How Adults Learn: Useful Practices

Benedict Carey, author and award-winning science reporter at the NY Times since 2004, has spent many years following the developments within learning science. In his book, he serves the “Surprising Truth About: How We Learn”.

A great amount of studies, made by different researchers over the years, with the aim of finding out more about how we learn, have been spent with a particular focus on how we acquire new languages. As Carey has taken part of these studies, he has found a few odd and surprising facts as well as gotten a few “aha’s.”

Carey seems to have a relaxed way of looking at learning. He encourages us to trust the process. We shouldn’t manically try to repeat knowledge, we shouldn’t spend a whole night studying before a test, hoping we’ll learn it all.

Instead, he says, we ought to “free our inner slacker”.

We should take breaks and distractive pauses, make sure to sleep well at night and take power naps. We should let knowledge rest – to revisit learnings later. We should know that if we’re patient, our newly acquired wisdom will stay for longer.

Via Carey, a few tips on how to make learning stick:

1. Space Out Learning

Carey calls spacing out “the oldest learning technique in memory science”.

Ebbinghaus – “the man who gave learning science a name” – was one of the first ones to point out the benefit of spacing. Ebbinghaus has also been called the “grandfather of microlearning”.

Spacing means to distribute learning over time, instead of trying to try to learn all at once.

Breaking up study time, to absorb bites of learning, helps memory. When the spacing effect comes into play, we remember knowledge for a longer time.

But, as Carey says, “Nothing comes for free”. Spacing needs to be planned. But, on the other hand, it is easy to use.

2. Test Yourself

Carrying out a test, an assessment or a quiz before starting to study or before taking the ultimate “exam” strengthens your learning.

Testing is a learning in itself. Or, as Carey says, testing is studying, of a different and powerful kind.

Robert Bjork, Professor in Psychology at the University of California: “The harder your brain works to dig out a memory, the greater the increase in learning”.

For example, simple attempts to explain what we’ve learned to others, is a way of testing our knowledge – and hence learning – at the same time.

…and Know That Repetition is Overrated.

And, as Carey points out; the flipside of the above equation (Bjork): “The easier it is to call a fact to mind, the smaller the increase in learning.”

So, if we’re repeating knowledge right after we’ve studied, this gives us nothing. There is no added memory benefit whatsoever, Carey says.

Already in 1620, Francis Bacon wrote; “If you read a piece of text through twenty times, you will not learn it by heart so easily as if you read it ten times while attempting to recite it from time to time and consulting the text when your memory fails.”

Carey states that researchers today go as far as saying that repetition, in the long term, will actually slow us down.

3. Distract Yourself

To make learning more efficient, it is useful to stop studying for a while. In short, take breaks. If we let the brain work “alone” and our subconscious’ processes kick in – our brain will eventually provide interesting results.

Walking, eating, hanging out with friends, listening to music, napping – engaging in things that has absolutely nothing to do with work may be useful if one wants to retain knowledge. It means avoiding thinking about the topic or problem at hand for a while.

Wallas was a psychologist interested in problem-solving. He studied his own process of doing this. As a result, he defined four stages, “the stages of control”:

1) Preparation 2) Incubation 3) Illumination and 4) Verification

According to Wallas, 1) Preparation is about understanding the problem at hand, as well as about considering potential solutions, but also deciding on a point in time where all ideas would be exhausted. There always comes a point when – Wallas said – we have no more ideas whatsoever. What happens then? Nothing.

Then, Walls thought, we enter the second stage of control, 2) the Incubation phase. This is when you put a dilemma aside for a while. This phase is key.

Wallas said that what happens during this phase, when the mind works on the problem “off-line”, are crucial mental machinations. The subconscious continues to make efforts. This is when our clever brain continues working on the solution, without “us interfering”.

The third phase is 3) Illumination, a phase he defined as the “aha” moment. “The moment when the clouds part…” The solution appears.

Finally, the 4) Verification phase, is entered. This is when we start testing our findings and verifying the solution.

Wallas, and Carey, is fascinated by the third stage; the incubation stage; the letting go of a problem.

It seems to give the brain the space it needs to work out the puzzle.

4. Remember: The Power of Forgetting

Carey also talks about the power of forgetting and the so called “forget to learn”-theory. He states that forgetting helps learning in two concrete ways:

1) It filters out competing facts

2) Some forgetting allows subsequent practice to deepen learning

There’s both conscious and unconscious forgetting. Some researchers and consultants promote active strengthening of forgetting – a skill, according to them – needed to become a better learner.

5. Interrupt Yourself

Stop a project before it’s been concluded and you will remember its content really well. Why?

According to researcher Zeigarnik, two things are relevant when it comes to fulfilling goals:

1) When we start an assignment, our minds tend to give the task a considerable psychological weight


2) Stopping ourselves when dealing with an assignment will extend its life in our memory and thus “push it to the top of our mental to-do-list”.

Zeigarnik refers to self-interruption. Just being disturbed by a random person does not do the trick.

6. Avoid Cramming

Studying a whole night to take a test can be useful, but not if you want to keep your knowledge. With regards to cramming, Carey offers a few nice metaphors. Cramming is like “flooding your lawn once”, instead of watering it over time – using the same amount of water:

“Flooding the lawn makes it look slightly lusher the next day, but that emerald gloss fades…” Instead, water the lawn with a healthy dose of water every couple of days.

The same goes for distributed learning. We will not be working harder. But we will remember more, for longer.

Carey also discusses the question of optimal intervals. “To put it simply, if you want to know the optimal distribution of your study time, you need to decide how long you wish to remember something.” says two of Carey’s preferred researchers.

“Work with intervals of one day, two days, or one week. That should take care of most situations.” (Wiseheart)

7. Learn in Different Places

Bjork, professor mentioned earlier, also found that it’s useful to study in different environments. Studying in your favorite café or at the library may help you recall things better. When and if the same learning material is presented to us in different contexts learning is reinforced, too.

8. Practice Interleaving

Interleaving (Kornell, Björk) means, that when learning, you should mix “related but distinct material”. Blending skills, items, and concepts over the long term, seems to help us get a crispier idea of each material individually.

Take the example of a tennis player. Instead of focusing on the backhand all day, s/he should practice everything from backhand to smash.

“The brain is exquisitely tuned to pick up incongruities”, says Michael Inzlicht, a neuroscientist at The University of Toronto.

9. Sleep: “If you snooze, you win”.

Nobody really knows why we sleep.

Nevertheless, some believe that it is a natural way of managing our time. We sleep when there is no point in being awake, and vice versa.

Another theory is that the main purpose of sleep is to consolidate memory. Thus, learn.

The latest research, Carey says, suggests that this “unconscious downtime clarifies memory and sharpens skills”.

Carey says; “I think of sleep as learning with my eyes closed.”


So, sleep well, take it easy – and learn plenty. And have fun while doing so.

Source: Benedict Carey,” How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens”, 227 p, Random House, NY, 2015.

2018-04-10T11:51:31+00:00 May 24th, 2017|Culture, Insights|