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Five Popular Myths About Learning That Are Completely Wrong

What you think you know about how you retain new information and skills is likely completely wrong. Here’s what actually works.

Five Popular Myths About Learning That Are Completely Wrong
[Photo: BeeBright/iStock]

You’ve made it this far in life, so you probably think you know how you learn new information. But it turns out that false beliefs about teaching and learning are a problem that we carry with us throughout our lives, says Ulrich Boser, author of Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or How to Become an Expert In Just About Anything.

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“We’re learning all the time, figuring out how to use new tools,” he says. “When you get a new smartphone or system at work, you need to gain new skills to use it. How you do that impacts your success.”

Unfortunately, there is a gap between conventional wisdom and facts when it comes to the process of learning, says Boser. “There are so many myths,” he says. “A lot of people don’t give much thought to the best way to gain new knowledge and skills. But learning is often a form of mental doing, and the more someone is actively engaged, the more they learn.”

Through studies and research, Boser identified several myths about learning that can make the process more difficult. Here are five misconceptions, and why you should stop believing in them:

Myth No. 1: We Have Set Learning Styles

You’ve probably heard about visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning. In a survey of more than 3,000 Americans, nearly 90% of respondents believe it’s better to receive information in your personal learning style. But once you start thinking about the idea, it falls apart, says Boser.

“It’s hard to learn soccer only by hearing it,” he says. “Like many myths, there is a bit of truth that lies behind it, but there’s no research to support learning styles. One major recent review stated simply that the authors found virtually no evidence for the approach.”

How to really learn: Instead, match your content to the process, says Boser. “Students should learn music by listening to music, while students should learn reading by doing more reading,” he says. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education recently told teachers to “make [their] own call on how to utilize learning styles in the classroom.”

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Myth No. 2: Rereading Material Is A Good Way To Learn

Before you go into an important meeting, you might refresh your memory by reviewing your notes or proposal, but this passive approach to learning won’t serve you well. While more than 80% of respondents in Boser’s study believed that rereading is a highly effective approach to learning, research suggests that the approach is flawed, says Boser. What works better is an active form of learning.

“People tend to see themselves as a computer; data flowing past them somehow gets into their head,” he says. “That’s not how learning works. You need to make sense of the order to understand.”

How to really learn: Instead of rereading, highlighting, or underlining important information, turn the information into a quiz.

Research shows that quizzing yourself is a far better way to learn,” says Boser. “After the end of a paragraph, ask yourself, ‘What is the author trying to say?’ ‘How is this different than other things I’ve read?’ ‘How does this relate to other material I know?’ When you’re making sense of something, you start learning it.”

Myth No. 3: Focus On One Subject At A Time

When it comes to learning a difficult subject, people often believe you should practice one thing at a time. If you’re learning to use a new suite of software, for example, practice one program one day and another the next.

How to really learn: Mixing it up, however, is a better approach, says Boser. “In mixed learning, you get a chance to see the core idea below it,” he says. “And when you shift details, you get a better sense of what it means.”

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Myth No. 4: Your First Answer Is Often The Right Answer

In school, many of us were taught that if you put an answer on a test you shouldn’t change it, but you’re actually better off reconsidering, says Boser.

“People are overly confident,” he says. “Go around a room asking who the hardest working person is, and most people will identify themselves in that group. Also, if they’ve learned something from an article or TED talk, they think they know it. We actually need time to deliberate and reflect to understand something.”

How to really learn: While facts are important, how you use them is key. “To solve new problems and come up with ideas, you need analogies and systems of how things relate to each other,” he says. “Making that connection takes time. A study found that teachers who give three- to five-second pauses when explaining ideas have students who learn a lot more. The brain needs time to settle in.”

Myth No. 5: The Number Of Hours You Put Into Something Translates To Better Understanding

Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory provided a benchmark for becoming an expert, but this doesn’t necessarily translate to learning, says Boser. “Most of us drive every day, but most of us have not gotten better at driving,” he says. “Putting in a lot of hours doesn’t always mean you’ll become good at something.”

Like trusting your first answer, overconfidence plays a role here, too, says Boser. “There’s a long line of research that suggests people often overestimate their own expertise in just about every field, from driving a car to their grammar skills,” he says. “Or as one research paper put it, ‘people tend to be blissfully unaware of their incompetence.'”

How to really learn: What works instead isn’t just time; it’s outside advice and input. For example, Boser hired a basketball coach to help him improve his game, and videotaped himself shooting baskets in the park.

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“Don’t just ask a friend for feedback,” he says. “There has to be a social contract where the other person has to give you something. That’s why hiring coaches and tutors are so beneficial to learning.”