Benedict Carey, author and award-winning science reporter at the New York Times since 2004, has spent many years following the developments within learning science. In his book “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens,” Carey summarizes research on how we learn languages, and explains how this can be applied to adult learning.

Carey has a relaxed way of looking at learning. He encourages us to trust the process: instead of spending a whole night cramming before a test, we should “free our inner slacker” by taking breaks, sleeping well, and taking power naps. We should let knowledge sink in by revisiting material at a later date and being patient with the learning process.

Carey offers up 9 tips on how to make learning stick:

1. Space Out Learning

Spacing out means breaking up study material into small, easy-to-absorb chunks. These “micro-learnings” should be planned out into different time periods in order to maximize learning potential. Breaking up and distributing material over time is, according to Carey, “the oldest learning technique in memory science,” and an easy and effective way to improve memory.

2. Test Yourself

Tests are one of the ultimate forms of learning. Carrying out a test, an assessment or a quiz before starting to study or before taking the ultimate “exam” strengthens your learning.  Robert Bjork, Professor in Psychology at the University of California, says that “the harder your brain works to dig out a memory, the greater the increase in learning.” Tests don’t necessarily have to be classic classroom exams: attempting to explain concepts to others is a way of testing our knowledge, and therefore of increasing our learning.

As Carey points out, the flipside of the above equation is that “the easier it is to call a fact to mind, the smaller the increase in learning.” (Bjork). This means that repeating knowledge right after we’ve studied gives no added memory benefit whatsoever.  Carey says that researchers today go as far as saying that, in the long run, repetition will actually slow us down.

3. Distract Yourself

Taking breaks is another great way to effectivize learning. By allowing our subconscious to take over, we allow the brain to work through material and increase learning on its own. This can be explained in part through Wallas’ four Stages of Control. He was a psychologist interested in problem-solving, and set out four stages to solving a problem:

  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Illumination
  4. Verification

Preparation involves understanding the problem at hand and considering potential solutions. Eventually, there comes a point where our ideas for solutions to the problem dry up.  At this point, we move into the incubation phase. During incubation, we put the problem on the side-lines and allow the brain to subconsciously work through the problem. By no longer actively thinking about the problem, we allow our brains to do the problem-solving work without our own active interference.

After incubation we move into the third phase: illumination. This phase can be described as a sort of “aha moment,” when the solution to the problem becomes apparent to us.  Finally, we enter the verification phase, where we test and verify our solution to the problem.

Wallas and Carey are fascinated by the incubation stage, as 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 “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

You can forget things both consciously and unconsciously. Some researchers and consultants promote the active strengthening of forgetting: according to them, forgetting is  a skill that is necessary to becoming a better learner.

5. Interrupt Yourself

Stop a project before it is concluded and you will remember it really well. Why? According to researcher Zeigarnik, there are two factors that make interruption so effective:

  1. When we start an assignment, our minds tend to give the task a considerable psychological weight; and
  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.”

However, Zeigarnik stresses that it is important that the interruption is self-induced.  Simply being disturbed by a random person does not do the trick.

6. Avoid Cramming

While studying all night before a test may seem helpful, it may be counter-productive when it comes to learning. Carey offers a few nice metaphors to explain cramming in relation to learning. 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 fade.” Instead, water the lawn with a healthy dose of water every couple of days.

Carey also discusses how to optimize your study 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.” Ultimately, this means that if you want to remember something for a longer time period, then you should plan your intervals

7. Learn in Different Places

Bjork also found that studying in varying environments can increase your learning capacity. When, how, and where the learning material is presented to us can provide important contexts that help us recall the information.  Change up your environment if you’d like to optimize your learning.

8. Practice Interleaving

Interleaving is the technique of mixing “related but distinct material” while learning. Blending skills, items, and concepts over the long term, seems to help us get a crispier idea of each material individually.

For example, if you think about how a tennis player learns how to play, it’s obvious that they use interleaving. Tennis players don’t just focus on their backhand for hours on end, but instead they practice everything from backhands to serves, and mix up their moves. This is the approach that we should be taking to learning all material.

9. Sleep: “If you snooze, you win”

Nobody really knows why we sleep, but one theory suggests that we sleep to consolidate our memory, and therefore to learn. The latest research suggests that this “unconscious downtime clarifies memory and sharpens skills”. Carey says that he “thinks of sleep as learning with our eyes closed.”


At Celemi we incorporate many of these learning techniques into our solutions. We believe in micro-learning, taking breaks, interleaving, and testing. Our methodology is serious fun, and we deliver learning results that you can see at work in your organization. Get in touch if you’d like to talk more about our business simulations and how we can optimize learning for your people.

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