My newsletter, The Learning Curve, is aptly named and here’s why:

The initial moment of learning — of encoding — is incredibly mysterious and complex. 

This is from John Medina’s Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Medina goes on to say, 

..the little we do know suggests that when information enters our head, our brain acts like a blender left running with the lid off. The information is chopped into discrete pieces and splattered all over the insides of our mind. This happens instantly. 

Talk about painting a vivid picture! No doubt I’ll remember how encoding works, and am even more curious to learn how the brain “cleans up” this incredible mess! In Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning, authors Agarwal and Bain describe encoding as a process by which we “absorb knowledge like a sponge.” To improve the effectiveness of encoding however, Medina tells us, 

...there is no question that multiple cues, dished up via different senses, enhance learning. They speed up responses, increase accuracy, improve stimulation detection, and enrich encoding at the moment of learning. 

Agarwal and Bain, on the other hand, are proponents of retrieval practice. 

We tend to think that most learning occurs during the encoding stage but a wealth of research demonstrates that learning is strengthened during retrieval. 

I’ve spent my career embedding multi-sensory cues in my teaching. I’m much more aware now however, of the power of retrieval practice (caution – it’s different from assessment!) and often include it in my workshops and online courses. As a teacher, understanding learning has not only been my business but also a moral imperative. 

image of a very curvy road

Image credit: Lachlan Gowen on Unsplash

Ya gotta retrieve to believe!

Retrieval practice — deliberately calling back what you have learned — strengthens learning. When you’re reading a book or article (even for pleasure), how often do you close the reading and ask yourself to summarize what you’ve just read? Or jot down the most important points without looking back? It’s hard to do! But the learning research is clear: the more we deliberately practice retrieval, the better we learn. 

Part of the problem with what we do and don’t remember is that when we read or hear something we understand, we don’t think we need the practice. We think we’ll easily be able to recall the information later whenever we need it. How often have you realized this just isn’t true? We have to take control of our own learning and beliefs with deliberate strategies for remembering what’s important and protecting ourselves from what might be misinformation. In a compelling article, The Illusory Truth Effect: Why We Believe Fake News, Conspiracy Theories and Propaganda author Shane Parrish explains:

…we all have a tendency to believe something is true after being exposed to it multiple times. … The illusory truth effect is the reason why advertising works and why propaganda is one of the most powerful tools for controlling how people think. It’s why the speech of politicians can be bizarre and multiple-choice tests can cause students problems later on. It’s why fake news spreads and retractions of misinformation don’t work.

I say “learning is super curvy” especially given the poorly understood interdependence of encoding and retrieval phases. Retrieval practice studies indicate that re-exposure alone (i.e., rereading material) is not nearly as effective for long-term memory as retrieval practice. So why are we so susceptible to believing what we’re exposed to just due to repetition alone? And why doesn’t repetition alone necessarily help us learn what we want to learn? It may have to do with frequency. You’ve likely never practiced retrieving the following jingles or advertising slogans, but I’ll bet (especially if you’ve lived in the US) you can fill in at least some of these blanks:

The best part of waking up is ________ in your cup!

Gimme a break. Gimme a break. Break me off a piece of that __________ bar!

Like a good neighbor, __________ is there.

There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s __________.

__________ is the quicker picker-upper!

You didn’t need retrieval practice to remember the ones you knew because you were exposed to them in high volume, on a regular basis. Moreover, these slogans are very easy to learn, unlike most new material we try to learn. Parrish goes on to explain:

The illusory truth effect comes down to processing fluency. When a thought is easier to process, it requires our brains to use less energy, which leads us to prefer it.

So when we want to learn something and remembering it doesn’t necessarily come easy, it’s not just repetition we need. We probably can’t get enough of it anyway.

You’ve seen commercials for those products dozens, if not hundreds of times over a period of years. Instead we need to intentionally employ other strategies, such as retrieval practice to achieve this level of processing fluency. Parrish’s article is about protecting ourselves from believing misinformation, especially when we’re exposed to it repeatedly in a sort of “firehose” effect from social media and various news outlets. Along with choosing our information outlets wisely, Parrish offers this advice:

When we put effort into thinking about and questioning the information we’re exposed to, we’re less vulnerable to the illusory truth effect. Knowing about the effect is the best way to identify when it’s distorting our worldview.

Bottom line… er, curve

If you’re learning, question yourself for retrieval practice. If you’re teaching or presenting, ask questions of your participants to help them check their understanding and recall of the content. There are many interactive strategies you can use to encourage retrieval practice with your audiences. 

Our beliefs result from what we’ve learned — some synthesis of what we’ve been deliberately or inadvertently exposed to and what we’ve worked hard to learn. It makes sense that we try to understand what influences that which makes it into our long-term memories.

  • Agarwal, P. & P. Bain. (2019). Powerful teaching: Unleash the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Medina, J. (2009). Brain rules. Pear Press.