How We Learn


I recently read Benedict Carey’s How We Learn, The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens.  Carey does a nice job providing an overview of ed-psych, cognitive-psych and neuroscience literature on memory by relating it to his experiences as a learner.  It’s filled with research-based suggestions for memorizing and learning.  A few passages continue to tickle my brain:

“The harder we have to work to retrieve a memory, the greater the subsequent spike in retrieval and storage strength (learning)” (p.38).

I didn’t know this and I suspect students are similarly unaware.  I’m wondering how I can integrate increasingly difficult retrieval  challenges into learning activities.

I’m also thinking about desirable difficulties and productive v. unproductive cognitive load.  We want students to exercise their brains in meaningful ways, not waste energy on confusing instructions, unclear formats, disorganization, or other learning impediments.  We want students’ brains to be focused on retrieval and long-term retention.

“A test is not only a measurement tool, it alters what we remember and changes how we subsequently organize that knowledge in our minds. And it does so in ways that greatly improve later performance” p.83.

Carey delves deeply into pre-testing and self-testing as learning strategies.  I have been selling testing short and I’m pretty sure students have too. The past few years I’ve moved away from quizzing, but I’m reconsidering.  I experimented with student-developed examples last term in accounting.  It was an eye-opening experience for students and teacher. The process revealed students didn’t understand the material as well as I thought they did, or as well as they  thought they did.  It’s a lot harder to develop an example than they or I thought it would be. It’s this kind of “hard” thinking that’s desirable for learning.  Given how much attention students pay to “tests” we should leverage them for learning, not just assessment.

“You can teach facts and concepts all you want, but what’s most important in the end is how students think about that material-how they organize it, mentally, and use it t make judgments about what’s important and what’s less so” p.98.

Teachers often present material once and move on.  Then we’re surprised students haven’t retained it for the long-term. To increase retention, teachers need to be more intentional about getting students looping, repeating, and reorganizing content.  The more novel the repetition, like switching media or adding humor, the better.  Each time students interact with a chunk of content, more connections to other memories are made and strengthened.  It’s not enough for the teacher to say, “Remember… we saw this in chapter 4.” Teachers need to create opportunities for students to organize and make judgments.

The more I read books like How We Learn, Make it Stick The Science of Successful Learning (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel), and The New Science of Learning (Doyle & Zakrajsek), the more convinced I am that graduate schools should require future professors (all of us, not just those in Ed programs) to complete at least one course on “how people learn” or “how brains work.”

Photo credit: tominsup


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on August 9, 2016, in Learning and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Hi Lolita! I’m with you with! There are two additional books that I’d like to add to your great list of books on learning: “Teach Students How to Learn” by Saundra Yancy McGuire and “Small Teaching” by Jim Lang. Both are based on solid research, and both offer specific strategies.
    Best wishes,
    Kate Stover

  2. Thanks for the comment Kate! Hope all is well with you.

  3. Thanks for the book list. The more I learn about how the brain works and memory in particular, the more I want to change my teaching. I’ll grab these books soon.

  4. So pleased the list is helpful. Best wishes for a great fall term @dudleydreamscape!

  5. I read this when you posted but found myself coming back today in order to get the information on the books you mention to help develop my rationale for a streamlined method of resource sharing with students

    As I re-read this, two ideas came to me. First, part of teaching students how to problem solve is getting them to realize there ways to get information and clarifications that are self-driven. When a student asks a question, they want the direct answer but they need to know how to find the answer. If the question comes up frequently, then developing a resource that addresses it not only makes practical sense for an educator, but it also makes pedagogical sense because then the answer “Remember, you can find this type of information here” fits both criteria.

    Second, we have to focus on what we are assessing – meaning what do we need the students to learn skill-centric terms. If our course contains a digital presentation, we are not – or should not be- teaching students to effectively use any single vehicle for creating one unless the course is about that specific tool. Instead, we must focus on students understanding and applying the characteristics of a good digital presentation on the subject. Part of that understanding is picking the vehicle for the presentation and using it well. If we demand a certain tool be used, we are assessing the ability of the student to use that tool – which is not what were are teaching.

  6. @Theresa Kelly – I appreciate your use of “skill-centric” learning. Great insight. Thanks for the comment.

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