The Problem with Graduating from University

If you’ve read my Cognitive Productivity books, then you know one of my most important hypotheses about knowledge workers:

After graduating from university, most drop one of the most important study/mastery strategies: systematic self-testing about the information they process.

Whereas popular books on expertise (e.g., Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers) argue that expertise requires deliberate practice, they fail to explain how to incorporate practice in one’s information processing workflows.

I’ve developed the concept of productive practice, which is based on research on test-enhanced learning, deliberate practice, meta-cognition and expertise. The concept is aimed at lifelong learners, whether or not they are employed as knowledge workers. It is part of an overall framework for selecting and processing information with technology.

My latest blog post for Smile makes the case for productive practice. It explains why people don’t realize they need to practice the gems of knowledge they encounter. This in turn explains why people tend to forget even the most useful ideas they encounter.

I also discussed the concept of productive practice on Mac Power Users last week, hosted by David Sparks and Stephen Hackett. There I distinguished productive practice from related ideas. For instance, in that episode, I pointed out that simply reviewing (e.g., re-reading) information is not sufficient to develop mastery. I also discuss the heuristic relevance-signaling hypothesis, which partly explains why self-testing and practice work.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Graduating from University”

  1. I’m re-reading/enjoying Cognitive Productivity with MacOS, and I have a question regarding your ideas on using Anki for Cognitive Productivity regarding procedures (although I use Studies).

    I happen to be a training manager focused on my organization’s workforce learning /using proprietary software… so I’m already interested on the best ways to teach/retain software procedures (and the role of practice).

    I intend to adopt your idea of using Anki/Studies to occasionally review rarely used software procedures (you give an example using Excel in your book)… this is a brilliant concept! But…

    I was surprised to see you only ask yourself to recall the procedure; my inclination would be to ask myself to practice the procedure and name the steps. Question: From a cognitive science point of view, doesn’t the act of practicing the procedure lead to better retention? I’m excited to hear your thoughts.

    Example: Question slide: Your task is to open Excel, put the name “Mark” in a cell, the name “Smith” in the cell to its right, then in another cell, use an Excel function to merge the two names together with the text ” NMN ” between the two names.; then give the name of the Excel function you used and list the steps you used. The answer slide would be a short screencast video of me doing the exercise/listing steps/ etc. … to be viewed only after I attempted to complete the task. (BTW: answer is the CONCATENATE function)

  2. thanks for asking, Steve. And I’m glad you like the book. I agree with you that ideally one would practice the procedure, and naming steps and even concepts involved in a procedure is important.

    Much of the text on practice is written with the idea of mobile productive practice in mind. You might be jogging, waiting in line, having lunch, in public transport … not places where you can actually practice the procedure. And the challenge that comes up is just one of many challenges. That poses problems for skill acquisition. But per the references to Kurt VanLehn’s work, and it’s more general than that, stating is important (‘statable knowledge’). That’s also in the Feynman technique. So I definitely didn’t mean to exclude stating knowledge (the first Cognitive Productivity book has more on these ideas).

    One of the goals of productive practice is to prime memory content so that when the time comes to use it , the information has a better chance to surface.

    Another thing we need to strive for is “backward-reaching transfer”: asking oneself: what do I know that is relevant to the current situation or problem; i.e., generally having an “apply knowledge” mindset.

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