I laughingly recall being shaken awake at the library as an undergrad. There was a certain couch I liked to sit (lay down) on as I read assigned reading. In variably if I sat long enough, the eyes would close and I would find myself asleep. On a few occasions, the library assistants woke me up to tell me it was closing time. I would leave wondering if my reading time helped. If I fell asleep like this, did I actually grasp what I read? Did I retain anything or did I just need to start again when I got back to the dorm or apartment?
Some of these questions and concerns are addressed in Benedict Carey’s new book, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. Writer Ingfei Chen highlights some of the best takeaways in her article,” How Does the Brain Learn Best? Smart Studying Strategies,” at the NPR station, KQED Mind Shift website. Carey contends that many of our beliefs about learning are simply incomplete, wrong, or even based on superstition. For example, we may hold up the monkish image of a scholar in an austere room studying for hours on end, in one space, trying to read text and prepare for an exam. If we do not study this way, we may feel we are just doing it wrong. Or we might think that forgetting what we have learned means we do not know the concepts.
Carey explains that when the brain works to recall the new vocabulary word or mathematic formula, it redoubles the strength of that memory. He talks about building ones knowledge by working on the “stuff” over time and how forgetting is a crucial part of learning, as the brain tweaks the new information. As Chen describes Carey’s work, “the brain is a foraging learner.” It is actively picking up pieces here and there, on the go, all the time, and putting it together. With this we can be tactical in our learning and studying habits.
Through his research from the last 20 years, he found that many counterintuitive techniques can actually aid and deepen learning. For example, spacing out study time over days or weeks –perhaps trading hours on end of monkish solitude type studying, that may be unrealistic, unavailable, and not conducive to a an anxious or distracted student, can substantially boost how much material is retained. Varying the study environment-trading the monkish dorm or library cubicle, for a café or quiet place outside, can reinforce and sharpen what we learn. He also found that taking breaks, whether it be a 15 minute walk or Facebook visit, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He says such interruptions and distractions can allow for what he call “mental incubation” and bolts of insight, as described by Chen. He discusses different ways to master new information. According to Carey, quizzing oneself about the information or trying to explain it a friend, is a far more powerful way to master information, than simply rereading it.
In the book, Carey also explores the benefits of sleep in terms of retention and comprehension, perceptual learning modules, and the benefits of practicing different types of skills in practice sessions instead of rehearsing of one skill at a time. To go deeper into that, one must read the book. He encourages individuals to see what strategies work best for them. Perhaps my sleep sessions all those years ago in the SUNY Fredonia library were well serving after all.