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How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

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In the tradition of The Power of Habit and Thinking, Fast and Slow comes a practical, playful, and endlessly fascinating guide to what we really know about learning and memory today—and how we can apply it to our own lives.
From an early age, it is drilled into our heads: Restlessness, distraction, and ignorance are the enemies of success. We’re told that learning is all self-discipline, that we must confine ourselves to designated study areas, turn off the music, and maintain a strict ritual if we want to ace that test, memorize that presentation, or nail that piano recital.
But what if almost everything we were told about learning is wrong? And what if there was a way to achieve more with less effort?
In How We Learn, award-winning science reporter Benedict Carey sifts through decades of education research and landmark studies to uncover the truth about how our brains absorb and retain information. What he discovers is that, from the moment we are born, we are all learning quickly, efficiently, and automatically; but in our zeal to systematize the process we have ignored valuable, naturally enjoyable learning tools like forgetting, sleeping, and daydreaming. Is a dedicated desk in a quiet room really the best way to study? Can altering your routine improve your recall? Are there times when distraction is good? Is repetition necessary? Carey’s search for answers to these questions yields a wealth of strategies that make learning more a part of our everyday lives—and less of a chore.
By road testing many of the counterintuitive techniques described in this book, Carey shows how we can flex the neural muscles that make deep learning possible. Along the way he reveals why teachers should give final exams on the first day of class, why it’s wise to interleave subjects and concepts when learning any new skill, and when it’s smarter to stay up late prepping for that presentation than to rise early for one last cram session. And if this requires some suspension of disbelief, that’s because the research defies what we’ve been told, throughout our lives, about how best to learn.
The brain is not like a muscle, at least not in any straightforward sense. It is something else altogether, sensitive to mood, to timing, to circadian rhythms, as well as to location and environment. It doesn’t take orders well, to put it mildly. If the brain is a learning machine, then it is an eccentric one. In How We Learn, Benedict Carey shows us how to exploit its quirks to our advantage.
Praise for How We Learn

“This book is a revelation. I feel as if I’ve owned a brain for fifty-four years and only now discovered the operating manual.”—Mary Roach, bestselling author of Stiff and Gulp

“A welcome rejoinder to the faddish notion that learning is all about the hours put in.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A valuable, entertaining tool for educators, students and parents.” —Shelf Awareness
How We Learn is more than a new approach to learning; it is a guide to making the most out of life. Who wouldn’t be interested in that?” —Scientific American
“I know of no other source that pulls together so much of what we know about the science of memory and couples it with practical, practicable advice.”—Daniel T. Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia

272 pages, Hardcover

First published September 9, 2014

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About the author

Benedict Carey

8 books64 followers
Benedict Carey was a health and medical reporter for the Los Angeles Times starting in 1997. In 2004 he became a science reporter for the New York Times.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 765 reviews
139 reviews35 followers
October 17, 2014
According to Benedict Carey, a science reporter, the way we THINK we learn is actually very different from the way we ACTUALLY learn. About 95% of Carey’s book is a historical chronology of the clinical studies and science experiments that led to our current understanding of learning. The remaining 5% contains the useful points and strategies you need to be a better learner. Since I’m guessing almost all of us care very much about the useful 5% and very little of the historical 95%, I’ve boiled down his central and most important points of application below:

1. Forgetting actually helps you learn. This is the “Forget to Learn” theory. When we forget something, then try remember it again (“retrieval”), the memory then becomes stronger. Forgetting is critical to the learning of new skills and the preservation of old ones.

2. We perform better on exams when we are in the same state of mind as when we studied. People remember more of what they studied when they return to that same study environment. Since we can’t always predict the context in which we will need to perform, we can help our studying and memory by varying the environment where we study. The traditional advice to establish a strict practice routine is not advisable. On the contrary: Try another room altogether. Another time of day. Practice your musical instrument outside, in the park, in the woods. Switch cafes. Each alteration further enriches the skills rehearsed, making them sharper and more accessible for longer.

3. People learn and remember more when they space their study time instead of concentrating it. This is called “distributed learning” or “the spacing effect.” The spacing effect is especially useful for memorizing new material. Studying a new concept right after you learn it doesn’t deepen the memory much, if at all. Studying it an hour later, or a day later, does. Cramming works fine in a pinch but doesn’t last. Spacing does.

4. The “fluency illusion” is the belief that because facts are easy to remember RIGHT NOW, they will remain that way tomorrow or the next day. It’s one of the reasons students will bomb a test they thought they would have aced. The best way to overcome this illusion is to consistently engage in self-testing. Instead of memorizing a poem by reading it 20 times, read it ten times, constantly trying to recite it from memory as you go. Testing yourself as you go amplifies the value of your study time.

5. Pre-testing is also an important study tool. Even if you bomb a test on Day 1 of a class, that experience alters how you subsequently take in the material during the rest of the semester. On some kinds of tests, especially multiple choice, we learn from answering incorrectly—especially if given the correct answer soon afterwards. Guessing wrong increases a person’s likelihood of answering correctly on a later test. The act of guessing itself engages your mind in a more demanding way than straight memorization, deepening the imprint of the correct answer.

6. Many teachers have said you don’t really know a topic until you have to teach it yourself, until you have to make it clear to someone else. One effective study method is to explain the material either to yourself or to someone you know.

7. The mind works on problems “off-line,” subconsciously, when we’re not aware it’s happening. Sometimes, when we are stuck on a problem requiring insight, distractions can be a valuable weapon rather than a hindrance. However, people do not benefit from such an “incubation break” unless they have first reached an IMPASSE. Knock off and play a videogame too soon and you get nothing. Creative leaps often come during downtown that follows a period of immersion in a story or topic, and they often come piecemeal, not in any particular order, and in varying size and importance.

8. Interruptions are helpful to learning. Interrupting yourself when absorbed in an assignment extends its life in memory and pushes it to the top of your mental to do list. And once a goal is top of mind, we are more focused on accomplishing it.

9. Just starting on a project gives that project the weight of a goal, even if the actual work performed is minimal. We should start work on large projects as soon as possible, without the psychological burden of feeling like the project needs to be completed in one sitting. It’s ok to stop when we get stuck, with the confidence that we are not “quitting” but initiating a percolation period. Quitting before you’re ahead doesn’t actually put a project to sleep, it keeps it awake.

10. Varying your practice and studies, known as “interleaving,” is more effective than concentrating on one skill or subject at a time, because it forces us to be able to adjust and think quicker on the fly. Constant repetition alone is less useful. Mixing up practice with different tasks forces people to make continual adjustments, building a general dexterity that sharpens each specific skill. All that adjusting during mixed practice also enhances our ability to perform each skill regardless of context. Also, since tests themselves are mixed sets of problems, it helps to make homework the same.

11. Over time and with practice, your brain develops “perceptual intuition,” the ability to detect minute differences in sights, sounds, or textures. The brain takes these tiny differences it has detected between similar looking signals and uses those to help decipher new, previously unseen material. Perceptual learning is happening all the time, automatically, and subconsciously.

12. Sleeping improves retention and comprehension of what was studied the day before. What happens during sleep, according to recent theory, is that you open the aperture of memory and are able to see the bigger picture. There is evidence that REM sleep is a creative memory domain, where you build different associations and combine things in different ways. Sleep also improves pattern recognition, creative problem solving, and muscle/motor memory. Napping also provides slow wave deep sleep and REM sleep.

Conclusion: Learning is a restless exercise and that restlessness applies not only to the timing of study sessions but also to their content, i.e., the value of mixing up old and new material in a single sitting. Given the dangers of fluency, or misplaced confidence, exposed ignorance is like a cushioned fall. The experience acts as a reminder to check and recheck what you assume you know. The mind is a forager for information, for strategies, for clever ways to foil other species’ defenses and live off the land. That’s the academy where our brains learned to learn, and it defines how we came to be human. Learning is what we do.
Profile Image for Amora.
189 reviews144 followers
June 25, 2020
I’ve read plenty of books on how to improve memory and academic performance and I can confidently say that this one is the best so far. All the information here is original and explained in great detail. Among the techniques Carey offers to improve memory and academic performance is persistent practice, breaking up study time, incubation, and self-testing. The length of the book wasn’t too long or too short either. I’m glad I was recommended this book!
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
653 reviews7,022 followers
July 19, 2015

Why So Serious

We all “know” we need to be organized, to develop good, consistent study routines, to find a quiet place and avoid distractions, to focus on one skill at a time, and above all, to concentrate on our work.

What’s to question about that?

Carey begins this book with the allegation that most of our instincts about learning are misplaced, incomplete, or flat wrong.

It goes like this:

Want to procrastinate? Good!
Can’t focus? Good!
No fixed schedule? Good!
Can’t study in a fixed place? Good!
Forget stuff too easily? Good!
Crave distractions? Good!
Lazy and sleepy? Good!

Our worst habits, the ones we try so hard to overcome, it turns out, are our brains shortcuts to super learning. Yaay!

Carey tells us that we need no longer think of these “bad” habits as evidence of laziness, or a waste of time, or, worst of all, a failure of will. You can think of all of them as learning too, with your eyes closed while sleeping, for example! It is when we push against these natural learning mechanisms that we go sub-optimal in our efforts.

In short, we misidentify the sources of our frustration: that we get in our own way, unnecessarily, all the time. That is why learning becomes difficult. We just need to learn to get out of our own way more often and let our naturally greedy brain gorge itself on all the learning it needs.

Think about it for a second. Distraction, diversion, catnaps, interruptions—these aren’t mere footnotes, mundane details in an otherwise purposeful life. That’s your ten-year-old interrupting, or your dog, or your mom. That restless urge to jump up is hunger or thirst, the diversion a TV show that’s integral to your social group. You took that catnap because you were tired, and that break because you were stuck. These are the stitches that hold together our daily existence; they represent life itself, not random deviations from it. Our study and practice time needs to orient itself around them—not the other way around.

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.

Get out of your own way, and INDULGE! That is when you will learn best.

Learning is, after all, what you do. Learning is Life, and nothing comes more naturally to you!
Profile Image for Jay Williams.
1,707 reviews20 followers
August 14, 2014
Probably the most informative book I have read in years. I was amazed at the information it contains, and how it was written for ready comprehension. It stands the traditional ideas on learning on end, and provides a solid basis for the knowledge it provides. I especially liked the appendix which summarized the information from the entire book into practical guidelines for use. I will make sure many members of my family get a copy of this book. It is valuable for all ages.
Profile Image for Atila Iamarino.
411 reviews4,363 followers
October 21, 2015
Recomendo esse livro para qualquer um interessado em aprender. Claro, bem explicado, com pesquisa recente e ótimos exemplos claros do que ajuda e atrapalha a aprender. Eu não fazia ideia da importância de esquecer no processo. Algumas recomendações que ajudam a aprender mais e lembrar com mais facilidade do que aprendemos:

Estudar em ambientes variados
Variar o tema de estudo em um mesmo dia. O mesmo vale para prática de esportes ou habilidades específicas.
Quebrar o tempo de estudo em mais dias, vale mais 1h por dia por 3 dias do que 3h em um dia.
Dormir entre o estudo e a prova.

Ainda tem mais no livro. Vale ler ;)
Profile Image for Michael Nielsen.
Author 11 books979 followers
March 22, 2018
An informative overview of research on memory, covering:

+ The enormous benefits of spaced repetition.
+ The benefits of being repeatedly tested (which sometimes greatly outweigh re-studying, even when you're not told the results)
+ The benefits of interleaving different types of material, and the remarkable fact that people believe they're learning less, but are actually learning much more.
+ The fluency illusion, i.e., the sense that people have that they're learning a lot when it's all going quickly and well, but in fact they may be learning more when things seem difficult and slow.
+ The benefits of varying your environment.

I wish the book had dug down into more details of various effects. There is a lot of variation in how well things like spaced repetition work, depending on the type of memories being formed. It would have been nice to see an overview of some of the differences.

The book is also short on discussion of how to act on the advice. At an individual level, it'd be nice to have better systems for taking advantage of these ideas.

Still, a very good introduction to much of this work.
Profile Image for Taka.
684 reviews507 followers
March 8, 2015
Another excellent book on learning science--

The book covers much of the same ground as Make It Stick: the Science of Successful Learning—desirable difficulty, the necessity of forgetting in learning, testing as a learning technique, illusion of knowing, and spaced & varied practice—but the emphasis is more on the practical side of learning and offers some concepts, studies, and insights not found in Make It Stick.

Some of the things I took away from this book and will be applying to my own learning and teaching include:

1) Interleaved/varied practice. The book drives home the clear advantage of varied—or random—practice over massed or even serial practice, even though the learners thought otherwise.

The reasons for the advantage are not known. The effect may simply come from simulating the real situation: a math problem on the real test where you don't know which equations to apply, or a badminton game where you have to hit the shuttlecock from varied spots. Meaning it might be restricted to those cases where you can expect some degree of randomness (which would, theoretically speaking, counter what Taleb calls "the ludic fallacy," where skills and concepts drawn from a well-ordered environment don't and can't work in a chaotic environment). Or maybe you learn better because your brain has to make more effort and adjustments when dealing with different skills/concepts/problems. Or it might be that the brain learns better from differences than from more of the same thing.

Whatever the real reasons, though, I'd like to try applying it to at least two of my learning areas: 1) reading multiple books at the same time; and 2) writing different things—fiction, essay, poetry—in one sitting. For the former, like in the painting studies, I will be reading at least two books from a similar genre (two to three poetry books from different authors, for example) as well as books from different genres (e.g., history, philosophy, fiction).

2) Context. While it's true you remember better in the same internal state you were in (e.g. high, caffeine-buzzed, or drunk) when you learned something, one effective way of countering this is to introduce contextual interference, where you vary the location/environment in which you study. By studying in a variety of situations/locations, you become independent of the environment.

I'll be experimenting with this and try to read/write at different cafes/libraries.

3) Incubation and the importance of distraction when it comes to problems and projects involving "insights," or "Aha" moments. Takeaway: when you reach an impasse in some problem (and you have to reach an impasse for this to work), it's actually more productive to take a break and do something else. The kind of activity that's effective in initiating the process of incubation depends on the kind of problem you're dealing with: any activity—relaxing (e.g., lying on the couch), mildly active (e.g., surfing the Internet), and highly engaging (e.g., writing a short essay)—is effective for math or spatial problems, mild activity (video games, solitaire, TV) works best for problems involving language. On the whole, "longer" breaks (about 20min) are better than shorter ones (5-10min).

I sort of knew this from experience (and from another study on the subconscious), but it's good to know I've been doing the right thing.

4) Percolation. For long-term projects, it's actually good to interrupt your activity because anything interrupted lingers in your mind and you'll be scanning the environment for any hints/clues to solving the problem or improving the project.

5) Perceptual learning & immediate feedback. This is sort of an application of deliberate practice involving immediate feedback, but you can learn something subconsciously by studying a bunch of slides and getting the answer right away. Application: being able to distinguish different painting styles without—and this is the fascinating part—knowing exactly why. Would like to try with 20th century paintings myself.

6) Sleep. Achieving higher understanding and memory consolidation after a night's sleep. I knew this from another book (Josh Kaufman's The First 20 Hours).

7) Spaced practice. Good numbers to remember:
a) when trying to memorize something, spend about 1/3 of the time studying and 2/3 rehearsing (recalling from memory);
b) to memorize vocab or any fact, it's best to review the material 1 or 2 days later, then a week later, and a month later;
c) max interval for lifetime learning is once every 2 months.
d) Optimal study intervals:

Time to test: 1 week; first study interval: 1-2 days (meaning: study today, then again tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, and if you want to add a third session, study the day before the test)
1 month: today, 1 week from today, then about 3 weeks later, on the day before the test
3 months: 2 weeks
6 months: 3 weeks
1 year: 1 month

Overall, another highly recommended book on learning.
Profile Image for Jane.
Author 30 books80 followers
July 15, 2014
I could go 3.5 stars easily, but not four as much of the book was review, not surprising (although my parents never, ever suggested when, where or how I should study!) I wanted to retitle the first half of this book "How We Memorize" as Carey dealt, in an engaging way, with studies on how we retain factual information. This is not the heart of my interest in deep learning -- and I think the topic is covered better and with better, useful techniques for memorization, in Moonwalking with Einstein.

HOWEVER, in the second half of the Book, Carey delves more into applying what we learn and his findings are far richer. Yes, taking breaks is good. Yes, starting a project early allows for percolation of ideas. Yes, pausing before you finish lets your mind refresh and perchance unearth better ideas. Yes, taking a break when you're stuck and doing something else frequently lets solutions to complex problems surface; you stop thinking of the obvious and think differently. And yes, sleep is huge in the learning process.

So keep reading -- like me, you'll most likely stumble on new and helpful information. In fact, as I finished the pages I put together a quiz for a parent group I'll be speaking to which they'll take before I begin. I can then show them the studies on how quizzes on information you haven't studied, and quizzing in general, helps learning!

Thanks, Netgalley, for making a copy available in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Roberta.
120 reviews28 followers
July 17, 2019
I'd definitely recommend this to someone who hasn't yet ventured into the "learning how to learn" territory, but as someone who has taken multiple courses on this topic, I barely found any new information. Though the writing style's great - simple, fun and accessible.
Profile Image for Tony.
487 reviews37 followers
November 27, 2018
Audible version:
Firstly, this was a struggle at times, probably through the frustration of my own powers of learning/recall. If you’re going to use this book for personal/self-improvement, or you want to use its lessons in your own classroom, then an audible version is immensely confounding – as I wanted to make notes and highlights continuously, and walking to and from work whilst listening didn’t allow me to easily do this! I also hated the attempts of the narrator to mimic the Irish accent or when quoting research from a woman, attempt a somewhat high-pitched parody.

But… and it’s a big but… this book was outstanding. It collects a wealth of research, personal experience and learning and puts them together in a manner which is easy to understand and logically builds from one concept to another. It is so good, that as soon as I finished, I downloaded the kindle version so I can read it again and this time make notes.

In fact, it is so good that when the voice at the end says “we hope you enjoyed this book”, I actually said “Yes!” – out loud!

There’s a lot here, and it’s all good!
Profile Image for Leland Beaumont.
Author 4 books31 followers
August 22, 2014
As soon as we shift focus from teaching to learning, understanding how our brains acquire information becomes paramount. The easy going, storytelling style of this book belies its depth and importance; this is a book about how brain cells form, hold onto, and retrieve new information.

How we do learn often differs from how we may have been taught to learn. Schoolmarms would be very surprised to find out what actually works. Here are some of the unusual conclusions developed in the book:

+ Forgetting is essential to learning.
+ Recall is improved in an environment similar to where we originally learned the material.
+ Breaking up study time into several sessions spaced out over time—distributed learning—works better than a single continuous study session.
+ Testing is a powerful form of studying. Taking a test before studying the material improves the overall learning process.
+ Problem solving often occurs in four distinct stages: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. Distraction—stepping away from the problem—is important to allow incubation to occur subconsciously.
+ Interrupting an activity before it is completed helps in recalling the activity.
+ Interleaving tasks—practicing skills in a random sequence—deepens learning and better prepares us to transfer those skills to settings.
+ Perceptual learning methods tap our subconscious to discriminate or classify things that look similar to the untrained eye, but are critically different to the trained eye.
+ Sleep aids memory.

The book clearly presents convincing arguments for abandoning several traditional study rules and adopting new rules based on solid scientific research. The many studies supporting the conclusions are presented as fun-to-read stories. Although the author may extrapolate general conclusions from a few studies, and rarely presents opposing viewpoints, the arguments are convincing.

The book is clearly written, accessible, fun to read, and provides important new guidance on how we actually do learn.
Profile Image for Jenn.
1,091 reviews4 followers
August 7, 2014
3.5--I wish my peers would read this and understand techniques that help children learn. Because I follow this kind of research quite a bit, there wasn't much here that I did not already know but I did appreciate Carey taking the time to explain the research behind the theories. This would be a great common book for college freshmen.
Profile Image for Mckinley.
9,651 reviews83 followers
April 19, 2018
Review of learning studies.
Take aways:
1. Forgetting then retrieval makes the memory

2. Recreate same state of mind/study environment -shake it up so that can redo in a variety of circumstances

3. Space out learn over time to remember more

4. “fluency illusion” easy to remember now and also later; to overcome consistently engage in self-testing as you go (ie. recite from memory as part of studying)

5. Pre-testing as study tool - even a wrong guess engages the mind in a more demanding way than memorization, deepening the imprint of the correct answer.

6. Learn it to teach it- effective study method is to explain material (to yourself or someone else)

7. “off-line” problem learning, take “incubation breaks” when reach an impasse; creative leaps often come piecemeal during downtown that follows a period of immersion

8. Interruptions -interrupting yourself when absorbed in an assignment extends its life in memory and pushes it to the top of one's mental list, thus becoming priority to accomplish

9. "Just Start" - sets weight of goal, even if the actual work performed is minimal; begin projects asap, ok to complete in stages

10. “Interleaving” - varying study is more effective than concentrating on one skill/subject at a time, forces one to adjust and think quicker on the fly. Mixing up practice with different tasks builds dexterity sharpening each skill; and enhances ability to perform those skill regardless of context

11. “Perceptual Intuition” - ability to detect minute differences in sights, sounds, or textures developed over time aids in deciphering new material

12. Sleeping(!) improves retention and comprehension of what was DONE/studied that day; improves pattern recognition, creative problem solving, and muscle/motor memory; napping also beneficial

Conclusion: Learning is a restless exercise (time and content of study); the mind developed by foraging for information, strategies, and clever ways in order to survive

See: Make It Stick by Peter C. Brown
Profile Image for Stven.
1,253 reviews25 followers
November 7, 2015
Ironically, the way I learn is simply not the way he writes. He has a chatty style, about the density of spongecake for the amount of space between information, and after three attempts, I realize I don't have the patience to wait for him to get to the point. So I can't claim that I actually know whether he does have a point.
Profile Image for Karen Chung.
389 reviews91 followers
May 14, 2015
If you care about teaching or learning, do not deprive yourself of crucial information on how to do it better - hurry and read this book NOW!
31 reviews2 followers
July 30, 2018
This is a rare book that, having listened to it, I want to buy as a hard copy to review.

There are a lot of ideas in here about ideal learning conditions, the research that backs them up, and the ways to make the most of one's brain. Fascinating and useful. I wish I'd listened to it before I took my boards exam. There were things I might have structured differently in my study plan.

I especially would like to have this on hand in the event that I'm involved in course design at some point. I think understanding learning is critical for anyone endeavoring to teach, and this is often neglected in graduate and professional level instruction.
Profile Image for Bach Tran Quang.
207 reviews332 followers
April 18, 2022
Một cuốn sách thú vị chính là một cuốn sách giúp ta đập tan mọi thứ ta tự cho là đúng. Ở cuốn sách này là việc học. Và hoá ra, ta đọc nhảy cóc cuốn này sang cuốn kia ko có gì là xấu đâu các bạn tôi, nó là sự giãn cách rất khoa học, tất nhiên khi bạn vẫn phải quay lại và kết thúc cuốn sách đó. Giá như mình đọc cuốn này sớm hơn!
Profile Image for David.
Author 1 book87 followers
March 22, 2018
This book started Chapter One with a fascinating question: why do people with brains split completely in half (surgery for severe epilepsy) still feel like one unified person?

The answer: somewhere in the left hemisphere, there is a system in our brains that researcher Michael Gazzaniga calls the "left brain interpreter". The interpreter what what puts together the story of our lives. Oh, and 'story' is truly the right word; the interpreter will make up bullshit to explain what it does not know!

Chapter One has some other interesting information about the brain. It's not directly about learning per se. But it's certainly interesting!

Chapter Two was baffling to me at first: "The Power of Forgetting." Honestly, I couldn't put the anecdotes and information into something cohesive. I felt like something was missing or I was missing something, at any rate. At the end of the chapter, I asked myself this question: "Why is forgetting important to learning?" And I couldn't answer the question. I had no idea.

I went back and skimmed over the chapter again. Nope, still couldn't answer that question in my own words. Huh. I shrugged and went on. But not before I stuck a sticky-note with a question mark on the last page of the chapter: a visual reminder of the question that bugged me.

Chapter Three was also a bust! The science is all over the place and the conclusions feel like the author's personal preferences: if tying memories to environmental contexts is a crutch, you should vary your environment as you learn. A similar, better argument is made (varying or "interleaving" your practice), much more convincingly, later in Chapter Eight.

Chapter Four's material about spaced repetition was review for me, but very interesting and worthwhile information if you've not yet read about the work of, say, Piotr Wozniak. The "Four Bahrick Study" was new to me and also very interesting. I believe in the power of this method because I've been using it for a couple months (paper flashcards). The general idea: the longer you can space out re-learning things, the better you'll remember them and the less time you'll waste reviewing things you already know. (Look up "spaced repetition" online.)

Chapter Five is named "The Hidden Value of Ignorance" (sounds exciting and intriguingly counter-intuitive). I think it's a pretty poor title for some excellent advice, which is: quiz yourself often if you want to learn something. Don't keep reading and re-reading material, hoping it will sink in. We don't learn (or even memorize) by osmosis. If you put effort into recalling something even (or especially) if you fail to recall it, you'll remember that thing much better later. Much, much better, actually. And just as importantly, you won't be fooling yourself into thinking you've learned something you haven't (the "fluency illusion").

Another thing I liked about Chapter Five was towards the end when Carey applies "testing/quizzing" to the concept of "fake it 'til you make it." Basically, pretend you already understand the subject and then try to apply it; treat failures as opportunities to complete your understanding. Another way to look at it is the old adage that goes: you don't really understand a subject until you try to teach it to someone else.

Deep down, I already knew that. Writing these book reviews, for example, is very helpful for me because it forces me to put my half-formed ideas and understandings about a book into my own words. I'm trying to communicate my thoughts to other people. I may not succeed, but the effort alone increases my understanding (and often forces me to re-read a paragraph or two!) It's very valuable.

The final thing I got out of Chapter Five, strangely, was that I think I finally understood the point Carey was trying to make back in Chapter Two about forgetting! So, if you forget something, you'll remember it better next time, right? Well, I guess testing yourself and failing is another way to find that you've forgot something and thereby actually strengthen your understanding. It's all part of the same "making connections stronger" action in the brain.

Why is forgetting important to learning? Answer: if we forget a little, we make a stronger connection. Trying and failing makes a better connection.

But, really, does this chapter demonstrate any "value of ignorance"? I'm not seeing it. I'd say that's an odd way to put it at best.

Chapter Six was frustrating for me. It's about the idea that you need to distract yourself from a problem in order to let your subconscious work on the problem - often resulting in far better and more creative solutions than brute force mental effort. I actually believe very strongly in this concept; I have experienced it first hand more times than I can count. So what's my problem with this chapter?

Well, it's the emphasis on the "not thinking about the problem" part. Reading the chapter casually, you might get the impression that your average person is, if anything, not distracted enough! That we should go check our inboxes or juggle a ball every five minutes and the world's mysteries will unfold before our very eyes!

Nonsense. You first have to think about the problem to exhaustion. Put in the work. Try it from every angle. Draw diagrams. Lose yourself completely in the attempt. It might take hours. It might take days. It might take months. You have to get to the point where you start to have dreams about the problem.

Ah! Now distract yourself. Take a shower. Do some gardening. Play some Minecraft. Your brain is still working on the problem, but now it's applying the subconscious to the problem, making weird connections and being all creative and shit.

I'll admit, Carey does mention this mental effort part in the chapter. He does. But it's downplayed so much that distractions end up overhyped like this one weird trick that Nobel Prize winners don't want you to know about.

Chapter Seven is yet another take on distractions! On the surface it's about that nagging feeling we have when we can't complete something. We remember the project we weren't quite able to finish the other day. It stays in our memory.

At first, this chapter annoyed the hell out of me because...my life right now is a series of distractions. I'm a software developer who works at home...with two young children. I can tell you right now: distractions are not the key to solving hard problems, okay? Hard work and concentration are the key to solving hard problems.

You can live an entire life of distraction, learning and accomplishing nothing.

Anyway, the idea that your average person "would sure benefit from some distractions right about now" needs to be taken in context (or with a big old grain of salt). Unless you're a cloistered monk, live alone, work in a private office, study in a library, or spend a lot of quality time out in nature, you're probably already up to your damned eyeballs in distractions. You could probably do with a lot less of them. You probably laughed darkly, maybe even a little frighteningly, when you read a chapter about the benefits of distractions. You probably turned to the back flap of the book to see who this Benedict Carey guy is who has no beneficial distractions in his life, the poor guy, so he needs to go get himself some distractions because he's just got too much damned peace and solitude and concentration in his life, the poor bastard!

Actually, what's funny is that I really liked how Chapter Seven ended! There was some really solid advice about tackling large projects: don't try to "incubate" ideas for a project as a whole; get started right away ("break the skin," to paraphrase) and go until you get stuck. Then incubate the solution to that problem. Then get to the next problem. To borrow the quote from poet A.E. Housman:

When I got home I wrote [a line or two of verse or a whole stanza] down, leaving gaps, and hoping that further inspiration might be forthcoming another day.

Chapter Eight. Honestly, I have no complaints about Chapter Eight. It makes a solid case for "interleaving" your studies as opposed to mindless repetitive drilling of super-specific skills. The science started with physical activities (sports), but eventually came to find that purely mental learning (say, math) is also most effective if you shuffle the learning up, revisiting topics and doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

My own flashcards work this way: I have a single deck with everything I want to remember. I have computer science in there, math, some philosophy, the difference between i.e. and e.g., "who" vs "whom", you name it. I shuffle the cards so I have no idea what topic is coming up next. Reviewing the cards on a spaced repetition schedule brings back old subjects that I'm just starting to forget. According to science, I'm making strong connections. If I keep this up, I'll know these things for life.

Chapter Nine was also solid and I'm eager to try out its method: perceptual learning. Here's the idea: make yourself a little computer game; display an image; press a button to identify what you're seeing; display a different image; press a button; repeat. Do it repeatedly and fast. What you're doing is teaching the image-processing and subconscious parts of your brain to identify the patterns in the images. Our brains are really, really good at this.

What kinds of things can you learn with this method? Well, the book uses these examples: airplane instrument panels, styles of paintings, and species of birds, medical skin conditions. It has to be visual.

I wonder, though, if you can learn things that aren't generally considered to be "visual" problems, like programming idioms, certain elements of mathematics (the book confirms this one), obscure or difficult English grammar, and anything else that can be very quickly seen and identified? I bet it would work. My evidence is the fact that we didn't learn all of the words of our native languages by looking them up in the dictionary. No, we learned them through context, whether spoken or written. I'm still learning how to pronounce many words which I learned in books but rarely (if ever) hear in conversation. I've never looked these words up, but I've seen them enough times to have an accurate understanding of their meaning. Seeing 50 examples of right and wrong uses of "who" vs "whom" and repeating the test until you get it 100% correct ought to very quickly embed the correct usage in your mind even if you can't explain the "rule". Anyway, just a thought. I'd love to try it out.

I loved the fact that Carey had his daughter make a PLM (perceptual learning module) for him so he could learn to identify the artistic movement (Impressionism, Romanticism, Expressionism, etc.) of a painting by sight. It worked amazingly well. It makes sense that it would work. And yet, it's not the sort of thing I would have ever considered building for myself.

Chapter Ten was okay. It's about the role of sleep in learning. Having just finished a whole book on this subject (Why We Sleep by sleep scientist Matthew Walker - who is quoted in this chapter), Carey's summary was a little underwhelming and possibly slightly wrong or out of date.

I took quite a few notes while I was reading this book (I use sticky-notes as my marginalia - they act like little bookmarks for quickly finding a subject, I find notes distracting upon re-reading a book, they allow me to revise my notes easily as I refine my understanding, and at any rate, this was a public library book, so I couldn't write in it even if I wanted to). I got a lot out of it!

So why am I giving it just three stars? That doesn't seem fair!

Well, a non-fiction book can have tons of great information and still fall short of being great book. A fiction book can also have great characters and ideas and still fail as a story.

I think my criticisms are most easily addressed by looking at some of the chapter titles:

* 2. The Power of Forgetting
* 3. Breaking Good Habits
* 5. The Hidden Value of Ignorance
* 6. The Upside of Distraction
* 7. Quitting Before You're Ahead
* 8. Being Mixed Up
* 9. Learning Without Thinking

These are clearly written to titillate. They sound counter-intuitive and exciting and - best of all - they sound like shortcuts to hard work! But by shooting for excitement and aiming to please, the titles end up being somewhat inaccurate or possibly misleading ("The Hidden Value of Ignorance" comes to mind). Worse, in trying to make the text match the chapter title, the conclusions get all muddled. "The Upside of Distraction" underplayed the real instigator of powerful problem solving: the preceding deep concentration. The mixed message in "Breaking Good Habits" was befuddling at best!

If this were the only book on this subject, I would highly recommend reading it (carefully). But I'm part way into "Make it Stick" published the same year (2014) and I'm impressed with it. I certainly won't go as far as to say it's better without finishing it, but it's looking good.

Profile Image for Shahrazad.
79 reviews35 followers
September 11, 2019
We don’t learn the way we think we do. Things that are seen as detrimental like distractions, randomness, naps, boredom, different settings are actually what can help us the most. Learning or training our brains whether it’s in the storage or the retrieval aspects is just like our exercise routines the more varied , sporadic, intermittent the better. Agility and flexibility are extremely valuable for strengthening .

The author highlights tips we might already know like the importance of self testing, immersing in the material and teaching it to others to help us assimilate it better but also shines the light on tips I personally didn’t think of before like more variety in study , interleaving and a general call for ditching structure and linear learning for a more random study plan.

A fascinating info was how learning done involving a number of senses is better as things you learn while attaching a sound a smell an emotion are better learned but this can also backfire and not be sustainable.

He points out differences in motor and verbal learning were one can be more subconscious than the other and although one might need a slightly different approach than the other they both benefit from the above techniques.

Overall enjoyable and informative, so turns out that for learning just like for life it’s better to take it less seriously for best results.
Profile Image for Jenny.
799 reviews31 followers
March 25, 2016
I’ve been reading a lot of books about the science of learning lately. It started a couple of years ago when I began using an article by Carol Dweck in my developmental reading/writing course—an article about fixed and growth mindset and about how such a small thing like what you believe about your own intelligence or ability can have a huge impact. My students both related to it as learners but sometimes as parents too. Since then, I have seen/read discussions of mindset everywhere and one night last fall I was reading an article on Mind/Shift and before I knew it I had ordered three books off of Amazon: Make It Stick, Thinking Fast and Slow, and The Power of Habit. I read Make It Stick right away (even though I haven’t yet reviewed it for CBR8) but that book led me to this one—How We Learn-The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey.

Carey is a science reporter for the New York Times and in this book he attempts to show how many of the ideas we have about learning may not be right or more accurately, that scientists are learning many counterintuitive things about what facilitates learning. [This, by the way, is also the main premise of Make It Stick, which is written by two cognitive scientists and a journalist.] Carey starts with his own story as a learner—a high school grind who actually began to “learn” more in college when he took things less seriously and was pulled in more interesting directions. He then uses that story as a way into the various things that cognitive scientists now theorize about learning—many that run counter to what you learn in study skills courses.

Here’s just a sampler. That idea, that you should always study in the same distraction-free place, has been disproven by research. It can actually help if you do math equations or practice conjugating Spanish verbs in a variety of contexts. The common notion of massed practice, that you should study in large chunks of time, Is also debunked. There have been numerous studies that show learners learn more deeply if they space out their learning sessions and if they practice different types of things. That is, as someone learning to play guitar (as I am), it would be much better for me in the long run if I practiced for 15-20 minutes a day than in one or two hour-long sessions and if I practiced a number of different songs instead of the same song over and over and over again. The idea that my students this semester have found most helpful is the power of “testing” yourself about content versus simply reviewing a reading or lecture notes. Actually, Carey focuses a lot on what scientists are discovering about the power of testing or quizzing as an aid to learning but not in the NCLB way but as a way of getting a “real” sense of what you know and don’t know. One of my favorite chapters is called “You Snooze, You Win” and focuses on what scientists know and don’t know about what the brain does during sleep. I now see afternoon naps in a totally different light.

I found this book both enjoyable to read and very interesting. There is a lot of overlap between this book and Make It Stick but they work well together to make me realize how much I don’t know about what the brain does while learning and how helpful it would be to know more about this as a teacher (and as a learner).
Profile Image for Dimitrios Mistriotis.
Author 1 book41 followers
October 1, 2018
Easily one of the books that do not worth the paper + ink it has been printed on. An impulse buy. I need to upskill my learning so got this to get some insights. The format of each chapter is Story - Research - Finding, there is no way to connect the stories, research material presented is sparse and does not connect. Findings that you can apply to how you work and learn stuff were at most one paragraph per chapter. Thinking that the book advertises it self as a how-to "unlock our brains potential" it vastly underdelivers on that promise. It could be better stated as a "tour of what researchers do in the last 40 years which you might want to apply".

After reading the first 65 pages, book ended in Sutton Station's exchange library from which I got a 60s pulp science fiction item which I am sure I will enjoy more.

After some feedback on the review the bitter part of myself decided to suggest this alternative title: "How We Learn: Through away this book and buy one which will help you unlock your brain's potential (paperback)"
Profile Image for Brandi.
561 reviews1 follower
April 28, 2018
Well...I spent 8 years teaching students useless study habits. 😕 Informative and eye opening, but I would have liked bulleted suggestions for improving learning at the end of each chapter.
Profile Image for Diane Law.
349 reviews2 followers
January 9, 2021
If you are interested in the psychology of how we learn, this book presents scientific studies as well as personal anecdotes and experiments you can try yourself.
Its very accessible and written in a conversational style.
It focuses primarily in memory, rather than deeper insightful learning.
Profile Image for Patrik.
93 reviews29 followers
August 30, 2015
Carey's "How We Learn" challenges our traditional views of learning by discussing the experimental results from the science of learning. The book is thus very similar to "Make It Stick" by Brown et al. In my opinion, Carey's book is more readable but not quite as useful and informative as "Make It Stick."

Our traditional views about memorization, studying, and learning tend to focus on making learning easy: study in the same location, develop a study ritual, reduce distractions, then read, take notes, and reread. The science of learning, as discussed by Carey, seems focused on making learning "difficult" in the sense that our brain needs a challenge in order to pay attention, see relationships, and make connections.

Carey gives a brief introduction to the biology of memory and learning. This introduction provides the foundation for his suggestions for how to improve our ability to learn, without increasing the time devoted to such learning. His six main suggestions are:

1. Vary the environment in which learning occurs. An optimal study environment needs contextual cues to facilitate retention, to multiply the number of perceptions connected to a given memory. By varying the location, the time, the background music, etc. we can increase the number of such contextual cues.

2. Distribute your available study time. It is much better to space your study our over several hours, days, and weeks, rather than studying in one single sitting. Incorporate spaced review into your learning strategy.

3. Avoid the illusion of knowledge (fluency). Re-reading material gives us the impression of fluency, everything makes sense and seems easy, but this practice does not significantly add to our learning. Instead, make sure that your brain has to work by introducing testing. By asking our brains to retrieve the information, the brain makes more and stronger connections between our neurons (= learning). Consider testing as studying because it is.

4. Solving difficult problems often require a break. When getting stuck on a problem it is best to take a break, the distraction ("incubation") allows the brain to make new connections that may spur creativity.

5. Start projects early. Unfinished projects primes the brain to find relevant information all around ("percolation").

6. Practice and repetition is important, but mix it up. Interleaving, mixing related but distinct material during study, aids comprehension. Interleaving prompts the brain to process information more deeply.

Carey discusses additional topics (chunking, perceptual learning, etc.) but these six points are most helpful when trying to improve our learning, and the learning of our students and children.
Profile Image for Jose Fuentes.
11 reviews3 followers
October 28, 2014
Nothing new here. The book can be summarized in about 10 bullet points. Yet another self help book disguised as science.
Profile Image for Chris Mayes.
14 reviews
March 7, 2018
Mostly bad science from a non-expert. Not a good idea to extend principles of general cognitive psychology to educations psychology in particular if you don't know anything about the latter.
1 review
September 12, 2022
Over the summer, I was looking on the list of books to read and I came across a book called “How We Learn” and was immediately attracted to it, hoping that it would give me insights to my brain and help me become a stronger student and a more efficient person. How We Learn, by Benedict Carey is a fascinating and informative nonfiction book that highlights various experiments and findings among the field of psychology, going deep into the scientific process, breaking down the experiments in depth, and developing substantial evidence to support 12 main points about how our brains work. The 12 main findings highlighted in the book, point to the fact that how we learn differs from what we think, in fact, sometimes, it is quite the opposite of what we are taught. For example, did you know that having a designated study space where you do all of your work is far less effective for memory than if you were to change up your study environment constantly? Did you know that when you complete almost all of a task but are interrupted right before you finish, you remember that task far better than you would have if you had completed the task initially? Findings like these and more are concluded and defended throughout the book, and through extensive research and various study examples, Benedict Carey makes the findings easily accessible to all, often giving brain teasers to go along with the findings that help to prove the effectiveness of the findings for the average reader. These teasers, and the way Carey questioned the reader, while also providing relatable stories from his time as a student, made for an interactive and engaging read. My mom, who is a psychologist, read the book with me and was just as fascinated as I was and almost as surprised by the findings of the book. We enjoyed listening to how some studies were conducted, and she was very pleased with the style of the book, and was happy that I was engaging in a book that related to her field. Personally, however, I often found that Carey went too in depth in terms of the research, given that in setting out to read the book, my goal was to learn how to be a better learner, I assume like many other readers of this book. I found Carey would go a little overboard with detail that did not always appeal to the general reader, with dense chunks of evidence, that often felt like filler before arriving to the helpful tip given in each chapter, reminding me of some sort of busy work, that obstructs from the overall task of an assignment, there were many times where it felt like the author was just writing words to write them. Overall, however, the book was unique in how its research was outside of my realm of knowledge, yet the findings had understandable effects. How We Learn is not just a fascinating book, the findings have real life implications that will help boost memory, and become a better learner which is why I would recommend any student to read this book because it is beneficial to creating good study habits.
Profile Image for Sarah Clement.
Author 1 book100 followers
December 12, 2022
This book provided some good insights on tactics and strategies for retaining information, but perhaps less so on how we "learn". Though I suppose that depends on how you define learning. Maybe 1/2 to 2/3 of the book focuses on strategies to improve memory, retention, recall, etc. Those were all strategies that I had sort of stumbled on in school, but I kept thinking that this book would be very valuable for people who struggle with these elements. As an adult whose learning tends to focus on ideas and concepts (and who rarely needs to take tests), it was the final third of the book that was most interesting to me. None of it defied my intuitions as someone who has just sort of settled into a life of learning, but it did articulate some of them and provide some evidence that I should follow those intuitions. Of course, this all could just be confirmation bias, as it made sense to me and he provided evidence in the form of studies, but I got the sense in some bits that he was a bit like Malcolm Gladwell - i.e. taking anecdote and marrying it with data to come to grand conclusions. However, I think he was quite reflective about what we do and do not know, and clear about where it was speculation versus pretty solid ground.

I do think that this book provided interesting insights that I will use with students, and I may even try to help students implement some of these strategies next semester.
May 6, 2020
As a former educator, I wish I had this years ago. Many practical suggestions and illustrations. Will be passing this on to groups I tutor with.
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