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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.

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters, and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm and think tank tracking health and performance applications of brain science.