”We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.” — Ray Bradbury

The book, “Make it Stick—The Science of Successful Learning” addresses recent discoveries in learning theory. The authors, writer Peter Brown, Drs. Henry Roediger and Mark McDonald from St. Louis University offer key principles on learning to learn.

They illustrate these by life stories of students from toddlers, medical students, teachers, corporate employees, West Point cadets, to seniors. This book is a must read for educators, and even students who want to ace a high stakes tests.

As a college and medical student, my strategy was to read over important material three times so it stuck. Turns out, reading more than once was inefficient and a waste of time. My time would’ve been better spent with more active learning methods.

The core principles in active learning has to do with what they term “retrieval practice.” It isn’t enough to read something and presume we know it. More important is that we try to retrieve it actively by quizzing ourselves and engaging in rehearsing and interacting with the new information.

Our brains change in response to learning tasks. Like creating a new path in the wilderness, the more times we return to the memory’s location, the more defined the path.

Reading and rereading, underlining, highlighting in multicolored markers may give us the illusion of knowledge.

We’ve learned the words and parlance, so perhaps we know what’s going on. However, this isn’t the same as truly understanding underlying concepts. Nor is it a guarantee we can retrieve the information when we need it in a real-life situation, such as work, a clinical scenario, a cardiac arrest, a written test or even in a conversation with friends.

The authors recommend “interleaving,” which is learning from multiple perspectives, perhaps approaching a problem with an artistic, musical or literary metaphor. Asking “What does this mean?” helps us to explore underlying root causes and fundamental principles that foster retention through true understanding.

Elaboration of a topic, generation of questions, reflection about new material by asking “What is it?” are tools that encourage us to discover meaning and context. This active learning process and critical thinking helps us remember, not just for a test, but for the long term by imbedding it in our neurocircuitry.

While this kind of learning approach is important to students from kindergarten to high school, to college to professional training, it may be equally or even more important to older adults, as well. Recalling, registering and retaining memories are altered in the aging brain.

For those who forgot why they came into a room, where their keys or cellphone are, have trouble remembering someone’s face or name, improved learning strategies may be part of the solution. Use cues such as associations with familiar objects, words, rhymes and sounds, brain games, mnemonics, rehearsal of new ideas, self-compassion and patience instead of panic in the memory retrieval process.

These research-based methods can support us through the changes in memory processing we may experience as our brains age. Effortful learning changes the brain sustaining a growth mindset, which entails self-discipline, grit and persistence.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

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