Lifelong learning has always been important, but it’s now essential.

With the world changing so quickly, constant learning is now required for continued success in almost every field (not to mention, you know, a fulfilling life). Nearly every sector of the economy is being transformed (or will be soon), and if you’re standing still, you’re falling behind.

So, learning: how do you do it?

Think about it. When you have to internalize a new concept—understand it and remember it so you can apply it later—what do you do?

You probably do what I did for years: you find an article, a book chapter, or an entire book related to the topic and you read the key parts over and over until it feels like you understand what you’re reading.

This is called re-reading, and it’s nearly everyone’s tool of choice. It’s also surprisingly ineffective.

Let’s look at why.

Why re-reading doesn’t really work

First, the big picture: there’s been a lot of research conducted on learning in the last two decades, and the science is both clear and surprising: how we learn and how we think we learn are two different things. Many learning techniques feel like they’re working when they’re not, and re-reading is a prime example.

When we read the same text repeatedly, we get to know it. We become comfortable with the terminology, the ideas start to seem familiar, and after a while, we think “yeah, I get this stuff.”

When we reach for that knowledge a week later, it’s vanished.

What happened? We confused our familiarity with the text itself with an understanding of the concepts the text was describing. This is called an “illusion of knowing,” and it’s a major stumbling block to successful learning.1

The authors of the 2013 bestseller Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning put it this way:

Mastering the lecture or the text is not the same as mastering the ideas behind them. However, repeated reading provides the illusion of mastery of the underlying ideas. Don’t let yourself be fooled. The fact that you can repeat the phrases in a text or your lecture notes is no indication that you understand the significance of the precepts they describe.

So what are we to do? Fortunately, the authors of Make It Stick (who, by the way, are Peter C. Brown and cognitive psychologists Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel) come riding to our rescue: we simply replace re-reading with a more effective learning strategy.

Replace re-reading with retrieval practice

Retrieval practice is just fancy talk for self-quizzing, and it’s both simple and effective.

When you’re trying to learn something new, whether it’s a slew of German verbs or how to overhaul a tractor engine, read the material once or twice and immediately assess your understanding. You won’t feel ready, but you’re not supposed to. Take yourself through the following questions (borrowed from Make It Stick):

  1. What are the key ideas?
  2. What terms or ideas are new to me?
  3. How would I define them?
  4. How do the ideas relate to what I already know?

By struggling through the material before you feel like you understand it, you’re doing the hard mental work required to build new (and durable) knowledge. Retrieval practice is much harder work than re-reading, and it’s easy to get frustrated when it doesn’t feel like you’re making progress.

In reality, though, you’re giving your brain exactly what it needs. And when you attempt to recall that new information in the future, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find it at your mental fingertips.

  1. The term “illusion of knowing” was coined in a 1982 paper by cognitive psychologists Arthur M. Glenberg and Alex Cherry Wilkinson and experimental psychologist William Epstein. It was given a thorough treatment in the 2013 bestseller Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning↩︎