Learn Better: Mastering The Skills For Success In Life, Business, And School, Or, How To Become An Expert In Just by Ulrich BoserLearn Better: Mastering The Skills For Success In Life, Business, And School, Or, How To Become An Expert In Just by Ulrich Boser

Learn Better: Mastering The Skills For Success In Life, Business, And School, Or, How To Become An…

byUlrich Boser

Hardcover | March 7, 2017

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For centuries, experts have argued that learning was about memorizing information: You're supposed to study facts, dates, and details; burn them into your memory; and then apply that knowledge at opportune times. But this approach to learning isn’t nearly enough for the world that we live in today, and in Learn Better journalist and education researcher Ulrich Boser demonstrates that how we learn can matter just as much as what we learn.

In this brilliantly researched book, Boser maps out the new science of learning, showing how simple techniques like comprehension check-ins and making material personally relatable can help people gain expertise in dramatically better ways. He covers six key steps to help you “learn how to learn,” all illuminated with fascinating stories like how Jackson Pollock developed his unique painting style and why an ancient Japanese counting device allows kids to do math at superhuman speeds. Boser’s witty, engaging writing makes this book feel like a guilty pleasure, not homework.

Learn Better
will revolutionize the way students and society alike approach learning and makes the case that being smart is not an innate ability—learning is a skill everyone can master. With Boser as your guide, you will be able to fully capitalize on your brain’s remarkable ability to gain new skills and open up a whole new world of possibilities.
ULRICH BOSER is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. A former contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report, Boser is the author of two previous books. His work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Washi...
Title:Learn Better: Mastering The Skills For Success In Life, Business, And School, Or, How To Become An…Format:HardcoverDimensions:304 pages, 8.69 × 5.73 × 1 inPublished:March 7, 2017Publisher:Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/RodaleLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1623365260

ISBN - 13:9781623365264


Read from the Book

INTRODUCTION   The elementary school stood at the end of a cul-de-sac. It was a low-slung red-brick building some ten miles north of New York City, tucked away among ribbons of suburban streets, surrounded by solid ranchers and brawny Colonials. It was January 6, 1986, a cold morning, just above freezing. Parents pulled in front of the school in a convoy of cars, their children slipping out, laughing, talking, letting out the occasional raucous scream.   Shortly after 10:30 a.m., a young boy tucked himself into a chair in one of the school's classrooms. He was green-eyed with a big bowl of dirty blond hair. It was a few days before the boy's 11th birthday, and he almost certainly wore a turtleneck sweater and corduroy pants. Pages of schoolwork stuffed his backpack, most likely mixed together with some Dungeons & Dragons-inspired drawings.   The green-eyed boy had a difficult time learning, and that morning was no different. Class began with the teacher discussing how to subtract one fraction from another, and the boy strode to the blackboard to answer a problem from his homework. But the boy wrote down the wrong equation and had to redo the problem.   Then the boy became distracted, twisting around in his seat, contorting like an aspiring Houdini, and the teacher scolded him: Please focus. The other children answered questions. They solved problems. But the green-eyed boy remained bewildered. So rather than work through the math problems, the boy simply cheated, copying down solutions from a friend sitting nearby.   Then, some twenty minutes into the class, the teacher called on the boy to answer a division problem: What's 770 divided by 77? The boy didn't know. Another division question. Another confused grimace. Eventually, the class wound down. The teacher discussed homework assignments, while the green-eyed boy nattered on to a friend--sports, books, recess, who knows. The teacher scolded the child one last time before the class let out.   In many ways, the boy with the green eyes is everyone. A lot of kids make a mess of their homework. It's easy to get distracted. But that child was me. I lumbered along in my classes. My grades were weak. I floundered on exams. Teachers complained about my inability to learn, one telling my mother I would probably become a cook. So one morning, in January 1986, a school psychologist slipped into my 4th grade classroom to observe me in class.   While I've tried to recall the day, I don't have the slightest scrap of a memory. But for decades, I kept the psychologist's detailed report--a single-spaced black-and-white typewriter-created document. It describes how I managed to cheat, neglect my work, and forgo all focus during the one hour-long class. "Frustrated," "inattentive," and "distracted" are among the words of the school psychologist used to describe me.   Kindergarten was probably my first academic challenge. I was the youngest in my class, and I ended up repeating the grade because I couldn't keep up. In elementary school, teachers sent me for special testing, and I filled in the bubbles of a long list of unpronounceable psychological exams that sound today like a bit of Psych 101--the Bender Visual-Motor Gestalt Test, the Zeitlin Coping Inventory, the Projective Figure Drawing exam. For a few years in middle school, I spent a few hours each week in special education, a holding pen for cranks and misfits, social oddities, and academic outliers.   Different theories about the cause of my difficulties floated around, vague potential explanations. One account held that I was slow to learn because my immigrant parents spoke German at home. Others claimed that I had an auditory problem, that my brain wasn't wired correctly when it came to listening. Still others believed I lacked intelligence, that almost magical ability to think through issues and solve problems.   There's a bit of accuracy to each of these theories. My parents have lived in this country for decades, yet they still sometimes slip into German while speaking English. I do, indeed, have a learning disorder that makes it difficult to follow auditory details, and I still have a hard time following verbal directions. And let's be clear--I'm no genius.   There's another perspective on what happened, though, and when I look back now, it seems that I didn't know how to learn. I didn't have ways to think about my thinking. I didn't ask myself questions or set goals or even know what it meant to know something. The ability to learn appeared beyond me, and it left me "lost," as the school psychologist wrote in her evaluation.   With the help of some teachers, I eventually developed a few basic learning strategies. I would ask myself questions like: Do I really know this? Did I understand the underlying logic of what I was learning? I also came to terms with the idea that people learned at different rates, that I might need to put in more effort than my peers. Over the years, I discovered better ways to focus, becoming a devotee of anything that promoted silence, and even today, I buy earplugs by the box.   Eventually, my academic confidence began to tick upward, and so did my grades. Student government became an interest. So did sports--track, basketball, cross-country. I did well on my college admissions exams, and then, with a bit of luck--and a lot of work--a thick envelope from an Ivy League college arrived in the mail.   My academic experiences are not the basis for this book. In fact, if you compare my experience to the experiences of those stuck in dead-end colleges or bad corporate training, I had it great--supportive parents, well-funded schools, generally caring teachers. Plus, my auditory disability makes me less than representative.   But in the end, my experience drove an interest, one that developed into a career, and today I believe that a lot of people are like an early version of me--they don't think much about the best way to gain new knowledge and skills. People will often reread material, for instance, even though it's a weak approach to learning, or they'll use highlighters, which have a very limited research base. People also won't reflect on their skills or track their progress, despite the library of evidence on these learning approaches.   This happens despite the fact that most of us are constantly developing our skills and knowledge. Someone gives you some new software? You'll need to master the application. (Be sure to explain key ideas to yourself so you really understand them.) Land a new client? You'll want to present your ideas in a way that's engaging. (Don't put too many graphics on a PowerPoint slide; it overloads working memory.) Need to remember a phone number? (Use your fingers; they're a great way to store numbers for a short period of time.)   Not long ago, I grabbed coffee with one of my old special education teachers. We sat in a Starbucks, spinning out recollections. As we discussed some long-lost moments of elementary school--my issues with homework, certain teachers, other students--it made me feel like a kid again. At least my experience of being a kid--the odd shame, the addled confusion. At one point, I tried to share with her what I had learned since middle school, everything that I knew about learning.   But the words never quite tumbled out. I felt embarrassed. I didn't want to seem preening. So while I wrote this book for all sorts of reasons--to reframe the education debate, to hone my own thinking--one of my main drivers was to provide a guide to that green-eyed boy with the big blond hair--and to everyone else who might need one.   An experiment took place some years ago at an all-girls school in New York City. It was an old Catholic school, with some crucifixes hanging from the walls, looking somber and stern. The girls were in their first two years of high school, teenagers wearing polo shirts and pleated skirts, and the young women would later receive a little gift for agreeing to enroll in the study.   As part of the experiment, the girls were taught how to play darts for the first time, and the two psychologists conducting the study divided the young women into some groups. Let's call the members of the first group Team Performance, and they were told that they should learn the game of darts by trying to throw the darts as close to the center of the board as possible. In other words, the researchers informed the women that the best way to win was to rack up some points.   The psychologists also pulled together another group of young women. Let's call them Team Learning Method, and they learned to play darts very differently. The researchers had these girls focus on the process of gaining expertise, and the women started by working on how exactly to throw the darts, mastering some basic processes like "keep your arm close to your body." Then, after the women showed some proficiency, they were encouraged to aim at the bull's-eye, slowly shifting from some process goals to some outcome goals like hitting the target.   Finally, there was the control group. Their instructions? The researchers told them to simply "do their best." In other words, these young women could take any approach that they wanted to learning darts. Let's think of this group as Team Conventional Wisdom.   To learn more about the experiment, I met up with Anastasia Kitsantas, who ran the study together with psychologist Barry Zimmerman. While the experiment took place some years ago, Kitsantas still had the darts stashed away in her office at George Mason University, and on a rainy afternoon, she pulled out the little yellow missiles from an office cabinet to show them to me, laying the darts out like an important relic from some forgotten South American tribe.   Kitsantas held on to the darts because of the study's surprisingly large outcomes, and by the end of the experiment, the young women on Team Learning Method dramatically outperformed the others, with scores nearly twice as high as Team Conventional Wisdom. The women also enjoyed the experience much more. "Several of the students asked me to teach them more about darts after the experiment. They kept asking me for weeks," Kitsantas told me.   The takeaway from the dart experiment is a straightforward one, one supported by a growing number of studies, because learning turns out to be a process, a method, a system of understanding. It's an activity that requires focus, planning, and reflection, and when people know how to learn, they acquire mastery in much more much effective ways.   Indeed, the learning process turns out to be one of the most important predictors of learning. One recent analysis--or a study of studies--showed that learning methods dramatically shifted outcomes in just about every field. Another analysis found that the process of learning works in lockstep with GPA. Follow-up research by Kitsantas and Zimmerman replicated the dart study in other fields, finding that dedicated strategies boosted performance in everything from volleyball to writing.   Within the typically somber community of cognitive science researchers, the recent spate of learning-to-learn studies have sparked a glee that's typically associated with the Second Coming. Some researchers have dramatically labeled their papers with titles like "How to Gain Eleven IQ Points in Ten Minutes." (The researchers recommend thinking aloud while problem solving.) Others become exhilarated during interviews. "We should be spreading this gospel," researcher Bennett Schwartz told me. (Schwartz argues for more self-quizzing.)A lot of the excitement stems from the originality of the findings, and as an idea, a more focused approach to learning is only some twenty years old. For a long time, experts had assumed that the ability to learn was a matter of intelligence, dedicated smarts, and so researchers didn't really study the issue. They assumed, it seems, that either people had the skill of learning or they didn't. For them, intelligence--and thus the ability to gain mastery--was an immutable trait like having blue eyes, a genetic gift of the gods.   For their part, schools followed the science, and despite years of education, despite years spent in classrooms, most people have never learned to learn. Generally speaking, we don't have a good sense of how to improve our expertise in a field or subject.   As an example, consider the word "studying": It's a remarkably vague expression. Does studying mean rereading a textbook? Doing sample problems? Memorizing? All of the above? For another example, take the word "practice." Does practice mean repeating the same skill over and over again? Does practice require detailed feedback? Should the practice be hard? Or should it be fun?   There are a lot of other misconceptions. When it comes to learning, people believe a lot of things that aren't really supported by the research. Working with some of the nation's most respected learning experts, I recently conducted a survey to see what people knew about how to acquire a skill, and the results were remarkable. While an overwhelming percentage of Americans said that they knew the basics of effective teaching and learning, they harbored a lot of weak intuitions and false beliefs about how people learn.   Two-thirds of the public believed, for instance, that students should be praised for being smart, for instance. But the research shows the opposite, and people learn more when they are praised for their effort than their intelligence. Another 50 percent of the public said people learn effectively without much guidance. But study after study shows that learning is a dedicated, engaged process. And while there's no research supporting the notion of learning styles--the idea that someone learns better kinesthetically or visually--more than 80 percent of the public believe that learning styles exist.There's also a lot of good news here, though, because it doesn't take much to develop the learning process. Many of the improvement strategies that have been tucked away in sterile research studies show large gains with little additional effort, and on the day I visited with Anastasia Kitsantas, she pointed out that even small tweaks would dramatically improve outcomes. In the dart experiment, for instance, about half of the subjects on Team Learning Method recorded their scores after each throw, and even that task was enough to boost performance. "It's phenomenal when you think about it," she said.   But, of course, most of us rarely do.   The value of the learning process extends far beyond the recent science. It also reflects the nature of society today--and the shifting nature of expertise.   Recall for a moment the last bit of information that you typed into Google. Maybe you were looking for the address for a local pizza place or hunting for the hometown of pop star Michael Jackson. According to a series of studies by researcher Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues, you're more likely to remember where the information was online than the details of the actual information.   So if you searched for the hometown of Michael Jackson, you're more likely to remember the Wikipedia page of the King of Pop than the actual information (Gary, Indiana). If you found the address for the pizza place on a Web site, then you're more likely to remember the URL (greatpizza.com) than the actual address of the restaurant. "We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools," write Sparrow and her colleagues, "growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found."

Editorial Reviews

"Learning makes us human, yet few of us truly understand how the brain, the heart, and the body work together to create new knowledge. Learn Better pulls back the curtain on the hidden ways we are wired for learning, in ways that are alternately humorous, surprising, and profound."—Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute and author of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution"Brimming with helpful insights and interesting stories, this surprising and engaging new book provides an important, much-needed introduction to the science of learning. It belongs on the bookshelf of every learner.”—Linda Darling-Hammond, President of the Learning Policy Institute and Charles E. Ducommon Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University"This critically important book offers valuable—and fun to master—insights about how to learn deeply and meaningfully in a time when all the 'knowledge' in the world is just a swipe of the finger away."—Laura Moser, former education blogger at Slate"Learning is the project of a lifetime. In this humane and insightful book, Ulrich Boser reveals the tools that everyone from grade school children to their parents in the workplace can use to keep pace in a fast-changing world."—Kevin Carey, author of The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere“This book is a great read. I enjoyed every moment of it. I enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on my own experiences in the classroom and my own experiences as a student.”—John King, Former U.S. Secretary of Education "Learn Better is at once comprehensive and delightful, filled to the brim with definitive insights on how we learn best. Boser is an engaging guide who has thoroughly sifted through the vast research on the science of learning to offer key takeaways that can be put into practice immediately. Essential reading for educators, parents, and anyone who wants to learn, once and for all, what it actually takes to 'learn better.'"—Christine Gross-Loh, bestselling author of The Path and Parenting Without Borders "Where was this book when I was struggling through undergrad, fighting off sleep as I burnt the proverbial midnight oil and laid the foundation of my current carpal tunnel condition from taking copious class notes that I now know—all these years later—were all but worthless? As Ulrich Boser reveals in an engrossing and highly entertaining way, the retention of facts, dates, and principles—learning—isn’t about what you do, but how you do it. One can’t simply vacuum up data, instead one has to “meaningfully process information.” Best of all for this old dog, anyone can master new skills by following the straightforward techniques detailed in Learn Better."—Carl Chancellor, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist