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In the tradition of The Power of Habit and Thinking Fast and Slow comes a practical playful and endlessly fascinating guide to what we really know about learning and memory today—and how we can apply it to our own lives  From an early age it is drilled into our heads Restlessness distraction and ignorance are the enemies of success We’re told that learning is all self discipline that we must confine ourselves to designated study areas turn off the music and maintain a strict ritual if we want to ace that test memorize that presentation or nail that piano recital   But what if almost everything we were told about learning is wrong? And what if there was a way to achieve with less effort?   In How We Learn award winning science reporter Benedict Carey sifts through decades of education research and landmark studies to uncover the truth about how our brains absorb and retain information What he discovers is that from the moment we are born we are all learning uickly efficiently and automatically; but in our zeal to systematize the process we have ignored valuable naturally enjoyable learning tools like forgetting sleeping and daydreaming Is a dedicated desk in a uiet room really the best way to study? Can altering your routine improve your recall? Are there times when distraction is good? Is repetition necessary? Carey’s search for answers to these uestions yields a wealth of strategies that make learning a part of our everyday lives—and less of a chore   By road testing many of the counterintuitive techniues described in this book Carey shows how we can flex the neural muscles that make deep learning possible Along the way he reveals why teachers should give final exams on the first day of class why it’s wise to interleave subjects and concepts when learning any new skill and when it’s smarter to stay up late prepping for that presentation than to rise early for one last cram session And if this reuires some suspension of disbelief that’s because the research defies what we’ve been told throughout our lives about how best to learn   The brain is not like a muscle at least not in any straightforward sense It is something else altogether sensitive to mood to timing to circadian rhythms as well as to location and environment It doesn’t take orders well to put it mildly If the brain is a learning machine then it is an eccentric one In How We Learn Benedict Carey shows us how to exploit its uirks to our advantage  Praise for How We Learn“This book is a revelation I feel as if I’ve owned a brain for fifty four years and only now discovered the operating manual”—Mary Roach bestselling author of Stiff and Gulp“A welcome rejoinder to the faddish notion that learning is all about the hours put in” —The New York Times Book Review   “A valuable entertaining tool for educators students and parents” —Shelf Awareness   “ How We Learn is than a new approach to learning; it is a guide to making the most out of life Who wouldn’t be interested in that?” —Scientific American   “I know of no other source that pulls together so much of what we know about the science of memory and couples it with practical practicable advice”—Daniel T Willingham professor of psychology at the University of Virginia


10 thoughts on “How We Learn The Surprising Truth About When Where and Why It Happens

  1. says:

    According to Benedict Carey a science reporter the way we THINK we learn is actually very different from the way we ACTUALLY learn About 95% of Carey’s book is a historical chronology of the clinical studies and science experiments that led to our current understanding of learning The remaining 5% contains the useful points and strategies you need to be a better learner Since I’m guessing almost all of us care very much about the useful 5% and very little of the historical 95% I’ve boiled down his central and most important points of application below1 Forgetting actually helps you learn This is the “Forget to Learn” theory When we forget something then try remember it again “retrieval” the memory then becomes stronger Forgetting is critical to the learning of new skills and the preservation of old ones2 We perform better on exams when we are in the same state of mind as when we studied People remember of what they studied when they return to that same study environment Since we can’t always predict the context in which we will need to perform we can help our studying and memory by varying the environment where we study The traditional advice to establish a strict practice routine is not advisable On the contrary Try another room altogether Another time of day Practice your musical instrument outside in the park in the woods Switch cafes Each alteration further enriches the skills rehearsed making them sharper and accessible for longer3 People learn and remember when they space their study time instead of concentrating it This is called “distributed learning” or “the spacing effect” The spacing effect is especially useful for memorizing new material Studying a new concept right after you learn it doesn’t deepen the memory much if at all Studying it an hour later or a day later does Cramming works fine in a pinch but doesn’t last Spacing does 4 The “fluency illusion” is the belief that because facts are easy to remember RIGHT NOW they will remain that way tomorrow or the next day It’s one of the reasons students will bomb a test they thought they would have aced The best way to overcome this illusion is to consistently engage in self testing Instead of memorizing a poem by reading it 20 times read it ten times constantly trying to recite it from memory as you go Testing yourself as you go amplifies the value of your study time 5 Pre testing is also an important study tool Even if you bomb a test on Day 1 of a class that experience alters how you subseuently take in the material during the rest of the semester On some kinds of tests especially multiple choice we learn from answering incorrectly—especially if given the correct answer soon afterwards Guessing wrong increases a person’s likelihood of answering correctly on a later test The act of guessing itself engages your mind in a demanding way than straight memorization deepening the imprint of the correct answer6 Many teachers have said you don’t really know a topic until you have to teach it yourself until you have to make it clear to someone else One effective study method is to explain the material either to yourself or to someone you know 7 The mind works on problems “off line” subconsciously when we’re not aware it’s happening Sometimes when we are stuck on a problem reuiring insight distractions can be a valuable weapon rather than a hindrance However people do not benefit from such an “incubation break” unless they have first reached an IMPASSE Knock off and play a videogame too soon and you get nothing Creative leaps often come during downtown that follows a period of immersion in a story or topic and they often come piecemeal not in any particular order and in varying size and importance 8 Interruptions are helpful to learning Interrupting yourself when absorbed in an assignment extends its life in memory and pushes it to the top of your mental to do list And once a goal is top of mind we are focused on accomplishing it 9 Just starting on a project gives that project the weight of a goal even if the actual work performed is minimal We should start work on large projects as soon as possible without the psychological burden of feeling like the project needs to be completed in one sitting It’s ok to stop when we get stuck with the confidence that we are not “uitting” but initiating a percolation period uitting before you’re ahead doesn’t actually put a project to sleep it keeps it awake 10 Varying your practice and studies known as “interleaving” is effective than concentrating on one skill or subject at a time because it forces us to be able to adjust and think uicker on the fly Constant repetition alone is less useful Mixing up practice with different tasks forces people to make continual adjustments building a general dexterity that sharpens each specific skill All that adjusting during mixed practice also enhances our ability to perform each skill regardless of context Also since tests themselves are mixed sets of problems it helps to make homework the same 11 Over time and with practice your brain develops “perceptual intuition” the ability to detect minute differences in sights sounds or textures The brain takes these tiny differences it has detected between similar looking signals and uses those to help decipher new previously unseen material Perceptual learning is happening all the time automatically and subconsciously 12 Sleeping improves retention and comprehension of what was studied the day before What happens during sleep according to recent theory is that you open the aperture of memory and are able to see the bigger picture There is evidence that REM sleep is a creative memory domain where you build different associations and combine things in different ways Sleep also improves pattern recognition creative problem solving and musclemotor memory Napping also provides slow wave deep sleep and REM sleep Conclusion Learning is a restless exercise and that restlessness applies not only to the timing of study sessions but also to their content ie the value of mixing up old and new material in a single sitting Given the dangers of fluency or misplaced confidence exposed ignorance is like a cushioned fall The experience acts as a reminder to check and recheck what you assume you know The mind is a forager for information for strategies for clever ways to foil other species’ defenses and live off the land That’s the academy where our brains learned to learn and it defines how we came to be human Learning is what we do


  2. says:

    I’ve read plenty of books on how to improve memory and academic performance and I can confidently say that this one is the best so far All the information here is original and explained in great detail Among the techniues Carey offers to improve memory and academic performance is persistent practice breaking up study time incubation and self testing The length of the book wasn’t too long or too short either I’m glad I was recommended this book


  3. says:

    Why So SeriousWe all “know” we need to be organized to develop good consistent study routines to find a uiet place and avoid distractions to focus on one skill at a time and above all to concentrate on our work What’s to uestion about that?Carey begins this book with the allegation that most of our instincts about learning are misplaced incomplete or flat wrong It goes like this Want to procrastinate? GoodCan’t focus? GoodNo fixed schedule? GoodCan’t study in a fixed place? GoodForget stuff too easily? GoodCrave distractions? GoodLazy and sleepy? GoodOur worst habits the ones we try so hard to overcome it turns out are our brains shortcuts to super learning YaayCarey tells us that we need no longer think of these “bad” habits as evidence of laziness or a waste of time or worst of all a failure of will You can think of all of them as learning too with your eyes closed while sleeping for example It is when we push against these natural learning mechanisms that we go sub optimal in our effortsIn short we misidentify the sources of our frustration that we get in our own way unnecessarily all the time That is why learning becomes difficult We just need to learn to get out of our own way often and let our naturally greedy brain gorge itself on all the learning it needs Think about it for a second Distraction diversion catnaps interruptions—these aren’t mere footnotes mundane details in an otherwise purposeful life That’s your ten year old interrupting or your dog or your mom That restless urge to jump up is hunger or thirst the diversion a TV show that’s integral to your social group You took that catnap because you were tired and that break because you were stuck These are the stitches that hold together our daily existence; they represent life itself not random deviations from it Our study and practice time needs to orient itself around them—not the other way aroundLet go of what you feel you should be doing all that repetitive over scheduled driven focused ritual Let go and watch how the presumed enemies of learning—ignorance distraction interruption restlessness even uitting—can work in your favorGet out of your own way and INDULGE That is when you will learn bestLearning is after all what you do Learning is Life and nothing comes naturally to you


  4. says:

    Probably the most informative book I have read in years I was amazed at the information it contains and how it was written for ready comprehension It stands the traditional ideas on learning on end and provides a solid basis for the knowledge it provides I especially liked the appendix which summarized the information from the entire book into practical guidelines for use I will make sure many members of my family get a copy of this book It is valuable for all ages


  5. says:

    Another excellent book on learning science The book covers much of the same ground as Make It Stick the Science of Successful Learning—desirable difficulty the necessity of forgetting in learning testing as a learning techniue illusion of knowing and spaced varied practice—but the emphasis is on the practical side of learning and offers some concepts studies and insights not found in Make It Stick Some of the things I took away from this book and will be applying to my own learning and teaching include1 Interleavedvaried practice The book drives home the clear advantage of varied—or random—practice over massed or even serial practice even though the learners thought otherwiseThe reasons for the advantage are not known The effect may simply come from simulating the real situation a math problem on the real test where you don't know which euations to apply or a badminton game where you have to hit the shuttlecock from varied spots Meaning it might be restricted to those cases where you can expect some degree of randomness which would theoretically speaking counter what Taleb calls the ludic fallacy where skills and concepts drawn from a well ordered environment don't and can't work in a chaotic environment Or maybe you learn better because your brain has to make effort and adjustments when dealing with different skillsconceptsproblems Or it might be that the brain learns better from differences than from of the same thing Whatever the real reasons though I'd like to try applying it to at least two of my learning areas 1 reading multiple books at the same time; and 2 writing different things—fiction essay poetry—in one sitting For the former like in the painting studies I will be reading at least two books from a similar genre two to three poetry books from different authors for example as well as books from different genres eg history philosophy fiction2 Context While it's true you remember better in the same internal state you were in eg high caffeine buzzed or drunk when you learned something one effective way of countering this is to introduce contextual interference where you vary the locationenvironment in which you study By studying in a variety of situationslocations you become independent of the environmentI'll be experimenting with this and try to readwrite at different cafeslibraries3 Incubation and the importance of distraction when it comes to problems and projects involving insights or Aha moments Takeaway when you reach an impasse in some problem and you have to reach an impasse for this to work it's actually productive to take a break and do something else The kind of activity that's effective in initiating the process of incubation depends on the kind of problem you're dealing with any activity—relaxing eg lying on the couch mildly active eg surfing the Internet and highly engaging eg writing a short essay—is effective for math or spatial problems mild activity video games solitaire TV works best for problems involving language On the whole longer breaks about 20min are better than shorter ones 5 10minI sort of knew this from experience and from another study on the subconscious but it's good to know I've been doing the right thing 4 Percolation For long term projects it's actually good to interrupt your activity because anything interrupted lingers in your mind and you'll be scanning the environment for any hintsclues to solving the problem or improving the project5 Perceptual learning immediate feedback This is sort of an application of deliberate practice involving immediate feedback but you can learn something subconsciously by studying a bunch of slides and getting the answer right away Application being able to distinguish different painting styles without—and this is the fascinating part—knowing exactly why Would like to try with 20th century paintings myself6 Sleep Achieving higher understanding and memory consolidation after a night's sleep I knew this from another book Josh Kaufman's The First 20 Hours7 Spaced practice Good numbers to remember a when trying to memorize something spend about 13 of the time studying and 23 rehearsing recalling from memory; b to memorize vocab or any fact it's best to review the material 1 or 2 days later then a week later and a month later; c max interval for lifetime learning is once every 2 months d Optimal study intervals Time to test 1 week; first study interval 1 2 days meaning study today then again tomorrow or the day after tomorrow and if you want to add a third session study the day before the test1 month today 1 week from today then about 3 weeks later on the day before the test3 months 2 weeks6 months 3 weeks1 year 1 monthOverall another highly recommended book on learning


  6. says:

    An informative overview of research on memory covering The enormous benefits of spaced repetition The benefits of being repeatedly tested which sometimes greatly outweigh re studying even when you're not told the results The benefits of interleaving different types of material and the remarkable fact that people believe they're learning less but are actually learning much The fluency illusion ie the sense that people have that they're learning a lot when it's all going uickly and well but in fact they may be learning when things seem difficult and slow The benefits of varying your environmentI wish the book had dug down into details of various effects There is a lot of variation in how well things like spaced repetition work depending on the type of memories being formed It would have been nice to see an overview of some of the differencesThe book is also short on discussion of how to act on the advice At an individual level it'd be nice to have better systems for taking advantage of these ideasStill a very good introduction to much of this work


  7. says:

    Good book It’s an interesting topic and I learned uite a bit which I suppose was the point It’s very readable with concrete examples and examples of problems and the like I wish I’d had this in school unfortunately it came out just after I got done with grad school and exams Still it never hurts to learn how to learn so I recommend this book


  8. says:

    I'd definitely recommend this to someone who hasn't yet ventured into the learning how to learn territory but as someone who has taken multiple courses on this topic I barely found any new information Though the writing style's great simple fun and accessible


  9. says:

    Audible versionFirstly this was a struggle at times probably through the frustration of my own powers of learningrecall If you’re going to use this book for personalself improvement or you want to use its lessons in your own classroom then an audible version is immensely confounding – as I wanted to make notes and highlights continuously and walking to and from work whilst listening didn’t allow me to easily do this I also hated the attempts of the narrator to mimic the Irish accent or when uoting research from a woman attempt a somewhat high pitched parodyBut and it’s a big but this book was outstanding It collects a wealth of research personal experience and learning and puts them together in a manner which is easy to understand and logically builds from one concept to another It is so good that as soon as I finished I downloaded the kindle version so I can read it again and this time make notesIn fact it is so good that when the voice at the end says “we hope you enjoyed this book” I actually said “Yes” – out loudThere’s a lot here and it’s all good


  10. says:

    As soon as we shift focus from teaching to learning understanding how our brains acuire information becomes paramount The easy going storytelling style of this book belies its depth and importance; this is a book about how brain cells form hold onto and retrieve new informationHow we do learn often differs from how we may have been taught to learn Schoolmarms would be very surprised to find out what actually works Here are some of the unusual conclusions developed in the book Forgetting is essential to learning Recall is improved in an environment similar to where we originally learned the material Breaking up study time into several sessions spaced out over time—distributed learning—works better than a single continuous study session Testing is a powerful form of studying Taking a test before studying the material improves the overall learning process Problem solving often occurs in four distinct stages preparation incubation illumination and verification Distraction—stepping away from the problem—is important to allow incubation to occur subconsciously Interrupting an activity before it is completed helps in recalling the activity Interleaving tasks—practicing skills in a random seuence—deepens learning and better prepares us to transfer those skills to settings Perceptual learning methods tap our subconscious to discriminate or classify things that look similar to the untrained eye but are critically different to the trained eye Sleep aids memoryThe book clearly presents convincing arguments for abandoning several traditional study rules and adopting new rules based on solid scientific research The many studies supporting the conclusions are presented as fun to read stories Although the author may extrapolate general conclusions from a few studies and rarely presents opposing viewpoints the arguments are convincing The book is clearly written accessible fun to read and provides important new guidance on how we actually do learn