5 ideas to help knowledge workers increase lifelong learning and productivity


Some apps aim to help you train spe­cif­ic brain func­tions, such as work­ing mem­o­ry. Oth­ers are meant to help you main­tain spe­cif­ic skills, such as use­ful field of view for safe dri­ving. But sup­pose you are read­ing a very insight­ful book and need to mas­ter some of its knowl­edge gems.

What kind of app might you use?

Let’s dis­cuss the prob­lem first, and then the opportunity.

The Problem: As we get older, we often abandon deliberate practice

Copi­ous research has shown that an excel­lent way for stu­dents to com­pre­hend mate­r­i­al and pre­pare for exams is to test them­selves on course mate­r­i­al at spaced inter­vals. Why should this work? First, it com­pels stu­dents to iden­ti­fy and focus on the knowl­edge they need to acquire. That knowl­edge deter­mines the ques­tions they should prac­tice answering.

Sec­ond, self-test­ing helps the brain answer an impor­tant prob­lem that it implic­it­ly asks itself overnight: “Of all the infor­ma­tion I have processed recent­ly, what infor­ma­tion must I pri­or­i­tize for learn­ing?” In con­struct­ing its com­plex index­es, the brain gives high­er pri­or­i­ty to infor­ma­tion you have prac­ticed recall­ing or using unaid­ed. It’s as if the brain tells itself “I’d bet­ter make this infor­ma­tion easy to access in the future because I am like­ly to be called upon to use it again.” In con­trast, if you mere­ly re-read infor­ma­tion, your brain will implic­it­ly assume that if it needs the infor­ma­tion in the future, it can get it from the text. That’s why re-read­ing a chap­ter or a poem doesn’t work very well.

Delib­er­ate prac­tice has also been shown to be essen­tial to the devel­op­ment of exper­tise. Chess mas­ters, pro­fes­sion­al ath­letes and musi­cians per­form well large­ly because they prac­tice adept­ly and often.

Alas, after they grad­u­ate peo­ple tend to aban­don delib­er­ate prac­tice. After read­ing impor­tant mate­r­i­al, most don’t both­er to test them­selves to ensure they can use it lat­er. Why? Peo­ple tend to assume that they will be able to remem­ber and use infor­ma­tion they have care­ful­ly read. Also, pro­fes­sors teach con­tent, they rarely teach or assess learn­ing strate­gies. Most stu­dents study mere­ly for exams whose ques­tions are set by professors.

Unlike real life, the dates and con­tent of uni­ver­si­ty exams are pre­dictable. A physics exam does not con­tain psy­chol­o­gy ques­tions. In life, at ran­dom times you might need access to pre­vi­ous ran­dom knowl­edge. Real life learn­ing isn’t mere­ly about recall­ing or explic­it­ly using infor­ma­tion. You might want to devel­op new goals, per­cep­tions, habits, atti­tudes and ways of being in the world. Pro­fes­sors can’t assess how well stu­dents apply knowl­edge in their per­son­al or pro­fes­sion­al lives.

Cul­ture also has made it dif­fi­cult for grad­u­ates to com­bine the ben­e­fits of test-enhanced learn­ing and delib­er­ate prac­tice. Test-enhanced learn­ing and delib­er­ate prac­tice are rarely dis­cussed togeth­er. Where­as our cul­ture prizes prac­tice in pub­lic per­for­mance dis­ci­plines (like music and sports), it is hard­ly researched or dis­cussed in the con­text of knowl­edge work and soft skills. Prac­tic­ing is taboo. Also, pop­u­lar books about prac­tic­ing and self-test­ing don’t explain how to use apps for this pur­pose. Yet most infor­ma­tion comes to us through technology.

To make mat­ters worse, soft­ware need­ed to prac­tice pro­duc­tive­ly has not been ade­quate­ly designed or inte­grat­ed with apps for read­ing and view­ing. (This was the sub­ject of one of the first arti­cles about the iPad, which I wrote for Sharp­Brains in 2010.)

The Solution: Help knowledge workers use screen time better

How­ev­er, it is pos­si­ble to lever­age infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy and cog­ni­tive sci­ence to prac­tice pro­duc­tive­ly. Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty is a key require­ment here because many, per­haps most, knowl­edge work­ers already spend more time with tech­nol­o­gy than they should. To intro­duce prac­tice into their rou­tine, it needs to replace some of their screen time, not add to it.

In my recent book, Cog­ni­tive Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty: Using Knowl­edge to Become Pro­found­ly Effec­tive, I pro­pose the fol­low­ing 5 ideas:

  1. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce time spent pro­cess­ing less rel­e­vant information.
  2. Focus on help­ful infor­ma­tion that is worth ‘delv­ing into’.
  3. From this infor­ma­tion, every week, pick out knowl­edge gems
  4. Devel­op ‘chal­lenges’ (ques­tion and answer pairs’) to prac­tice using a self-test­ing app (e.g., a very ver­sa­tile flash­card app.) Design these chal­lenges in such a way as to give you the out­comes you want (rapid­ly acces­si­ble mem­o­ries, habits, atti­tudes, etc.)
  5. Spend time sev­er­al days a week prac­tic­ing with your self-test­ing app.

The fol­low­ing fig­ure illus­trates this process.



This sys­tem works for the same rea­sons as self-test­ing works for stu­dents. It forces you to attend to the most rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion. Prac­tic­ing indi­cates to your brain that the prac­ticed infor­ma­tion mat­ters to you.

Such self-direct­ed learn­ing calls for major com­po­nents of life­long learn­ing and brain health out­lined in The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: ini­tia­tive, self-mon­i­tor­ing, pri­or­i­tiz­ing and cog­ni­tive training.

In short, we need a new cul­ture for knowl­edge work­ers of any age to com­bine the ben­e­fits of test-enhanced learn­ing and delib­er­ate practice.

Let’s prac­tice right now…what knowl­edge gem are you going to extract from this article?

Luc_Beaudoin— Dr. Luc Beau­doin is an Adjunct Pro­fes­sor of Cog­ni­tive Sci­ence  and Edu­ca­tion at Simon Fras­er Uni­ver­si­ty. A self-described pro­duc­tiv­i­ty geek, with a PhD in Cog­ni­tive Sci­ence from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bir­migham in Eng­land, he recent­ly wrote Cog­ni­tive Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty to explain how to use soft­ware to process knowl­edge resources, extract knowl­edge gems, and prac­tice productively.

Relat­ed article:

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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