Can you really learn 10 tips in 10 minutes? Most people would say that we can. That is because very few people understand how we take in information and, this next bit is the important part – how we retain and then turn that information into learning. Many believe that simply taking in information is learning and, unfortunately, many teachers, professors, and trainers use this approach under the guise of teaching. As someone who has had to consume masses of information daily and has studied the learning process for many years, I can assure you from my own personal experience that consuming information is definitely not learning.
Learning is the processing and assimilation that you do with the information in your brain.
Take a moment and try to remember five news stories that you have read or heard in the past couple of days. I bet you can remember a few, but most likely not five or more. You see, for learning to occur, the information we take in must move from short-term memory into long-term memory. This means that you must remember that information you took in longer than the few seconds it takes to initially process it. Then, you must either make some effort to remember it or connect it to some other information that you already have stored away in long-term memory. Did the news stories you remembered have personal or emotional significance for you? Perhaps they had memorable or shocking visual elements or were related to something already in your long-term memory? See how those connections work to make things more memorable.
When I began studying adult learning 20+ years ago, cognitive load studies indicated that we could hold 7 (plus or minus 2) pieces of information in short-term memory, so the limit was 5 to 9 items before you needed to move items from short-term to long-term memory or lose that information. It should now seem obvious to you why you could only remember a few of those news stories.
Have you ever noticed that easily memorized number strings like zip codes and phone numbers are no longer than 7 digits? Add in those extra digits with the area code and you find yourself having to think harder to remember, right? That is, unless you already have the area code in long-term memory. Then, you connect Chicago to 312 and you don’t have to work to remember that part of the number. You just connect that Sherry is in Chicago, which makes it easier to remember the 312 in her phone number.
The way we process information is like an information super highway filled with bits of information that are vehicles zooming by. When they exit into our brain, short-term memory is a very small parking lot, kind of like short-term parking at the airport – usually full when you need it most. Soon, those loads of information have to either work their way into the vast multi-level parking garage that is our long-term memory or exit the lot and move on down the highway.
Unfortunately, the more information you consume, the worse your memory processing can become unless you really work at it. With the torrent of information coming at us these days, more recent studies on cognitive load now show that the number of things we can remember has been reduced from 7 to 4 (plus or minus 2) pieces of information. That means we are now down to only 2 to 6 things we are able to hold in our short-term memory!
That decrease in size of our short-term memory is unsettling. Because we have access to things like Google for fact-checking and YouTube for showing us how to do things, you might think that we don’t have to remember as much now. However, Google and YouTube cannot and will not ever replace the necessity for you to learn. Everything about the future points to the need for us to be even more skilled at learning, unlearning, and relearning as we develop new technologies and ways of doing things at a faster and faster pace. For example, your children or grandchildren will likely not learn to drive, but will, instead, need to be able to operate some new form of technology driven transportation (pun intended). Talk about an information super highway! That’s taking it to an all new level. Those of us who learned to drive cars will be unlearning and then relearning that new skillset, and that’s just one of many!
We all need to be able to learn better in order to be properly equipped for these lightning fast changes in technology. Please note that I did not say, “Learn faster.” You may be able to gain some efficiency by working on ways to process information, but ultimately your human brain has speed limits and processes that eventually you will not be able to move beyond. That is why the “10 tips in 10 minutes” mindset is ruining us. All of the cognitive science behind learning tells us that unless those 10 tips are documented for you somewhere and you practice them repetitively over time, then there is little to no retention. You are lucky if you remember 2 to 4 things before some new ones come along to displace them. This is where learning how to learn better comes into play.
Think about it. I could teach you 10 keyboard shortcuts right now that would make you extremely fast when working on your computer. However, unless I documented those shortcuts for you and built in a system to prompt you to practice over time, as well as some form of accountability to make sure that practice was happening, it would be a waste of time for both of us. Fast does not work for learning, because to get faster, you need practice after you have had time to assimilate the information.
The critical takeaway here is that you need to have personal learning systems in place to support new information until it becomes worked into your long-term memory and existing routines. Those systems need to:
(1) capture the things that you want to learn;
(2) prompt you to practice repetitively over time; and
(3) have some form of accountability,
because making meaningful change and forming new habits is hard, even when we know it is beneficial for us. This is one of the ways learning and training needs to change fundamentally and is part of what we are offering here at LLDevNet. Additional approaches for making learning more effective are contained in our prior blog posts and will be discussed in future ones, so stay tuned!
For another interesting take on how our brains process information via sensory, short-term, working, and long-term memory, you may wish to take a few minutes and watch this video.
If you are interested in the science behind cognitive load, you may want to read Cognitive load theory, educational research and instructional design: some food for thought by Ton de Jong. To learn more about the number of things we remember at one time, take a look at The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two on Wikipedia.