The Science of Learning: The PLRS Study Cycle

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Welcome to Issue 10 of The Science of Learning. For those unfamiliar, The Science of Learning is a semi-regular Stallion article. This article provides specific tips, pointers, and facts about how humans process, store, and retrieve information. These short articles are written with college students in mind. They provide some facts about learning and offer tips on how you can improve your performance as a student. A couple of references are usually shared that direct you toward the research. These allow you to dig in a little deeper if you are interested. Finally, I try to fold all this within interesting quasi-philosophical stories that contextualize thinking, learning, and living. 

The study of how knowledge gets produced, transmitted, and reproduced is fascinating. Words, ideas, encoded practices, and even languages evolve over time. These conceptual evolutions produce surprising results. Sometimes words evolve to mean the complete opposite of what they meant at an earlier time. At other times, “things” that did not exist seem to come into existence by the mere evolution of words. One process by which this happens is called reification. Someone or a group creates a hypothetical model, process, or the like to try to explain a complex set of phenomena. Then, over time, people begin to think of the explanatory model as a real thing that exists in the world. We forget that it was just an incorporeal idea. Consciousness is likely such a thing. To learn more about this idea, check out the attention schema theory.

Reifications are not altogether bad. We adopt them because they help us make sense of the complex world by (over)simplifying it – which is really what all conceptual knowledge does.  In fact, in class you often learn models (i.e., reifications), whether they are called that or not. When a professor teaches you how to successfully complete a process, for example, they are basically giving you a few conceptual Legos and teaching you how to put them together in a particular way, with the hope you will build on to that conceptual model later, using different Legos. 

The PPLRS study cycle is one such model. This now-formalized model began as an idea: “here are a few things you might do to improve the effectiveness of your study time.” Over time, it has turned into a thing with a name. (Incidentally, if I change the name from PLRS to PPLRS, does the model itself magically change as well? Does naming have ontological power? A lot of magic seems to be grounded in the notion that words have magic powers: Expelliarmus! But I digress.) The point is that understanding the PPLRS cycle will help you become a more effective student, and so now we turn to the model. 

Preface: Plan

Prior to the start of the cycle is the need to plan. Plan to understand. Create four calendars. The first calendar is a semester calendar that has all known due dates for each of your classes. From this, each month create a smaller monthly calendar so that you know what is due and when. Third, at the start of each week, or the end of the prior one, create a weekly calendar. Then, of course, you have your daily calendar. If you do this, you will be organized and have a better sense of where you need to spend your time. 

Prepare/Preview

This system is really a cycle. You can start it anywhere. We will start with the few minutes before class. Rather than skim social media, review your reading notes. Ask yourself what you understood, did not understand, agreed or disagreed with, and what you want to know more about. This will improve your ability to actively engage in learning activities – whether they are lectures, labs, or something else. 

Listen

Class has started. When you are in class, actively engage in the learning. How this works varies from person to person. Some of us take notes. Some of us draw pictures. Some of us ask questions. The key, however, is to actively involve yourself in the learning. Try to connect the new knowledge to what you already know (elaborative encoding). Try to create visual models for complex ideas and processes (visual encoding). And, of course, ask questions and engage in discussion to help enhance what you know (schema elaboration).  

Review

To learn well, the worst practice would be to skip class and not study. An improvement on this would be to do one or the other. A further improvement would be to do both. To be a great student, however, you want to do more than just come to class and read the assignments. You want to repeatedly review the new knowledge between classes. 

Do you ever have the feeling when taking a test or a quiz that “I knew it, but I couldn’t remember it.” Inter-class review can really help with this. Many of us think that if we want to learn something, all we must do is get the information into our head. Often, however, it is not that simple. This is because getting something into your head and getting it back out are two different processes. When you listen in class and when you read, you are often working on getting the information in your mind. But when you review what was learned in class, you practice retrieving that information from your mind. The more times you retrieve it, the more likely you are to be able to retrieve it for the test. 

Study

The next step is study. After you have reviewed the material from Monday, it is time to use that knowledge to help you learn the next bit of information that will come your way. Read the next section or chapter, watch the videos, complete whatever assignments are offered to help you learn the new material. When learning new information in this stage, try to add a little structure. Begin with a quick review of the old. Absorb the new material with focused attention. When you are done, before you move on to something else, think about what you have learned (and perhaps failed to learn). 

Online

The process as described refers to traditional face to face classes, but with minimal tweaking, it applies equally as well. In fact, courses designed to be online generally incorporate this structure into the experience of the course. 

To close, then, if you would like to improve the effectiveness of your learning, think beyond the classroom itself – beyond doing what you are told and doing what is assigned – and toward becoming the master of your own learning. Start by using PLRS, and then create your own cycle or system for learning that uses strategic organization and sustained, repeated sessions for consuming new knowledge and retrieving that knowledge for sharing with others. Happy studying! 

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