Benedict Carey’s: How We Learn

Understanding how to harness the natural power of our brains can make learning easier.


How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey talks about the research behind learning and goes in depth about how to harness the natural power of our brains to aid learning. This kind of meta-approach helps us realize how students think about the material, how they organize it, and how they make judgements about what is important and what is not.

As educators, helping students learn is our job. Knowing how the brain likes to learn can help us harness our students’ innate brainpower. So here’s a mini-tutorial about learning and the brain, courtesy of Carey, that can aid us in the classroom.


Working with Our Brains: 3 Concepts to Keep in Mind

Our brains have two systems for learning and remembering information: storage and retrieval. These systems have been refined over time so that we can keep relevant details at the top of our minds (retrieval), while other info remains familiar over a long period of time so that we can recall them quickly (storage). We toggle between these two systems when learning new material and the more often knowledge is retrieved the stronger the connections become.

1) Using memory changes memory.

When we forget information, it actually helps the learning process because when a breakdown in knowledge occurs, there is an opportunity to strengthen the storage and retrieval systems for that knowledge. Our brains grow stronger when they learn and relearn information – continuously recalling information gives the brain practice at mastering it.

2) Learning over time is best.

Spacing out the delivery of information over time helps students remember content without having to spend additional time or energy on the information. Consider it like watering a lawn: if you water your lawn a little bit each day over a week, you will have a healthier and greener lawn than if you flooded it all at once. Same amount of water, different results.

A bonus of spreading learning out: variation that occurs in differing surroundings and contexts. Each subtle difference in the learning environment helps strengthen knowledge to be independent of context and surroundings. Some people will suggest to always study in the same time, place, way, but this is just creating a crutch. True knowledge is independent of these factors. Another added benefit is sleep, which is especially helpful because this is when compressing and retaining information happens.

3) We are poor judges of what we know.

The biggest cause of low performance on assessments isn’t anxiety or lack of preparation, it’s something called the fluency illusion. The fluency illusion is that something easy to remember right now will be easy to remember in the future. Nope! This misconception is automatic and subconscious, which makes us such poor judges of what we know.


So knowing  this, what can teachers do??

Classroom Strategies

Learning is hard work. Here are some ideas to make it easier for students:

1) Incorporate Self-Testing into Lessons.

Self testing is 20 to 30% more powerful than just reviewing material. It not only measures knowledge but vanquishes the fluency trap, amplifies the value of study time, and gives a specific detailed view of how to approach a topic.

Have students self test themselves by: telling someone what it all means, writing an outline from memory, writing the main ideas clearly and succinctly. The goal is to uncover what has been forgotten in order to reinforce those connections.

2) Vary Instruction and Contexts.

Go ahead and mix it up! Ask students different questions in different formats. Incorporate discussions, short answer, multiple choice, and different modalities when teaching and assessing students.  Varying instruction reinforces the material and makes knowledge independent of context and surroundings.

3) Change Up Practice to Avoid Repetition.

When teaching new skills, be sure to vary practice. Straight repetition creates a powerful illusion where skills improve quickly and then plateau. Varied practice has a slower rate of improvement, but the learning is greater over time. Math textbooks are organized in sections of repetitive practice of a single skill over and over. While this is helpful for achieving quick mastery of the single skill, it does not require comprehension of the problem. Practicing only in this way illustrates the fluency illusion. Students feel confident about solving problems on homework but when seen out of this context, they don’t know where to start.

Consider mixing practice over the longer term to help students see distinctions and achieve a clearer grasp of each concept individually. When students have to choose a strategy and know how to use it, the knowledge of each individual skill is strengthened. Word problems are notoriously difficult, in part, because there is no explicit instruction given to indicate what strategy must be used.


Lesson Planning

Just like coffee, learning percolates. Your brain continues working in the background even after you stop a task – this is why ideas just ‘occur’ to you. This process is called percolation. It is the brain’s way of being vigilant and casually collecting relevant data to the task at hand. So when you have a new unit to plan or a lesson you are trying to improve, tjust start. Creative leaps often come during downtime and in piecemeal, and in varying size, importance, and order. Best ideas in the shower anyone? I always have great ideas when I’m driving in the car.

Need another reason to just start? Once you begin a task, finishing and attending to the task becomes a subconscious need itself. Have you ever bought new shoes you were super excited about and then after buying them suddenly notice that everyone else is wearing them? This is because your brain is subconsciously paying attention to newly relevant information.



The most important thing is how students think about the material, how they organize it, and how they make judgements about what is important and what is not.

  • Be sure to mix types of practice and questions; different contexts, different forms, different mediums, completing work as an individual or as a group.
  • Review past content mixed in with new content to help students keep old material fresh and require them to distinguish between strategies when solving.
  • Spend time to compress next material and integrate it into what has previously been taught. Help students organize the content. Mind maps, graphic organizers, discussions, free response questions, all these activities will help students synthesize information. Students should do more than simply solving problems in math classrooms.
  • Teaching requires lots of creativity, in order to maximize your brainpower just start and give yourself time to allow your brain to subconsciously do some of the work for you.

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