5 myths about learning, debunked

If you spent endless hours in school marking up textbooks with multi-colored highlighters because you considered yourself a "visual learner," you may have been doing learning all wrong.

According to Ulrich Boser, the author of Learn better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything, many commonly held perceptions about learning actually have no substantial backing—and may be detrimental to learning altogether.

Here are five of the myths Boser says are counterintuitively making it more difficult for people to learn:

Myth 1: It's important to know your learning style

According to Boser, in a survey by the Center for American Progress of over 3,000 Americans, almost 90% believed that everyone has a unique learning style—and that it's best to learn in that specific way.

But Boser says the notion of "visual learners," "auditory learners," and "kinesthetic learners" requiring different learning methods is false. Instead, he says, people should learn in ways that correspond to the material they're learning. For instance, learning music means listening to it, and learning to read requires actually reading.

Myth 2: The more times you read it, the better you'll learn it

Again, Boser says there is nothing to prove rereading is an effective method of learning, yet 80% of survey respondents believed it works.

The problem is that re-reading is pretty passive, but our brains remember information better when we interact with it more actively. After reading something once, Boser suggests quizzing yourself on the information, for example, asking yourself what the author is trying to say and how the material differs from other things you've read.

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Myth 3: You should focus on one chunk of material at a time

Boser writes that this is another common tactic that isn't based in research about learning. He argues that it's more effective to mix up various aspects of your material so you can get a big-picture view of how it all fits together. Boser writes that when you move between subjects, you get a better sense of what each one means.

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Myth 4. Go with your gut

Back in school, you may have been told not to second guess yourself on test answers, since your first intuition was probably the right one.

Boser says this is bad advice—reconsidering your answer is actually important. "We actually need time to deliberate and reflect to understand something," Boser writes.

Myth 5. The more hours you spend studying, the better you'll learn the material

Boser turns this notion on its head and says quality over quantity is actually the key to learning. He points to driving as an example of a skill where putting in more time doesn't necessarily help. "Most of us drive every day," he points out, "but most of us have not gotten better at driving."

To improve at something, Boser argues that you need to take a deliberate approach to improvement. Boser suggests starting by seeking feedback from a professional—rather than a friend—on your ability in that area (Vozza, Fast Company, 5/17).

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