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Why Forgetting Actually Helps You Learn, According to a Cognitive Psychologist

Try teaching others what you’re trying to learn yourself.


Read when you’ve got time to spare.


Photo from Cherayut Jankitrattanapokkin / EyeEm/Getty Images.

College students are notorious for cramming. They'll stay up late and study for final exams, stuffing weeks and even months of material into their brain just so they can spit it out the next day on the test.

Some students manage to get good grades this way, but the process they go through to get them isn't pleasant. And it's unlikely they can retain a large amount of what they've learned in such a short period of time.

Learning how to learn is a skill in itself, and it's one that is not really well understood, nor deliberately taught in school. It's a shame, because learning strategies and techniques for efficiently acquiring and retaining new knowledge is not only useful for getting a high GPA in high school or college, it's also an incredibly important and valuable skill to have in the working world.

Better learning techniques was the focus of an episode of PsychCrunch, a podcast produced by the British Psychological Society's Research Digest. The host, Dr. Christian Jarrod, interviewed three academic experts who study how to learn, including Nate Kornell, an associate professor of cognitive psychology at Williams College. His research focuses on students' beliefs about how they should study as well as the learning strategies that actually work best.

In this short episode, Kornell shares three evidence-based learning strategies that can help you learn more and remember more --and in a shorter period of time. His responses have been edited for length and clarity:

1. The Spacing Effect

Instead of waiting until the last minute and trying to cram everything at once, Kornell suggests studying something, waiting a while, and then studying it again closer to the test.

"If you can plan a week earlier to study all the materials, and then come back to them again the night before and cram, then you'll learn a lot more than if you do it all in one night."

"It allows your brain to forget and then re-encode. And it's so much more effective than studying it all at once...Ironically, forgetting actually helps you learn."

2. Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice is basically testing yourself to see how much information you've retained, says Kornell. While many students re-read their notes or textbook, Kornell argues this approach won't be as effective as having to reproduce the knowledge you're trying to retain.

His advice? Try teaching the material to someone else. When you teach someone, you practice retrieving the information as well as organizing and prioritizing your thoughts, he says. It's a good test for whether you actually know the material, because if you don't, "you're not gonna be able to teach it."

3. Avoid Over-Confidence

Kornell warns against over-confidence and argues that effective learning comes with a sense of struggle. "If something's difficult for you and you're struggling with it, that means your knowledge is increasing...If you're not struggling with it, if it's easy, it means you're probably not changing how much you know."

Not unlike a physical workout, Kornell says you should leave a study session "mentally sweating."

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This post originally appeared on Inc. and was published August 31, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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