Learning. How do we learn best?

I see and I forget. I hear and I remember. I do and I understand. Confucious


Edgar Dale was an educationist who developed this famous cone of learning (represented above) which has been modified to better fit application to general education. Most who quote Edgar Dale usually ascribe a certain percentage. Often they say that we can only remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see (picture), 50% of what we hear and see, 70% of what we say and 90% of what we say and do.  These numbers are not backed by any form of research.  However, we all know that they have an element of truth. Retention of information increases as you go down the cone of learning.

 So how does the Average Joe learn best? 

The truth of the matter is that by just attending lectures, classes, tuition etc..average children will take in a very small percentage of the information from each class if the information is not reviewed. Especially since classes often have passive modes of learning.  There is some truth in the commonly heard complaint that “my son attends so many classes, but I really don’t know what he learns. There is no improvement, I think he learns close to nothing!”  If he is running from class to class and does not have the time to review the information, then yes, you are probably quite right, he learns close to nothing.

I often try retesting students on the corrections they had copied sometimes just hours before, or even the day before.  When presented with the exact same questions, most students could not provide the correct answer. Instead, they presented the original wrong answer. Alarming! Copying corrections does not do the child any good if that info just sits in the file. Do teachers address this issue. Sadly, I would say, most do not have the time to revisit things over and over. Hence the onus is upon the student to go back and review the work.

Perhaps you were hoping that by signing up for more classes with one more repetition, the child could absorb 10% here and 10% there, hopefully it would slowly add up to  80-100%? That would be a very costly and in reality, most children cannot afford the time to attend so many classes a week for each subject.

So what can you do for your child? Reading of the guide books is a must. The details and explanations are the basic foundation. A good grounding in the fundamental concepts is undeniably important for passing exams. But this is still passive learning. I would then try to turn passive learning into active learning with whatever limited resources I have.

What is Active Learning?


First it involves input of information at best using multiple senses. (VARK) There are various learning preferences.

  • Visual, Auditory, Read/write, Kinesthetic.
  • Basically it means Visual learners learn best by seeing drawings, pictures, charts. 
  • Auditory learners need to listen,
  • Read/write learners take alot of notes and
  • Kinesthetic learners often cannot sit still and need to do something and fiddle to learn. Like doing experiments. 

In the Singapore context, we often cater only for the Auditory and Read/write learning styles.  Another thing about VARK theory is that on the average, it is believed that information has to be repeated at least 6 times (not in the same way) before it is retained. 

In my opinion, there is no magic number of repetition and it really varies with individuals.  The idea is that you should expose children to the information in a way that involves as many senses as possible.  Listening, Reading and writing alone just won’t cut it for the Average Joe. They need to visualise using pictures, charts, analyse diagrams (It may help to get them to draw out what is described in text).  Experience it with hands on experiments or watch a video. 

Process: This involves interacting with other people and material. At home, it could involve discussing, explaining something to someone else and bouncing ideas off an adult or an older sibling.

Output: Students must present a response or a solution or evidence that learning has occurred. This we have no problem with the amount of assessment questions available!

The truth of the matter is that with the volume and depth children are expected to learn these days, there is truly little time for much experimenting. Hands on work is very time consuming. If you can set up simple practicals for your children at home. Great! Seeing is believing and it really helps them to understand concepts. Realistically however, many of the experiments proposed in exams cannot even be set up at home with the limited resources we have at home. Furthermore, if you spent all that time experimenting, you would probably not have the time to prepare them for the tests and exams. Experiments are important, so some are certainly needed, but we can’t do too many due to time constraints. I guess your next best resource is youtube! People often film their demonstrations.

The next best thing to “doing” is to get them to explain things to you. Spend more time getting them to explain things to you. How do you know that they know? They can either describe or demonstrate.  

How do doctors learn? Through a “See one, Do one, Teach one” model. Traditionally med school has always been reserved for the top scorers. Yet how do they train them? Not by throwing them a guidebook and text book with millions of exams questions to practice on.  They make them teach someone else.

If your child can teach a sibling or yourself, you know they have understood.  I mean explain and teach, using examples, with explanations.  I do not mean parrot reciting. 

I seem to have waffled alot.  So I will try to crystallize what I am trying to say. From personal experience, if I really wanted to learn something well I would take the following steps. 

  1. Get a good set of notes, textbook or guidebook. Read about the topic BEFORE the teacher teaches it in class.
  2. Have a nice notebook (see the section on taking notes).  Most importantly, try to diagrammatise everything. Draw out processes, methods, explanations. If you are so bad at drawing, convert what you read into flowcharts. Ensure keywords and keyconcepts are in the margin and front page of each section. Novices at note taking often write down long sentences and paragraphs.  This is not the best way to clarify ideas and help you to recall information.
  3. As you read, try to think of relevant examples and link them to your own life experience. Often its the easiest way to recall information.
  4. Do experiments or watch demonstrations for concrete examples of theory. While the internet is a great resource, it can also be a great waste of time. Children should NEVER be left to search for their own videos. There’s enough uncensored information and searching can take hours and hours. Quite a waste of time.
  5. After getting the main idea, practice, practice and practice. Practice to score 60/60 for the multiple choice sections. Practice your short answer sections, but make sure you have a reliable answer key.  Seek out key words and concepts.
  6. First, practice on topical papers. Then on full exam papers (with a mixture of topics)
  7. Use an open book approach until about a month before your exam. Guessing and writing down the wrong answers too early will simply reinforce learning the wrong concepts in your brain. Unlearning  the wrong and relearning the correct information is much more difficult than learning for the first time.
  8. As you study and practice, note anything down that needs further clarification down at the back of your note book and make sure you check it out ASAP.
  9. This is probably one of the most important and most neglected steps. Take all your notes, corrections from your school work and practice papers.  Get the student to sit a reliable adult or sibling and the student must try to explain everything that he or she got wrong or  did not understand to another person. If  a reliable adult cannot be found, a friend, dog or stuff toy will just have to do!
  10. Sleep lots. Sleep early. There’s nothing like having a good ability to concentrate!

Exam questions are testing higher order thinking skills rather than merely recalling of information. Expect your child to do more than just recall and understand information.

With increasing complexity of thought, there is also increasing retention. If you want a child to retain something, one idea is to allow the child to have the reference material at hand but make sure that he or she can apply, analyse, evaluate using the given information to come up with a solution. Over time, you will find they will automatically remember it. They don’t always have to memorise the basics first before they are able to apply the information.  But they certainly must understand it.

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About sciencepsle

Current Job: Currently mom to two wonderful little children. They are a blessing from God. Other jobs include story teller, driver, plumber, cleaner.... jack of all trades, master of none! Past: Ex-school teacher who just wants to share some insight especially to parents who cannot afford tuition or choose to guide their children themselves. Twice a nominee for National Youth Council's Outstanding Youth in Education Award. Once finishing top 12 nationwide. At that time there were more than 24000 teachers nationwide. Never ever got the award!
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