Smart Review | Learning to Learn Better

What is the best way to learn? It’s a question teachers grapple with on a daily basis. We have all asked it and we all still struggle to find the answer.

It is also the question that drove Ulrich Boser to devote his life’s research to figuring out the special formula that actually makes learning possible, resulting in his recently released book Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything.

Struggling during his early years in school, a nuisance to many of his teachers, and described as being “lost” by a school psychologist, Boser was placed into his school’s special education program where he appeared to not “know how to learn” (a student we teachers are all familiar with).

Considering himself a lost case for many years, it wasn’t until Boser was finally exposed to some effective learning strategies, strategies that he still uses today such as self-quizzing and metacognitive questioning, that he began to reconsider those years of being told he couldn’t learn.

As a topic that is often talked about, but rarely put into practice, Boser used his experience in school to figuring out what actually makes a better learner. Eventually, it led him to write this book, which is entirely dedicated to understanding how to guide yourself and others in the learning process.

In Learn Better, Boser uses personal anecdotes and countless researched examples to illustrate an outline of these six necessary ideas that, if followed, will provide a step-by-step guide to improve anyone’s ability to learn:

Dedicating a chapter to each of the items, the book is divided into six easy-to-read sections riddled with quirky stories and thought provoking, researched evidence. Though much of the information may not sound new to a teacher, I still found a long list of notable factors I could be using in my classroom to positively encourage greater learning.

The first two chapters focus primarily on the importance of developing the student’s drive to learn (Value) and then honing their focus on a particular learning goal (Target). This highlights the importance of breaking down learning into easily digestible pieces–the inherent reasons for why educators are so important.

Boser consistently revisits The Value of Educators theme throughout the book, claiming that a world without real, tangible teachers would be a world with far less learning. A great thing to read, especially at a time when everything from store cashiers to customer service representatives are quickly being mechanized and automated.

By the fourth and fifth chapters, Boser has the reader hooked with his small tips and habits (Develop). You find yourself planning to apply as many as possible to your own life or the classroom.

In the Extend chapter, Boser offers suggestions such as giving students the opportunity to teach, citing the “Protege Effect” as the phenomenon responsible for improving expertise when a learner is forced to explain newly learned information. And perhaps even using additional representations of information in order to better understand or Relate to said information. He cites the scientific method, the use of visual depictions of information and the value of analogies in providing greater opportunities to diversify the way we conceptualize new ideas.

Boser ends the book grappling with what I found to be the most intriguing section: the importance of Rethinking what we learn. Students (and teachers) often get caught up in a phenomenon called overconfidence.

“When people are overconfident, they don’t study. They don’t practice. They don’t ask themselves questions…If we think we know something, we’re simply not going to take the hard steps of relating ideas or elaborating on what we know.”

In other words, overconfidence and unwillingness to rethink what you know puts an abrupt halt to metacognition, which for Boser is the primary driver of an effective learner.

In a book so full of information, I took notes as I went along, jotting down various ideas for how to apply such rich research to my own teaching. Of course, Boser made it even easier to remember key points by inserting periodic quizzes, a game changer in terms of learning strategy, just to keep the brain active while reading.

Here are my four greatest takeaways and applicable classroom strategies from reading Learn Better:

1. Goal Setting: The importance of self-goal setting and monitoring during the learning process has never been made clearer. Allowing students to iterate exactly what they should be learning and where they expect themselves to be at different points throughout the year may have some surprising effects on their progress.

2. Structured Feedback: Allowing multiple opportunities for students to fail and grow are key to improving their learning. Without feedback, a student may never know if what they learned is actually correct. What’s even better is if that feedback is asking more hypothetical questions that automatically get them thinking about their thought processes.

3. Group Diversification: In order to battle overconfidence and encourage students to look at problems differently, deliberate diversification of partner and group work is necessary. Citing several cases, Boser suggests that diversity forces people to be skeptical, thus inspiring more varied solutions to the same problem

4. Revisit Old Information: If it weren’t already obvious, recycling already learned information into new lessons is the best way to truly help your students internalize details and not forget old information.

At first glance, Learn Better may appear redundant to teachers who have been studying their pedagogy for years. However, in an attempt to avoid that pesky overconfidence, this may be the book every teacher actually needs in order to truly rethink everything they thought they knew about learning.

For more, see:

A copy of Learning Better was provided for this review. If you are interested in having review your product or book, please contact [email protected].

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Emily Riley

Emily Riley is a blogger and Spanish teacher at Brashear High School

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1 Comment

Alexis Duke

There are definitely superior ways of learning information than others. Learn Better provides some helpful tips but not all of them are as accurate as we would like them to be. Let’s look at the themes individually:

1. Value- Sadly, just because kids want to remember something does not mean that they actually will. It has been shown that motivation does not actually improve learning (Kang & Pashler, 2014). Sometimes kids remember information they want to remember and sometimes they remember information they don’t want to remember. However, it is important to note that wanting to learn something can sometimes help when it comes to practice and feedback. Meaning, not just practice but meaningful practice. Not just getting feedback but looking for feedback with the purpose of improving.
2. Target-This is actually a good concept to consider. Breaking down learning into smaller steps allows kids to really master each part of the concept at hand. For example, if kids are learning multiplication, they first must master the math facts of 1-12. After this has been learned then they can have a deeper understanding of multiplication with larger numbers. Then, having knowledge of multiplication makes division an easier concept to grasp.
3. Develop-This section provides tips and tricks to help improve learning. It doesn’t say exactly what they specifically are in this article, but they probably include the benefits of transfer-appropriate processing (people remember what they are thinking about), the testing effect (having to say what you know is better for recall) and space learning over time (helps really get the information into long term memory).
4. Extend-This concept is that kids should be teaching what they know to other students because this will in turn better their own learning. When kids explain information it not only allows other kids to learn but it really shows what they do and don’t know about the topic based on their explanation.
5. Relate- Relating information to oneself is a great tool for memory. Logically it makes sense that one is more likely to remember something that spikes his or her interest because people like things they can relate to or that they find useful in their lives. This is mostly seen in reading where kids have better reading comprehension when they are interested in and/or have prior knowledge about the subject (Ozuru et al., 2009). Kids learn better when they build off of information they already know as I mentioned before.
6. Rethink- This is something that kids struggle with because of the overconfidence phenomena. Because they are familiar with something previously they assume that the knowledge is locked in their brain forever. That being said, they decide not to review the topic because they assume they already know it, which is most definitely not always the case. Therefore stressing rethinking is important for kids to thoroughly learn the material.

It sounds likes this book would be a good resource for improving learning. These 6 concepts are a good start when considering how we learn and remember information, however we must remember that every child is different and there is no one magic trick that will make all kids great learners.

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