Book Review: Become a better learner by discovering “How Learning Works”

Learning is never easy, but it is even harder when you are learning on your own. When in school you have teachers to rely on, when you are new to the profession you have experienced programmers to guide you. But eventually you reach a point where you have to learn on your own, without help or support. You must then know how to teach yourself, which is to say you must first learn how to teach. To acquire such a skill you would need an expert on human learning, and one who is also an able teacher. And if such a teacher were not available the next best thing would be a book that they wrote, a book summarizing what they know and how you can apply it.

What the book is about

How Learning Works is the unexpected child of the two somewhat conflicting goals of academia: research and teaching. Research universities value research far more than teaching, even as teaching is required of faculty. But some faculty do care about teaching, and some scientists study learning and teaching. This book is the result of intersection of those two interests: practical principles for teaching based on what scientists have discovered about learning. And these principles can also be applied by learners themselves, as the book’s conclusion points out, learners like me and you.

The book is organized around seven principles, reviewing the relevant academic research and then providing practical teaching advice based on the findings. The evidence for the principles is quickly summarized and for the most part is fairly plausible, with the usual caveats about the difficulty of such research. And since the book is driven by scientific evidence its lessons often go far beyond naive common sense.

For example, while discussing how students organize their knowledge the book discusses research regarding “expert blind spot.” While experts are much better at organizing knowledge, their very different ways of understanding can actually make it more difficult for them to teach novices. This is one reason why you will hear so much seemingly contradictory advice on subjects like testing: experts often assume the scope and limitations of their advice are obvious, even when they’re not.

Practical advice

While the book is organized around high-level principles, the explanations and advice it gives are detailed, specific and very hands-on. When discussing the principle of targeted feedback, for example, the book reviews research suggesting:

  1. “Feedback is more effective when it identifies particular aspects [students need to improve].”
  2. “Too much feedback tends to overwhelm students.”
  3. “Even minimal feedback can lead to better results.”
  4. Immediate feedback can be less helpful than delayed feedback.

The chapter then follows up with at least eight different ways to improve the relevance, frequency and timeliness of feedback. E.g. the book suggests asking students to to explain how they applied feedback in later work, a suggestion well-worth following even without a teacher’s requirement. The detailed breakdown and suggestions are just one part of the overall principle the chapter covers; an additional section covers more research and corresponding advice. The advice itself quite obviously comes from practiced teachers, although it is somewhat over-focused on academic teaching involving a large class and a semester schedule. Even so, I have found the book full of advice and ideas relevant to far more than just academic teaching.

Both the principles covered and the resulting advice show up continuously in blog posts I’ve written. For example, providing the solutions you’ve come up with is important when asking for help. We can see how some of the principles discussed in the book apply in this situation. First, “prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.” By providing your solutions you give your respondent a much more detailed understanding of what you know and how it affected your approach to solving the problem. When they provide feedback by helping you solve the problem they will be able to tailor it to your particular understanding, as in the principle mentioned earlier which stresses the importance of targeted feedback.

How Learning Works is a wonderful way to understand how you learn and how to improve your learning. It has helped me immensely in writing this blog, by making me a better teacher and better learner. I hope it will also help you take the next step in learning on your own.

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