Did you love school or hate it? If you hated it, you might have felt that no matter how hard you worked, you still couldn’t get those facts to stick in your head. And if that dread of learning has kept you from tackling new skills, Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, has good news.
What if “good study habits” have been holding you back?
Carey was himself one of those students who worked hard but never seemed to ace his tests in school. Even though he followed teachers’ advice to study without distractions, create chapter outlines, and learn one chapter before going on to the next, he couldn’t rise above the level of average student.
Surprisingly, he finally found academic success in college where, even though he led the typical university life of recreation and erratic study habits, he started to excel. This experience drove him to dig into learning science as part of his work as a journalist, and over the next several years, he discovered that the conventional wisdom about how to learn may be leading students astray.
Effective study habits reflect how the brain learns naturally.
In his book, Carey reviews dozens of studies uncovering how the brain likes to learn, and he relates those discoveries back to techniques that today’s students, whether kids or adults, can use to learn faster and remember information longer.
The book covers more topics than I can touch on in this review, but here are the three insights that resonated most with me:
- Taking (and failing) tests helps you learn faster.
- Good learners are good quitters.
- Brains learn unconsciously given the right experience.
Taking (and failing) tests helps you learn faster.
Carey recalled studying hard for tests and feeling that he had mastered the material, but scoring poorly in the end. He’d worked hard, but his study strategy had made him feel more prepared than he really was.
Scientists call his experience the “fluency illusion,” the feeling that you know material better than you do. Some common study tactics, like highlighting, outlining, or repeating information give you the illusion of knowing but don’t help you remember what you’ve studied – so you bomb the test.
Carey writes, “Repeating facts right after you’ve studied them gives you nothing, no added memory benefit.”
What does help us remember is testing. Learners who read new material, then test themselves on it a day later, trying to recall details without looking at the answers, will learn it faster and remember it better in the long term.
Researcher Herbert F. Spitzer tried this strategy with 3,605 sixth graders in Iowa and found that giving pop quizzes in the first week after introducing new material resulted in significantly better performance on final exams.
Researchers think the early testing makes the brain work harder to retrieve information, which strengthens your ability to remember it in the future. But if you wait too long to test yourself, the information’s already lost.
So if you’re faced with learning a new computer program, spend one day studying the basics, then try to use the program from memory on the next day as your first “test.” You won’t remember everything and you might even feel kind of stupid, but that “testing” will make it much easier to remember the answers in the long run. You can also test yourself by explaining concepts to a colleague or writing down as much as you can remember about a topic.
Good learners are good quitters.
There’s nothing more frustrating than getting stuck on a hard problem. But the best way to get through it may be to give up on it.
Researchers have found that when we’re trying to accomplish a goal and we stop working on it before the finish line, the brain hangs on to that goal and continues to “work” on it even as we do other things.
Carey discusses studies showing that even when working on other tasks, our brains are still collecting information related to our goals. For example, students who were given salty snacks during an experiment were more likely to notice the soda cans and water bottles in the testing room, even though they were focused on unrelated tasks during the study.
The brain’s ability to keep working on our goals “under the covers” often results in the “aha” moment when you suddenly come up with the solution to your problem even though you’re doing something completely different, like taking a shower.
It’s still not entirely clear how this works, but Carey suggests that when we’re going around with an unfinished goal in our heads, “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 problem].”
Thus, if you have a big project to tackle, don’t procrastinate on it. Get deeply into it early, then when you hit a wall, give up. Let the details percolate and your brain may hand you the solution when you least expect it.
Brains learn unconsciously given the right experience.
Some skills cannot be taught. We learn them best through experience. For example, Carey points out that baseball players have to decide within a quarter of a second whether or not to swing at a fastball heading their way. It happens so fast that the player’s body is swinging before he’s conscious of it.
Over decades of practice, batters’ brains have learned how to distinguish subtle signs of the pitchers’ movement and the balls’ trajectories. But even the greatest hitters couldn’t tell you exactly what they see or how they decide whether or not to swing. It happens unconsciously.
You brain is constantly taking in detailed sensory data, and if you have similar meaningful experiences over and over, it will learn which details are important. Biologists who spend years looking at animal skeletons learn how to identify the species based on specific information in the bones. Art experts can identify a particular artist’s style even when they see a painting for the first time because they’ve seen other paintings by that artist and have “learned” the tiny details that distinguish one style from another.
Essentially, this learning process, called “perceptual learning,” involves experiencing many many examples of something (like paintings or fastballs) and trying to determine the meaning of each variation. You can learn through year of practice, like the pro athlete. Or you can sometimes speed up the process with a slide show or flash cards of pictures that help you “experience” many variations in a short time.
Perceptual learning has been used to help pilots quickly determine what their instrument panel is telling them and to help dermatology students identify different skin lesions and rashes. Carey even ran an experiment on himself, learning to determine what artistic movement, like Impressionism, a painting belongs in.
You can use this kind of learning yourself anytime you need to master fine distinctions, such as identifying antique furniture styles, fuel injectors based on make and model, or unsafe working conditions.
For the greatest success, forget what you’ve learned about learning.
Carey covers other great strategies like changing your study environment and using sleep to reinforce learning. Ultimately, he leaves the reader with an arsenal of non-traditional, sometimes unintuitive strategies for getting more information stuffed into your brain.
In his words, “Let go of what you feel you should be doing, all that repetitive, over-scheduled, driven, focused ritual. Let go, and watch how the presumed enemies of learning – ignorance, distraction, interruption, restlessness, even quitting – can work in your favor.”
Thanks to Benedict Carey for helping us to overthrow the tyranny of bad study habits.
At Pract.us, we’re dedicated to helping you and your employees learn more, faster and easier. More details here.