Monday, September 28, 2015

How We Learn

At The Yellin Center, we never grow tired of the subject of how we learn and the book 
How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens seemed like a good one for perusal. Author Benedict Carey, a science reporter for The New York Times, presents a wealth of fascinating research regarding memory and learning, the findings of which dispel some common myths. Synthesizing the results and translating the data into practical applications, Carey elucidates some keys to academic success. A few of the misconceptions that the book dispels reflect some of the thoughts we have heard expressed by frustrated students and families. For example:

“I completely know it when I’m studying, and then I forget on the test.”

This is the fluency illusion, i.e., the belief that because we know something now, we know it well enough to know it later. Self-testing guards against this. Significantly more effective than traditional review, taking practice quizzes is a recommended way of studying. Not only does it highlight what you do and do not know, but this method (called "retrieval practice") is in and of itself a way of enhancing memory. Another suggested guard against the fluency illusion is to try to teach or summarize a concept to someone else. This can even be done in your imagination, if there is no one nearby or interested in the subject matter.

“He needs to find a single quiet space to study.”

While having such a place most often devoted to studying may be helpful, varying study environments can actually facilitate learning. New locations provide new cues, or associations, and we know that having a rich fund of associations is beneficial for being able to retrieve information from memory. The recommendation to vary how you study goes beyond considering a change in study space. New memory cues can be created by transforming information, e.g., from a given list to a personally drawn diagram.

“She needs to get off of Facebook. She has too many distractions.”

Certainly, if a student is spending the bulk of her time online at the expense of schoolwork, then this is a problem. However, distraction can actually be used as a valuable tool. In creative problem-solving or writing, it helps to step away to allow for an incubation period, in which time can help “unfix” constraining ways of thinking. Further, when taking a break from the middle of a writing assignment, you will be more attuned to related references in the environment, which may trigger ideas that facilitate the remainder of your writing.

“There is so much material to learn. I should probably sleep less and study more.”

Sleep is too important to sacrifice. It sharpens memory and skills, improving retention and comprehension of what you learned the day before.

“I wish I didn’t forget so much.”

Forgetting can be frustrating, but keep in mind that forgetting is an important aid rather than the enemy of learning. With all of the information we are inundated with daily, it is necessary that the brain apply a filter and block out relatively unimportant information.

“I probably just need to go over it and over it more times in a row.”

Interleaving, or studying an interspersed variety of related tasks, is more conducive to learning than studying just one thing at a time. Varied practice forces you to internalize general rules, and thereby enhances transfer. While skills may quickly improve after focused repetition, they tend to then plateau. While varied practice produces a slower apparent rate of improvement in each session, it yields a greater and more durable accumulation of learning over time.

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