How We Learn

How We Learn

The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

Book - 2014
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From an early age, we are told that restlessness, distraction, and ignorance are the enemies of success. Learning is all self-discipline, so we must confine ourselves to designated study areas, turn off the music, and maintain a strict ritual. But what if almost everything we were told about learning is wrong? And what if there was a way to achieve more with less effort? Here, award-winning science reporter Benedict Carey sifts through decades of education research to uncover the truth about how our brains absorb and retain information. What he discovers is that, from the moment we are born, we all learn quickly, 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 quiet 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 questions yields a wealth of strategies that make learning more a part of our everyday lives--and less of a chore.--From publisher description.
Publisher: New York :, Random House,, [2014]
Edition: First edition.
ISBN: 9780812993882
Branch Call Number: 153.15 CA
Characteristics: xvi, 254 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm


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Dec 24, 2017

How We Learn. An excellent history and survey of the field.
The author does a great job covering the modern history regarding the science of learning. This science is not well known by the public and even educators. And, its findings are often counterintuitive.

For instance, forgetting contributes to learning because it is an information filter. Your mind deletes information it does not need to leave more space for the learning you need. Also, a little forgetting facilitates encoding the learned information in a much stronger way. As the author states on pg. 40: “Forgetting is critical to the learning of new skills and to the preservation and reacquisition of old ones.”

The evolution of this science is most interesting as it went through somewhat contradicting chronological steps.

In the late 1800s, Hermann Ebbinghaus came up with the Forgetting Curve. He essentially measured how much material we forget over time. And, according to his measurements we forget a lot and really fast. After only an hour we forget over half of what we learned. After a month, we forget close to 80%.

In the early 1900s, Philip Boswood Ballard’s experiments contradicted the Forgetting Curve, as he demonstrated that we actually remember more over time. He called this phenomena “Reminiscence.”

However, the Forgetting Curve and Reminiscence are not contradictory. The Forgetting Curve applies to rather random facts like attempting to learn a bunch of phone numbers or other rather meaningless material (Ebbinghaus had tested his subject with nonsense syllables. The brain had no way to make encoding association with such material). Reminiscence applies to more meaningful material of the type you are exposed to through academia. Reminiscence is also very strong when considering visual information (famous art pieces, etc.). The Bjorks formulated that memory has two dimensions: a storage strength and a retrieval strength. Reminiscence applies to storage strength (long term memory not so quick to access) and the Forgetting Curve to retrieval strength (short term memory, working memory). Memories are stored for a long time. But, they are often not readily retrievable without reinforcement or reuse of that specific memory.

After reviewing the basic mechanics of memory. The author describes numerous scientific based tactics on how to improve learning and overall thinking processes. The main ones include:

- Study at repeated intervals (distributive effect) instead of studying in bigger chunk of uninterrupted time. On pg. 77, the author share a table of what are the optimal intervals given how much time is left before you are taking the test (chapter 4).

- Test your knowledge early in the learning process to uncover clearly what you don’t know. And, test yourself often throughout the learning process. Self-testing is a lot more fruitful than highlighting, redrafting outlines, etc. that are considered “passive” and weak learning techniques vs. the self-testing technique that is truly “active” and encodes the information so much better. (chapter 5).

- When dealing with a challenging problem, the author reviews the equivalent of thinking processes sequential steps associated with the essence of the scientific method. These include: 1) preparation; 2) incubation; 3) illumination; 4) verification. (chapter 6).
Interleaving. This means introducing randomness in the learning, teaching, and testing process. This is especially effective in identifying different art movements when observing paintings or changing practice modes when studying music (switching from scales, to theory, to pieces, etc.).

- Interleaving can have broad implication in learning different subjects including math, and other academic disciplines, and numerous sport activities. (chapter 8).

Jun 23, 2016

A refreshing look at learning strategies that are supposed to make learning more efficient and less of a chore. I will definitely give some of these techniques a try and it felt good to get confirmation on some learning techniques that have always felt instinctively right or wrong.

Dec 08, 2014

This isn't a bad book, but not a great one, it is an OK book. If you were doing a field survey, I would suggest including this one. For a great, awesome and fantastic book on this subject, Prof. Barbara Oakley's book, A Mind For Numbers is the one to read!


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