The Hidden Danger of Dictionary Definitions When Studying

Your daily study schedule could be hurting your learning.

On the path the expertise, the brain’s primary job is to discover shortcuts. These shortcuts are actually what makes experts better at a skill, but the brain will create them lazily. If you’re not careful, these shortcuts will prevent you from being able to transfer the information into the real world.

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Nuance Matters

Think about two synonyms, like “sustain” and “nourish.”

If you learned these words in the dictionary, your understanding of both words will be essentially the same. There is a subtle difference between them, though, which is difficult to capture in a dictionary definition. Students learning the language who just read the definition and practice with flashcards, for example, could lose out on this nuance.

Yet many of us make this mistake when we learn, and not just when studying languages.

Context and Variation

If you’re not changing up what you practice, you’re missing out on a huge learning optimization.

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Instead of just reading about a word in the dictionary, it needs to be read in context, spoken out loud, heard in conversation, etc. in order to be fully understood. This is even true with physical skills. Researchers Kerr and Booth wrote:

A varied practice schedule may facilitate the initial formation of motor schema

In the book How we Learn, it is stated:

Yet we work more effectively, scientists have found, when we continually alter our study routines and abandon any “dedicated space” in favor of varied locations. Sticking to one learning ritual, in other words, slows us down

In other words, changing up what you’re practicing helps to create motor skills and mental knowledge. But how exactly should you go about changing up your practice material?

Interleaved Practice

The remedy to the “dictionary problem” is something called “interleaved practice.”

When I designed my guitar practice schedule, I kept each session short (20-30 minutes) and made sure I had a specific goal for each session. Most importantly, the goals and type of practice in each session is different. One session might focus on scales, another on a specific riff in a song, another session on improvisation, and so on.

This is the essence of interleaved practice: chunked sessions with different material. The opposite of interleaved practice is “block practice” (studying the same thing for one long session). When researchers study the two approaches, they find that interleaved practice leads to better long-term recall (such as on a test):

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Notice that the mixers (interleaved practice) perform worse during the practice itself, but perform much better later on. Exactly why this is the case is up for debate. The general theory, though, is that there is value in “loading up” the memories. When you practice the same thing over and over, that information never gets pushed out of your working memory. But when you interleave your practice sessions, the brain is forced to switch contexts and recall the information again from scratch.

Using These Tools to Make Learning Fun

So how do you know if you’re using interleaved practice correctly?

Jake Jenkins suggests on his blog that you should not be in a state of flow. The idea is that deliberate practice requires that you be uncomfortable. If you’re “in a groove” while learning, you’re really just repeating the same information over and over instead of pushing and stretching yourself to grow into the skill.

So each of your small, chunked practice sessions should be challenging and different. The lesson from interleaved practice is that it’s better to spend 30 minutes working your way through reading a hard book in a foreign language, for example, than flipping over the same flashcards you always use. The flashcards will lead to a false sense of expertise because of the dictionary problem, but reading the book (though frustrating) will lead to growth.

This is why learning is so much fun: it’s a constant quest to find new, challenging things to conquer. Many people feel like studying is a boring routine, but the ironic truth is that if is boring then it is not effective. Our jobs, as students, is to find ways to make it not boring so that we can learn more, faster.

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