The Science of How to Learn Anything

Some time ago I introduced a post offering advice for serious readers by bemoaning the fact that in all my years as a student I never once had a teacher who spoke in any detail about how to read and study effectively. Well, I just finished reading the best, most up-to-date book on the subject, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. For anyone serious about learning anything, you cannot do better than to read this book. If I were king, it would be required reading for teachers and students and, well, everyone. (Aren’t you glad I’m not king!)

The book is written by two cognitive scientists who have dedicated their careers to the study of learning and memory. But don’t be discouraged, for these academics were wise enough to bring on a third author, writer and novelist Peter Brown, to help them tell the story. As a result, the book isn’t just chock full of fascinating and useful information, it’s also a great read—which is something one cannot say about most academic writing. The book is full of illustrative stories about learners across the spectrum, from athletes, gardeners, and soldiers to undergrads, professors, medical students, and neurosurgeons.

As the authors point out in the preface, many of the widely accepted theories and practices surrounding learning are neither supported by evidence nor effective. In other words, much of what you’ve learned about how to study and practice is probably wrong. To take just one example, rereading text and the single-minded repetition of something you’re trying to burn into memory, the “practice-practice-practice” philosophy behind cramming, may give rise to a feeling of fluency and mastery, but, as the authors argue, “for true mastery these strategies are largely a waste of time.”

Here’s a brief summary of some of the effective ways to learn presented in the book. First, it’s far better to review by practicing retrieving facts, concepts, events, physical skills and the like from memory first. Second, spacing out practice sessions—actually letting yourself forget a little of what you’re learning before trying to recall it—is very effective. For example, if you’re a student taking several classes, one way to do this is to “interleave the practice of two or more subjects” in one study session: spend half an hour on calculus, then turn to those Greek paradigms, then turn to Aristotle’s text. Then go back to the calculus problem, the Greek paradigms, and so on. Finally, it is much better to attempt to come up with your own argument, solve the problem, or otherwise figure something out for yourself first, before learning from others how it works.

Perhaps you’ve noticed one thing all these methods have in common: they’re harder than what most of us do.  Alas, when it comes to learning, easier is not better:

Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.

In my experience, many teachers and students alike are eager to believe that learning should be fun and easy. Scads of books are devoted to telling you how learning and remembering and becoming a master of anything can be made easy. (In my book on friendship and dogs, I discuss how this wishful thinking is peddled to dog owners in the name of “positive-only” training methods, and how these diminish the possibility of friendship.) There are deep reasons why learning and mastery are not easy. Among them,

Psychologists have uncovered a curious inverse relationship between the ease of retrieval practice and the power of that practice to entrench learning: the easier knowledge or a skill is for you to retrieve, the less your retrieval practice will benefit your retention of it. Conversely, the more effort you have to expend to retrieve knowledge or skill, the more the practice of retrieval will entrench it.

Or, as Spinoza (and, in so many words, Plato before him) famously said: “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”

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