How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where and Why It Happens

Book review by Brian McGowan, Ph.D., FACEUP, Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer, ArcheMedx

When I read the blurb on the book jacket of Benedict Carey’s “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where and Why It Happens,” I was hooked:

“From an early age, it is drilled into our heads: Restlessness, distraction and ignorance are the enemies of success. We’re told that learning is all self-discipline, that we must confine ourselves to designated study areas, turn off the music … if we want to ace that test, memorize that presentation or nail that piano recital. But what if almost everything we were told about learning is wrong?”

“How We Learn,” is an easy read that validates and refutes many of the well-regarded adages of instructional design with cold hard facts. From Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve (1885) to Bjork’s Forget to Learn Theory (1980) to Ormerod work on problem solving (2009), Carey connects the dots in an incredibly effective way. Here are just some of the highlights that might change the way your think and practice moving forward:

  • Our brains do not store facts, ideas and experiences like a computer does. Using our memory, changes our memory!
  • Learning environments impact application. Students who study underwater performed 30 percent better on tests taken underwater; students listening to jazz as they studied performed twice as better when listening to jazz as they were tested. Learners take nudges and cues from their environment.
  • Memory has two strengths. The harder we work to retrieve a memory, the greater the subsequent spike in storage and retrieval. This is another reason why reminders and reflection are critical.
  • Spacing and testing are two of the most well-studied and under-utilized drivers of learning. Both strategies force learners to confront “forgetting” and …
  • Forgetting is critical! Forgetting aids learning in two ways: actively, by filtering out competing facts, and passively, in that forgetting focuses subsequent learning.
  • We remember more about tasks or problems that were not completed. In fact, we remember the most about tasks or problems that were closest to resolution. Over time, the unfinished ideas or goals continue to percolate, and your subconscious begins to collect information that may be related to those goals. In this way, this “percolation” connects the learning process to the well-established “availability bias” in which we are inclined to notice things more when our conscious or subconscious awareness is heightened.

Overall, it took me less than eight hours to consume the 222 pages Carey authored. By the time I was halfway through the book, I had already picked up a few tricks that would make my time spent reading infinitely more valuable. For example, after completing the book, I put it aside for a few days but began to notice related evidence bubbling up in unsuspecting places. From articles online to Facebook posts and commercials on the Golf Channel … everywhere I looked I found myself collecting new pieces of information that added to Carey’s stories. Within two weeks, I felt I had a tremendous command over the subject matter. I guess time will tell whether this is evidence of my learning or whether I have fallen victim to what Carey describes as the “fluency illusion.”

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