Faculty + Staff

Q&A: UCLA psychologist Robert Bjork on the science of learning

Robert Bjork

Professor Robert Bjork

Robert Bjork, Distinguished Research Professor in the UCLA Department of Psychology, will share insights from his work as a renowned expert on human learning in the 120th Faculty Research Lecture, “How We Learn Versus How We Think We Learn.” The biannual lecture, presented by the UCLA Academic Senate, showcases the work of the university’s most distinguished scholars.

A cognitive psychologist and co-director, with psychology professor Elizabeth Bjork, of UCLA’s Learning and Forgetting Lab, Bjork has been studying learning and memory for more than four decades. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a recipient of numerous distinctions, including a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Experimental Psychologists and honors from the American Psychological Association. The Bjorks were recently selected by the Association for Psychological Science to receive the 2016 James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award, which recognizes a lifetime of outstanding contributions to applied psychological research.

Bjork’s lecture, to which all UCLA community members are invited, will take place in Schoenberg Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 17, at 3 p.m., followed by a reception. RSVP for the reception at specialevents@support.ucla.edu.

How do we learn how to learn?
This is largely determined by teachers during our years of education, as well as by what we see others do when they study. Our intuitions also play a role — but these can be inaccurate and lead us to study in non-optimal ways. For example, we may think of ourselves as analogous to a recording device, simply storing information that we can access later. But how information is stored in and retrieved from human memory differs in very important ways from how recording devices work.

How important is it to be smart about our approach to learning?
Given a world that is ever more complex and rapidly changing, knowing how to learn effectively is increasingly important. More and more learning is happening outside of formal classrooms and continues across our lifetimes. We need to master new techniques in work environments, for example. And how fully we acquire and enjoy our hobbies and avocations can depend on our continuing to learn. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that knowing how to learn effectively is the ultimate survival tool in our complex world.

What are some approaches to learning that we consider effective but which actually aren’t?
One study habit that is both common and counterproductive — yet still often advised in “how to study” guides — is trying do all or most of one's studying in one place (always sitting at the desk in your room, for example, or in a favorite cubicle at the library). Research findings suggest, however, that subsequent recall of information is enhanced if it’s been studied in a variety of environmental settings.

Then there’s the idea that it’s being “well-organized” to devote all of one block of study time to one course or topic, then a separate block at a different time for a different course, and so forth. Yet recent findings suggest that it is more effective to "interleave" — to study a variety of subjects during a single study period — than to block.

And we may think that rereading a chapter or section of a chapter right after our first reading — “massing” our studying — is a good strategy. Yet one of the most general and robust findings from decades of research on learning is that spacing our studying instead of massing enhances long-term retention, often in very substantial ways.

Why do we hang on to old study habits instead of adopting more effective, evidence-based techniques?
A problem both teachers and students confront is that approaches to studying that make performance improve rapidly often fail to support long-term retention and transfer of skills and knowledge. We want quick results. This makes us susceptible to things like cramming — a form of massing — right before an exam. While this might be successful in the short-term, when the exam is over, forgetting what you crammed will be very rapid. Better conditions of learning — such as spacing your studying for an exam instead of cramming — actually appear to create difficulties for the learner, slowing the rate of apparent learning, but in reality they often optimize long-term retention and transfer.

Do you teach students in your classes how to study effectively?
Years ago when I taught the psychology department’s undergraduate course on cognitive psychology every year, I tended to end the course with a short section on what the material we had covered had to say about how students should study. One year, I decided to move this discussion of the course’s relevance to students to the first week of the class, and I asked the students to analyze their own study habits and techniques during the rest of the course.

That simple change led to many interesting in-class interactions with students about their study techniques, which were overwhelmingly habit-based, not evidence-based. It also had a huge, positive effect on their study habits over the course of the class.

It is interesting that we tend to worry about students’ preparation in domains such as English and mathematics, but far less as to whether students have the learning skills in place to contend with the massive and prolonged task we call getting a college education.

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