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Posts published by “Ulrich Boser”

The Ten Commandments of Learning

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I recently watched a video of a LeBron James practice session, and during the hour-long training, James kept shooting the same shot over and over again. He launched the identical jumper almost a dozen times. Then he repeatedly threw up the same three-pointer. Then he knocked down fifteen free throws, one after another.

There's an issue with the NBA superstar's repetitive approach. It's not supported by the research, and dozens of studies make clear that James would gain a lot more if he mixed up his shooting. So during his practice session, James should have fired off a jumper and then a three-pointer and then a free throw before returning to his jumper.

Weak practice is an issue that goes far beyond megacelebrities, and I see people learning wrong all the time. People will use highlighters, even though there's little evidence for either strategy. Or I'll uncover instructors who advocate specific learning styles. But again, no research supports the approach.

Since my book Learn Better has been released a few months ago, I've come to believe that there should be a set of rules for gaining mastery. So if you're a seventh grader heading back to school—or a basketball phenom looking to win another championship—consider these ten commandments of "learning to learn."

Thou shall actively make sense. Learning is not a passive process, and in order to make sense of an area of expertise, people have to work to understand the material. They need to deeply engage the area of mastery.

Practically speaking, people should make learning as active as possible. Don't just reread a text, for instance. Instead, explain the text to yourself. Ask yourself: How would I describe this skill to someone else? What's notable about this idea?

Low-stakes quizzes can also make learning more active, and studies show that informal exams promote richer forms of understanding. Another strategy is to summarize what you've learned. It's another way to engage in active learning.

Thou shall honor short-term memory. Known as the brain’s "sketch pad," short-term memory is the bottleneck of learning. If you want to learn something, you must process it in short-term memory. But if too much information lands in short-term memory at one time, then our cognitive sketch pad becomes overwhelmed.

When it comes to learning, the takeaway is clear: People gain more if they lessen the demands on short-term memory. So if you're learning something, limit distractions. Don't listen to jazz. Turn off your cell phone. Stay away from Twitter.

The limits of short-term memory also explains why instructors are so important for learning: Great educators explain skills and knowledge in ways that don't overwhelm short-term memory.

Thou shall bless knowledge. The memorization of facts and figures has a bad reputation. But mastering the basics can help people learn, and the single best predictor of future learning is past learning.

This means that if you're developing an area of expertise, take time to master the essentials. If you're studying Chinese, then commit some key phrases to memory. If you're learning the piano, study the scales. Fundamental skills and knowledge lay the groundwork for richer forms of understanding.

Thou shall think about thinking. We often misjudge our levels of understanding. We're overconfident about what we know and can do. The solution? Something that experts call metacognition, or thinking about thinking.

More concretely, monitor your thoughts as you learn and ask yourself questions like: What do I know? How do I know? Does this really make sense? Could I explain this idea to a friend? These prompts help promote expertise.

Thou shall look for deep features. When it comes to learning, surface features, or concrete details, easily capture our attention. But people gain a much richer type of learning if they focus on the deep features, or the underlying concept of a field.

If you are learning how to solve this problem, for instance: Jose buys five Snickers and three KitKats. How many sweets does he have? What matters isn't the candies, which are a surface feature. What matters is the deep feature, or what is 5 plus 3?

The value of deep features explains why we should mix up our practice. If we practice in a blocked fashion like LeBron James (think xxxyyyzzz), we tend to focus on the surface features. But if we practice in a mixed way (think xyzxyzxyz) then, we're more likely to spot the deep features of an area of expertise.

Thou shall ask for feedback. Always. Get. Feedback. Beginners need feedback. So do experts. Even just writing down your mistakes can lead to dramatic improvements in outcomes.

So if you're learning something new, be sure to ask a friend or colleague to review your efforts. Their insights will shine a light on what you are doing well—and what still needs practice.

Thou shall remember to remember. We forget all the time, and people typically forget 50 percent of what they learn within 24 hours. What's worse, we often forget about our forgetting, and we think that we will remember something but we can't actually recall it.

To address the unavoidable misremembering, people should spread their learning out over time and regularly revisit skills and knowledge. If you're learning something new like an important speech, for instance, start early so that you can give yourself time to forget.

Thou shall honor thy feelings. ?Learning is a deeply emotional activity, and as we develop a skill, we have to manage our emotions, to account for how we feel.

Be sure, then, to set realistic goals for yourself and establish targets that you can accomplish. Also find students and teachers who can support you in your learning. We all gain a lot more when we feel connected to others.

Thou shall use analogies. Learning is about understanding the relationships within an area of expertise, and so we benefit by looking for patterns, by searching for similarities and differences.

So when you're learning something new, be sure to engage in compare and contrast. It helps people more easily spot the connections within an area of mastery.

Also look for analogies. They can go a long way to promote understanding and innovative thinking. Want to understand politics better? Look for a marketing analogy. Aim to improve your writing? Search film-making for some potential tips.

Thou shall reflect, reflect, reflect. To gain a richer form of expertise, people need to reflect on that what they've learned, and whether it's chemistry or golf, people gain more if they contemplate their learning.

To promote this sort of reflection, ask yourself reflective questions: How has my thinking changed because of this experience? How does this material all come together? What have I really learned?

The article ran on Amazon.

Amazon Chooses Learn Better as “Best Book” of the Year

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Am blushingly excited to report that Amazon listed "Learn Better" as one of the best books of the year in both nonfiction and business.

My book is in some good company, listed together with the David Grann's new book Killers of the Flower Moon and Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant's  Option B.

 

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.

Forgot Where You Parked? Good

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School’s out for the summer — and so begins a long few months of parents’ and teachers’ worrying about all the things their children will forget before the fall. The fractions they won’t be able to multiply. The state capitals they won’t be able to identify. “Learning loss” is the name for it.

Forgetting is supposed to be the antithesis of learning, and whether we’re a kid or an adult, most of us are plainly embarrassed if we can’t recall a name or fact. But it turns out that forgetting can help us gain expertise, and when we relearn something we couldn’t recall, we often develop a richer form of understanding.

For the New York Times, I wrote about relearning--and forgetting.

The Youth-Counseling Program Helping to Curb Chicago’s Violence

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In the minds of many, the South Side of Chicago has descended into a type of madness. While crime doesn’t define the vibrant, inspiring city, violence clings to certain South Side streets where shootings have become commonplace. President Trump referred to parts of the city as “worse” than areas in the Middle East. A few weeks ago, two men shot a young man named Daniel Cardova, and when a group gathered to mourn Cardova some hours later, yet another shooting occurred, killing two people and injuring another eight.

Given this harsh and violent reality, a new report offers a gossamer of optimism. Written by researchers at the University of Chicago, the study looks at the success of the counseling program known as Becoming a Man, or BAM, which is run by the nonprofit Youth Guidance. Started in 2001, the BAM program operates in Chicago and has posted tremendous results. One 2015 study found that students in the program were 45 percent less likely than their peers in South Side Chicago to be arrested for violent crimes. What’s more, the researchers believe that BAM students are as much as 19 percent more likely to graduate from high school.

This piece ran in The Atlantic. Click here to find out what made this program so successful.

Sorry Kids, Schools Need More Testing, Not Less

Ulrich Boser 2

 

In education circles, testing has become the villain of the day. Kids declare exams to be a waste of time while educators argue that the anxiety around tests produces a “toxic environment.” Families loathe exams, too, as I learned when doing some research on assessments, with parents often viewing tests as either a distraction from more important activities or as “testing for testing’s sake.”

But when it comes to learning, it turns out, the best research shows that exams help learning rather than harm it, and most schools and universities actually should be doing more testing, not less of it. A large and growing body of studies indicates that assessments help students learn. More — and better — testing programs can also help teachers teach.

Cutting against the grain of all the negative chatter about tests, some cognitive psychologists, including Yana Weinstein at University of Massachusetts Lowell, have declared themselves to be “champions” of testing.

The catch is that the tests have to be the right kinds of tests. The exams that spark learning typically tend to have lower stakes, they have more open-ended questions, and they are given often enough to provide clear feedback to teachers and students. But if they’re well designed, tests have been proven to help students achieve mastery of the subject material — not just evaluate progress.

 

This piece ran in VoxRead more here.