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

5. The Hidden Value of Ignorance: The Many Dimensions of Testing

  • Pre testing – This chapter is summarized on a separate post from an article in the New York Times Magazine. In essence, if you take something like the final at the beginning of a course, it can focus your studying and improve your results.

6. The Upside of Distraction: The Role of Incubation in Problem Solving

  • Problem solving occurs in four steps. The first is preparation. This can take hours, days, or longer. This is where you wrestle with the details associated with the problem you face. Stage two is incubation. Here you put the problem aside or at least let it go from your consciousness. The mind then works on the problem off-line, moving around the pieces it has in hand and adding pieces it has in long-term memory but didn’t think to use at first. Next you get to the illumination stage where you reach the aha! moment. The clouds part and the solution appears. The final stage is verification where you check to make sure your solution really works.
  • Due to the incubation effect, distractions are not a hindrance but a valuable weapon. The weight of the research now shows that fears of distractions from social media and electronic gadgets is misplaced. In addition to the fact that your brain is still working on your problems while you are distracted, the distractions themselves can also provide hints that can often help solve the problem.

7. Quitting Before You’re Ahead: The Accumulating Gifts of Percolation

  • The main idea here is that you should dive into a problem so you can familiarize yourself with the landscape and start the process. Then it’s vital to put it down so it can percolate in your unconscious mind. Studies show you remember more about tasks that are unfinished than things you have finished. The other trick is to spend conscious time each day on the problem. It’s almost like we have a mental to do list of unfinished jobs and unsolved problems that are actively percolating unconsciously. This also means that interruptions, controlled or uncontrolled, can promote problem solving and creativity. While percolation is going on, you are also more likely to notice things in your environment that are somehow connected to your problem, and may even provide vital hints that promote breakthroughs. A message for teachers here is to consider longer term projects that students can devote some time to on a regular basis. Teachers should also design tasks that force students to give their own opinions on the research material the find.

8. Being Mixed Up: Interleaving as an Aid to Comprehension

  • It seems that mixed practice or study is better than focusing on the same material or skill for an extended period. Part of the problem with things like math education is that students are given many problems of the same kind to do in sequence. This means that they don’t have to make any effort to determine the necessary strategy. This can result n not much learning as you really haven’t mastered something until you can successfully apply it in another context. Transfer is what learning is all about.
  • Systematically altering practice so as to encourage additional, or at least different, information processing activities can degrade performance during practice, but can at the same have the effect of generating greater performance capabilities. This supports the spacing effect and the context change concepts covered in previous chapters. The term scientists use is interleaving which simply means mixing related but distinct material during study. Exams should also have mixed problem types so students need to decide which strategy to use. It’s easier to grasp a new technique more clearly when using it alongside other, familiar ones. Chopping time into smaller pieces like 10-15 minutes can produce better results. Interleaving prepares the brain for the unexpected and life’s curveballs in general.
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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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