Thursday, March 26, 2015

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

Usually when I say I wish a certain book had been around when I was a teenager and that I'd have been smart enough to read it, I'm talking about fiction. But adult nonfiction about learning? Never happened before.

True, Benedict Carey's How We Learn couldn't have been written back then—some of the the research is too recent—but say it, or something similar, had existed. I'm pretty sure I'd have left that book on the shelf, thinking it consisted of yet more well-meaning advice about how to study which I'd then proceed to ignore. You know, things like focusing and routines and eliminating distractions and getting a good night's sleep before a test or presentation. But there's a reason the book is called How We Learn, not How to Study. Because the book really is about how we learn. And along the way, why do we bomb a test when we had felt so prepared walking into the classroom? Wait, we can perform better on a memorization test a few days after reading the material than immediately after reading? Disruptions and interruptions can be beneficial? (Also, what do you mean, tests can actually improve learning?)

We often think of learning in a limited sense, focusing on school and education. Carey points out that it's so much broader, that it happens every day. So I think it's absolutely worth learning about, well, learning. That said, while How We Learn's focus is not how to do well in school, following some of the advice given may improve your performance. Much of it is simple enough to incorporate into your own routines, sort of like learning lifehacks. (To use myself as an example, when I'm doing booktalks, I cannot wing it. I need to have planned out what I'm going to say about a book, but then struggle to memorize everything. So I am totally planning on trying out some of the methods mentioned in Part Two: Retention.) And not just study habits, but practice habits, too, as in sports and music.

Moving backwards a bit, the first part of the book focuses on neurology and the architecture of the brain. People interested in psychology will probably find it more interesting than others. If you're one of the others, keep reading through this section because the real meat of the book comes in the next three parts, where Carey describes experiments that have tested different aspects of learning (as well as sleep), then explains what this means in the real world. What does it say about how we learn, or forget, or how memory works? How can we utilize this research? As Carey explains experiments conducted by psychologists and neuroscientists, he also contextualizes the results, connecting them to how we study, work, and live in the real world. Psychology studies are sometimes strange, and their practical implications obscure, but Carey is outstanding at giving readers a solid grasp of the psychology of learning while also demonstrating what the research says about how we learn and how we can efficiently apply the results to everyday life.

So, yes, I definitely wish I'd read this book as a teen.

Book Info:
How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey
Adult Nonfiction
Pop Psychology
Published 2014 by Random House
Hardcover ISBN: 9780812993882

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1 comment:

Charlotte said...

thanks for the review--sounds fascinating, and I just went to the library website and requested it!