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Thursday, September 04, 2014

How We Learn by Benedict Carey

I'm always interested in learning and in how to make the learning process better, more efficient, and longer term.  When I saw How We Learn:  The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens on NetGalley, I immediately requested it, but expected something rather dry and ridden with educational jargon.  

What a pleasant surprise to find the book informational in the best way (and full of some counter-intuitive concepts) and as entertaining, at least to me, as a novel.

When I finished, there was scarcely a page without highlighting.  I've put the hardback on my wish list, and I'll include it in my next book purchase because this is one of the books that I prefer in a page format that I can easily pull from the shelf and peruse at will.  If there is a possibility of referring to the book in the future (books on science, neuroscience, yoga, gardening, fabric art, etc.), I want it on the shelf with others in that category.

Carey begins with some basic facts about the brain and how memories are made and stored, then moves on to some detailed studies.  


"...appreciating learning as a restless, piecemeal, subconscious, and somewhat sneaky process that occurs all the time--not just when you're sitting in a desk, face pressed into a book--then it's the best strategy there is.  And it's the only one available that doesn't require more time and effort on your part, that doesn't increase the pressure to achieve."

"Most people do better over time by varying their study or practice locations.  The more environments in which you rehearse, the sharper and more lasting the memory of that material becomes--and less strongly linked to one comfort zone."

"Altering the time of day you study also helps, as does changing how you engage the material, by reading or discussing, typing into a computer or writing by hand, rciting in front of a mirror or studying while listening to music:  Each counts as a different learning 'environment' in which you store the material in a different way."

--sections on the stages of sleep and the different ways each stage helps consolidate information

"Breaking up study or practice time--dividing it into two or three sessions, instead of one--is far more effective than concentrating it."  "Studies find that people remember up to twice as much of material that they rehearsed in spaced or tested sessions than during cramming."

--the "fluency" effect

--"interleaving  multiple skills

This is an excellent book about learning that will give you new insight into the learning process.  Both interesting and informative, How We Learn can provide skill sets to aid anyone who wants to learn more efficiently and with less effort.  The research and studies are documented in the Notes, and Carey experimented with most of them himself or uses examples of others who tried the methods.  Great for students, for parents, and for anyone who wants to learn, including learning to improve physical behaviors as in music or sports.

Highly recommended.  One of my favorite books this year, and it isn't even fiction.

Read in June; blog post scheduled for Aug.  Sept.

NetGalley/Random House

Education/Learning/Nonfiction.  Sept. 9, 2014.  Print length:  274 pages.


  1. Just reading the tidbits you shared piqued my interest. I found myself agreeing, and even saying, "Huh. That makes total sense!"

    The one about changing up your environment when you are reading or studying as the case may be reminded me of what I'm constantly hearing about exercising--cross-training is important so the muscles you are working on don't get too used to one activity--the brain is a muscle, so it makes sense it would apply to learning and memory as well.

  2. Sounds like a must - have on our shelf! Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  3. Wendy - I think cross-training is a great analogy. Being able to remember in different locations and situations seems logical, even if we normally think of having a "study area." I found studying while listening to music an interesting idea--when I was teaching, many students studied while listening to music, but I would have trouble doing so.

    Stefanie - I loved all of the studies on memory and learning and found them intensely interesting!

    Melody - It was a useful and entertaining book!