Roy Steiner
Senior Director, Learning & Impact

Three Ways to Improve Learning

August 14, 2017

As we expand and sharpen our learning capacities at Omidyar Network I have been doing a lot of reading about the latest research on what actually helps us learn. Some of these are counterintuitive.

We all want to learn better, so here are three insights that the latest research tells us about effective learning practices:

The Importance of Recall

As you may have noticed as you searched for your keys or tried to remember your colleagues’ (and sometimes your own children’s) names, the brain is designed to constantly forget information.

While it might seem frustrating at times, if our brains didn’t forget information, we would find insignificant memories to be a real burden. The challenge is that we want to hold onto important pieces of knowledge in the midst of all of this forgetting.

Learning scientists have shown that once you have learned something, it is important to try to recall it within a reasonable time. It is as if when you learn something you are putting a “pearl” of knowledge onto a string in your brain. If you don’t try and remember it soon thereafter, the pearl will simply fall off the string as other pearls get added.

When you recall something, you’re adding a metaphorical knot in the string — it secures the learning. Essentially, recall allows you to store the knowledge so that you can use it when you need it.

Implication: At Omidyar Network, we are trying to institutionalize systematic reflection through activities such has After Action Reviews and Quarterly Portfolio Reviews. These create points in time where our investment teams actively recall past experiences and lessons and use these to improve our future decision making. This practice is designed to enable all of us to retain the important lessons from our collective experience.

Without cultivating these activities (e.g. storytelling time), valuable lessons would simply fade away and not help us in the pattern recognition that is at the center of our work.

The Upside of Distraction

When it comes to problem solving, it turns out that building in distraction or breaks results in more creative and effective solutions. The reason breaks are so effective is that they enable the brain to undergo a process of “incubation.” This is a subconscious process where the brain scans memory and the environment for clues to a solution and breaks fixed assumptions.

However, experiments have shown that you should only take a break in problem solving when you have hit an impasse. You might already know that napping is a great way to take a break — numerous stories exist where great breakthroughs (such as figuring out the double helix structure of DNA) occurred during sleep.

The best way to find a creative solution to a hard problem is to start early so that you give yourself time for effective breaks.

Implication: When you find yourself struggling with a challenging problem, be it a deal structure or communication strategy, give yourself permission to distract yourself and take a break. Personally I like to take 10 to 20 minute power naps from which I usually awake with a better way to solve my problem.

The Power of (Mixed Up and Interleaved) Practice

Malcom Gladwell popularized the idea that the difference between good performance and expert performance is not due to innate ability, IQ, or genetic differences. The difference is lots of practice. He wrote that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”

However, it is not just any kind of practice. The practice that works isn’t only deliberate and focused; it is also best when it is interleaved over time and mixed up. This means that 8 hours of practice spread over 4 days is far more effective than 8 hours of practice in one day. It also means not practicing just one thing for 8 hours. Far better to practice multiple skills in almost random order. It also helps to do this practice in different physical locations.

Implication: When you have identified a skill you want to perfect (be it the guitar, financial analysis, or PowerPoint) commit yourself to focused practice but spread this out over time and mix it up so you challenge yourself with different elements.

As you build a learning orientation you can take advantage of emerging lessons from science by utilizing the importance of recall, the upside of distraction, and the power of practice.

Consider the following questions over the next week:

  1. Do you see the power of recall and reflection enhancing your learning?
  2. In your next workshop or team problem solving session, how might breaks be used to help you be more effective?
  3. For the skills you are interested in developing, how might new ways of practicing help?

Keep Learning,


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