The Science of Successful Learning

Our intellectual heritage after each training received is one of the factors that most impact on professional and personal success, and for this it is important that the time dedicated to learning is invested by adopting effective approaches and simple techniques that optimize the amount of knowledge actually acquired. . The more deeply you know a topic, the greater the capacity for creativity to apply it when tackling new professional challenges, and it is a challenge for cognitive science to identify the strategies that lead to this successful learning.

During the interview with Raúl Hernández for the Skillopment podcast, he commented that the scientific basis of neurodidactic learning that I explained that dynamizes our videogame Trainapp, was very aligned with the book “Make it Stick, The Science of Successful Learning” published by Harvard University Press, which Raul had recently read. I took note of the appointment, and discovered that this book is an interesting and very well-documented compendium of empirical evidence that supports how to enhance real learning in the human brain, documented in more than 40 years of scientific studies by the best cognitive psychologists to clarify what really works and propose strategies that achieve better results.

  • microlearning: to avoid overlearning more new concepts than those that can be retained in a single day or session, and to help the learning program to adapt to the lifestyle of each person, just using a few minutes every time.
  • gamification: to generate more emotion and engagement towards the acquisition of knowledge, giving the best of itself to improve its position in the ranking of the game goals execution.


Learning has 3 steps in mind:

Codification:  Translate stimulus to provide them coherence with previous knowledge and enable to store them. The more concentration, depth of analysis, attention and motivation has the person, the better it will be codified in the long-term memory and not only in the immediate one.

Consolidation o storage:  Save the information in an orderly and categorized way so that it is stable in the long term. If the information already finds similar concepts memorized, or if it is reviewed, its consolidation is favored so that it is not forgotten. The transition from learning from short-term memory to long-term storage requires a period of time.

Recall:  Ability to process, find and use a concept from memory in each professional opportunity to make successful decisions. It is only possible when the previous steps have been carried out correctly.


3 common mistakes we make when we learn:

It is curious that many of the learning strategies empirically demonstrated as more effective in retaining information for a longer period of time do not coincide with what we traditionally do intuitively but in reality are inefficient. The way we propose to learn things now is only a consequence of tradition and intuition. This leads us to pose erroneous learning strategies such as:

  • Fluency versus Mastery: Do not experience the illusion that something is already known just for having finished a course, as it may not be so. When we try to learn a formative content simply by reading texts in bulk one or several times emphasizing it, we will get to become familiar with it in a fluid way, and we can falsely have the illusion that we already master it, but it is not like that.
  • Expect to brood before the exam: What is acquired quickly goes quickly, and therefore with marathon study sessions as binge-eating knowledge, not a long-term reminder.
  • Dedicate time to uniform blocks: if you only practice one type of exercise in a massive way until you master it well, you will only learn that skill. If instead you alternate different learning, you will learn more completely.

The most used strategies by university students are to reread texts, underline them or summarize them taking notes.It has been shown that these strategies only manage to familiarize them with the concepts, but they do not lead to their mastery or reminder. Rereading, for example, after a previous reading, is a slow method, and does not generate lasting memory.


False illusion of domain

As familiarity and fluency in the reading of a text grow, the false illusion that the content is mastered emerges. Knowing how to repeat the sentences of the notes taken in a class or a text, does not allow to dominate the ideas either.

To really learn, you have to go beyond the texts. Make sure you understand the meaning of the precepts described, their application or how they relate to what is known. Paying attention, they can know it at the end of the class, but can they apply it to their work? Only productive training enables and preserves the concepts in our memory. In this way, it facilitates that we can recover those skills or knowledge to solve future unexpected work challenges and take advantage of opportunities.


How could we to master anything?

The following strategies contribute to people achieving the mastery desired by the trainer. Mainly, they consist in persecuting the brain to work more in processing the concepts adding difficulties. When learning seems slow and demanding, it is when real and effective learning develops. This forces the students to process the information in a more demanding way from the cognitive point of view.

To train by achieving long-term mastery, the trainer must focus on learning and giving opportunities to practice. Due to the neuroplasticity, the practice will change the neural networks of the brain and the intellectual capacities, improving the performance.


Active retrieval practice

It consists of using questionnaires to test our real knowledge in an objective and productive way, identifying our areas of weakness in which to pay more attention or what we already have consolidated, and at the same time to make the exercise of trying to remember the concepts of the agenda. It is very good, for example, for the student to self-evaluate with a low-risk test for their final grades, responding reflexively and without stress to multiple-choice questions (“Test effect“) in which to apply the acquired knowledge.

Trying to answer correctly a question or a problem that is difficult for us, forces us to reflect exercising multiple cognitive functions. Consequently, it generates better learning, even when the answer is incorrect. The more “mental sweat” it costs us to recover some of the memory, the better it will be anchored later and the more it will also cost to forget it.


Effectiveness of the tests

As with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in physics, where measuring the property of a particle reduces the accuracy with which another property would be measured, exams do not actually measure the level of knowledge, but directly increase and deepen it during its realization The simple fact of including a test after a class or talk produces a great improvement in the final notes. Its benefits continue to increase as the frequency of the tests increases throughout the training project.

To solidify learning it is useful to make mistakes. The trial-error effort leads to a complex domain and a greater knowledge of the interrelationships between things. A deferred correction, a time after completing a series of questions, makes learning to stay better. We must be aware that we can only actively recover what is well stored in memory after being effectively learned.

In view of the fact that dynamic tests are one of the most powerful tools available to the trainer, so that they are not perceived as exams, they can be incorporated into training programs in a gamified form, involving students in question sets (such as Kahoot or Trainapp), or even better if they themselves create flash-cards or elaborate quiz questions for their peers in the context of the same game.


Spaced repetition practice

It has been proven that the same teaching hours achieve more retention if they are distributed over time, instead of concentrating in a few days or hours, saturating the daily capacity of retention of new learning. The reviews recovering the memorized knowledge are more effective allowing a time to rest between the learning sessions. Time increases the difficulty and, therefore, the cognitive effort to remember them. This additional effort attenuates the slope of the forgetting curve and enriches its storage with the nuances of the environment. Thus, we strengthen the neural network that facilitates its practical application.

The more you have forgotten a topic, the more effective the relearning in the configuration of your stored as permanent knowledge. Forgetting takes time, but it is an ally to relearn more effectively the next time you learn the concept. The periodic spaced practice thus stops the indefinite forgetting, strengthens the recovery routes and is essential to consolidate knowledge. People have different types of intelligence to influence learning. The more variants we stimulate by presenting the contents in different formats and resources, the synergies between them will get us to learn more.

Dual coding, for example, consists of our memory registering text stimuli together with visual images. The trainer can propose an integral training program considering several formats. For example, a face-to-face introduction to the topic, followed by a debate to resolve doubts and concerns. You can end up with an online consolidation with perhaps questions that contain visual images, mix topics and be reviewed periodically.


Interleaved Practice

Even if it is more difficult, it has been seen that it is more productive to alternate the learning of several intertwined themes, or different aspects of the same subject, than to repeatedly insist more and more time on it. Theme changes activate our attention and enrich understanding by interconnecting concepts. In textbooks, each chapter is followed linearly by a set of problems to practice on that subject. Then, it is passed to the next chapter getting an immediate but transient fluidity. This makes it easy to know how to approach the problem even before reading your statement.

After a time without addressing a topic, the brain will have to work harder to recover it, and it is precisely this desirable effort that will generate more reminder than if we learn by dedicating time to a single topic without moving on to another until the next learning session. If you practice again and again quickly, you are leaning on the fluidity that short-term memory generates. The need for little mental effort observes an instantaneous improvement, but insufficiently solid to sustain itself.

But with mixed practice, spacing and interspersing concepts, the brain unconsciously recognizes deeper patterns and streamlines the easy retrieval process of memories in the future. It has been proven that the ability to become an expert in extracting the underlying principles or “rules” that differentiate the types of problems, to relate them to other things that we already know and to be able to make the best decisions in future unknown situations, is better acquired through interspersed and varied practice than with concentrated practice. Changing the location where the person is exposed to the same content, gets a deeper impression in the memorization. This is so because when expanding the associations, a greater neuronal anchoring is generated that enriches the recovered one.



Writing with own words the topics to learn, generates more impact than passively reviewing what has been previously heard or read. It is useful, for example, to write a summary of what you remember that you have learned at the end of a training session. Thus, you build structures by extracting the most important ideas and create a coherent mental framework from them. This summary can be done for yourself or another person to help you understand it. For this, it will be necessary to have sufficiently worked the content previously to master it, connecting the new concepts with the previous ones.

Only when you are able to explain something in a simple way does it mean that they have processed it in depth and assimilated correctly. The more you mentally process the new learning to relate it to previous knowledge, the stronger your understanding will be. In addition, it will create more neural connections, helping to remember it later.


Mapa mental del contenidos del libro MAKE IT STICK. La ciencia del aprendizaje exitoso



If you are not convinced that you can master a certain topic, you will not put enough effort into learning it well and mastering it. It is necessary to visualize a reason why it is worthwhile to master a theme to achieve the winning mentality that leads to achieve it. People whose performance unconsciously limit their potential. If you focus on validating a skill, you will choose challenges that you trust to fulfill to show you competent again and again. But if your goal is to increase your capacity, you choose bigger and bigger challenges. You must interpret failures as useful information that helps you sharpen your focus, be more creative and work hard.

The infographic of the initial image has been adapted from David Vaillancourt (@drvcourt) twit on April 2, 2016, shortly after the book “Make it Stick” was published in the United States.


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