Why I read it:
I’ve always been fascinated by how we learn and the ways in which I can apply that knowledge to my teaching practice. I’ve read several books on these ideas, but this was the first that tied a lot of the evidence together in one place; the addition of Caviglioli’s visuals made it a must read.
The book explores how we learn in various ways: from human cognitive processes (perception, attention and memory) in general, to strategies for effective learning. The latter includes spaced learning, interleaving, using concrete examples to help learn abstract concepts, and converting to long-term memory through retrieval practice and the testing effect.
Understanding How We Learn is as evidence-informed as they come, yet the explanations are accessible, and Caviglioli’s illustrations and headings make the book a joy to read and navigate. As geeks, we’d likely enjoy the content regardless; but the attention to the aesthetics make this a really pleasurable experience, and encourages the reader to dip back in when needed.
There are too many insights to mention, so I’ve picked out three that taught me something. If you like these, there are plenty more to find in the book!
- Multitasking is a myth – evidence suggests that it is almost impossible to pay attention to more than one thing at the exact same time. The authors are sorry to disappoint us, but they reveal that our intuitions are wrong on this one, despite our protests that we can do two things at once! What we can do, is switch back and forth between two tasks very quickly, which is actually what you’re doing when you think you are ‘multitasking’. Switching comes at a cost, though: it decreases efficiency and slows down reaction speeds in both tasks (so turn the TV off while you’re reading this!).
- Spaced practice works with a test delay – spaced practice, that is, spacing learning of something over time, and not cramming into a short period, has shown to be an effective method of learning. However, the benefits only ring true when there is a delay between study and test. An example they give is that, if a student reads or studies twice for an immediate test, they may outperform the spaced learners; but even when the test was two days away, it was those who spaced their learning by doing it once a week who did better, and that gap widens with further test delay.
- Multiple concrete examples to illustrate abstract concepts – the authors use the example of teaching the concept of scarcity. Let’s say you use an example of airline tickets that quickly get booked up, as an example to go with your explanation. The students may only understand the concept of scarcity in relation to the airline ticket example; more concrete examples are needed. You could link to sports game ticket sales to offer another similar example; even better, then add the idea of water scarcity in a time of drought. Now the students have diverse concrete examples, and have more chance of looking beyond the surface details to better understand the abstract concept.
In the chapter named ‘Is intuition the enemy of teaching and learning?’ Weinstein and Sumeracki sympathise with the notion that some things feel good, like re-reading notes. But they often don’t translate to performance.
‘When college students are asked to predict how much they think they are learning from repeated reading, many are extremely overconfident. On the other hand, predictions made after engaging in more effective strategies – like answering practice questions or writing down everything you know about a topic – tend to be too low.’
This quote summarises the focus of the entire book: it’s not enough to rely on how things feel. We have access to better research than ever, and we must engage with what has been proven to be the best ways for people to learn.
The opening chapters of Understanding How We Learn are dedicated to examining the education sector’s relationship with research, and the frequent pitfalls that the teaching profession has fallen into, such as teaching based on intuition, not evidence. They then discuss different types of research and studies we might look out for, and also warn us that ‘people are more likely to look at confirmatory than contradictory evidence when examining their beliefs.’
Rather than feed us their own narrative, the authors choose to help us become critical readers of educational research, before introducing the various concepts in the book.
Question and reflect
- Do you have a secure understanding of the main principles of how we learn? If, like me, you have been reading about this for years, then trust me, there is still much more to learn!
- How can we apply these principles to our curriculum design, and lesson delivery? For example, it would be a good idea to revisit our trickiest concepts and think about how we could add multiple concrete examples to help contextualise them
Read this if…
You are a teacher or student
You are interested in how we learn things