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

How We Learn

Authors: Benedict Carey,

Throughout your life, you’ve been told to use a quiet place, switch off the music devices and build a strict routine if you want to do well in your tests/presentation. On many occasions, this simply does not work. In How We Learn, Carey gives you realistic and research-proven strategies that will improve your learning with much less effort.

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Quotes & Tips from How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens


People who study in the morning—whether it’s words or pattern recognition games, straight retention or comprehension of deeper structure—do about 30 percent better on an evening test if they’ve had an hour-long nap than if they haven’t. “It’s changed the way I work, doing these studies,” Mednick told me. “It’s changed the way I live. With naps of an hour to an hour and half, we’ve found in some experiments that you get close to the same benefits in learning consolidation that you would from a full eight hour night’s sleep.

I no longer think of naps or knocking off early as evidence of laziness, or a waste of time, or, worst of all, a failure of will. I think of sleep as learning with my eyes closed.


The act of starting work on an assignment often gives that job the psychological weight of a goal, even if it’s meaningless.

Once a goal becomes activated, it trumps all others and begins to drive our perceptions, our thoughts, our attitudes,” as John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale University, told me.

Interleaving / Element of Surprise

Every exam, every tournament, every match, every recital—there’s always some wrinkle, some misplaced calculator or sudden headache, a glaring sun or an unexpected essay question. At bottom, interleaving is a way of building into our daily practice not only a dose of review but also an element of surprise.

Seeing something that’s out of order or out of place wakes the brain up, in effect, and prompts the subconscious to process the information more deeply: ‘Why is this here?’ ” Mixed-up practice doesn’t just build overall dexterity and prompt active discrimination. It helps prepare us for life’s curveballs, literal and figurative.

Since we cannot predict the context in which we’ll have to perform, we’re better off varying the circumstances in which we prepare. We need to handle life’s pop quizzes, its spontaneous pickup games and jam sessions, and the traditional advice to establish a strict practice routine is no way to do so. On the contrary: Try another room altogether. Another time of day. Take the guitar outside, into the park, into the woods. Change cafés. Switch practice courts. Put on blues instead of classical. Each alteration of the routine further enriches the skills being rehearsed, making them sharper and more accessible for a longer period of time. This kind of experimenting itself reinforces learning, and makes what you know increasingly independent of your surroundings.

Take a break

A short study break—five, ten, twenty minutes to check in on Facebook, respond to a few emails, check sports scores—is the most effective technique learning scientists know of to help you solve a problem when you’re stuck.

The importance of forgetting

Using memory changes memory—and for the better. Forgetting enables and deepens learning, by filtering out distracting information and by allowing some breakdown that, after reuse, drives retrieval and storage strength higher than they were originally.

Explaining aids memory

When reading through a difficult scientific paper, I put it down after a couple times through and try to explain to someone what it says. If there’s no one there to listen (or pretend to listen), I say it out loud to myself, trying as hard as I can to quote from the paper its main points. Many teachers have said that you don’t really know a topic until you have to teach it, until you have to make it clear to someone else.

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