We have, at the end of past years, summarized what we found to be the best business books of the year (see our list for 2012—we didn’t get to it for 2013). This year, one book stood significantly above the rest: How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why it Happens, by Benedict Carey. Josh initially read it for personal reasons—it was recommended by two of his kids’ middle-school teachers.
How We Learn summarizes modern research on effective learning. It repudiates some folk wisdom (for example: always study in the same, quiet place) and provides other very useful insights and techniques. We heartily recommend it whether want to help your children in school or apply the techniques at work.
Here are our key takeaways:
- The spacing effect — People learn at least as much and retain it longer when they space their study time. Cramming works only in the short run—retention is poor. Carey discusses the optimal study intervals for long-term retention.
- Incubation — Incubation is what happens when you take a relative short break from a difficult problem. Carey shows how the research suggests this helps us make breakthroughs when we have been working hard and reached an impasse. That on-line shopping you did last month? It may have actually boosted your productivity if you used it as a distraction from a problem you were struggling with.
- Percolation — Learning can also benefit from longer breaks. Doing things over a period of days or weeks, occasionally letting the work sit and resonate, allows our brains to wander and subconsciously approach issues from different angles. Deep mastery of material requires this percolation, when we make connections and see contradictions between different parts of the material. Percolation also implies taking enough time to allow the brain to develop a structure on which to “hang” new information.
- Interleaving — Interleaving is mixing related but distinct material during study. Research suggests this is more advantageous than studying large blocks of homogenous content. For example, mixing various types of math problems forces us to learn not only the required mechanics but also to determine which approaches are needed for each problem—a skill we will certainly need both on tests and “in the wild”.
- Randomness — Contrary to conventional wisdom, changing the environment in which we study and practice makes our learning more robust. Ritual slows down mastery. According to the research Carey cites, randomizing the study process, location, and environment strengthens performance, especially in uncontrolled environments.
- The Fluency Illusion — We often convince ourselves that we have mastered a subject when we review notes or make outlines. But—for example—we find when tested (whether in a classroom or by real life) that studying a list of French vocabulary is very different from recalling it on demand.
- Benefits of Testing — One of the solutions to the fluency illusion is self-testing. For example, to memorize a passage, it is much more effective to read it twice and then make an effort to actually write it or recite it than it is to read it ten times. Carey discusses research that suggests it is optimal to devote about two-thirds of study time to self-testing.
- Benefits of Pretesting — One thing Josh has found baffling about his kids’ education is their teachers’ big emphasis on pretesting. What is the point, he thought, of giving a fourth grader a test about multiplying fractions before you’ve taught him to multiply fractions? It turns out this is based on solid research that shows this type of testing prepares the mind for learning. The purpose isn’t to measure performance, but to signal to the brain what it should be paying attention to. As with percolation, it starts the process of building a mental scaffolding for the material.
- Begin with the End in Mind — Having a goal in mind tunes our perceptions to material relevant to achieving our goal. Common sense, right? Carey helpfully shows we can optimize for this effect, however, by creating a structure for a piece of work that leaves the content unfinished. At Woodlawn, an early part of our process is often to create an outline of how we will ultimately present information to our clients. This helps us pay special attention to information we need to prove or disprove the hypotheses as we work on the project.
We hope you enjoy the book as much as we did.
Thank you for your trust and business in 2014. We look forward to speaking with you soon. All the best in the new year!