Why Good Studying is Like Learning to Ride a Bike

A small child riding a bike

What happens when you learn to ride a bike?

You don’t know how to balance yet, so you crash.


And then what happens?

Your brain gets upset about its inability to balance, and works on figuring it out.

The same thing happens when you do retrieval practice while studying and you make mistakes or can’t remember things. It’s unpleasant, maybe even painful to fail like this, but it convinces your brain that it needs to learn the material. Sometimes learning hurts.

Why do they say that some things are “like riding a bike?”

Because they’re not easily forgotten. If you mastered bike riding as a child, you’ll be able to do it for the rest of your life even if you take a long hiatus from bike riding.

Why is bike riding so memorable?

Because you learned the hard way, through the pain of trial and error. And because you put in many repetitions after you figured it out.

Learning science or Spanish is surprisingly similar. If you study the hard way – that is, actively, with writing and recall – you’ll figure it out. And if you then engage in spaced repetition, you’ll form lasting memories.

When should you put in the work?

Not everything you learn in school demands that level of mastery or retention. If you’re just taking Biology to get a science credit – with no intention of ever using that knowledge in the future – then it’s okay to just get by on short-term memories. You can cram for each test and do well, and you can cram for the final and do fine.

Faking your way through it isn’t always bad. You’ll pass the class and move on with your life.

But for any subject you intend to use in the future, say, in college, or for any subject that’s cumulative, like math or Spanish, you need to think long-term. Study in such a way that the content becomes like riding a bike – virtually unforgettable.

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