I’m always interested in improving myself. I like to find better ways of doing things so that there is less work and an increase in productivity. Naturally, this makes self-help books some of my absolute favorites to read. You never know what bit of wisdom you might stumble upon that you can implement in your own life. Recently, I read a book that provides valuable insight into improving learning skills.
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Benedict Carey’s book “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why it Happens” gives some insight as to how we might be able to be more efficient in the way we learn: the way we take in new information, process and retain it. Needless to say, when I first heard about this book, I was intrigued. The prospect of being able to pursue new information in a more efficient and productive way was very exciting. I have to say, it didn’t disappoint.
First of all, the book is a pretty easy read. I was able to complete it in 15 minute increments over the course of about a week. This is definitely the kind of book you can toss into your bag to read while waiting at the Dr’s office, on a lunch break, or during the little one’s nap.
The 10 chapters are divided into four parts:
- Basic Theory covers a little biology, some backstory on learning theories, and the role “forgetting” plays in our ability to learn.
- Retention goes over how our current view of learning habits work , a few different techniques for how to better learn long-term, and how best to study for different needs (studying for a test, learning a new language, etc).
- Problem Solving discusses how distractions, quitting (taking breaks), and learning new information along with the studying of old can aid in increased comprehension and abilities to problem solve in various ways.
- Tapping the Subconscious goes through the roles learning by doing and sleep plays in our ability to develop a “good eye,” heightened awareness, and understanding and retention of what we’ve learned.
Carey covers several techniques in each section, having one or two techniques in each chapter. The techniques are varied depending on how the material being learned will be used. For example, there are different techniques for studying for a test in a few days that you may never use again compared to learning material that you’ll need to be able to recall long-term. He also gives some examples of different types of things you can best learn using some of the different techniques.
How it Reads
The book explores several studies and experiments to back up conclusions on new ways of thinking about the best methods for learning and retaining knowledge. Some parts are a little technical or run on, but the majority of the reading is interesting and very informative. The book really picks up around chapter four. Prior to chapter four, I was seriously considering stopping as it seemed to be teaching no techniques and only discussed theories about learning. However, I’m glad I continued on because I took away several new techniques to learn in a more productive manner. If you can make it through these “background” chapters, you should really be able to pick up some good information.
I only have two small issues with this book. First, is the long winded beginning. I would’ve preferred a much shorter opening and getting to the meat of the techniques prior to chapter four. Second, is the way in which the techniques are presented within the chapters. Being buried in among the studies that explain them, they seem to meander back and forth between the technique itself and the technique’s discovery. For some, this may add to the difficulty in reading. When I was in a public place with surrounding conversation, making it difficult to give 100% focus, I did have some trouble myself.
Despite the hiccups I encountered, I learned a lot. Below are the top 5 takeaways that I intend to put into practice in my own life right away. Using these new techniques, I foresee a newfound efficiency in regards to learning new material. I also intend to employ some of these when I begin to home-school Zach!
Top 5 Takeaways for Improving Learning Skills
- To increase the ability to recall information, study in different locations, not the same one each time. In fact, vary as many aspects as possible; change rooms, music you’re listening to, how you’re studying the material (flashcards, writing an outline, retyping notes, etc). Variation allows the brain to better retrieve more information later.
- Space out study sessions instead of doing one long study session. Break it up as much as you can over as much time as possible. For example, for a test on Friday, studying 20 minutes on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday is better than 60 minutes on one day and allows for longer retention).
- Take a break when working on a problem and reaching an impasse. Do something completely different to allow for “incubation” of the problem. These incubation breaks can be helpful in helping our brain arrive at a solution we wouldn’t see if we continue working.
- When learning new material, mix in review of material you already know. According to Cary, “mixed practice” allows us to “prepare for the unexpected” by combining review with “an element of surprise.” This aids in improvement of comprehension of material being learned.
- Combining these tactics maximizes the ability to retrieve and retain new information and skills!
Overall, I would highly recommend this book if you’re interested in improving your learning skills to learn more efficiently. Are you a student? This book can provide new techniques for studying for tests. Do you home-school a child? You will find new ides for teaching to help your child learn more efficiently. Are you pursuing a new career or hobby where you need to learn a lot of new information? There are lots of techniques to try for learning information quickly and retaining it long-term. We are in a constant state of learning as we move through life. As a lifelong learners, we can all benefit from adopting new techniques that can help us do it better.
Do you think the takeaways I’ve listed here would be helpful in improving your learning skills?
If you purchase the book, please let me know what you think and which techniques you find most helpful!
-To Your Better Life-