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How to Learn New Stuff

When I was growing up, family dinners were often interrupted by a mad search through the encyclopedia. During our discussion some question would invariably arise and my dad or one of us would get up from the table and come back with a World Book volume containing the answer.

The practice fueled my curiosity and more than a few Trivia Crack victories.

I’m still in the habit today. Something will come up during our dinnertime conversation and I or my daughter or husband will seek out the answer. But, this time, it doesn’t come from a book. It comes from Google. And that may not be the best way to learn.

New research by Gordon Pennycook and Nathaniel Barr indicates that Google is giving us the answers even before we think through the questions or problems ourselves.

Instead of actually analyzing a problem or tapping into our own intelligence to answer questions or come up with new solutions, we are using the smartphone as an “extended mind,” Barr says. And that reliance on technology is creating a culture of lazy thinkers.

In fact, the best way to learn new material doesn’t come from Google at all. Learning is best done through distributed practice, according to a paper published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest reviewing different learning styles and the research into them.

Distributed practice is the fancy phrase for not cramming. Instead of filling your head full of material all in one night, you “distribute” (get it?) your study sessions. When we load up on info in a single session, most of that is lost after a few days. When we study the material over time, we tend to retain it.

Practice also makes a difference when it comes to learning — but not necessarily if we repeat the same steps over and over.

In a study led by Tom Stafford, of the University of Sheffield, the people who improved the most while playing an online game were the ones who spaced out their practice sessions (though both groups had practiced the same amount of total time) or explored different aspects of game play early on. By experimenting a bit in the beginning and distributing their practice time, they were able to optimize learning.

Rereading parts of the material you are studying, highlighting important material, and summarizing information were among the least effective learning styles, according to the report. Highlighting actually prevents you from soaking up needed knowledge because it limits your focus to individual facts rather than helping you connect to the overall idea, according to the research led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky.

The best way to learn new stuff, then, is to put down your smartphone and practice. Play with ideas, techniques, and solutions over time, and you might just experience a boost in your brainpower without reaching for your smartphone.


Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M.J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Vol 14 (1), 4-58.

Stafford, T., and Dewar, M. (2013). Tracing the Trajectory of Skill Learning With a Very Large Sample of Online Game Players. Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797613511466

Teens with globe photo available from Shutterstock

How to Learn New Stuff

Polly Campbell

Polly Campbell is a sought-after motivational speaker and the author of three books, How to Live an Awesome Life: How to live well, do good, be happy; >em>Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary People and How to Reach Enlightenment. She blogs at and writes regularly on personal development and wellness topics for national publications.

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APA Reference
Campbell, P. (2018). How to Learn New Stuff. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 18 Jun 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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