February 04 2021

3 Ways to Learn Better (according to Cognitive Research)

Learning can provide great opportunities for personal growth, but as we live through a stressful period, it may be helpful to remember that some ways of learning and retaining information are more effective than others.

Tell me more, I hear you say! Ok, let’s dive in…

My own method of learning used to involve reading and re-reading texts or my notes and highlighting the important parts. More than a century of research tells us that testing yourself with practice questions and leaving space between study sessions (sometimes called distributed practice) enhances learning and long-term memory. In the end, these approaches save you time.

Here at CWL we are super interested in how people learn, and what small changes our tutors and learners can make to improve their results. We aim to help our leaners optimise learning, both with their language learning and soft skills training and in their day to day lives.

Improved Learning

When it comes to our instruction and learners' studying, we want to use strategies that are both effective and efficient. We don't have time to keep teaching things over and over again, and learners don't want to keep studying things over and over again, either. Our goal is to teach for long term results so learners retain information for the rest of their lives (ideally). Cognitive science converges with very effective (but not popular enough) teaching approaches.

Specifically, it is possible to talk about three main principles that promote effective long-term learning:

Meaningful connections - explaining every new concept in terms of concepts that learners already know

Recall practice - to maintain the information and make it accessible, learners should practice by attempting to recall the information.

Spaced Practice - to make the practice effortful and effective, distributing the practice repetitions over time is beneficial.

When recall practice and spaced practice are used together, researchers call this super technique “successive relearning” and its benefits are evident. For example, Kent State University researchers found that students studying by successive relearning earned test scores 12 per cent higher than their classmates who were using conventional methods. They also retained significantly more information when retested days and weeks after their final exams. This is a good example of how learners might hope to use knowledge after a course has concluded.

So how exactly do you “successively relearn?”

There are 3 steps to follow

Set a goal: Decide what you’ll study — like a key language learning goal — and when you’ll do it, by creating and following a schedule. Aim for shorter study sessions that are spaced out over time. For example, two one-hour sessions are better than one two-hour sessions.

Practice: Create opportunities to recall what you have learned to help move information into long-term storage. Flashcards are a great way to do this.

If you’re a learner, try leaving blank spaces in your course notes to recall and write out concepts after class.

If you’re teaching, build informal testing into your lessons. This helps model the technique for learners but also helps learners sustain their attention and take better notes.

Consolidate success: Check your work and monitor your progress over time. If you’re successfully recalling something most of the time, you can decrease how often you review that content and replace it with new content as you progress. Deliberately recalling information is the critical ingredient for successive relearning, so be sure to lock it into your memory by writing down and committing to an answer before checking your notes or textbook.

Remember that without deliberate recall practice, a very small amount of information reaches your long-term memory, which prevents effective long-term learning.

The World Economic Forum included Active Learning and Learning Strategies as one of the top 10 skills of 2025 in its Future of Jobs Report 2020 and here at CWL we have written about learning better in a previous post.

As always, we love dicussing these topics with our learners and prospective and current clients. If you have any questions at all we are more than happy to discuss! Say hello to Charles in our live chat :)

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