The Surprising Truth About How We Learn And Why It Happens by Benedict Carey
As a teacher and an advocate for life-long learning, I think it is important to look at the ways we learn so we can improve our practice at school and at home. That is why I am constantly reading, and taking notes while I do so. Here are some passages from this book that really stood out for me.
Put Away the Notes
Daniel Willingham, leading authority on the application of learning techniques in classrooms, advises his own students, when they’re reviewing for an exam, not to work straight from their notes. “I tell them to put the notes aside and create an entirely new outline, reorganizing the material,” he told me. “It forces you to think about the material again, and in a different way.”
Space Out Your Learning
The technique is called distributed learning or, more commonly, the spacing effect. People learn at least as much, and retain it much longer, when they distribute—or ‘space’—their study time than when they concentrate it. Mom’s right, it is better to do a little today and a little tomorrow rather than everything at once. Not just better, a lot better. Distributed learning, in certain situations, can double the amount we remember later on.
This isn’t to say that cramming is useless. The all-nighter is timetested, with a long track record of improving exam scores the next day. In terms of reliability, though, this nocturnal sprint is a little like overstuffing a cheap suitcase: the contents hold for a while, then everything falls out.
Studying a prose passage for five or ten minutes, then turning the page over to recite what you can without looking, isn’t only practice. It’s a test, and Gates had shown that that self-exam had a profound effect on final performance. That is to say: Testing is studying, of a different and powerful kind.
Ballard’s young students improved not by some miracle but because each test was an additional study session.
Start with a Test (a pre-test)
What if you somehow got hold of the final exam for a course on Day 1, before you’d even studied a thing? Imagine it just appeared in your inbox, sent mistakenly by the teacher. Would having that test matter? Would it help you prepare for taking the final at the end of the course?
Of course it would. You’d read the questions carefully. You’d know what to pay attention to and what to study in your notes. Your ears would perk up anytime the teacher mentioned something relevant to a specific question. If you were thorough, you’d have memorized the correct answer to every item before the course ended. On the day of that final, you’d be the first to finish, sauntering out with an A+ in your pocket.
And you’d be cheating.
But what if, instead, you took a test on Day 1 that was comprehensive but not a replica of the final exam? You’d bomb the thing, to be sure. You might not be able to understand a single question. And yet that experience, given what we’ve just learned about testing, might alter how you subsequently tune into the course itself during the rest of the term.
This is the idea behind pretesting, the latest permutation of the testing effect.
Study in Different Environments
We need to handle life’s pop quizzes, its spontaneous pickup games and jam sessions, and the traditional advice to establish a strict practice routine is no way to do so. On the contrary: Try another room altogether. Another time of day. Take the guitar outside, into the park, into the woods. Change cafés. Switch practice courts. Put on blues instead of classical. Each alteration of the routine further enriches the skills being rehearsed, making them sharper and more accessible for a longer period of time. This kind of experimenting itself reinforces learning, and makes what you know increasingly independent of your surroundings.
the larger message of context research is that, in the end, it doesn’t much matter which aspects of the environment you vary, so long as you vary what you can.
Stages of Control – Prepare, Incubate, Illuminate
Graham Wallas coined the “stages of control.”
The first is preparation: the hours or days—or longer—that a person spends wrestling with whatever logical or creative knot he or she faces.
The second stage is incubation, which begins when you put aside a problem.
… the incubating brain is sensitive to any information in the environment that might be relevant to a solution: the motion of a pendulum clock, a swing set visible through the window, the swaying motion of the person’s own arm.
The third stage of control is called illumination. This is the aha! moment, the moment when the clouds part and the solution appears all at once.
When we think about goals, we tend to think in terms of dreams. Restoring a classic car. Living abroad. Starting a business. Writing a novel. Running a marathon. Being a better dad. Finding a stable relationship. For psychologists, however, a goal isn’t nearly so grand. A goal is anything we want to possess or achieve and haven’t yet, whether it’s short-term or long-term, getting a Ph.D. or getting dressed. According to that definition, our heads are full of goals every waking minute, and they’re all competing for our attention. Should we walk the dog, or make coffee first? Help Junior pack for camp, or catch up on some work? Go to the gym, or practice Spanish?
Once a goal becomes activated, it trumps all others and begins to drive our perceptions, our thoughts, our attitudes,” as John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale University, told me.
Percolation is a matter of vigilance, of finding ways to tune the mind so that it collects a mix of external perceptions and internal thoughts that are relevant to the project at hand. We can’t know in advance what those perceptions and thoughts will look like—and we don’t have to. . . the information [will] flow [if we are open to it and let it percolate].
The World Around You Will Help Fill in the Blanks
My favorite articulation of how this happens comes from the novelist and short story writer Eudora Welty. In a 1972 interview, Welty was asked where her dialogue comes from. “Once you’re into a story,” she replied, “everything seems to apply—what you hear on the city bus is exactly what your character would say on the page you were writing. Wherever you go, you meet part of your story. I guess you are tuned in for it, and the right things are sort of magnetized—if you can think of your ears as magnets.”
What’s left unsaid here is that those overheard comments on the bus not only animate a character, they help move the story. The information we pick up isn’t merely dumped into a mental ledger of overheard conversation. It also causes a ripple in our thinking about the story, our research paper, our design project, or our big presentation. When working on that paper about the Emancipation Proclamation, we’re not only tuned into racial dynamics on the subways car, we’re also more aware of our reactions to what we’re noticing. This is not an obvious or trivial point. Remember, there’s an incredible cacophony of competing thoughts running through our minds at any given time. What we “hear” depends on the demands, distractions, or anxieties of the moment. I am proposing that, in this example, we’re better able to hear our internal dialogue about race above that chatter, and that that conversation, too, provides fodder for our work.
Can I prove this? No. I don’t know how anyone could. But that doesn’t mean no one’s tried—and made an invisible process visible.
I tend to agree with the writer Stephen King, who describes percolation as the marinating of ideas ‘in that place that’s not quite the conscious but not quite the subconscious.’ Either way, we take what we can get, when we get it.
How Do You Apply This?
Start work on large projects as soon as possible and stop when we get stuck, with the confidence that we are initiating percolation, not quitting. My tendency as a student was always to procrastinate on big research papers and take care of the smaller stuff first. Do the easy reading. Clean the kitchen. Check some things off the to-do list. Then, once I finally sat down to face the big beast, I’d push myself frantically toward the finish line and despair if I didn’t make it. Wrong. Quitting before I’m ahead doesn’t put the project to sleep; it keeps it awake. That’s Phase 1, and it initiates Phase 2, the period of gathering string, of casual data collecting. Phase 3 is listening to what I think about all those incoming bits and pieces. Percolation depends on all three elements, and in that order.
One fairly obvious reason that interleaving accelerates math learning in particular is that tests themselves—the cumulative exams, that is—are mixed sets of problems. If the test is a potpourri, it helps to make homework the same. There’s much more going on than that, however. Mixing problems during study forces us to identify each type of problem and match it to the appropriate kind of solution. We are not only discriminating between the locks to be cracked; we are connecting each lock with the right key.
You have to review the material anyway at some point. You have to learn to distinguish between a holy ton of terms, names, events, concepts, and formulas at exam time, or execute a fantastic number of perfect bow movements at recital. Why not practice the necessary discrimination skills incrementally, every time you sit down, rather than all at once when ramping up for a final test?
As mentioned earlier, many musicians already do a version of mixed practice, splitting their sessions between, say, thirty minutes of scales, thirty minutes of reading new music, and thirty minutes of practicing familiar pieces. That’s the right idea. Chopping that time into even smaller pieces, however—of fifteen minutes, or ten—can produce better results. Remember: Interleaving is not just about review but also discriminating between types of problems, moves, or concepts.
Ignorance, Distraction, and Interruption Actually Help Learning
Let go of what you feel you should be doing, all that repetitive, overscheduled, driven, focused ritual. Let go, and watch how the presumed enemies of learning—ignorance, distraction, interruption, restlessness, even quitting—can work in your favor. Learning is, after all, what you do.
My List of 2020 Reads – my annual reading (b)log