We have learned a little about how we learn, but we still have much to learn about the science of learning.

Benedict Carey’s (2014) book‘How we Learn’ challenges common perceptions about learning through the collation of many years of research by psychologists in cognitive science. This article outlines some of what Carey has learned regarding learning and techniques to deepen learning, and what that may mean for Army’s education and training.

What we know about learning - You forget to learn, according to Bjork’s (1992) ‘Theory of disuse’.

Carey provides a simplistic explanation and a unique name for the theory, ‘Forget to Learn’. Many would consider that to forget is to fail — wrong. If you consider learning as building up skills and knowledge, then forgetting is losing some of what is gained. Forgetting allows the brain to focus by acting like a spam filter that allows sought after information to ‘pop or bubble up’. Without a little forgetting, there would be no benefit from further study. Forgetting is good for learning, because it allows learning to build like a muscle.

Your memory has two parts: storage and retrieval. Storage is a measure of how well information is learned and can build up steadily and sharply with use. According to Bjork’s theory, storage strength can increase but not decrease. The brain holds onto information that is relevant, useful or interesting. Retrieval is a measure of how easily information comes to mind. This increases with study and use; however, without reinforcement (use), retrieval strength drops off quickly and its capacity is small. Compared to storage, retrieval strength is fickle: it builds up quickly but also weakens quickly. Forgetting enables and deepens learning by filtering out distractions, allows some breakdown (loss), then after reuse, improves retrieval and storage strength. Using your memory changes your memory for the better.

Like many teachers, I encouraged learners to develop study habits that included a quiet study space and routine. Psychologists Godden and Braddley (1975) and Smith (1985) researched the effects of the study environment on learning, also known as ‘Reinstatement’. Their research established that my advice was doubtful. Carey states, children are told to have a quiet study space; however, he explains having some kind of noise in the background, such as music, is better than silence. The reason for this is environments are multi-dimensional with light and colour. If we vary where we study with different light, colour, sound and smell we can improve our memory retrieval by 40 %. This may be because our brain encodes the information differently. If you were to study in two different rooms, the brain doubles the contextual cues linked to the facts or ideas being studied. Each alteration of your study environment and routine enriches what you are learning, making it sharper and more accessible for a longer period of time. The more we varying where we study and learn, the better we prepare; so why not change your study techniques by typing and writing your notes in a variety of positions such as standing, sitting and lying, or go outside, and add background music.

‘Spacing out’ or distributed learning is an old but powerful learning technique. When people distribute or ‘space’ their study they learn at least as much and retain it longer then when they cram or concentrate their learning into a short space of time. Carey identifies this concept as built upon Jost’s law (1897) ‘If two associations are of equal strength but of different age, a new repetition has a greater value for the older one’. What this means is studying a new concept after you have learned it does not deepen the memory; however, studying it an hour or a day later does. Carey determined that researchers Wisehart and Pashler (2008) contributed to the ‘spacing out’ technique and worked out the optimal study distribution given different test dates, a total of twenty-six schedules. One example, if you have a test in one week’s time your study intervals should be every one to two days.

So what does this mean for Army?

The research highlighted by Carey may not mean that Army training needs to change; however, modifications to learning strategies and management of training would benefit trainee learning and mastery. This may also result in a second order effect of improving Army’s capability. Carey encourages readers / instructors to rethink their perception of forgetful learners; ie, rather than believe a forgetful learner is one who is lazy, has learning difficulties or is overall an ineffective learner, consider that the act of forgetting is a demonstration that the learner’s brain is working. From Carey’s explanations, if instructors modify their approach to always include encouragement and support; this will assist in retrieving knowledge or skills. Something to be considered.

To support trainees in retrieving and using memories, training could be delivered to encourage the reuse of concepts and learning. Army’s common approach to training is to modularise it, with the delivery of content through back-to-back lessons in one large chunk in a compressed timeframe. Training is reinforced with practice, assessed and ‘data dumped’ by trainees as they move onto the next module. Army training could be re-structured to deliver modules in smaller chunks over a longer duration. This will improve trainee memories (learning) by changing through use and filtering to deepen learning when it is reused.

Providing trainees with opportunities to train in altering locations and context will enrich the rehearsal of learning by improving their ability to retrieve information. Army can utilise this approach by scaffolding learning and changing locations to gradually increase the realism of the task replicating workplace and / or operations such transitioning through training rooms, training areas, ranges and field environments. Another consideration is to revisit the value of the ‘day in the life’. Traditionally, this activity has been used for assessments and recently has been withdrawn from some all-corps courses. This effective strategy could be used for the delivery of training by providing real life problems and scenarios for trainees to work through and solve either individually or small teams.

‘Spacing out’ or scheduling training using Wisehart and Pashler’s optimal interval of study would promote deeper learning and mastery. This requires the review and re-development of daily training programs (DTPs) and schedules. For example, during the conduct of shorter courses, modules could be delivered with the inclusion of rehearsal and assessment over a period of a week or two rather than two or three days. Modules within longer courses could be delivered, with rehearsal and assessment over a period of a month rather than a week. If courses DTPs included the idea of ‘spacing out’ it is likely to strengthen trainee results, especially within ab-initio and IET courses.
In conclusion, Carey’s ‘How we learn’, collates and presents research that is grounded in cognitive science. The research challenges the attitudes and behaviours towards learning for educators, instructors and consequently Army training establishments; however, these changes to Army’s training culture and management could deepen trainee learning, mastery and improve capability.