I just finished reading Benedict Carey’s book, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens.
Here are the the three biggest lessons I learned about learning from the book:
1) Pre-testing is a form of learning.
As a teacher and even now as someone who works with teachers, I looked at testing in the wrong way. I always saw it as a way to assess student comprehension. I didn’t see it as a form of learning in itself.
This is particularly true of pre-testing. A test forces students to put their mind to work to remember or think critically about what they know. That act of thinking even if the answers are just guessing is an act of learning.
In studies with students who took a test before they learned something, they ended up remembering more than if they had not taken the pre-test. The test set them up to learn and remember more even if they completely failed it. The act of thinking about the material set up pathways in the mind to learn news things.
2) The harder you make your mind work, the more you will remember.
A common theme in all of the strategies Carey writes about in the book is the fact that learning is an active process not a passive process. The harder you make your mind work, the more you learn in the long run.
Surprisingly, though, it isn’t just more study time that is important; it is how that study time is spaced out and spent that is the most important. Taking a break for a few days and forgetting what you have learned is actually a good thing. The act of forgetting and then trying to relearn something forces the mind to work harder to remember. Studying your notes from a single day spent learning about just one topic gives you the illusion of having mastered something (this is what Carey calls the “fluency illusion”).
Carey advocates for three approaches to studying:
- Time: Space out the days between study sessions to encourage forgetfulness.
- Context: Study in different places and times of day.
- Mixed Review: Instead of reviewing singular topics or skills in chunks, mix up the review with many different examples or practice a variety of different skills all at once.
3) Take breaks and get some sleep.
The mind will work on solving problems when you are not consciously thinking about them. Take a walk or read something else. It’s okay to go check Facebook, even. Getting the mind off of the task is a good thing.
Procrastinate, but start a project early enough to let yourself take breaks and work on something over a long period of time. Sleep is important, too, because it is during that time that the brain organizes information and solidifies memory.