I keep up fairly well with research in the field of psychology and learning in particular, so much of this information was not entirely new and surprising to me, but Benedict Carey does a great job of pulling a lot of different research together and presenting it a practical way. This is more a guide to what is known than a self-help book, but it will definitely be of use both to teachers and students who want to understand how to study more effectively.
A couple of take-aways--half-forgetting and then re-learning, especially by trying to remember, make the thing you are trying to learn really stick. So as a teacher, when I start class on Monday and ask students to recall what it was we were working on last Friday, that is not just review--that is learning. It would be best, I suppose, if instead of asking the whole class and letting one or two students do the hard work, I had everyone try their best to write down what the remember about passive voice or the subjunctive.
That brings up another great point that he makes--that testing, quizzing, and self-testing are highly effective ways not of evaluating but of actually learning. This helps to overcome what he calls the Fluency Illusion, and what I have long called the "smile-and-nod" level of understanding. IN other words, when the teacher is doing math problems on the board and you are watching, you understand--you smile and nod and think, ok, yeah, sure, I get it. It is only when the tables are turned and the teacher says, Ok, now you try it, that the gaps in understanding are revealed.
So if you are studying for a test on state capitals, let's say, and you see Georgia: Atlanta, you think right, sure. But it's not until someone says Georgia and you can say Atlanta that you actually know it. And each time you test yourself, or have someone else test you, you are retrieving and then re-storing that memory, making it more salient. I would go so far as to suggest that one difference between middle-class kids and poor kids in school is that middle-class parents often quiz their kids on their school-work. "Let's go over those state capitals together," and less-educated parents probably don't. That could be enough to make a big difference, since this is such a powerful learning tool.
He also reports on interesting work on how location and distraction can help rather than hurt our learning--studying in a variety of places, with varying amounts of distraction can help us remember more. And spaced practice works better than intense practice. IN other words, if you have one hour to learn the capitals of all the countries in Europe, or the parts of the hand, it would be better to do 3 20-minute sessions, especially if you sleep between at least two of the sessions, than to do all 60 minutes at once. And what about cramming? We don't really need research to tell us this, but yes, it works if your only goal is to pass the test, but if you actually want to learn the material, it is worthless. You forget it as fast as you "learned" it.
One great point to this book is that he covers widely diverse fields of study--from physical skills like a golf swing or a tennis serve, to complex skills like flying a plane, to rote memorization, such as vocabulary or state capitals., to comprehension of difficult concepts like economics or physics. Many of the techniques he describes apply across the board, and others are more particular to certain types of learning. For example, for physical performance (a piano recital or a baseball tryout, you do better if you sleep in a bit, getting plenty of the kind of sleep that occurs towards morning. For memory like a vocabulary test, it's better to get plenty of the early-stage sleep, so go to bed on time and get up early in the morning to review. Your brain does a lot of memory consolidation while you sleep, and specific types in specific stages.
One point that he doesn't directly address but that I am familiar with the research on is whether it's better to memorize large things as a whole or in chunks. For example, if you are an actor, or you want to memorize a long poem or speech, should you work on the first sentence, and then the second sentence, and so on, or should you go through the whole thing each time. The answer is that you should do it whole--it will feel like you're not getting anywhere at first, but suddenly, the whole thing will be in there This fits with what he says about inter-leaving---practicing a variety of different things in each session rather than chunking it all together--master skill A before moving on to skill B. No, it's better to do some A, some B, and some C, even though it will feel like you aren't making progress at first.
I recommend this book to every teacher of any subject, and to anyone who is a student at any level, and to parents, who worry that their kids are too distracted and unfocused in the way they study--turns out that distraction and lack of focus can serve you well!
on October 30, 2014
Benedict Carey's "How We Learn" is focused on the process of enhancing and exercising our memories in order to achieve positive results in memorization. He goes in depth in helping his readers enhance their memories through several techniques, in order to register, store and retrieve information. Most of us are not aware that our brains are capable of so much, but Benedict Carey makes the process look easy. Some of his techniques range from beginners techniques, to more advanced. I pretty much have the beginners techniques down pact; I would like to divulge into the more advanced techniques, as enhancing my memory has become a number one priority in my life.
Repetition, according to Benedict, is a vital part in helping us to enhance the memory. We must train our brains, in a way, so that certain things we may forget become more and more routine to us. For example, I sometimes forget to lock all the doors in my house before going to sleep. If I am aware of this and practice locking the doors each and every night, soon enough it will become routine to me and I'll no longer forget to do it.
I read this book, in conjunction with Greg Frosts book, "Maximizing Brain Control : Unleash The Genius In You", and I'm starting to feel more confident and knowledgeable in learning about the human brain and how to store and retrieve information. Both are excellent resources and combined, can truly work wonders for you if you take them serious and truly want to enhance your brain capacity.
Good Habits is a key technique both books teach. If you can associate certain things with something you are more familiar with, you are more likely to start remembering as time goes on. Problem Solving is a third technique in which Benedict explains. If you can train your brain to solve the problem that need to be completed, we also learn the upside of distraction.
He also provides dietary advice that can help to improve our memory. Most of us would not think or believe that sleep actually plays a vital role in our brain function and memorization, but it does. Something as simple as making small changes in our lifestyle can actually enhance our memories.
There's plenty of information here to work with. How to be a better learner seems to be a big trend in recent books. In the past couple of months I've read Fluent Forever (about language learning) and A Mind For Numbers (about being a good student, particularly in math and science) and they've all been released at the same time. They're also all, I'm very happy to say, strongly grounded in real research, rather than just making up some interesting-sounding notions about what might work (I have certainly seen books that did that...)
I would have to say that someone who wants to be a great student ASAP is probably better off reading A Mind For Numbers first. That book takes you by the hand and leads you through the ideas about what you need to DO a lot more specifically. It makes very frequent references to research, but it's plainly written with the intention of being a guide for people who are taking and really need to hone in on exactly what to do NOW, because there are tests coming up. It leads you through the material by the hand, pretty much, asking you questions and reminding you to stop and think about what you've read. It also has a (free) online MOOC through Coursera to go with it that covers/reinforces the same material.
Fluent Forever, in its effort to teach people how to learn languages, makes use of some of the same research, but shapes it to its topic. It offers a sort of general idea of how you should proceed, but the emphasis is on giving you a basic plan and just enough understanding of the research so that you can make good decisions about how to move forward with it.
I feel like How We Learn is a little farther down the spectrum in that same direction. Most of its emphasis is on teaching you the research (some of which is the same research cited by the other two), with an assumption that you'll be able to make reasonable decisions about how to put it into practice. So he goes over exactly why it is NOT a good idea to learn a new math trick by doing 50 problems in a row that use that trick. He touches on how it can be put into practice, but it isn't something he dwells on. This vs A Mind for Numbers is sort of like... one being a professor who teaches key points but assumes that the students are capable of drawing some reasonable conclusions on their own, and the other being a professor who strives to touch on every single possible issue that might be of importance. It's a very different style.
For someone who's actually writing a paper on learning or something of that nature, I suspect this will be more valuable. For someone who is actively taking classes or trying to learn a language, I'd say read either A Mind for Numbers or Fluent Forever first, because they'll get you going on making progress faster. Then, it certainly wouldn't hurt to come back to review some of the concepts and generally deepen your understanding overall by reading How We Learn. (If you're not taking classes and you just love teaching yourself new things, you might want to skip A Mind for Numbers. It puts a lot of emphasis on things like dealing with procrastination, which is very valuable, but not really a core issue if you're learning for pleasure and there aren't really any deadlines to speak of.)
How We Learn is an enjoyable enough book that doesn't have nearly as much to do with learning as it does memorization. The majority of the studies cited in this book have to do with memorizing what is largely random data that is not necessarily of use in real life. There are a number of practical pieces of advice for studying and retaining (any type of) information, but honestly, these could have been easily summarized in just a few pages. Just as often, these studies leave us with more questions than answers and in no case do the people conducting the studies have any evidence proving WHY some methods of study lead to better memory retention than others. There are a lot of theories in the book, but at this chapter in human history the brain is so little understood that most theories on memory retention are hardly better than educated guesses.
What this book is NOT is a step-by-step, how-to manual on how to learn more effectively. The process of learning is a lot different than just memorizing facts, although you probably wouldn't know that from taking a look at this country's horrible education system. I did enjoy reading the information that was in the book. It did have a few useful tips and some facts about memorization that I had not know about previously. It definitely was not what I was expecting based upon its title, description or many of the reviews I have read here though.
Consider all the advice your teachers, parents, tutors, and friends gave when you struggled in school. "Just concentrate." "Eliminate distractions." "Practice, practice, until you get it right." "Pick a spot to do your studying." "Get your homework done first; go out and play later." How did those suggestions work for you? Probably as well as they did for me. Surely some scientist somewhere has researched better ways to learn.
Science journalist Benedict Carey admits early that we still don't understand how the human brain makes new connections. The neural processes that allow our minds to process information and draw meaningful conclusions remain shrouded in mystery. But we have substantial evidence that certain practices yield significant benefits. Some results confirm what your Momma told you years ago. Others may take you by surprise.
Early researchers in learning theory made important discoveries about human mental limitations. But these discoveries circumscribed our understanding, because they focused new research on blind alleys: research on forgetting, for instance, inadvertently precluded research into positive memory. Carey's historical panorama demonstrates how mistaken notions planted themselves in our learning expectations, and how the sea change in learning and neurology over the last generation offers massive reversals to these false boundaries.
The conventional wisdom about knuckling down, avoiding distractions, and letting one task absorb you with single-minded ferocity, Carey writes, arises not from academia, but from Puritan religious devotion. What works for prayer doesn't necessarily work for learning. Carey describes, with surprising specificity, the educational benefits of short-segment learning, occasional diversions, and a multi-subject curriculum. He even advocates for the educational benefits of afternoon naps.
Some of these "discoveries" will surprise nobody who follows science news. Recent discoveries regarding sleep's value in the cognitive process have gotten prime media coverage. But amid popular hysteria over social media, Carey's discoveries about the educational value of occasional Facebook and Twitter time, and other electronic distractions, seem downright shocking. The key, Carey says, isn't whether we use social media ever; it's how our usage relates to other activities.
Humans learn best under conditions of stress, apparently. In my teaching days, I often tried to ease student tensions, playing the "you can do it" coach, helping students master certain skills before commencing onto others. But Carey reveals that leaving projects incomplete heightens our ability to process new information and collect evidence. Switching up practice before mastering a skill actually gives us more real-world proficiency. Softening learning's edges helps nobody.
Carey's discoveries blatantly upend ideas we often consider "common sense." Imagine the common myth of the lone genius, hunched over the same desk daily, repeatedly conjugating Latin verbs until complete mastery dawns. Now discard that myth, because its two most important components, geographical fixity and single-minded repetition, are flat damn wrong. We learn best, Carey demonstrates, by varying our study locations and diversifying our practice regimes.
Similarly, concepts our parents taught us to avoid, we should actually embrace. While abandoning incomplete projects dooms them to failure, taking an afternoon away, even with important work waiting, opens our minds to new opportunities. Likewise, testing, which we usually do at the end of learning (and which we revile as Common Core polarizes parents), actually has important benefits if we test students (or ourselves) at the beginning of learning.
Despite his fondness for the newest research, Carey emphasizes how certain time-honored techniques actually foster better learning. I grew up among the final generation widely expected to memorize classic literature, like Hamlet's soliloquies or the Gettysburg Address, so Carey's explication of memorization hit me hard. Memorizing classic literature, or even newly composed content, forces learners to internalize, not just the words, but the mental processes which made those words possible.
Nor does Carey simply tell us what other researchers have already discovered. He situates each discovery in a context of application. He offers varying techniques by which children and their parents, professional teachers, and adult learners can utilize these discoveries. These include mental puzzles he posits, but leaves unsolved, and lessons learned during his own adult attempts to master Spanish guitar. Carey brings both content and verve to these recommendations.
Carey admits early, and repeats often, that gaps in our knowledge of human learning exceed what we actually know. So much awaits discovery; the human mind remains uncharted territory, and the narrative we've devised to link together what we do know will certainly get revised. Yet even incomplete, Carey's exposé of human learning capacity will force massive, rapid re-evaluation of our prejudices, and hopefully, wider distribution of wisdom.
on March 9, 2015
Perhaps my sights were set too high, but from a book ambitiously titled "How We Learn," I was expecting at least a nod to the broader literature on cognitive and learning issues, or for that matter to recent general-interest treatments of the subject. Conceivably Carey might have updated Howard Gardner's "The Mind's New Science" (1985)—but virtually none of the work described in that landmark survey of cognitive psychology makes it into this comparatively myopic survey. No Piaget or Bruner, no Newell or Minsky, no Chomsky or Winograd. Not to mention Montessori or Dewey or other foundational teacher-thinkers. And no mention of research-based CAI (computer-assisted instruction) paradigms, as if that field never existed. No doubt I'm showing my age, but the point is that when it comes to understanding How We Learn, there's a whole forest of legiitmate experience and inquiry to draw upon, which Carey has largely ignored for a few green shoots he calls trees.
Much of the research described here was both new and intriguing to me. That said, the lack of context or background leads me to wonder whether the book truly reflects either current consensus or cutting-edge thinking. Carey tends to highlight the work of a few researchers he has personally interviewed (e.g. Bjork, Gazzaniga, Smith) and seems to have pursued mainly the literature that feeds or complements their particular lines of inquiry. Not to cast aspersions on their impressive work, but it feels as if Carey cherry-picked the research to support some of his own experiential "conclusions" about learning styles. He seems to have jumped in with all four feet and extrapolated a variety of tips and tricks which he claims (without independent verification) will produce learning benefits. Authors of self-help books have been doing this for decades. Your actual mileage may vary.
There is nothing wrong with a book that connects current research with practical advice. This is a noble attempt to do just that, and I respect the author's treatment of the subject, as far as it goes. It is a well-written book, an enjoyable read. But if looking to help yourself, you can skip the two hundred pages of meandering through a sliver of the research literature. Jump instead to the book's six-page appendix ("Eleven Essential Questions") and ponder its concise advice. You may find it applies to your own learning tasks, or can help your kids or others you mentor.
Still, it will be up to you to work out if/how Carey's dicta apply to you, or to any particular student. It's all well and good to say, "Vary your study environment"—but the typical kid has one or two places to do homework, and a few hours a day to do it; not a lot of options to vary. And sure, if you carefully budget your time in advance, you might consciously space out your study sessions; but getting kids to plan ahead in the first place is the real hurdle.
Carey is targeting a much more mature student, most likely already doing college-level course work, who's looking for 10 to 30% gains in efficiency or long-term retention. I think it's great to monitor and experiment with your own learning environment and the approaches you use. But the book would have been infinitely more valuable if it had started with the six pages of sage advice, then expanded into practical guidance on the monitoring and experimenting tasks. Separate chapters could have targeted learners in different ages and stages of the lifelong learning process, coaching them on how to put theory into practice.
To end on a dyspeptic note: After reading all 100+ Amazon reviews, it's clear to me that cognitive scientists are not reading (or at least not deigning to review) this book. As for the general audience, many seem to think they have learned something from it... and if it has stimulated some folks to think about thinking, I can't find fault. It is a self-help book, after all. However, many reviews are illiterate enough, naive enough, and/or blatantly wrong enough to substantiate Carey's assertion that "we" (collectively) have a lot of misconceptions about our own learning process. It seems many readers believe that this book has given them a grounding in contemporary learning theory. Sorry, but that would be misconception. Take a look at Howard Gardner's time capsule of a book, if only to glimpse the forest of ideas out there. And post here if you know a more recent survey of comparable worth.
Memory and learning are not the same thing, but How We Learn tries to unite them. The first half of the book is about innumerable ways people try to memorize. And there as many studies as there are ways. Cramming will let you remember things the next day, but like a telephone number you learn in a bar, it vaporizes soon after. The best way to memorize is to take lots of breaks; change subjects, follow a distraction, even sleep. They are all proven to give better results than marathon memorizing. Studies show twice as much.
Carey says the human brain has the capacity to store the equivalent of three million television shows, which translates into every moment of an entire lifetime. Retrieving all that data however, is problematic. We don’t do that very well. But it’s there. That’s why you might suddenly remember something that happened in childhood that you hadn’t thought of in years, but comes back clearly while thinking about something else entirely. There was an association there. That’s why your brain called it up, but you probably missed it.
Learning is more than memorizing. Learning means you internalize facts, methods and images, and you manipulate them as needed to your advantage. So breaking up learning sessions by applying the knowledge allows you to take ownership of it; it’s all yours if you go farther than just memorizing. There is a disused saying that if you use a new word in three sentences, it’s yours forever. Turns out there’s truth in that.
The learning portion of the book is also a constant emphasis on interleaving, varying activities so that learning one thing is not the only activity. Study after study after study after study shows that the more varied things test subjects do, the more they learn what researchers want them to. This includes having to think about applying what has been learned, diverting to some other subject, and even sleeping.
But with all the studies he explores, Carey never examines the interleaving of mind-altering drugs. There is an entire school of thought that claims the mind-expanding properties of certain chemicals leads to far greater mental processing and creativity than say, cramming for an exam. Great scientists, authors and artists publicly claim they solved problems or had eureka insights or created masterpieces thanks to a session with some drug or other. It should be mentioned if only to dismiss it. But Carey ignores it.
Another learning area Carey doesn’t explore is categorization compared to association. Our brains are pre-tech. They don’t know about number and letter combinations. They don’t file things alphabetically or by date. They file them by association. Just recently (May 2014), San Diego hosted a memorizing contest with acclaimed contestants from around the world. The winners all used the same method: they pictured a scene they liked while memorizing a list of numbers or letters or syllables or words. When they recalled the scene, there were the test letters, ready to be repeated. This turns out to be the standard practice of all the great memory experts. It leverages the brain’s own method of image association, because that’s how we work internally. So taking in the surroundings where you’re memorizing is a hugely important factor in how much you remember.
Burying your head in a book or a screen – not so much.
Categorization vs analogy is something Douglas Hofstader beat to death in Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking, but Carey doesn’t give him or it any ink.
How We Learn has far too much padding for my tastes. Carey loves to give lists of examples, and he likes to get chatty with the reader. It diminishes the impact and slows you down. The studies go on ad infinitum.
The bottom line is we can memorize, but we learn best if we use our brains to employ what we’ve memorized. Otherwise the memory disappears – the next day or the next week or the next month. This is no breakthrough.
on December 30, 2014
This was a difficult book to review. On the one hand it was well-written with entertaining stories of learning research and anecdotes from the author's personal repertoire. On the other hand the nuggets identifying the best studying strategies were obscured by being enmeshed within all of the other text. The closest thing to a list of study strategies was left to an appendix entitled "Eleven Essential Question." So, for anybody who just wants to get learning strategies without the stories, just check the book out from the library and read the 6 pages in the appendix. If you want more, then read the whole book.
This book explains a number of classic research studies on various topics related to human memory and learning. Carey is a science reporter for the New York Times with many years experience writing about scientific topics. In this book, he discusses many of the key research studies that define the core of the scientific literature on human memory and learning, all in an informal tone that is easily accessible to general readers. The book is divided into 4 sections: basic theory (basic brain anatomy relevant for memory and learning), retention (memorization and rote learning), problem solving, and tapping the subconscious (intuition). Each of these sections contains 2-3 chapters discussing particular facets of the topic, going straight back to the original key research in the field, breezing through later developments, and applying the sum of findings to Carey's own learning experiences, as well as some suggestions of how one might apply the findings to improve your learning. The text is illustrated with a few simple drawings to demonstrate particular research tests. End matter consists of a short appendix with some specific ideas of how to apply the research findings, presented in question and answer format, and endnotes citing the original research papers discussed in the text.
I found this book quite informative as well as easy to read. Carey's style nearly lost me in the first few chapters, though, as I couldn't see where he was going with his personal stories of learning successes and failures. The very personal beginning leads right in to the lengthy section on memorization and rote learning. I was becoming impatient by the time I got to the end of that section, since learning, real learning, is so much more than simple memorization. However, Carey's excursions into learning didn't end with memorization—he plowed forward with other key topics such as problem solving, intuition, and sleep. In the end, I came away very impressed with the book, with how Carey presented the key source literature going back to the 1800s on each specific topic in such an accessible manner. He touches on all the topics and figures covered in a standard memory and learning psychology course—Ebbinghouse, Luring and Shereshevsky, HM, Aserinsky, yet he uses his journalist skills to get to the very source of each development, uncover angles that are often overlooked, and pulls all the details together into one coherent story. Carey's inclusion of his personal learning experiences promotes self-reflection, which as Carey points out, further promotes retention of the material. Overall, this is a thoughtful book, and very well researched. It would be an excellent choice for book discussion groups or as a supplemental text to undergraduate or high school courses on the psychology of learning, as well as simply interesting for general readers.
on March 30, 2015
What's interesting to me about this book - and the title itself - is how learning is almost entirely discussed in the context of memorization and retention. This idea, which I realize might be physiologically true, almost seems quaint especially when describing the strategies that students might use to retain information that they can then use on tests. Or retain information that they will likely never even use again despite the fact that they are required to absorb it and prove their mastery of it to matriculate and qualify for university (or simply move to the next grade). I worry that the arguments in Mr. Carey's book will reinforce this idea that success or failure in school is a result of success or failure in applying the right strategies for remembering things. We all know that you really learn something when you can apply it to an authentic task or project. You can memorize the manual for talking apart and putting back together a car engine, but you'll never be able to actually learn how to do that until you, well, do it. I suppose the same goes for the Pythagorean Theorem. Who really cares if a2 + b2 = c2 if you can't actually apply it somewhere in the world? So I was a bit disappointed that so much attention was paid to learning theory but so little mention was made of the ways we actually learn and how little attention is paid to that in schools. True, you can learn to recite entire passages of Shakespeare (and that might be a fun thing to do and a handy parlor trick) but what does that have to do with the sort of problem solving that results from really getting inside something? Until you have acquired tacit knowledge, not just explicit knowledge? I almost felt a bit of relief when I read the final sentence "Learning is, after all, what you do" until I realized that I was totally misinterpreting it.