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Reading notes: The science of (language) learning

6 min read

This is a summary of "The Science of Learning: Mechanisms and Principles" by Stephen M. Kosslyn, extended with examples on how each concept can be applied to language learning.

Summary of the original document

Think it through: Spending more time and cognitive effort with a concept increases retention

  • Deep processing The more mental operations one performs while paying attention, the more likely one is to recall that information later.

  • Desirable difficulty Learning is best when the task is so easy as to be boring, but not so hard as to be over the learner's head. Advanced learners need advanced concepts to practice.

  • Generation effect Recalling and using information strengthens its mental representation in memory

  • Interleaving Mixing or alternating different types of problems (no source cited)

  • Dual codes A piece of information is better remembered with multiple representation, i.e. an explanation and an image, or an image and audio.

  • Emotion Feeling emotion while experiencing an event will lead to better recall for it. Emotion focuses attention and allocates extra resources in the brain.

Make and use associations

  • Structure information by using associations
    • Chunking: Using associations already in your memory to chunk information. People can easily store 3 to 4 organized chunks in memory, which can each contain another 3 to 4 chunks.
    • Build on prior associations: The more associations you can form with prior information, the better
    • Foundational learning: When acquiring complex information, introducing the easy material first and then associating the more complex information with that makes it easier to learn. Build one bit at a time.
    • Deliberate practice: Immediate feedback when building structures representations allows you to correct aspects of the representation when it isn't optimal.
    • Appropriate examples: Abstract ideas need examples to be understood. Examples must be memorable. Multiple examples of the same concept must be associated with each other, so they can form a cluster that is associated with the material, eventually allowing intuitive understanding of it.
    • Principles, not rote: Learning a concept requires not just learning examples of its applications, but also the underlying principles that organize and integrate examples.
  • Create rich retrieval cues
    • Associate chaining: It is easy to remember stories as series of interlocking cause and effect. Creating a sequence of associations that have a narrative arc is an effective method of chunking, with the added benefit of having each link strongly associated with the next. This is particularly effective when recall in a specific order is of importance.
      • Spaced practice: It is much better to use information repeatedly over a relatively long span of time in the course of learning it.
      • Different contexts: Associate material with numerous different contexts. Practicing a skill or recalling information in different scenarios makes it easier to use said skill or information in new and different contexts.

How these concepts might apply to language learning

  • Deep processing:
    • Explaining concepts in a foreign language, using only the words you have available
    • Coming up with various examples sentences for grammar or vocab you just learned
    • Deciphering a difficult sentence or listening to fast conversation
  • Desirable difficulty
    • Consuming material that has a small but significant amount of unknown material. E.g. reading or listening at 5-10% new words
    • Explaining concepts in a foreign language, using only the words you have available
  • Generation effect
    • SRS
    • Use texts that progressively contain concepts already learned (i.e. textbook approach)
  • Interleaving
    • Explaining a grammar concept, then reading a text using it, then listening to audio using it
    • Alternating between reading and speaking practice, or grammar and vocab
    • Interleaving language learning and non-language learning tasks
    • Spacing throughout the day (also SRS)
  • Dual codes
    • Use text, image, and audio together wherever possible
  • Emotions
    • When practicing speaking or writing, get the student to talk about their hobbies or any happy or sad events that happened in their past. Sharing interests especially can motivate the speaker and make them really want to get the point across. Teachers should be able to identify these areas in their students and incite them to talk about them.
    • Use media or example sentences that invoke strong emotions or reflect controversial topics.
  • Chunking
    • Using a set of vocab to build a sentence, and remembering that instead of the individual words
    • Structuring grammar in groups of 3-4
  • Build on prior associations
    • Relate example sentences to events you have experienced in real life, imagining yourself using that sentence in that situation
    • Relate grammar points or vocab items to previously learned ones
  • Foundational learning
    • Start with the simplest grammar and vocab first, and then build on that
    • Focus on creating a base that allows you to converse. Especially on words that allow you to explain concepts or words that you do not yet know. I.e. knowing how to say "the thing that you usually sit on" instead of "chair" will allow you to create richer examples sentences for new words and provide a good base for real world interactions.
  • Deliberate practice
    • Get immediate feedback on grammar and pronunciation when practicing speaking or writing. Get immediate feedback on meaning when practicing vocab or grammar recall.
  • Appropriate examples
    • Generate multiple examples for new grammar points or vocab that cover their common use as broadly as possible
  • Principles, not rote
    • Learn grammar deliberately
    • Learn new sentence structures together with the formal rules that govern its grammar, instead of just intuitively internalizing them through example sentences
  • Associate chaining
    • Use stories when creating mnemonics for characters, grammar, etc
  • Spaced practice
    • SRS
  • Different contexts
    • Vary fonts or text context when reading, speaker when listening, etc.
    • Practicing speaking in different real world places. Assuming you are in a foreign country you can do this in school, when buying grocieries, when talking with people on the street, with friends, etc.