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

2. The Power of Forgetting: A New Theory of Learning

  • Studies show that what we think of a forgetting, is part of the process that leads to remembering things in the long run. We do indeed have a forgetting curve implicit in the theory of disuse that states: learned information without continued use, decays from memory entirely. But in addition to forgetting what we have once remembered, we also tend to remember what we have once forgotten. (Doug: I think what happens is you find something in stored memory after looking for it for a while. In this case you initially think you forget it.) After a few days, memory can improve for information nested in stories or poetry. This is not true for unconnected information. Reminiscence is also strong for visual information.
  • Memories have storage strengths and retrieval strengths. So the theory is that no memory is lost, it is just currently not accessible due to lack of retrieval strength. To increase retrieval strength, information has to be reinforced. As we all know from experience, retrieval strength can be fickle. Working hard to retrieve something will increase both types of strength when we finally retrieve it. This is why forgetting something at first is good for remembering once you find it. The key idea is that using memory changes memory for the better.

3. Breaking Good Habits: The Effect of Context on Learning

  • Research paints and unexpected picture about conditions that produce the most effective learning. Since learning needs context, it helps to study the same material in different places and times so it has multiple contexts. There is also reason to believe that some distractions actually help as they provide additional context to connect with memories of what you are trying to learn.

4. Spacing out – Spreading Out Study Time

  • Distributed learning, also known as the spacing effect, is the act to studying a little every day rather than trying to cram everything in just before the test. Cramming leads to faster forgetting. This certainly fits with my memories of my college studies. It’s kind of like giving your lawn a little water every day rather than flooding it once a week. This can be combined with the concept of studying in different places on subsequent days to add additional context clues. Strangely enough, this finding has seldom found its way from the lab to the classroom. This chapter contains details of the key research and guidelines on how to spread out study time based on how far away your are from a test.
  • The fluency illusion is the term used to describe the fact that we often have a false sense of confidence about what we know. The lesson here is not to assume you know something just because your are confident that you do. When trying to learn something, recitation is more effective than restudying. This means you should do some studying and then try to recite what you just studied. This is much more effective than spending all of your time studying. Test taking at the right time can also help as it requires retrieval. Pop quizzes serve this purpose well if they are deployed sooner rather than later. Tests can be excellent learning devices if properly used and are more effective than further study. Think of a test as a powerful additional study session. In effect, recitations are really self-tests. Unfortunately, testing is a loaded word with lots of negative connotations thanks to our current standardized testing culture.
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3 Responses to “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey”

  1. There is a lot of what feels like common sense stuff here… but a lot of the memory research is compelling. The folks who do well in school but don’t achieve well on standardized tests and the idea studying a little bit every day rather than for long hours the day before makes sense to me too. I never knew the facts about recitation, but that was always how I studied… retyped my notes while reading them aloud. Always worked for me.

    Really interesting stuff here… going to share with my students. Thanks

  2. Jess says:

    In response to, “It’s kind of like giving your lawn a little water every day rather than flooding it once a week,” I might recommend a different metaphor. Daily watering makes roots stay shallow so they don’t survive very well in drought, while watering once a week encourages deeper roots that help the lawn survive drought.

  3. Thanks so much for the kind reply. You are correct of course.

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