Inside the science of learning

A new book looks at how to study smarter, not harder
By: and | Issue: February, 2015
January 20, 2015

Benedict Carey was, by his own admission, not a good student. It wasn’t that he didn’t study. He did. But he didn’t retain enough of what he studied to do more than get by. If that sounds like a familiar scenario, then join the club.

In his book How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, Carey, a New York Times science reporter, examines well-worn advice about learning, only to find much of it misguided or outdated.

Instead, recent research shows that sometimes contradictory study techniques may actually lead to greater success in the classroom. “If the brain is a learning machine, then it’s an eccentric one,” Carey says. “And it performs best when its quirks are exploited.”

It’s interesting that even as you research how learning happens, others are studying more effective ways to teach.

Yes, and they are totally different things. Education is one thing where classrooms and teachers aren’t usually studied as individual learning. Only recently are they trying to integrate the things learned in studying individuals into classrooms to see what works. Not all of it will work.

Not everyone learns the same way, as your book shows.

We know from experience that we learn better in some contexts than in others. We learn better with certain teachers. We connect with a certain textbook or graphic representation.

Those intuitions are the way we’ve formed a lot of our own theories about learning, which turned out to be not so accurate. Those are the assumptions about learning styles people makeÑI’m an audio learner. I’m a visual learner. I’m an intuitive learner. I’m a right brain learner.

Those things seem natural but they really don’t hold up when you study them directly. No one has shown convincingly that there are those differences.

So rather than focusing on differences, we should look more at what they have in common?

Right. For example, some people split their study time and actually remember more. They can separate study sessions by a day or so and the information lasts longer. But others have a hard time doing that because their schedule is too messed up already.

We’ve always been told to pick a quiet place to study, but the science suggests mixing up your environment. Trying a new place or new music on your earphones actually has more benefit than always holing up in a library carrel. Changing context and changing environment aids retention.

It’s a matter of adapting the individual findings to what you can do and what you need to learn. The idea is you see what the evidence looks like and then try to apply it in individual techniques and see if they work for you.

Have you come across any schools that are taking these various individual methods and trying to scale them?

Yes, I know of several, but it is something of a haphazard approach. In other words, they are trying to incorporate “neuroscience” or brain science to improve the teaching in learning.

One is St. Andrews in Potomac, Maryland. They are trying to use what has been learned by cognitive scientists, as I describe in the book, and see if it is applicable.

One very simple thing they do is to start their days later. They’ve picked up on the idea that sleep actually enhances learning. St. Andrews gives students more sleeping time and encourages them to take it.

St. Andrews also uses testing as a studying technique. That’s a powerful tool because it’s not a graded test. It’s basically an extra powerful way to drive home the material that you’ve already studied.

Another school, Indian Creek, which is also in the D.C. area, is doing some similar things. Those two schools have explicit programs where they are trying to integrate academic-like findings into the teaching, into the school and into the school schedule.

Now, teachers instinctively know a lot of this stuff. Some of them have hit on these techniques in a piecemeal way in trying to encourage students. But most of them don’t have the full picture. They don’t have all the findings and how they fit together. They are not applying learning science, so to speak, in a systematic wayÑlike St. Andrews is trying to do.

You mentioned testing as a study technique. What do you say to people who argue that there is too much testing already?

Testing is one of those flashpoint debate things. A lot of people in education circles hate it. It seems that, at least in some school districts, there is more and more of it. You feel like you are always preparing for a test.

But testing is a technique. It’s a preparation technique, whether it’s reciting or even making outlines with the book closed. A lot of things that don’t feel like testing the way we normally think about it turn out to be fairly powerful learning techniques.

So to the extent that schools or teachers can use testing to inoculate against testing, they should do it. It involves finding clever ways of self-examination that you can incorporate into the preparation period to deepen learning.

The result is a stronger learning experience in the same amount of studying time. Then, when the standardized test comes around, it’s not as big a deal. The actual assessment doesn’t feel as scary and you’ll do better, presumably.

That’s not just regurgitating material rather than learning?

Not really. For example, if you read an American history chapter that’s describing the settling of the West, there’s all sorts of varying theories about that and different ways of telling the story.

Well, if you close the book and outline what you’ve read, that’s a kind of self-examination. It’s a kind of testing, although it’s not what we would normally think of as testing.

But it’s not regurgitation either. It’s you organizing the material according to the way you remember it and the hierarchy that you think is appropriate. You are not taking it from the teacher and you are not getting it from the book.

If the course is taught well, you are not regurgitating any one single historian’s view. What you are doing is organizing the material in a way that makes sense to you and that you can easily recall.

Regurgitating would be more like reading it out of the book or even restudying what you just studied. That helps you a little bit, but not as much as the other.

Our education system increasingly relies on tests. But are we actually tracking learning from those tests?

That’s a policy question, but my suspicion is no. Not because testing is inherently bad or misleading, but because it warps the preparation.

I suspect that increased testing leads to a lot more cramming. And that doesn’t help learning. It’s a very superficial and short-lived kind of learning that happens. It’s here and then gone.

Does any of what you learned while writing the book run counter to what you thought going in?

My assumptions were the same as everyone’s for most of my learning life, certainly all my life as a student. You think of learning as an act of discipline where it’s you and the book hidden away in a quiet room, and you are pushing this information into your head.

A lot of it is isolated from the rest of your life. You set aside an hour to study math or French, and then you close the book and you are done. You have a routine and that routine kind of lets you know when it’s time to work.

All these things seem to make sense. The problem is they’re just not true. The things we learn best are the things we carry with us, that we think about and incorporate into our lives.

What can school leaders take from your book and apply right now?

The learning methods in the book can be taught directly to studentsÑreal study skills that can be applied very specifically to the courses kids have.

Let the Harvard professors continue with their studies to figure out which of these techniques could one day be applied to a whole classroom or school. For now, there’s no reason to wait around to find out if, for example, interleaving really raises math scores across an entire school. I think it will, but the studies are going to take some years.

But really, we don’t need Department of Education-funded double-blind research studies designed by academics. We already have the material, we just need to use it to the best advantage.

So to the extent that you can bring those techniques into your daily routineÑthe testing, moving study spaces, outlining, and so onÑthe better off you are. Right now you can teach a brain science course which has practical applications that any sixth grader could try.

Tim Goral is senior editor.