April 3rd, 2017

An Empowering Question: How Might We Improve How We Learn?

By Ron Nakamoto

I recently completed the book "How We Learn" by Benedict Carey, a science writer for the New York Times. Carey synthesizes the research on learning to develop what amount to "tips" on how to improve our learning. Many of his findings "show that some of what we've been taught to think of as our worst enemies – laziness, ignorance, distraction – can also work in our favor." That's the interesting, counter-intuitive conclusion that I draw from this book.

Among the ideas I found most surprising are:

1. Varying the environment improves learning. This so-called "context effect" not only means studying in various locations as opposed to a single designated study space, it also means altering the time of day, the medium (i.e., computer, book, discussion, etc.), even the music you listen to while studying;

2. Spaced learning – that is intervals between studying sessions, including interruptions – leads to greater long term retention than cramming or intensive study;

3. "Retrieval practice" (i.e., testing) is important, especially if it reveals ignorance of the subject matter. Research indicates that early testing sets the stage for greater learning. It also supports the notion that "you don't really know a topic until you have to teach it";

4. Distraction plays a critical part in problem solving because it allows for the mind, especially the subconscious mind, to work on the "incubation" of ideas. There's a time to focus and concentrate but there's also a time in the learning process for not focusing and for distractions to be considered an acceptable part of the process;

5. Interruptions trigger the "Zeigarnik effect" which states that people remember incomplete or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

Carey also writes about "perceptual learning modules" and the effects of sleep on learning, topics that are explored in more detail by other writers and researchers. Taken as a whole, this book suggests modifications to teaching and training programs such as Empowered Wealth's that would challenge conventional educational and training practices.



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