How we learn the surprising truth

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how we learn the surprising truth

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey

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 below:

1. 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 ones.

2. We perform better on exams when we are in the same state of mind as when we studied. People remember more 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 more accessible for longer.

3. People learn and remember more 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 subsequently 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 more demanding way than straight memorization, deepening the imprint of the correct answer.

6. 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 requiring 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 more 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 “quitting” but initiating a percolation period. Quitting 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 more effective than concentrating on one skill or subject at a time, because it forces us to be able to adjust and think quicker 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 muscle/motor 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, i.e., 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.
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Ben Carey discusses his life and his Book "How We Learn"

Editorial Reviews. Review. “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. For two.
Benedict Carey

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

Look Inside. Sep 09, Minutes Buy. Jun 09, ISBN Sep 09, ISBN Sep 09, Minutes. 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.

A spate of recent best sellers has trumpeted a supposedly surprising secret to success, both in school and in life. Now comes the inevitable counterattack against these purveyors of the hard-work school of schooling. Instead of beating our brains into submission through 10, hours of drudgery, we need to study smarter, not harder. Carey, a New York Times science reporter, begins his book with a confession: He once was a grind. A striver, a grade-hog, a worker bee. Daydreaming and distraction are good ways to generate creative solutions to difficult problems. Breaking up study times across days and weeks beats cramming, even when the total study time is the same.

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In this book, Benedict Carey no relation, as far as I know takes a look at our surprisingly haphazard and incomplete understanding of how we learn. We think we know how to learn. Be organized, be The book's promise is to help the reader understand how the mind learns, and share some practical tools and techniques, so that whether you are a student getting ready for the semester finals, or an Benedict Carey. 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.

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It seems that every innovation in education brings us back to rote learning and the gradgrindery of memorising lists. The surprise is that Carey believes he is on to something original. He recommends short sessions spent memorising material, reciting aloud what we have learnt, as well as regular tests and even naps. Carey insists that the school system fails to take account of the way our brains actually work, but his innovations sound familiar from every school I ever attended. This involves a sleight of hand; Carey has moved from cognitive psychology, the study of how the brain absorbs and manages information, to the more goal-orientated field of pedagogy.

5 thoughts on “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey

  1. In this book, Benedict Carey no relation, as far as I know takes a look at our surprisingly haphazard and incomplete understanding of how we learn.

  2. How We Learn and millions of other books are available for instant access. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens Paperback – June 9, This item:How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey.

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