Summary of How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey
How We Learn, written by a science journalist Benedict Carey, promises to offer well-tested techniques that help us learn more effectively with less effort. It shatters some preconceptions about the ‘enemies of learning’, such as distraction, interruption, laziness, ignorance, restlessness, forgetfulness and even quitting – all of which can actually work in your favour.
For example, forgetting is good. You would think that remembering everything is a good skill. Not so. “Using memory changes memory— and for the better. Forgetting enables and deepens learning, by filtering out distracting information and by allowing some breakdown that, after reuse, drives retrieval and storage strength higher than they were originally,” states the book. Or, as the American psychologist William James noted, “If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing.”
Change is also good for learning. Learn in different contexts and different environments. Try a different room. A different time of day. A different cafe. Experiment with different background music. Studies show that changing the routine of learning enriches the skills being practiced and reinforces the learning itself, as well as making you independent of your surroundings.
Key learnings from How We Learn by Benedict Carey
- Self-motivation to learn is essential. Self-learners learn better.
- You will naturally learn better when you’re truly interested in the subject.
- The achievement of learning something new is reward in itself.
- Learn with others. Collaborative learning is easier and more fun.
- Tell others what you’re learning – it will enhance your learning and understanding.
- Change your learning style and learn in different environments.
The book doesn’t mention speed reading or accelerated learning. It is also written without any headings, so it was harder to read (even speed reading is slightly slower). Carey also lists lots of examples and studies which diminish the impact of insights and slows you down again. And the author doesn’t present any opposing viewpoints to his arguments.
If you don’t need or are not interested in the research presented in How We Learn by Benedict Carey – just read the eleven essential questions below which summarise the key learnings.
Eleven essential questions
‘Eleven essential questions’ at the end of the book give answers to some of the common queries you may have about how we learn and about how to learn better. Here they are with short summary answers.
Q: Can “freeing the inner slacker” really be called a legitimate learning strategy?
A : Yes if you mean that: learning is not just about sitting at a desk, rather it is something which is happening all the time in a more random, sneaky way. (Getting drunk and watching telly doesn’t count.) But this approach takes the pressure off you to succeed – and frees you up to learn.
Q: How important is routine when it comes to learning? For example, is it important to have a dedicated study area?
A: No. Change is good (for most people). Change your environment, the time of day – and the way you study (eg reading, discussing, writing, discoursing to a mirror, teaching others). The more variety, the stronger the learning because it is not limited to one study area, but incorporated into your life.
Q: How does sleep affect learning?
A: Different stages of sleep filter and consolidates information in different ways. “Deep sleep” in the first half of the night is best for retaining hard facts – names, dates, formulas, concepts. So for fact-heavy tests, go to bed early the night before. But the hours before waking help consolidate motor skills and creative thinking. So if you’re preparing for a music recital or sporting event you might stay up a bit later and have a lie-in.
Q: Is there an optimal amount of time to study or practice?
A: Several shorter sessions is more effective than one long session (and if you must have one long session, then break it up into shorter blocks with short breaks in between). If possible have study sessions over a series of days – re-engaging with the material each time makes the learning more robust.
Q: Is cramming a bad idea?
A: Cramming can work as a way of passing a test – but is not much use for long-term learning as you’re unlikely to remember much once you’ve done the test. For long-term learning your brain needs to go through the cycle of ‘forgetting a bit and learning a bit more’ numerous times. So if you’re learning something which is cumulative (ie you need this information in order to build on it and extend into deeper study) then cramming is a very occasional strategy to be used only in emergencies.
Q: How much does quizzing oneself, like with flashcards, help?
A: A lot. Self-testing is one of the strongest study techniques there is. Flashcards are good, or friends asking questions, or teaching someone else. The important thing is that you’re building your recall (bringing something to mind) – and the only way to build recall is to practice recall. Looking through your notes, on the other hand, practises recognition (yep, I knew that) – which is easy and does not lead to the recall you need in that exam.
Q: How much does it help to review notes from a class or lesson?
A: If you’re just looking through the notes, then it’s a passive activity and not much help for learning. Your brain says ‘Yep, I recognise that. Next!’ and therefore makes no effort to remember. Much better to try to reconstruct your notes without looking if you want to build recall (see previous question). to review. There’s an added benefit as well: It also shows you immediately what you don’t know and need to circle back and review.
Q: There’s so much concern that social media and smartphones and all manner of electronic gadgets are interfering with learning – and even changing the way people think. Is this merited? Is distraction always bad?
A: No. Distraction is a hazard if you need continuous focus, like when listening to a lecture. But a short study break— five, ten, twenty minutes to check in on Facebook, respond to a few emails, check sports scores – is an effective distraction technique to help you solve a problem when you’re stuck.
Q: Is there any effective strategy for improving performance on longer-term creative projects?
A: Yes. Start them as early as possible, make sure you understand the project, jot down some preliminary ideas about the project – and then give yourself permission to walk away. Deliberate interruption is not the same as quitting. Because your non-conscious mind has been primed, you’ll begin to see and hear all sorts of relevant things in your daily life. Then when you come back to your project, you’ll be amazed at how easily the ideas flow.
Q: What’s the most common reason for bombing a test after what felt like careful preparation?
A: ‘Passive activities’ which do not actually encourage your brain to engage with the material (eg highlighting or rewriting notes) lull you into the illusion that you know something. Scientists call this “fluency” – the assumption that because something is well-known now it will remain that way. Better to set yourself quizzes, do something more challenging which requires efforts of memory while you’re studying. Then you not only feel that you know, you know that you know.
Q: Is it best to practise one skill at a time until it becomes automatic, or to work on many things at once?
A: Focusing on one skill at a time – a musical scale, batting, quadratic equations – leads quickly to noticeable, tangible improvement. But it’s important then to mix this new skill in with others and practise it in an integrated way. Do projects which involve several skills – some old, some new. Do easier (better-known) things alongside the new challenges – you’ll enjoy it more and it leads to better learning in the long run.
Summary of the summary
In short, according to How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey, we need to relax about our learning styles. Experiment with different types of learning in different environments. Don’t worry if you forget things. If you’re really interested in what you’re learning you’ll learn better, naturally. If you want to learn Spanish, learn with others, talk to people about what you’re learning – and go to Spain. Then sleep on it.