What's Science Got to Do With Teaching and Learning?

For decades, cognitive scientists slowly accrued a solid understanding of how people learn but never bothered to tell teachers and students what they had found.

It is as if, says author Benedict Carey, "doctors had discovered a cure for diabetes and spent 50 years characterizing its molecular structure before giving it to a patient."

He is attempting to rectify that with his book How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why It Happens. Teachers, students, parents -- anybody, really -- should find it not just fascinating but useful.

For example, say you need to learn something -- the names and dates of the presidents, the key characteristics of different artistic movements, Spanish verb declensions, musical scales, the state capitals, you name it.

What's one of the best ways to learn? If you just need it for a test, you can always cram the night before. Of course, as any desperate student who has practiced this technique can tell you, you'll be lucky to remember any of it a week later.

But if you space out your studying -- that is, study the material today and then again in a few days and then again a week later -- the same amount of time studying will help you retain the information for much longer.

And what's a useful technique to start you off? Take a pre-test. Even if you guess on every answer and get them all wrong, that pre-test will help your mind focus on the right information during your study sessions. And don't think of tests as meaningless wastes of learning time; they are actually an incredibly useful part of the learning process, in part because they focus our elusive and fickle attention.

You can use our human tendency toward variable attention by studying in different places, at different times, under different conditions -- and mix up what you're learning instead of studying one thing over and over. Don't get discouraged if you forget what you just studied; study it again in a couple of days, and your memory of it will be stronger, a phenomenon Carey calls "forget to learn." He likens it to physical exercise that weakens muscles so that they can rebuild stronger. And take a nap. Sleep solidifies learning.

Reams of scientific evidence back up each of those pieces of advice, and Carey goes through the evidence so that students won't have to repeat his experience.

He describes himself as someone who struggled through high school despite following all the advice he was given. He had a set time and place for studying and tried to focus on single subjects for long periods of time, feeling bad that he was so easily distracted. Despite being what he called a "grind," his grades were indifferent, and he bombed out of his first attempt at college.

After he talked himself into a second chance at college, he changed his study habits -- not out of a conscious knowledge that he should but because he went to college in the 1970s. He studied in dribs and drabs whenever and wherever he felt and was distracted by a wide range of activities. And yet he learned more and earned better grades.

Now a science writer for The New York Times, he has been writing about research on learning and human development for years. Over time he realized that the techniques he stumbled onto in college were much closer to what the science says we should do than what he did in high school.

How We Learn is his attempt to help other students harness that knowledge.

But what he is talking about has similarly profound implications for teachers. For example, if teachers want students to remember what they learn, they should arrange lessons in such a way that students are learning a mix of things over spaced intervals of time and provide ways for students to practice different ways to use the same information in different contexts. So, for example, quizzes should include questions that mix up topics rather than focusing on one thing over and over.

I should say that Carey's is not the first attempt to break cognitive science out of its cocoon of obscure research journals and into the field of education.

Over a decade ago, the National Research Council's Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning held a symposium to launch its book, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, which laid out, in remarkably clear prose, a vast body of research about how people learn.

Since then, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham has taken on the task of helping interpret learning science for teachers, in both books and a regular column in American Educator magazine, Ask the Cognitive Scientist. (I reviewed his new book about reading instruction here.) And there are probably others whose work I don't know.

But Carey is essentially a lay person who stumbled on a deep, complex field of study that explained his personal experience. He brilliantly explains the science and its implications to a general audience.

Students and the teachers and parents who wonder how best to help them should find it helpful and fascinating.