's another aspect to memory and that is your ability to find it later when you want to recall it. There are many things that have happened to you in your past from addresses you've lived at, or phone numbers you have that you can't bring up quickly. Given the right prompt, some of these things will come to the floor in your mind. That's the fact of the memory still being in there, but the retrieval cues not being there.
When we're learning something new, what we're trying to do is engage with the material enough so that this help the brain figure out what are the key ideas and go through, give it time over night, over days to consolidate and get connected to other stuff, elaborate on it, how is this like, what I already know and so forth.
Then to try to connect it as broadly to current knowledge and associate with it other vivid memory cues that might be visual cues. There's times perhaps when you've been talking with a friend and you wanted to remark on something you heard from another friend and you're trying to place where it was, who was that. Then you'll see it was in a such-and-such restaurant and boom, that visual of being at that table in the corner brings back, “Oh, that was Larry who told me this and Larry such and such, so he's an authority.” Anyway, if you get my drift there, it's the idea of attaching to new learning, the kinds of cues that will help bring it forward later.
[0:13:52.1] MB: That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about learning in memory, which is the more you know, the more you can know, right? There's this idea that our brains don't get full of knowledge. In fact, the more information you have, the more relevant connections you can connect different pieces of information and actually make recall easier, make it easier to understand and plug into existing frameworks and mental models that you have for understanding other spheres of influence and knowledge.
[0:14:18.4] PB: You have that exactly right, Matt. I mean, you can think of it in your own life building Lego blocks, or playing Scrabble, or getting involved in a new sport, biking and learning how to fix your bike. The more you know, the more you can add to that knowledge. One of the great things about complex sophisticated knowledge is you begin to construct these mental models, which you'll become almost unaware of.
For example, when you start out learning to drive a car, I have to learn about adjusting the mirrors, you have to learn about adjusting the seat and your seatbelt, of course and how you start it and where you look when you pull away and signaling your turns, all that stuff. Actually, it's a very complex set of things you have to remember to do, but after a while, you never give it another thought. You hop in the car, you do those things, off you go, your mind’s on where you're going and what you're going to do when you get there. That's a mental model, that driving is a mental model.
Now if you land in another country where they drive on the other side of the road, you suddenly become aware again of all these things that you're doing without thinking about them that have to be done differently. The idea here is as you say, building these mental models, adding more knowledge to them, understanding how they relate, it opens the world to other learning.
[0:15:42.3] MB: You also touched on visual and spatial memory and how that can help enrich our memories and make things more memorable. I've done a lot of work and research around that area personally and implemented some of those strategies in my life. I'm curious if in your work you came across things like memory palaces, mind maps, visual markers, any of these strategies and what you uncovered or discovered about them.
[0:16:04.2] PB: Yes. My co-author Roddy Roediger actually heads up a competition among super memory athletes, in which has been sponsored by pharmaceutical company doing research into memory. There is in the book Make it Stick chapter, that talks a lot about these mnemonic devices.
The main idea here is that a mnemonic advice, a simple mnemonic device is for memorizing the Great Lakes is Homes, H-O-M-E-S. It gives you here on Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior. An even better one I learned from a friend in Australia, he was taught as a child how to know the North American Great Lakes in geographical order from east to west. Old elephants have musty skin.
The idea is is it's a way of organizing what you already know. Mnemonic devices can be very sophisticated, very complicated. They are ways of helping you remember a grocery list, or in the case of the competitions that Roddy does, you can memorize a random deck of cards in something like 30 seconds. I mean, it's just astonishing how these tools can be used. They're not about learning. They're about organizing what you learn and being able to draw it up again later.
Memory palace is a great example. Memory palace, what you bring up is something that's a useful tool. I've wrote about that in the book regard to a psychology professor in England who was helping his students prepare for their A-levels and how the students would go to a cafe and sit there and say, “Okay, on this particular topic I might have to write about in my A levels. Here are the big ideas. I'm going to pretend if that topic comes up, then I come to this front door and I go through this cafe in the following sequence. The big plan in the front door is going to be associated with this idea.”
They develop these associations, so that when they sit down with a test not knowing which of these things they’re going to have to write, when one pops out, they know, “Well, that takes me over to the such-and-such café. I walk in that door or these with the things.” It helps reduce the anxiety about being able to recall it later and give you a way, a metal filing cabinet for it. Very successful.
[0:18:32.5] MB: I think that's a great distinction, which is this idea that it's not necessarily a learning strategy, but rather a way to organize knowledge that can be really effective. Let's come back to some of these big ideas and I want to start with a simple notion that you talk about in the book and you've spoken about, this idea that the way we think we should learn and the classic example of a college student reading the textbook, taking notes, when you're studying for the exam, you pull out your notes and you reread them and you study them over and over again. In many cases, that's a really flawed strategy and I'd like to hear a little bit more about why that is.
[0:19:03.8] PB: There's a couple reasons; one, when you read a text, unless you put it aside and ask yourself what were the big ideas in this text? How would I winnow this down? How does this connect to what I already know? Let's just say you read it and you try to remember it and you read it again, you underline lots of passages, you highlight passages, you have taken down verbatim notes from the lecture and you spend a lot of time rereading that material before you go in to the test. You haven't really digested it and blended it down to the main ideas and put them in your own words and explain them to yourself how these things relate to what you already know, so that you can draw them up in an exam and apply them, if you will.
The most surveys of college students of rereading is far and away. The most common study strategy far better is to read it a couple of times and then put it aside and quiz yourself on it and then go back and check to see whether you've got it or not. Then put it aside and come back to it another day and say, “Can I still recall this stuff?” That act of retrieving it from memory after you've gotten really rusty with it, but before you've forgotten it completely, has a very strong effect of strengthening the retention, because the learning becomes plastic again in your mind, if you will. The mind reconsolidates it, saying these are the key ideas, this is how they connect to what I already know and you've got it much better then.
This notion of focusing on rereading, underlining, highlighting, rereading, you spend a lot of time and you sweat a lot, you think you've really done your homework, but you haven't done yourself much a favor come exam time.
Now it's true if you pull an all-nighter. You can do probably pretty well the next morning on a test, but there's some really powerful research showing that a week later, you have lost most of what you had that morning after an all-nighter. Whereas, those who had studied by quizzing themselves have retained most of it.
[0:21:20.6] MB: This comes into the next key point that you made is this idea when you say that learning is about not getting knowledge in your head, but rather getting it out of your head, that might confuse listeners, or make people turn their heads. What do you mean when you say that and how do we think about applying that to our lives?
[0:21:36.3] PB: Sure. You've got to be exposed to the new material. You've got to read the text, hear the lecture, go out on a course and try whatever it is you're doing and maybe have a coach, or whatever you're trying to learn, sit in front of the computer with your computer game and give it a shot. If you want that learning to stick and you want to be able to build on it, then the real trick there is to do the things I've described here of trying to identify what were the big ideas, put them in your own words and practice retrieving them later.
There's several strategies that are very potent from this research for learning. One is you do as I just said; you try to put in your own words what it is you learned and relate it to what you already know. The second thing is very effective is to space out over time your learning of a skill, or a subject. You're not trying to do this thing this week and that thing the next week and another thing the third week. You want to start the third week, stop right up in week number one with the other things, get an exposure to it, try to learn some of it and come back to it again later.
Spacing out learning is very powerful for helping connect various things you're learning to each other and for challenging your brain to come back to something that you've engaged in a little earlier because of the benefits of that retrieval, of that self-testing, flashcards, what have you, whatever it is that helps you try to come back to something earlier. Retrieval, practice, spacing it out.
Another difficulty that's desirable is to mix up your practice. If you're trying to learn to find the volume of several geometric solids and you spend, you solve 8 or 15, the volume of 8 or 15 spheres and then you do 8 or 15 wedges and you do 8 or 15 cones, you do very well in your practice because you've learned the formula and you practice applying it. During the learning phase, you do extremely well.
If you're tested on that a week later, you don’t do nearly as well as you did during the learning phase, because the problems are thrown at you at random order and you have to figure out which formula goes with which problem and then apply the formula. Whereas, if when you're learning it, you learn each of those three formulas and then you take your practice problems and you put them in a bag and shake it up and you draw them out at random.
Your performance during that learning phase, during that practice will be more ragged. You won't feel like you're getting it as well. Come the test a week later, you're going to be far better, you're going to do far better at identifying the right formula for the problem that gets presented at random and applying it successfully.
This notion of interleaving or mixing up the problems during practice again as one – it's a difficulty and a difficulty that does and feels counterproductive, because I don't see my performance being that impressive, but the benefits are potent.
[0:24:52.4] MB: I'd love to dig a little bit more into this idea of space repetition. That's another thing that I've encountered in doing a lot of homework and studying around effective learning strategies. Have you come across or seen a forgetting curve in this idea that you should?
[0:25:06.6] PB: Yes. The ebbing house forgetting curve comes from the late 19th century, which shows that when you're exposed to something new very, very quickly, you will lose about 70% of it. Then the last 30%, you forget more gradually, but you forget it. It's the human condition. Forgetting is the human condition. That's why you've got to find a way to interrupt the forgetting and this idea of retrieving from memory as a way to tie them up and to keep that memories. Anything you want to be able to recall later, periodically has to be recalled from memory in order to make it stick.
[0:25:43.2] MB: From the research I've seen around forgetting curves, it's this idea that there's actually a pattern of the first time you learn something if you review it, these might not be exact, but you reviewed a day later and then you review it three days later, then you review it a week later and then you review it a month later. The idea is that over a certain curve of spaced repetition, you can essentially retain fully whatever knowledge you've learned as long as you review it at the right increasingly lengthy intervals.
[0:26:05.9] PB: Yeah. That's a great point, Matt. There was a guy named Lightner, I think of German, who invented a little box for the flashcards. The first part of the box are all the cards that you don't know very well. When you've answered it correctly, you should keep mixing them up and then when you've answered one correctly a couple of times, you put it in a second box, which is maybe I'm only going to practice that every third day. When those do well, you put it in the next box, which is maybe you're going to practice that every two weeks. It's notion of when you're on top of it, when you can retrieve it, let some time go by, let yourself get a little rusty, but don't ever stop retrieving it every so often, in order to keep it fresh.
[0:26:48.3] MB: Earlier, you touched on an analogy that I think is a really important way to illustrate this from the book, which is you subtly said tie the knot on your knowledge. You used an example of a string of cranberries. I'd love to just share that analogy with the listeners so they can understand the importance of pursuing the right strategies when it comes to learning and really truly retaining knowledge.
[0:27:07.7] PB: Thanks. I like that one and I don't know exactly how that came to me, the mysteries of the mind when you start wrestling with something and the mind starts making connections to other experiences in your life that might be relevant. It's one of the gifts of metaphor that writers experience.
In this particular case, I've thought of for some reason, of a child putting cranberries on a thread and going to hang them on the tree and discovering they were falling off the other end of the thread, because there was no knot. If every cranberry is some learning that you want to make sure you hang on to, is like a string of pearls, you need to knot every one of them. You need to practice each of those periodically to make sure it stays there. I think I wrote that we're all losing our cranberries eventually. If it's important to you, you need to continue to put in another knot there behind that thing that you want to hang on to.
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[0:30:18.5] MB: You also shared and touched on earlier this example of practicing a golf putt, say 20 times in a row or for an hour or two. How does that tie into this notion, this big idea you talked about before of mixed practice and versus what we traditionally look at as you call it mass practice?
[0:30:36.5] PB: Yeah. There's mass and walked. Mass practices, this notion where you would keep hitting that putt over and over again. You do get better. You see the evidence of your improvement. That improvement leans on your short-term memories as I had said. What you really want to do is practice it a couple of times and then and do some other putts, or do some other golf strokes and come back to it later, this idea of retrieving it and trying to, if you will, download from your memory what you did earlier is a very powerful way of reactivating this consolidation process.
I was chatting with a friend of mine while I was working on this book about this idea of mixing up your practice. He said, “Oh, we do that in basketball all the time.” He’s a basketball coach. He said, “We run these drills all around the basketball court. You go over here and you do this and you go over there and you do that, so forth and so on, so we get it all mixed up.”
I was chatting with my co-authors about this and I say, “Well, that's like the old LP album. When you heard this song, you knew exactly what was coming up next. It really wasn't mixed up. It was you knew at each juncture what you were expected to do next.” Mixing it up would be randomly on the court, which move you do, which play you make. The golf putt, the football plays the solid geometry, the language lesson all of those will come to a habit your mind and be connected broadly in your mind.
When you encounter them from a new angle, or somewhat unexpectedly what the scientists call transfer of a skill from one setting to another setting is greatly improved when the practice involves mixed challenges, the interleaving of different problems. New situations is like putting a pilot in a flight simulator and that throwing some emergency at the pilot and the pilot having to recall quickly what the proper steps are, even before you get out your flight manual just to stabilize the aircraft.
This notion is really one of challenging yourself to perform the maneuver, or deliver the knowledge, or explain it in a situation that's a little different each time. It makes you much more versatile in your mastery of that information. It broadens its connection to the other things you know and can do. It's easier to find again later, because it's been associated in different contexts with other kinds of knowledge.
[0:33:19.4] MB: In the book. you talk about how this idea of mixed practice can apply both to physical motor skills and also to semantic knowledge as well.
[0:33:28.0] PB: Right. Yeah, exactly. The research seems to run parallel. It's pretty exciting. One of the things – well there's this one study I particularly liked and involved grade school children tossing beanbags into baskets. I think it was for over 12 weeks in gym class, and some of the kids tossed their bean bag into four-foot baskets every time. Other students tossed into either a three-foot or a five-foot, depending on what they were asked to do, but they never tossed into the four-foot basket. The end of the 12 weeks when they were all tested tossing into a four-foot basket, the kids who did best were the ones who hadn't tossed into the four-foot basket, but they tossed into the three and the five-foot baskets.
The theory is that they developed a more sophisticated ability to judge distance and respond accordingly. That that more complex motor skill, this again is a theory about explaining this is encoded in a part of the brain where more complicated motor skills are stored, versus the simplistic repetitive movement against one target.
[0:34:37.5] MB: I've even heard this idea applied from a bigger picture perspective, that instead of reading one book at a time, it actually can behoove you to read multiple books at once, so that you have all kinds of rich different context and examples of knowledge that can help you form deeper and richer memories.
[0:34:55.6] PB: I'll say, my experience writing a historical novel, that was definitely the case, because I could read things from the period from different points of view, I can begin to hear my characters talking about the news of the day. I began to understand the places, how the places in the events of the time interconnected. I would say I don't know of any research that would say you should mix up your reading of your mathematics with the philosophy with something else.
I can't say it's good or bad. I would say, my intuition tells me you need to be able to hang on to the thread of each of those books, so that when you come back to it, you can maybe don't have this problem I do. Often, I've got a book – I've got several books on my nightstand. I pick one up and I see that I’m between chapters. I'm right in the middle of something and think what was going on before this page and I had to back up a couple pages to re-capture the thread.
I think that's an important thing if you're mixing up your reading that you don't go to the point where you lose the thread, or lose the plot as they say. You want to be able to hang on to it. Then the mixing up might be beneficial, but I can't say that I've seen any studies on that.
[0:36:05.9] MB: How does this notion of mixed practice interact with some of the research around the dangers of multitasking, or the cost of task-switching and the cognitive penalties that you suffer from switching between different activities?
[0:36:20.1] PB: Well, that's just a really good question. In multitasking, the notion is that you've got – it's like a juggler with several balls in the air and you keeping track of all of them at one time. That's taking your working memory. We all are limited in how much working memory we have at any given moment. It's why the telephone numbering system, seven numbers, I mean, was originally seven numbers before area codes, because that's about what you can hold in memory, working memory long enough to go from the phone book to the phone and dial it up, or going to the grocery store. You can remember a certain number of things. If you use some mnemonic, you can probably remember a few more, but there's a limit to it.
Multitasking is not supported by the research as an effective way to study or learn if it saps you your focus, your ability to focus on the problem at hand. When I talk about interleaving and mixing up and that thing, I'm saying you're going to focus on this now, then you're going to focus on this other thing and then you're going to focus and you're going to come back to this again later and you're dedicating your working memory to that particular task, but you come back to it after having dedicated your working memory to something else. When you come back to this one that you'd looked at earlier you have to say, “Okay now, what was that? How do I come back to that?” Does that make sense to you, the difference there?
[0:37:39.9] MB: Yeah. I think that totally makes sense. The idea is basically that in order to almost merge these two ideas that may seem conflicting, the notion is you dedicate your whole working memory to one task, but you want to be juggling or switching those tasks relatively frequently to generate the benefits of enhanced learning and mixed practice.
[0:37:59.0] PB: Right. The point of moving on isn't really leaving this. That's not the point. The point is coming back to it after having focused on something else, because when you come back, that's when you have to ask yourself where was I? What is this? How do I do this? Oh, yeah. There's this great study in the medical profession where the doctors were learning to tie tiny little, or microsurgical dots to repair vessels.
The typical way the doctors learn is they go away for a Saturday and they see a video about how to do this micro-surgery and then they're given something called a Penrose drain, there's a little rubber tube that's often used to drain surgical sutures after a surgery. Then they're supposed to tie together two pieces of this rubber. Then they give in another video and then some synthetic tissue and they try to do the same thing and then there's a third video where they're given a turkey thigh and they repair some tiny vessels.
There's four videos, four practice sessions, one day, boom, you've got it, you're now a micro-surgery expert. That's the typical way it's done. On this study, half of the docs did it that way and half of the docs did all the – say four steps, but there was a week between each one. They went in the first week, they saw the video, they got the Penrose drain, they did the repair, they went back to their office to do something else.
A week later they came back for the second video and the synthetic tissue. Well, I can imagine they go back to second week and they're thinking, “What was that last week?” I can imagine their pulses were raised a little bit, tried to recall it, because they only had that little bit of exposure. They did the second one, went away for a week, came back did, the third and so on.
A month after completion of the training in each case, they were tested on expert measures, expert microsurgical instructors who would watch them do the stuff and how well they did. Then as a surprise, they were each given a rat that needed to have the aorta reattached, a live rat. In all the expert measures and in the surgeries, the doctors who had had exactly the same training but it was spaced out week-by-week, that’s over four weeks did far better than the other doctors.
Simply the fact of letting your brain wrestle with it, coming back, that added effort of remembering and then building on that remembering with another effort and going away, it is a desirable difficulty, that spaced practice and mixed up with the other things they spent their time doing in the intervening week.
[0:40:41.5] MB: Did you come across the term creative incubation at all in your research around this phenomenon?
[0:40:48.3] PB: I'm not familiar with the term. No.
[0:40:50.4] MB: It's basically this idea that it's the similar notion applied to creativity, which is basically the idea of feed information into your subconscious, then step away from the problem for an hour, or a week, or several days and then come back to it and you'll often generate new breakthrough insights.
[0:41:07.3] PB: Oh, Matt. Yeah, I believe in that big time as a writer. I'm married. My wife likes to get out first thing in the morning, otherwise we're not going to get our exercise in. Well, you go ahead. I find if I'm working on something difficult, writing something, I'm much better off struggling with that until, I don't know, 10:30 in the morning, or 2:30 in the afternoon. Then I get on my bike and go like hell, because my mind is just wrapped up in the stuff.
When I get on the bike and I push up the hills and cruise along and think about something else, “Oh, I get these ideas. I get these breakthrough thoughts.” I think it's what you're describing, what you call creative incubation, is to me I'm prying to my brain and then I let my body go and I start getting back, this incredible stuff.
[0:41:56.1] MB: It's fascinating. I think the common thread between these two notions is that you input knowledge in your brain and then by consciously doing something else, you're allowing the subconscious to recombine, to look at new alternatives, to process then and store the knowledge. It seems like whether it's the context of learning or creativity, this same notion is really powerful.
[0:42:15.8] PB: I think it is. I think this is what the brain does best. When we get nervous about whether it's working is when we get in our own way. It’s better when we just really push for the challenge and then go on and do something else and let it along and come back to it later.
[0:42:32.3] MB: That brings up a point that I want to come back to, which is the idea of embracing difficulty and how mental effort is really important for encoding and retrieval of information.
[0:42:42.9] PB: Yeah. Eric Kandel is a neuroscientist Nobel Laureate, who's really trying to understand the biology of memory. There's this really wonderful video, which is available on Nova if you go online, if you Google Nova Kandel, K-A-N-D-E-L and sea slug, maybe put the word memory in there, you'll probably find it.
He discovered that sea slugs, they have few but very large neurons in their brains. That he demonstrates that – well one thing about sea slugs is if you touch a sea slug siphon with a stimulus, it'll close down. It's like if you're at the sea and you touch – I can't even think of the sea animals, but when you touch them, you see them closing up. Then they open up again when you go away. This is true of the sea slug siphon as well.
If you have just a tiny little electric current in that probe, it closes and stays closed much longer. He demonstrates how he creates a memory in the sea slug, in the neuron between a regular touch with a probe, which is a short closure, versus when it has a slight current in it, which is much longer closure. The sea slug remembers that long closure. Then he shows you with a video in a slide, the neurons reaching out to form a connection with other neurons, which is the physiological aspect of memory. Memory is physiological, actual physical changes in the brain. This is what's so compelling to me about this video of Kandel’s.
If you think of learning that way, it helps them to understand why it's true that mental effort and persistence toward a learning goal, if it feels difficult, well you're actually changing your brain, you're actually creating new connections and new synapses. Yeah, it is difficult. If you interpret the difficulty as I'm not getting it, I don't have what it takes, that's too bad because you could say I'm not getting it yet. Dr. Carol Dweck, who is well- known for this theory of the growth mindset has shown that if you understand that your intellectual abilities aren't just fixed by the gift of your genes, but to a large extent can be increased by building these connections in the brain by building mental models and increasing your knowledge, you are actually increasing the wiring in your brain, then it's worth persevering.
It's one strategy to learn something doesn't work, you try a little different strategy, but you carry on forward. You don't interpret the difficulty as failure, or interpret as knowledge and as the effort that's involved in doing the important work of mastering whatever it is you're after.
[0:45:49.2] MB: For listeners who want to concretely implement some of the themes and ideas that we've talked about today, what would be one piece of homework that you would give them to really take action on these ideas?
[0:46:00.4] PB: Well, I think that it stumped me there Matt. I mean, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Harvard University Press would be a great way to start. Whereas, where we've taken all this research and laid it out with examples and a reader-friendly explanation.
I would say one of the things to do is to look back in your own life the things that you've tackled maybe for fun that were a struggle where you surprised yourself and actually discovering you became good at it. I mean, I don't know whether it's riding a bike, or what it is, but we all from the moment we got off of all fours and started walking have had these experiences of trial and error leading to success.
One thing to do is to inquire of your own life where you have had these challenges and been surprised at your success in learning something, using strategies that felt ragged, slightly random. Rather than this idea of masked or blocked practice.
The other thing is to read the science of learning. There's some great stuff on the web, there's some really fantastic books that are coming out that take these fundamental discoveries about learning and animate them through stories and examples. One other thing that's also available, broadly available are new tools to create flashcard sets, or quizzes that will come into your phone on something where you're trying to memorize stuff. This is big in medical school, but in many different fields. There's Quizlet, there's Anki, there's others, there's many different – now slide decks, or what have you that you can use to begin to test yourself.
That's the fundamental issue is to practice retrieving, practice performing and space it out, mix it up, practice doing it. Only by doing it whatever it is, answering the flashcard or pedaling the bike, only by doing that can you really be confident that you know how to do it. Not by reading about riding the bike, or reading the flashcards, or what have you. It's by self-testing and spacing that up and coming back to it again later and aha, I do know it.
[0:48:20.4] MB: We’ll make sure to include a lot of these resources in the show notes. Anke is a personal one that I’ve loved and use. It's a free piece of software that you can use to space out and it actually bakes in these forgetting curves as well. Peter, where can listeners if they want to do some more homework, they want to find you, they want to find your work, what's the best place for them to do that online?
[0:48:37.2] PB: Well makeitstick.com is the website. The website has got a fair amount of information on it. There are a couple others that I would mention. There's one called retrievalpractice.org, which is – and another one called learning scientists, that's plural scientists, learningscientists.org. Those are geared mostly to teachers and mostly in the K-12 range, or post-secondary. Those are great sources.
There's a lot of stuff out there. We have some links at makeitstick.com as well. If people want to be in touch by e-mail, or e-mail addresses there, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org and own dot-com for a while, now we do, but either one works. Authors@makeitstick.net is an e-mail address.
[0:49:27.9] MB: Well Peter, thank you so much for coming on the show for sharing all this knowledge and wisdom with listeners. I'm a huge fan of many of these learning strategies that you've shared. I think it was a great conversation.
[0:49:38.2] PB: Matt, I loved it. Thanks very much for the opportunity.
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