Friday, March 6, 2015

A few weeks ago I finished a science reporter's book "How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens".  In it, Benedict Carey testifies to my experience in graduate school of figuring out a solution to a problem when not actively working on it or thinking about it.  This approach worked 75% of the time for me.  It's been a few weeks since I read the book so I'm testing another statement of his:  how to better remember information.  After reading or hearing something, he suggests letting time go by and then trying to recall as much as possible without re-reading the text or notes.  Recall the information by self-testing with flash cards, saying it aloud, or writing about it, all without referring to notes.  Re-reading text or notes gives students the mistaken impression that they know the information.  Instead, they are just recognizing the information.  Carey claims that students forget what they learn because they often cram for exams at the last minute, which works for the short-term but not long term.  Cramming prevents the brain from forgetting unimportant or distracting details because not enough time has passed.  A bit of forgetting is needed to help you later remember.  Going to sleep at different times also helps:  for tests that require lots of memorization students should go to bed at the usual time and get up early for a review.  For creative work, music, or athletics, students should stay up a bit later and wake up later because their early morning sleep helps this kind of thinking.  For study areas and study times:   vary them because then the memories will not just be connected to one place and this will help students remember information under different conditions.  Study time should be divided up 2 or 3 chunks, instead of trying to do it in one sitting.  Finally, he urges students to start a project as early as possible so that their brain has time to "percolate", to use Carey's expression.  Though I have repeatedly used the word "student" in this post, Carey does address his book to both students and non-students. 

Carey provides an historical look at the science of learning from his perspective as a science reporter.  He also shares examples of how he unknowingly followed some of these ideas about learning in his own days as a student.  His statements about forgetting, text recognition, and varying sleep and wake times are all new to me.  As an educator, I would try these different approaches to check which of them work for me.  Then, I could share these ideas with my students, as different approaches that they could also try.