The 3 Most Effective Learning Strategies

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Range" by David J. Epstein. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the three slow learning strategies from Daniel Epstein’s book Range? Why are these strategies more effective than the traditional learning methods?

In his book Range, Epstein describes three effective learning strategies: the generation effect, the spacing effect, and interleaving. All three of these methods would be considered slow and difficult learning methods because they require time and analysis rather than memorization and cramming.

Keep reading to learn about Epstein’s three most effective learning strategies.

1. The Generation Effect

Epstein describes three slow and difficult yet effective learning strategies that stick. The “generation effect” refers to the well-documented psychological phenomenon that someone struggling to come up with the answer to a question will retain more knowledge for a longer time when the answer is revealed, even if they completely failed at coming up with an answer. The generation effect attests to the effectiveness of unpleasant, difficult learning methods, such as frequent testing without the benefit of multiple choice.

2. The Spacing Effect

The “spacing effect” is a similar phenomenon—people retain more knowledge if there are lengthy gaps between study sessions on the same information. In the long run, someone who studies the facts about a historical battle will retain more information if they’re tested in a month than if they have to take the test on the same day. The more time that’s passed since you reviewed the information, the harder it is to recall—which is exactly the point. It’s the struggle of a difficult test that makes the information easier to remember for years to come.

(Shortform note: Because of the spacing effect, the best way to learn anything is to create a long-term review schedule. The review sessions don’t have to be long—30 minutes is plenty—but they should be spaced out over a long period of time. Use longer intervals as you get better at retaining the information in order to keep recall difficult, and eventually you’ll remember it indefinitely.)

3. Interleaving

Epstein’s last technique for effective learning is called “interleaving.” Interleaving is when multiple kinds of problems are mixed together in review—for example, a cumulative math test in which consecutive problems are drawn from different chapters of the book. Interleaving works because it requires learners to analyze each problem before determining how to solve it, which engages their abstract strategic mindset. This is more difficult than if all the problems of one type are “blocked” together, but it vastly improves retention.

(Shortform note: Because interleaving is meant to train the specific skill of distinguishing between similar kinds of problems, you shouldn’t weave together types of practice that are completely unrelated. Flipping between Spanish, math, and history homework, for example, wouldn’t provide the benefits of interleaving.)

How People Learn Incorrectly

These difficult learning strategies are all discussed at length in Peter C. Brown’s Make It Stick. Interestingly, like Range, Make It Stick contradicts the accepted wisdom surrounding deliberate practice by specifically condemning the use of immediate feedback. While immediate feedback makes the learning experience more enjoyable, Brown argues that it acts like “training wheels,” hindering learning by never allowing the learner to struggle in the absence of the right answer. Instead, feedback should be delayed in order to make use of the generation effect and keep the learning difficult enough to stick.

After covering the learning methods cited by Epstein, Brown argues that one of the biggest mistakes learners make is misperceiving their own level of competence. There are many factors at play that make it difficult to accurately estimate your own knowledge. For example, the fluency illusion is when we assume that because learning feels easy, we know far more than we actually do. For example, if you smoothly grasp all the ideas of a TED Talk on organic chemistry, you could falsely estimate that you have at least an undergraduate level of chemistry knowledge—unaware of all the complex ideas the presenter left out. To accurately gauge your proficiency, Brown suggests that you test yourself on how easily you can recall information after an extended period of time and rephrase the learned concepts in your own words. Frequently interacting with peers and teachers can also ensure that you have a realistic idea of your own knowledge.
The 3 Most Effective Learning Strategies

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of David J. Epstein's "Range" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Range summary:

  • Why it's better to be proficient in a range of skills rather than becoming a specialist in one
  • Why you're never “too late” to pursue something you’re interested in
  • Why the nontraditional background of a generalist gives them an edge

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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