How Deep Processing Shapes Learning

When it comes to learning, people often describe the mind as a computer. But that’s not quite right because the analogy makes it seem like our brains are robotic in their ability to absorb information, that data enters the brain and then automatically becomes stashed away in a mental hard drive.

But in order to learn, the brain needs to process information deeply, and studies show that we can’t gain any sort of new skill or expertise without really engaging in an idea or skill or bit of knowledge.

“You can be motivated to learn but if you use a shallow strategy, you won’t learn,” Stephen Chew

Stephen Chew has written thoughtfully about this point. A professor at Samford University, Chew is one of my favorite observers of the new science of learning, and he has put a together a wonderful study guide for college students.

Some time ago, Chew sent me an email, giving an example of how the brain needs to meaningfully process information in order to learn it. He makes the point that we need to find information meaningful in order to really gain any sort of expertise and describes an informal experiment that he’ll do with audiences.

With Chew’s permission, I’m posting his description in full:

“I give workshops to various groups (faculty, student life staff, students, and tutors) on how people learn to help teachers teach more effectively, students learn more effectively, and support staff and tutors teach students to learn more effectively. In my workshop, I almost always include a demonstration of deep processing and learning that is based on research first published in 1969 by Thomas Hyde and Jim Jenkins (who was my grad school advisor).

“The amazing thing to me is that this simple principle has been well established for about 45 years but is largely unknown outside cognitive psychology. And even most cognitive psychologists have never thought about its implications for teaching.

“If you use a deep processing strategy, you will learn whether you intend to or not,” Stephen Chew

“The basic idea is that if you think about information meaningfully (deep processing), you are much more likely to remember that information than if you think about at a superficial, meaningless level (shallow processing). And this is true regardless of whether you intend to learn the material or not.

“When I do this demonstration to a large audience, I divide them up into 4 groups without their being aware of it. I hand out a sheet of instructions, but there are actually 4 versions of instructions. The instructions say that I will read a list of 24 words. For each word, they need to carry out a task. For half of the audience, the task is to check “Yes” if the word contains an “e” or “g” (Hyde and Jenkins used just an “e” but latter Jenkins changed it to both an “e” or “g” to make it a bit more interesting).

“The other half of the audience checks “Yes” if the word is pleasant to them or “No” if it is not. So half are getting E/G checking and the other half are getting Pleasantness rating. Now half of each of those groups is warned that they will be asked to recall as many of the 24 words as possible after the task is over. The other half are not warned. This creates 4 groups, based on the kind of task they do and whether or not they were warned about recall.

“The amazing thing to me is that this simple principle has been well established for about 45 years but is largely unknown outside cognitive psychology,” Stephen Chew

“The pleasantness and E/G checking tasks are called orienting tasks because they make people process information in a certain way regardless of their intention. Hyde and Jenkins found that orienting tasks that induce deeper processing (pleasantness) lead to better recall than shallow ones (E/G checking), regardless of people’s intention to learn.

“I read the list of 24 words and everyone carries out their orienting task. After reading all the words, I then ask everyone to recall as many of the words as possible. When they can’t recall any more, they count up how many they recalled. We then do a poll to find out which of the four groups recalled the most words.



Samford University Professor Stephen Chew

“The deep processing groups recall the most words, regardless of whether they were warned about the recall task or not. And the shallow processing groups recall fewer words, once again with no difference between those who were warned about recall and those who were not. So people who processed words deeply but were not expecting the recall task remember many more words than people who did the shallow processing task but were warned about recall.

“Good intentions cannot overcome bad study strategies,” Stephen Chew

“It shows that depth of processing matters more than intention. You can be motivated to learn but if you use a shallow strategy, you won’t learn, and if you use a deep processing strategy, you will learn whether your intend to or not.

“I sum it up by saying that ‘Good intentions cannot overcome bad study strategies” So teachers need to think of their teaching assignments and activities as orienting tasks, and students need to think of their note taking and studying in terms of depth of processing.



Schools Expect Too Much of Working Parents

While balancing work and family life is never a simple task, it often seems that public schools add to the problem. A few weeks ago, for instance, the school nurse rang me up: My 8-year-old daughter had a headache. Could I come by the school with some Tylenol?

Due to school policy the school nurse couldn’t administer one of the most widely used, over-the-counter drugs in the world—meaning I needed to table my work and visit the school to help give my daughter a tablespoon of basic medicine.

The week before that, our school closed its doors for the day for teacher training, throwing a different wrench into my schedule. My wife and I struggled to find childcare for our daughters.

For most working parents, the difficult juggling between work schedules and school schedules is typical. School days that end mid-afternoon, frequent closings, and strict medical policies make life for many parents a heart-wrenching balancing act. But it may be taking a greater toll than many people realize.

In a new report I wrote with my colleagues at the Center for American Progress, we found that, over the course of a school year, districts close their doors for 29 weekdays on average—far more than the number of days most working parents have in paid vacation and holidays. That’s the equivalent of six full weeks of school, and these figures do not include summer vacation, early dismissals or unexpected closings due to bad weather.

This misalignment between school schedules and work schedules creates tremendous costs for parents, their children, and the economy. In fact, misaligned school schedules could be costing the U.S. economy a staggering $55 billion in lost productivity each year.

The reasons for many school closings are questionable at best. For example, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, most schools close on the opening day of deer hunting season, something that clearly has nothing to do with academic outcomes.

Meanwhile, some school policies force parents to jump through seemingly impossible hoops. In Duval County, Florida, for example, parents or guardians are expected to pick up their child from school within 60 minutes of being notified that their child has a headache or fever.

To a large degree, it often feels like school districts simply assume that one parent is always on call to attend to their child whenever school closes, is delayed, or even during a non-emergency like my daughter’s headache.

But this doesn’t reflect the realities of the modern family. There are more parents working full time than ever, and many of them don’t have flexible schedules. In fact, nearly half of all workers – part-time and full-time – report having no flexibility in their work schedules.

While poorly aligned school schedules affect all families, perhaps the greatest burden falls on low-income households. Low-income families often have little control over their work schedules, and they’re far more likely to work irregular, on-call, split, or rotating shift times. At the same time, these workers are less likely to easily afford the sky-high costs of child care, which exceeds college costs in many areas.

Fortunately, there are ways that schools can help lessen the burden on working parents. A number of schools around the country have extended their school day or year in a cost-effective manner. For instance, many schools are partnering with volunteer organizations – such as AmeriCorps and Citizen Schools – to bring on extra staff at little to no cost to help lengthen the school day. Other schools, such as the high-performing Brooklyn Generation High School in New York City, reduce costs by staggering teacher schedules.

Some schools are also rethinking the way in which they connect with parents. For instance, some school districts – like in Mason, Kentucky – are implementing parent-teacher home visits. So instead of scheduling parent-teacher conferences in the middle of the work day, teachers meet with parents in the family’s home. Other alternatives to school-based conferences include the use of online platforms such as Skype.

To be fair, designing a school calendar that meets the needs of all working parents is no simple task. Plus, some new programs like aftercare will cost additional funds, and teachers should get paid extra if they work additional hours.

But the benefits of a redesigned school schedule far outweigh the costs. Public schools should stop operating under outdated schedules and instead establish policies that reflect the needs of the modern-day working family. Because families like mine just don’t need any more headaches.

This post first appeared at US News and World Report.

“The Power of the Pygmalion Effect”

I worked together with my colleagues Megan Wilhelm and Robert Hanna on a report for the Center for American Progress called the Power of the Pygmalion Effect, which was released last week, and we found that what an educator believed a student could achieve turned out to be a deeply strong predicator of what that student did actually achieve.

The study was featured in The Root and Huffington Post. Here is our major finding. I bolded the text:

All else equal, 10th grade students who had teachers with higher expectations were more than three times more likely to graduate from college than students who had teachers with lower expectations. In other words, the expectations of teachers showed a very strong predictive relationship with college graduation rates. It cannot be said for sure that teacher expectations boosted college graduation rates. It is also possible that teachers with lower expectations were more likely to teach traditionally disadvantaged students who are less likely to succeed in colleges.

What does this all mean for our education system? In the report, we discuss that too, arguing that we

must continue to raise expectations for students. The Common Core State Standards are one of the most powerful ways to do so, and states and districts should continue to support them. In particular, education leaders need to pay attention to the standards’ implementation to ensure that they create higher expectations for students.

Check out the rest of the report and tell me what you think.

This post also appears on

Why Society Needs To Build Cohesion–And The Awkwardness Of Writing A Book On Trust

When I told people I was working on a book about our faith in others, they sometimes seemed to think I was an aspiring self-help guru. Strangers would confess to me about the times that they lost-or gained-the faith of others. One woman explained to me over drinks how she met her first husband. As I remember the story, she met the man on an airplane, and after the flight, he drove her to her home. (They later divorced.) At a birthday party, a man told me about the time that he got scammed in New York City and lost a large sum of money. Another man revealed to me that his wife had had an affair. A “personal betrayal,” he called it.


I often didn’t know how to respond to these stories. Sure, I was writing a book on trust. But I didn’t know much about the often emotional, deeply personal nature of our faith in others, and I certainly wasn’t interested in becoming the Deepak Chopra or Tony Robbins of trust. I was more focused on what sociologists call social trust, or the degree to which we place our faith in people that we don’t know. But all this spontaneous sharing made me think more deeply about the nature of our faith in others.


I’m not the first person to get tripped up in the various notions of trust, and there’s a long-standing debate over how exactly to define the term. [[or somehow specify this issue. Good point. See tweak.]] But what’s clear is that other writers on our faith in others have also tried to distance themselves from the self-help crowd. In his excellent book Liars and Outliers, for instance, security expert Bruce Schneier makes clear that he has little interest in more “intimate” forms of trust. “I’m not really concerned about how specific people come to trust other specific people,” he writes. For Schneier, what matters is what’s known as “impersonal trust.” Or as Schneier argues, he is in a way “reducing trust to consistency or predictability.”


Schneier’s argument makes sense because when we trust someone, there’s always some potential for betrayal. There’s always some possibility of duplicity, and that means that our faith in others requires strong logic and plain reason. No one, as Schneier and others have pointed out, should mindlessly place their faith in others.


But over time, I realized that I should not be so skeptical of the more personal aspects of our faith in others. After talking with various researchers¾and reading all sorts of books and articles-I came to learn that even some of the most seemingly unemotional forms of trust can be deeply emotional. In other words, policymakers who want to improve our faith in others should take a page from the self-help crowd and do more to build a sense of social intimacy and promote what neuroeconomist Paul Zak once called the “empathic human connection.”


This is clear in the research on trust. As legal scholar Yochai Benkler has argued, a personal bond-or what he calls “humanization”-can foster a sense of cooperation. When we feel a social connection with people, we’re more likely to work with them. Consider a study by economists Gary Charness and Uri Gneezy. In one behavioral economics experiment-known as the dictator game-the economists showed that people were more generous toward a stranger if they knew his or her last name.


I’ve seen this in my own life, too. Soon after I began my book, I followed the advice of Robert Putnam who argued for greater civic involvement in his seminal book Bowling Alone, and I joined a pick-up basketball league. Later, I began volunteering in a homeless shelter. Both activities helped me develop a greater sense of community, a better understanding of other people. The experiences didn’t make me trust everyone, of course. But it did give me a richer sense of perspective.


But my favorite example of the emotional aspect of seemingly unemotional types of trust is one that I write about in my book. We often believe that trust in government is all about accountability and good governance, about honesty and performance, and when people discuss low trust in Washington, they’ll mention Congressional shutdowns or the shaky roll-out of the Obamacare website. But it’s not quite so simple. Our emotions, our sense of patriotism, can also play a crucial role, according to researchers. The events of 9/11 led to a twofold increase in the percent of people who had faith in Washington to do the right thing.


The broader implications of this idea are significant. To solve pressing social and political problems, we need to do more than just address the problem itself. We also have to address the emotional side of our divisions, to do more to bring us together as a society, and even experts on impersonal trust like Schneier raise this point. In his work, for instance, Schneier recommends greater levels of “empathy and community.” Or as Schneier notes, “even though our informal social pressures fade into the background, they’re still responsible for most of the cooperation in society.”


Efforts at improving social cohesion don’t have to cost a lot of money. They don’t have to be complicated. In my book, I give the example of former St. Petersburg, Florida, Mayor Rick Baker who fostered civic connections by constructing dog parks. There’s also the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, Antanas Mockus, who Zak discusses in his work (and I touch upon in mine), and Mockus improved the city’s sense of civic unity, according to Zak, by establishing initiatives like a “Night for Women,” a sort of city-wide festival for “wives and mothers.” Or take Portland Mayor Bud Clark, who I also write about. Clark had a “weekly brown-bag lunch date” in the 1980s. There were no restrictions on who could attend the weekly luncheons, according to news accounts. Residents just had to ring up Clark’s office.


In the end, I still don’t have marriage advice. I still don’t have dating tips. But I have learned that trust is often deeply emotional, something highly personal. As academics David Lewis and Andrew Weigert once argued, trust is a “mix of feeling and rational thinking,” and it’s that feeling-that raw, emotional sense of social togetherness–that as a society,  we need to try and regain.


This article first appeared on Slate.

Social Trust Is Lower Than You Think

A number of researchers have shown that social trust has been in a long and steady tailspin. One recent AP-Gfk poll found that “only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted.”

But the problem might be worse than many believe, and when I recently looked at trust by state from the advertising firm DDB Worldwide Communications Group, I found that in some states the percent of people who reported complete levels of trust was basically zero.

Political scientists have documented all sorts of reasons for the recent collapse in social cohesion. Some like Eric Uslaner blame economic inequality. Others like Robert Putnam points the finger at generational change along with sprawl and changing technologies.

Whatever the exact cause⎯-and it’s almost certainly a mix⎯-the bottom line is that we’ve lost a crucial sense of our social fabric, and when I looked closely at the data, I found that in some states like Tennessee almost no one reported completely trusting strangers.

Think about that for a moment. In some states, almost no one believes that the new people that they meet are fully trustworthy.

I’m not the first person to dig into the data from DDB Worldwide Communications Group. In the 1990s, Robert Putnam mined the dataset pretty thoroughly for his seminal book Bowling Alone, and more recently, Matthew Nagler used the data to show that stronger social capital influences car crashes.

There are some throat-clearing caveats, though, and the DDB Worldwide Communications Group data dates back to 2008 and 2009. (We combined the years to make more robust state-level estimates.) Also note that respondents answer on a scale, from answering not all to trusting completely, and for the data above on Tennessee, for instance, I just reported on the percent of people who indicated that they trusted others completely. In other areas in the book and in other writings, I’ve sliced the data somewhat differently.

If you want to dig into some of the state-by-state data yourself⎯and you should⎯you can find some of the key indicators in this spreadsheet. It includes the data on trust in government and trust in people that you meet for the first time.

Looking forward, there are a few take-aways. For individuals, it’s important to keep in mind that the people that you’re dealing with at work or at school are skeptical. They’re cynical. They want you to prove that you are, in fact, trustworthy, as Roderick Kramer has argued.

More importantly for society, there’s the issue of a lack of social cohesion. What can we do to bring ourselves together? How we can we develop a greater sense of community?

There are no easy answers, but one thing is clear. We need to be more inclusive. We need to reach out more to people who are different than us, because it’s easy to trust people who share your background, according to experts like Putnam. In fact, one recent study found that we’re more likely to cooperate with people who share the same knowledge as us. What’s much harder is trusting people that are different from you, and in some areas like Mississippi, my research on the DDB Worldwide Communications Group data suggests only about 1 percent of people said that they totally trust someone from a different race.

In this way, I think journalist Robert Wright started to sketch out at least one promising solution when he argued that: “The world’s biggest single problem is the failure of people or groups to look at things from the point of view of other people or groups–i.e. to put themselves in the shoes of “the other.” I provide a long list of policy solutions to improve our faith in others in this guide. As for individuals, we might take the advice of Wright and realize that rebuilding our faith in others might start with doing more to understand the thinking of others.

Note: A huge thanks to Chris Callahan at DDB Worldwide Communications for her assistance. I’m also grateful to Stephen Goggin, who did the actual data analysis. Also portions of this blog entry have appeared before in other work by Ulrich Boser, including his forthcoming book The Leap: The Science of Trust and Why It Matters.