How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

Benedict Carey

We are particularly interested in learning due to the children we see who have learning problems and due to the vision therapy which we provide, but learning (consolidating, retrieving, applying, and forgetting) is important to all of us. We have evolved to learn. Humans are distinguished by having an exceptional ability to learn, but we did not evolve to learn as we are taught in school. Reading is wonderful, but it doesn’t work for all kinds of learning and it doesn’t work well if you don’t already have background on the subject. A lecture (classroom) is the same and you can’t stop to think about what you just heard, drift off to an idea that was stimulated, or re-listen as you can with reading. You may be able to ask a question. Much of school is explicit learning, but we would do better if we could learn more implicitly, especially if the goal is to retain the material past the date of the test. The ultimate goal of education is to develop a basis of information and learning skills to enrich our lives; to help us solve problems; and to prepare us to contribute to society (and be remunerated for those contributions).


The author is a science writer who has looked at the literature on learning and has found some surprises which have not made it to the mainstream. If we can find ways to apply this information for ourselves and for family members, it would be very useful. Like any observations about human behavior, none of this applies equally to all people and to all types of skills.

For example, the rule is to find a quiet place to study, preferably the same place. Yet we work more effectively, scientists have found, when we continually alter our study routines and abandon any “dedicated space” in favor of varied locations.


Another surprise came in 1913 when children studied a poem to memorize it and were tested five minutes later. Without being told that they would be tested again, they were tested two days later. After this interval, the children remembered more than they did after five minutes. The initial test helped to consolidate what they did remember and, when they went back to it, what they did remember helped to stimulate more memories. The same effect does not hold when nonsense syllables are tested. Forgetting is not only a passive process of decay but also an active one, of filtering.

The oldest learning technique in memory science is also one of most powerful, reliable, and easy to use. The technique is called distributed learning or, more commonly, the spacing effect. Cramming works fine in a pinch. It just doesn’t last. Spacing does.

When we are studying something, it is easy to think that we have it memorized or understand it better than we do. We forget that we forget. Studying a prose passage for five or ten minutes, then turning the page over to recite what you can without looking isn’t only practice. It’s a test, and it has been shown that self-examination has a profound effect on final performance. Pretests can also be helpful. They potentiate learning. They engage your mind in a demanding way that straight memorization does not.

Problems are often best solved when we take a break for an incubation period when we get stumped. The subconscious continues to work on the problem. Our subconscious can help us get unlocked.

Putting your nose to the grindstone may work when you are doing many kinds of physical work, but it doesn’t work as well when we are problem-solving or creating. As the author stated, “I don’t get my best ideas while I am actually writing.” One of the very surprising outcomes of research is that people who are trying to learn something, actually retain the material better when they have been interrupted. Interrupting someone to gain this effect works best at the moment in which they are most engaged in what they are doing.

Another surprise is the long-term differences between studying in blocks of the same material and studying a distribution of material. If you study in one block and then the other, you tend to learn faster, but you also tend to not retain as well or transfer well. In other words, work and tests should incorporate some material from prior lessons. Repetitive practice is useful, but it creates the illusion that we can apply the skill well when it is needed.

Most teaching is done explicitly: Consciously. Most of what our brains do is subconscious and, if the ultimate goal is to use this skill or information automatically, we then have to rehearse it many times to transfer it from active control to automatic control. Wouldn’t it be better if we learned it implicitly in the first place? One example comes from the movie “Karate Kid”. The boy wants to learn karate and the master keeps making him work to earn lessons, but the repetitive, “brainless” tasks he is doing is putting the karate moves in motor memory. How much better children learn when they aren’t being taught something which requires concentration. In discussing chess masters, the author states: “Their eyes and the visual systems in their brains, are extracting the most meaningful set of clues from a vast visual tapestry, and doing so instantaneously.


In 1969, Eleanor Gibson published Principles of Perceptual Learning and Development. Perceptual learning, she wrote, “is not a passive absorption, but an active process, in the sense that exploring and searching for perception itself is active. We do not just see, we look; we do not just hear, we listen. Perceptual learning is self-regulated, in the sense that modification occurs without the necessity of external reinforcement.” Perceptual learning is happening all the time, after all, and automatically – and it’s now clear that it can be exploited to speed up the acquisition of specific skills.

While there is a lot that we do not understand about sleep, the preponderance of evidence to date finds that sleep improves retention and comprehension of what was studied the day before. Napping is sleep, too. People who study in the morning – whether it’s words or pattern recognition games, straight retention of comprehension of deeper structure – do about 30% better on an evening test if they’ve had an hour-long nap than if they haven’t.

Not ALL Screen Time IS Equal: Reflections and Perspectives on the Use of Electronics

Britain Turns to Chinese Textbooks to Improve Its Math Scores

Visual Intelligence