Reading: The Learning Process



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. The two psychologists conducting the study divided the young women into some groups. Let’s call 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 focusing 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 learn to “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 has 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 onto 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, 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 meta-analysis—or a study of studies—showed that learning methods dramatically shifted outcomes in just about every field. Another meta-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 has 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.)

Newness drives a lot of the excitement, 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 and dedicated smarts, so researchers didn't really study the issue. They assumed, it seems, that people either had the skill of learning or they didn’t. For them, intelligence—and thus the ability to learn—was an immutable trait like 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 of us 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 re-reading a textbook? doing sample problems? memorizing? All of the above? Same with 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 conducted a survey some years ago 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 people surveyed believed, for instance, that people should be praised for being smart, while the research shows that they learn more when they are praised for their effort. Another 50 percent of the respondents 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 respondents believed that learning styles exist.

My personal interest in the science of learning goes back decades. But it was rekindled some years ago with an email. At the time, I was laboring over a project that attempted to answer the question: What sort of outcomes does a school district produce relative to its spending? We aimed to provide the results for just about every district in the country, and it took months.

The data was weak. There were statistical issues. If you want to figure out how effective a district is, for instance, how do you take into account that kids in low-income areas often arrive at school without having had any breakfast?

Late in the project, an email flashed into my inbox. My research assistant had flooded a statistical application with data and confirmed a pattern that we had been seeing all along: Spending did not line up with outcomes. In a few places, the relationship between spending and outcomes was so noisy that there was a small but negative relationship between money and test scores. In other words, if you were Billy Bean of Moneyball fame and looked at our data, you’d wisely conclude that money spent on some schools actually predicted lower outcomes.

How is this possible? There are a lot of reasons, of course, and I’m not arguing that schools should get less money. Quite the opposite. But over time, I also came to believe that one of the biggest issues within education was the quality of learning itself. In too many areas, at too many levels, institutions were not set up to help people gain skills, with a yawning gap between what works—and what actually happens in classrooms.

As evidence, step into any lecture hall, with hundreds of students passively listening to a lecture and see how well they are learning. The research provides overwhelming evidence that a they’ll-get-it-eventually approach is ineffective. Students in traditional lecture-based courses are 50 percent more likely to fail, according to one recent study. One Nobel laureate told me that he thought traditional lecture courses were simply “unethical.”

For another example, consider a practice like self-quizzing. The evidence is conclusive that the strategy can dramatically increase outcomes, sometimes showing 50 percent improvement. But students rarely use the approach, preferring to just leaf through their textbook again. When it comes to quizzing, I tried to make this course an exemplar, and you’ll find a lot of “pop quizzes” throughout the program.

To a degree, this course is a product of my work at one of the nation’s leading think tanks. Working with a dedicated group of researchers and policy wonks, I examine education issues, and my research has had some impact over the years, from inspiring quips on the Tonight Show to sparking changes in education policy.

But more than that, this course rests on the work of the many scientists and researchers who’ve been studying the science of learning. Over the past few decades, the field has gone from an obscure topic to a well-established field. Still, most of the research findings have remained buried in dusty academic journals and obscure government reports. Far too little has reached the public. Far too little has changed how people learn.

I wrote a book on these ideas. Titled Learn Better, and released in 2017, Amazon called it “the best science book of the year.” This course builds on the book and it includes new interviews and updated resources. There are also videos, toolkits, and specific “learning to learn” guides.

More broadly, though, I hope to outline the process of learning, to detail how we learn best. Not every learning activity requires a step-by-step approach. If you want to learn how to, say, change the tire on your car, you don’t need to follow each idea outlined below, although it might help. But if a skill is worth knowing deeply, then it’s worth knowing well, and we need to take a systemic approach to developing expertise:

The Learning Process:

Value. It’s impossible to learn if we won’t want to learn. To gain expertise, we have to see the skills and knowledge as valuable. What’s more, we have to create meaning. Learning is a matter of making sense of something.

Target. In the early part of gaining mastery, focus is key. We need to figure out what exactly we want to learn and set goals and targets.

Develop. Some forms of practice make people more perfect than others. In this stage of learning, people need to hone their skills and take dedicated steps to improve performance. 

Extend. At this point, we want to go beyond the basics—and apply what we know. We want to flesh out our skills and knowledge—and create more meaningful forms of understanding.

Relate. This is the phase where we see how it all fits together. After all, we don’t want to know just a single detail or procedure—we want to know how that detail or procedure interacts with other facts and procedures.

Rethink. When it comes to learning, it’s easy to make mistakes, to be overconfident, and we need to review our knowledge, to reconsider our understanding, and learn from our learning.

Across these steps, there are some themes that we’ll return to again and again. They include:

Learning is often a form of mental doing, for one, and the more someone is actively engaged, the more they learn. If you’re reading some new text, ask yourself questions:

  • What’s this text about?
  • What point is the author trying to make?
  • Is there anything here that seems confusing?

People learn a lot more when they ask these questions of themselves at the end of each paragraph—or the end of a sentence. So while some textbooks might offer “reading comprehension” questions at the close of each chapter, you’ll take away a lot more if you ask yourselves these sorts of queries more frequently.

At the same time, manage your learning. Look for ways to orchestrate skills and knowledge including asking:

  • Have you gotten feedback?
  • Have you benchmarked your performance?
  • If you’re giving a speech, videotape yourself.
  • If you’re writing an essay, ask a friend to read it over.
  • If you’re learning Spanish, talk with a native speaker.

When it comes to learning, we need to target our learning and figure out what exactly we’re aiming to know.   

Be sure to think about your thinking.

  • Do you really understand?
  • Have you accounted for the inevitable forgetting?

In this regard, spreading learning over time is crucial. After all, we often fail to recall certain facts and details, and by some estimates, we lose about half of what we learn within an hour. This means that people should make sure to review what they know days, weeks, even months later. As we will find out, just making larger piles of flashcards—and thus doing more to space out our learning—can improve outcomes by 30 percent.

Emotions also play a crucial role. We often think that learning is purely rational, a matter of deep logic and focused reasoning. But our brains don’t quite work that way, in that the process of gaining expertise is often just as cognitive as non-cognitive. In this regard, we can’t learn if we can’t believe that we can learn. Like an engine that requires both oil and gas in order to run properly, our brains need both reason and emotion to perform at a high level.

Questions might incldue

  • Are feeling calm?
  • Are you feeling scared?
  • What makes you nervous about this topic?

To gain expertise, people also need to look for connections, and effective learning often boils down to seeing relationships within a body of knowledge. So ask yourself:

  • Is there an analogy that helps explain the idea?
  • Are there links to other fields or subjects?
  • If you’re learning about something—like say the physics of a black hole—what conceptual similarity can you envision?
  • Are black holes similar to sink holes? A waterfall? A trashcan?

In the end, there are better, more effective ways to learn, and we need to do much more to give everyone the skills they need to succeed. The goal in today’s world isn’t just to be smart—or to memorize lots of facts. That simply is not enough anymore.

Rather, the goal is to become an effective learner, one who can take advantage of all the tools of the 21st century. I hope this course shows you how—and sparks great change, so that we can all take full advantage of our deep capacity to gain new skills.

Complete and Continue