Did you know that when it comes to learning, forgetting is good, but reviewing is bad?
In his new book How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey offers many such revelations, using the research on learning to challenge our assumptions about how we take in and retrieve information, solve problems, and think creatively.
Many people think, for example, that it helps to have a rigid work or study routine. In fact, studies suggest the opposite is true: shaking up your routine — studying in a coffee shop one day, in the library the next — actually helps you learn more effectively.
The notion that distraction is the enemy of learning is also misguided, says Carey. He describes research suggesting that if you’re stuck on a tricky problem, taking a break — going for a walk, complaining to a friend, even checking Twitter — allows your mind to work on the problem offline, a process known as “incubation.”
A book on the science of learning might not sound like your idea of a good time, but Carey manages to make it engaging by describing unusual studies (scuba divers memorizing words 20 feet underwater) and throwing out fun brainteasers (complete the word SEQUENC_ with a letter other than “E” — this one drove me NUTS).
Although Carey’s book offers a fresh take on learning, his claim that the research “defies everything we’ve been told about how best to learn” is a stretch. On the contrary, some of the findings he discusses dovetail nicely with common-sense ideas about learning. Take the claim that testing yourself on material you’ve learned is more effective than passively reviewing it —makes sense, doesn’t it? And haven’t we all tried this?
Carey also overstates the ease with which we can apply the book’s claims to our everyday lives. Nearly the first half of How We Learn deals with memorization — so if you devote a lot of your time to cramming as many facts into your brain as possible, this might be the book for you. But those who rarely memorize anything longer than a grocery list might find less news they can use in its pages.
That’s not to say the book is only for those training for the Memory Olympics. I learned a lot from How We Learn, some of which I can start using right away. The next time I practice guitar, instead of repeating the same song over and over (to the annoyance of everyone around me, including myself) I’ll change things up, or as Carey says, “interleave” my practice — a few chord progressions, the chorus from one song, a stanza from another. Maybe I’ll even bring the guitar out onto the porch (to the possible annoyance of my neighbors) instead of practicing in the same ratty chair in the basement every time.
I can also use Carey’s book to achieve my goal of becoming a wine connoisseur — or at least, being able to tell the difference between a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Pinot Noir. According to Carey, I can easily accomplish this feat with Perceptual Learning Modules. It would look something like this: Choose a few different examples of a few different kinds of wine. After tasting each one, in randomly presented order, guess which kind of wine it is, immediately checking the correct answer. At first, I’d just be guessing, but as I went on, over multiple sessions, I’d build the ability to discriminate between them, Carey says. Ultimately, I’d be able to correctly identify a new wine from one of the categories I’d studied. Carey used this research-based approach to learn to discriminate between 12 different artistic movements, and it worked. If you ask me, learning about wine sounds more fun.
It also sounds pretty ambitious. Carey says he accomplished his goal after only about an hour of study, but he enlisted his 16-year-old daughter to create the learning module for him using PowerPoint. Something tells me my 5-year-old isn’t up to the task of curating a selection of wines for me.
In the meantime, I’ll stick to smaller goals. And more importantly, thanks to How We Learn, I’ll feel less guilty about some of my work habits. The next time I put aside a complicated project to go shopping, I’ll remember: I’m not procrastinating. I’m percolating.