How We Learn

Dear Parents,

In 2013, science writer and NY Times journalist Benedict Carey wrote a much-acclaimed book on learning science entitled “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens." His book is fascinating because it not only provides scientifically grounded insights into the learning process, but it also debunks long-held beliefs and practices about the learning process. 

As we head toward the end of the first semester, the following insights may prove helpful to both students, teachers, and parents as classroom assessments increase. This would apply to middle and upper school students, primarily.  These are questions answered by Carey in the appendix of his book. I have taken this from the Marshall Memo, (710, November 6, 2017).

Is there an optimal amount of time to study or practice? “More important than how long you study is how you distribute the study time you have,” says Carey. Ideally, break up study time into chunks over two or three days, each time reengaging with the material, retrieving it, and re-storing it in memory – “an active mental step that reliably improves memory.”

How much does it help to review notes from a class or lesson? Very little, he says. Looking over highlighted material is one of the least effective ways to study; the same goes for verbatim copying. That’s because both are fairly passive and don’t engage the brain in the kind of work that will make learning sink in. What’s more, passive review can cause what cognitive scientists call the “fluency illusion” – unwarranted confidence that you’ll remember it for good.

So what does work? “Self-testing is one of the strongest study techniques there is,” says Carey. “Old-fashioned flashcards work fine; so does a friend, work colleague, or classmate putting you through the paces.” So does reciting a passage from memory, or explaining a concept to yourself or a friend. Testing yourself (or being tested) does two things: it forces you to retrieve information from memory, and it gives you immediate feedback if you couldn’t remember it so you know what you don’t know and need to work on some more.

What’s the most common reason for bombing a test after what felt like careful preparation? It’s the fluency illusion – the erroneous belief “that you ‘knew’ something well just because it seemed so self-evident at the time you studied it,” says Carey. Several passive, ineffective study methods feed this illusion:
- Highlighting or rewriting notes;
- Working from a teacher’s outline;
- Re-studying after you’ve just studied. 
Far better to test yourself, space out the study, and find out what you actually don’t know.

Is it best to practice one skill at a time until it becomes automatic, or to work on many things all at once? Working on just one thing (free throws, a musical scale, the quadratic equation) improves skill. “But over time, such focused practice actually limits our development of each skill,” says Carey. “Mixing or ‘interleaving’ multiple skills in a practice session, by contrast, sharpens our grasp of all of them.” Mixed practice helps review material from several areas, sharpens differentiating among them, and trains the brain to match the problem types with appropriate strategies. This is especially helpful in a subject like mathematics. 

How does sleep affect learning? The deep sleep that occurs in the first half of the night is most important for consolidating and retaining hard facts – names, dates, formulas, concepts. So if you need to remember that kind of information, Carey recommends going to bed at your regular time to maximize deep sleep. But the kind of sleep we have in the early morning hours helps consolidate motor skills and creative thinking. If you need to perform creatively, whether it’s in math, science, writing, or music, you might stay up later and sleep in to maximize the effects of the second kind of sleep.

How about improving performance on longer-term creative projects? The proven method for a big, complicated project like a term paper is getting started as early as possible, chunking the work, and spreading it out over time. Doing this “activates the project in your mind,” says Carey, “and you’ll begin to see and hear all sorts of things in your daily life that are relevant. You’ll also be more tuned into what you think about those random, incoming clues.”
I hope this has proven helpful to all of those involved in the learning process. 


William George
Head of School


Takeaway Quote:
Self-testing is one of the strongest study techniques there is. Old-fashioned flashcards work fine; so does a friend, work colleague, or classmate putting you through the paces.


Source: Carey, Benedict. (2013) How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. New York, NY: Random House, (223-228).