Effective learning vs. regurgitative learning

‘We’re not storage devices that can absorb infinite amounts of information on demand’ – An interview with Brigitte Reysen Kostudis, qualified psychologist and psychological advisor at the Freie Universität Berlin
Photos: private | 2018/2

Ms Reysen-Kostudis, you advise students who often don’t know the best way to tackle the material they have to learn. What does ‘effective learning’ mean to you?
Brigitte Reysen-Kostudis Many people come to my consultation sessions thinking that effective learning means internalising information in the shortest possible time. But actually, the opposite is true. We have to remember that we are not storage devices that can absorb infinite amounts of information on demand. Effective learning is much more than simply accumulating knowledge. Rather, it’s about absorbing, in the easiest and least stressful way possible, things that I consider important and that will benefit me in the long run.

In your opinion, what is the best approach to learning?
The best approach is to find a learning strategy that enables me to learn in different stages. First of all, I should familiarise myself with the material and determine what’s absolutely necessary and what I can disregard. It’s not about going through everything and learning it in a strictly linear way; it’s about finding the right strategies so that I can approach the learning process in multiple small steps: the exploratory phase, knowledge acquisition, the review and the repetition phase.

Say a student is facing a pile of material and stubbornly trying to learn it all by heart – so-called ‘regurgitative learning’. What does this term mean to you?
For me, ‘regurgitative learning’ means trying to learn as many facts as possible with the ultimate aim of knowing everything. The danger with this type of ‘bulimic’ learning is that, like the illness, you can lose control. You stuff yourself full of information in the shortest time possible, without really understanding the material or its context. This can be effective for a while, under certain circumstances. However, what we often see here at the university is that it becomes an established pattern and students, while they’re still at school, become used to only grasping things on a surface level. School pupils and students with this kind of learning pattern will develop problems in the short or long term, because the material becomes too comprehensive at this level and quick-fix strategies like ‘regurgitative learning’ don’t work anymore.

In your opinion, how can we best avoid the phenomenon of ‘regurgitative learning’?
I think, for many students, learning often feels like an unpleasant necessity. The idea that learning can be fun or that you can feel good when you’ve learned something new often gets lost in all the pressure that young people are under today. It’s important that we move away from the instinct to just accumulate knowledge: learning needs to be structured and defined by the learner. That’s what will make it fun. If I really want to learn or master something, then I’ll keep at it and don’t need very much self-discipline. I don’t think there is one single learning strategy that you can use for every exam. Every bit of new material might require a new strategy. The most important thing is that I take myself seriously, that I self-reflect and am proactive when it comes to my learning process – that I know myself, how I tick and how I learn best. I can then use this information to determine what works and what doesn’t.


Lisa Schüfer, Head of Primary School at the Josef-Schwarz-Schule

Giving students the opportunity to approach a subject with joy and curiosity, and sparking their interest with real-life examples, lays a foundation stone for effective learning. In my lessons, I try to get the students involved in a topic, so that they can develop it and take it further themselves during periods of independent study. Afterwards, we reflect together on the learning process and what we have learned. In this way, they learn independently and, in my opinion, effectively.


Hannes Israel, graduate of the Phorms Campus Berlin Mitte

For me, effective learning means being completely focused on myself. Going to the library or wearing a noise-cancelling headset have helped me, because I am easily distracted. ‘Bulimic learning’ has never worked, because it just doesn’t suit me. Learning at the last minute, learning in isolation – I could never do that. During the lead-up to the Abitur, interacting with classmates about outcomes and using flash cards also proved very helpful.


Lisa, student in year 11 at the Phorms Taunus Campus (Frankfurt)

Efficient learning starts in the classroom: understanding the content of the lesson and processing it. So, when you go back over what you have already learnt, you will automatically remember it better. It also often helps to explain the material to someone. For me, the most important thing is to be organised. I make a note of my homework and exam schedule, and plan my free time accordingly. I use self-written study notes or graphics for more complex content, which automatically means I think the subject matter through. I also learn via the tasks that we work through in class – especially in the case of natural sciences.


Anne Röhner, lower secondary-school coordinator at Phorms Campus Hamburg

As a sports teacher, I know the most effective way to train (and learn). It's not just about sweating on the sports ground but mainly about identifying, using and developing your own resources. In my lessons, I always try to create a pleasant learning atmosphere, in which people laugh and celebrate successes. And who, after a long training session or extended project, hasn't experienced that sense of success that makes you break into the broadest smile or emit the loudest whoop of pride? That’s how to learn effectively – and for life!


Franziska Ibscher, graduate of the Phorms Campus München

Starting to study early, taking more breaks and studying by chapter helped me absorb and concentrate better while studying for the Abitur. Because I am a visual person, I wrote a lot out in my own handwriting. What helped me most, though, was describing the concepts or reading from my notes out loud. To-do lists ensured that I had a good overview and used my time in the most efficient way. I often switched off my mobile for long periods, which allowed me to learn effectively and work through lots of material.


Elisabeth, student in year 12 at the Phorms Campus Berlin Süd

As I see it, the secret to academic success depends on three factors: coordination, diligence and motivation. It is important to always have a goal in mind that you can strive towards. Preparation and follow-up are key in this regard. You can also take advantage of free periods for homework, preparing presentations or revision. If you want to get better at school, you also need to recognise your weak points. Talking to your class teacher or parents can help you with this.

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