How We Learn: A book review by Bob Morris

How We LearnHow We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where and Why it Happens
Benedict Carey
Random House (2014)

How to take full advantage of a host of techniques that deepen learning that remain largely unknown outside scientific circles

As Benedict Carey explains, “this book is not about some golden future. The persistent, annoying, amusing, ear-scratching present is the space we want to occupy. The tools in this book are solid, they work in real time, and using them will bring you more in tune with the beautiful, if eccentric, learning machine that is your brain.”

Ironically, perhaps paradoxically, Carey invites his readers to use their minds to think about their minds in new ways. He examines an emerging theory that accounts for new ideas about when, where, and why learning happens: The New Theory of Disuse. “It’s an overhaul, recasting forgetting as the best friend of learning, rather than its rival.” There really is a “science of learning” and it requires the same rigor and focus that the study of physics or calculus does. His research and analysis of others’ research invalidate some assumptions about learning, validate others.

When asked, “How much does quizzing oneself like with flashcards help?” Here is Carey’s response:

“A lot, actually. Self-testing is one of the strongest study techniques there is. Old-fashioned flashcards work fine; so does a friend, work colleague, or classmate putting you through your paces. The best self-quizzers do two things: They force you to choose the right answer from several possibilities; and they give you immediate feedback, right or wrong. As laid out in Chapter 5, self-examination improves retention and comprehension for more than an equal amount of review time. It can take many forms as well. Reciting a passage from memory, either in front of a colleague or a mirror, is a form of testing. So is explaining it to yourself while pacing the kitchen, or to a work colleague or friend over lunch. As teachers often say, ‘You don’t fully understand a topic until you have to teach it.’ Exactly right.”

In a similar vein, Albert Einstein once suggested to a graduate student at Princeton, “If you can’t explain a great idea to a six year-old, you really don’t understand it.”

Of even more interest and value to me is his repudiation of cramming. Is it a bad idea? “Not always. Cramming works fine as a last resort, a way to ramp up fast for an exam if you’re behind and have no choice. The downside is that, after the test, you won’t remember a whole lot of what you ‘learned’ – if you remember any at all. The reason is that the brain can sharpen a memory only after some forgetting has occurred…Spaced rehearsal or study or self-examination are far more effective ways to prepare. You’ll remember the material longer and be able to carry it into the next course or semester easily. Studies find that people remember up to twice as much material that they rehearsed in spaced or tested sessions than during cramming. If you must cram, do so in courses that are not central to your main area of focus.”

These are among the dozens of other subjects and issues that also caught my eye:

o Cognitive science and physiology of the brain: Aids for study (xi-xvi)
o Retrieval of memory (21-41, 59-79, 82-97, and 205-209)
o Philip Boswood Ballard (Pages 29-35 and 205-206)
o Elizabeth Ligon Bjork and Robert Bjork (35-40, 93-100, 153-158, and 160-163)
o Context for memory, environment for learning (47-64)
o Four Bahrick Study (69-74)
o Testing as self-examination (76-79)
o Preparation in learning (92-103)
o Carey’s experiences in learning: Incubation or percolation, problem solving (107-130 and 131-148)
o Obstacles to learning (124-126, 145-156, and 167-168)
o Psychology of learning (134-1e39)
o Learning Cognition: Discrimination (142-146, 159-163, and 175-194)
o Interleaving (163-171)
o The brain during sleep (195-212)
o Learning: Essential Questions (223-238)

Here’s my take on Carey’s book:

1. People must be self-motivated to learn.
2. They learn more when focused on whatever interests them.
3. Achieving that objective is the reward they value most.
4. People learn more when they learn with others, in collaboration.
5. The more people explain something to others, the better they will understand it.

Ben Carey concludes his book with a Q&A section, responding to many of the questions you may have. (I had them and others before I began to read it.) Here is one question of special interest to me: “Is there any effective strategy for improving performance on longer-term creative projects?” That is an excellent question and his answer to it again stresses the importance spacing one’s efforts. “Simply put: Start [longer-term creative projects] as early as possible, and give yourself permission to walk away. Deliberate interruption is not the same as quitting. On the contrary, stopping work on a big, complicated presentation, term paper or composition activates [or re-activates] the project in your mind, and you’ll begin to see and hear all sorts of things in your daily life that are relevant. You’ll also be more tuned into what you think about those random, incoming clues. This is all fodder for your project — it’s interruption working in your favor [rather than as a distraction] — though you do need to return to the desk or drafting table before too long.”

Those who purchase this book expecting Carey to reveal a “secret sauce,” secrets, short cuts, etc. to accelerate their learning process will be very disappointed. This is not a book for intellectual dilettantes. There really is a “science of learning” and it requires the same rigor and focus that the study of physics or calculus does. The best works of non-fiction offer a journey of personal journey. To those who are about to read this brilliant book, I offer a heartfelt “Bon voyage!

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