How We Learn

Review of the book How We Learn by Benedict Carey.
2015-08-31 – ⁠2022-09-11 finishedSource published on: 2014

In How we Learn journalist Benedict Carey presents us with a collection of research-backed findings to help us learn better. Here are some of the ideas that I found most interesting:

1. If you vary your practice you will appear to progress more slowly in each practice session but you will actually improve your performance faster.

Transfer is what learning is all about: it’s the ability to extract the essence of a skill or formula or word problem and apply it in another context, to another problem that may not look the same, at least superficially.

Why is this? It’s harder for our brains to find general rules (eg: how to hit a tennis ball in all sorts of situations) instead of more focused rules (eg: how to hit the ball when it comes always in this direction at this angle).

How to apply this?

  • If you’re studying a language don’t just practice learning new words, mix in reading comprehension, listening comprehension, pronunciation, writing short texts, etc.
  • If you’re practicing sports like basketball don’t just do free throws from the same place, change your position every time, switch to cardio or weights after 15 or 30 minutes, add in studying of recorded games, etc.

2. Distractions during study help the brain create stronger associations with the material resulting in increased storage and retrieval strength. It turns out that having a bland and aseptic desk environment, a perfect description of my own study room, is not really a good idea.

How to apply this? Change your study location (bedroom, living room, toilet, school, cafe, library, park), the time of day, the background music or TV, the way you take notes (longhand, writing on your laptop, drawing), the medium (switch between video lectures, books, articles, physical book, ipad) and source (same idea explained by different authors, etc).

3. Spaced repetitions are uncontested in terms of maintaining retrieval strength for material that you already understand.

4. Testing not only points out how much we understand or remember, it also alters our memories and changes how we organize that information in ways that greatly improve performance. Even pre-testing, testing yourself before starting a new lesson increases recall. Why? We are making our brain work extra hard and we prime it to look for the important bits of information. How can you pre-test yourself?

  • Test yourself how much you know about topic before studying it (be it a lesson, video lecture, book, article, etc).
  • If your material has exercises or test exams (eg: physics, math, algorithms) try to solve the problems before learning how to do it.
  • After consuming new material put it aside and try to explain in your own words the main points.

5. The best way to solve hard creative problems is to work on them for hours, days or weeks until you get completely stuck and then stop thinking about it. For this “incubation” effect to work you need to not just be slowed down but completely stuck. At that point your subconscious will keep toiling at the problem in the background and, if it has all the material it needs, will give you an answer whenever it finds it.