What We Can Learn From Learning

When it comes to learning, variety, it would appear, is the spice of life.

Tomorrow's class will be at the coffee shop

The way that people learn is a hotly debated topic and has created a cottage industry of learning aids, tutoring, and self-help books and material that claim to help us retain and internalize knowledge.

In the past few years however, some of our basic assumptions about learning have been called into question by researchers studying this area, and their work was the subject of a recent article by Benedict Carey in the New York Times.  It turns out that the common belief that having a single quiet study area aids in memorization and retention is false.  In fact, alternating the environment in which one studies forces the brain to make associations between the content and the environment, which aids in memory recall.

This will not be news to knowledge workers that take regular advantage of the mobility options technology offers.   Working from coffee shops, libraries, and airport lounges sometimes yields creative solutions to problems, new revelations, and insights from chance encounters with fellow nomads or the odd well-read barista.  Working from the same cubicle day-in-and-day-out not only can be soul destroying, but according to studies, is actually an impediment to maximizing our brain’s capabilities to learn.

Another learning myth examined by researchers is “blocking”, or the practice of focusing on one topic in large blocks of time to learn more effectively.  It turns out that the opposite is true; interleaving study topics leads to better test results than studying one topic at a time.  Interestingly, according to a study at the University of South Florida, when a task is learned by studying multiple topics one-at-a-time in sequence, performance in practice sessions worsens, but improves for the final testing.  This happens because the brain is forced to make associations between the problem and the method needed to solve it.  During practice sessions, while still learning, performance dips, but by the time testing comes around, the knowledge has solidified.  This is distinct from multitasking in that while interleaving, focus is 100% on the task at hand for a set time limit, and then the task is changed completely.

For knowledge workers, the lesson is that, for long term projects (specifically those that do not depend on performance during the learning phase), it is preferable to undertake interleaving with other tasks to strengthen the associations among different kinds of problems and the methods for solving them.

Based on the proven advantages of alternating locations and tasks, it is not hard to imagine a knowledge worker hopping between coffee shops, switching tasks as he flits among lattes and macchiatos (but guarding against multitasking).  Ultimately, he might outperform his Dilbertian cubicle dwelling counterpart.  While that example might be a bit extreme, there are clear benefits to rotating locations and tasks while working.

Happily for knowledge workers, a strategy of mobility and interleaving also happens to dovetail with the trends we see in an increasing mobile workforce.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

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