Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Learning Agency

Ulrich Boser 0

The Learning Agency has been far more successful than I imagined. I started the agency in 2018 to help people — and organizations— harness the power of learning.

Part consultancy, part communications group, part service provider, the Learning Agency has grown significantly over the past six months.

All to say: I will not be posting here much anymore. Please visit the Learning Agency if want more learning and development insights.


Notes from the field: How people are learning to learn

Ulrich Boser 1

Reader email is often my best email. While there’s the occasional snide note, most people send thoughtful responses to my work. Some point out errors. Others flag their own projects on learning strategies.

My favorite, though, is people who use my work to change the way that they learn. For instance, I got a note late last year from Allen Johnson. He used my book to improve his West Coast Swing dancing. Among other things, Johnson tried to get more "immediate feedback on my errors, so that I could repeat correctly rather than perpetuating my old ways."

The new approach to dancing helped Johnson learn far more effectively. He even went to France in search of more attentive and demanding teachers and group classes that reinforced the private lessons. “It made a huge difference," Johnson said in a note. "I entered my first-ever dance competition, at the Newcomer level, the lowest skill level, and placed first. It was the good teaching that made it happen. Self-esteem comes from results, not false affirmation."

More recently, Ted Maynard reached out. A professor at Wake Technical Community College, Maynard told me that he read the book "to grow professionally.” Maynard wrote up a detailed report on the book for his school’s faculty, outlining the ways in which the book could improve instruction. (You can see Maynard's report here.)

Among other things, Maynard himself planned to use more hypotheticals in his classes. “I want to use 'what if' questioning to get students thinking more in depth about things,” Maynard told me. "Use of such questioning is a more student – centered approach rather than a lecture delivery approach, which has been shown to be too passive to be effective"

Writer George Lawton might be my favorite, though, because he came up with an idea that I really wish that I had come up with on my own. Specifically, Lawton created a set of flash cards around the book. See here.

So you can now ask yourself: "How effective is testing yourself?" I'm sharing these tools here because, well, they'll help you learn more about learning. But more than that, the approaches show that all of us can take effective learning strategies and apply them in new ways.


Launch of the Learning Agency

Ulrich Boser 2

In an effort to improve education delivery services, I've decided to launch The Learning Agency.

Part service provider, part consultancy, the organization will offer professional services around the science of learning. We are a boutique firm that delivers value for our clients. In other words, we have a niche in the science of learning that we serve effectively and at cost.

Ulrich Boser started the Learning Agency after the success of his book "Learn Better." Released in 2017, the book examines the new science of learning and was featured in many media outlets, including Wired, Slate, Vox, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and The Atlantic. Amazon called it simply “the best science book of the year.”

The Agency already has a number of partners and clients including  Class Dojo,the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Holdsworth Center. We are also in the process of developing a number of other projects including creating a mini-class on 'learning to learn,' a project using AI to help retrieval practice, and creating a science of learning network of scholars and practitioners.

More on the organization here.


Science of Learning Trailer

Ulrich Boser 0

In an effort to get out the message about the new science of learning, I put together a short YouTube video on my book Learn Better.

The video touches the main themes of the book--and includes a fun cameo from my wife, Nora.


Learn Better named one of the “best books for getting a job.”

Ulrich Boser 0

I'm excited to share that Business Insider has named Learn Better as one of the best books for getting a job, and a great book for building up expertise in your field!


"Boser's smart and approachable writing style engaged me at once as he laid out six methods for becoming an expert at whatever you like, whether it's basketball or quantum physics,"Adrian Liang, a senior editor at Amazon, tells Business Insider.

The author uses clear, accessible language and backs up all of his examples with anecdotes, data, and experiments.

"There's a lot to absorb here, but happily you have an expert teacher guiding you now on your own path toward effective learning," Liang says.


The Ten Commandments of Learning

Ulrich Boser 0

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. Same with elaboration, a highly effective approach.

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. It makes people better at critical thinking 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 or even an online tutor 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 emotional reasoning, 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

Ulrich Boser 2

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

Ulrich Boser 0

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

Ulrich Boser 0

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.


A Better Way to Learn in City Schools

Ulrich Boser 0

In a small classroom, Keoni Scott-Reid provided his opening statement. Scott-Reid had been assigned to argue against mass surveillance programs in an Urban Debate League tournament in Washington, D.C., and standing in the front of the room, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, he spoke in rat-tat-tat bursts like a teenage cattle auctioneer.

Scott-Reid argued that mass surveillance programs operated on a slippery moral slope. He quoted Benjamin Franklin: "It is much easier to suppress a first desire than to satisfy those that follow." And then laid out several lines of argument, pointing out how surveillance can promote lawlessness. "Aggressive policing," he said, is "perpetuating the criminality that it's advocating to stop."

Scott-Reid's arguments won over the judge. His logic was tighter. He had better examples, and as the judge pointed out, Scott-Reid had expertly rebutted his opponent. "I know you like to get a rise out of people," the judge told him.

While arguing is as old as humanity, formal debating has its roots in ancient Greece. The practice has experienced a renaissance in recent years, and over the past decade, the number of students enrolled in urban debate programs has more than doubled to more than 10,000 students with more than 600 participating schools. For experts, the programs give students a way to develop crucial reasoning skills – and provide an effective way to help students learn about social issues.


This piece ran in US News and World Report and was an excerpt from my book. More here.


Say No To Highlighters, Yes to Flash Cards

Ulrich Boser 0

I had a fun interview with the Seattle Times

By the time he was in fourth grade, Ulrich Boser had been labeled a slow learner. He’d already repeated kindergarten, and a psychologist sent to observe him in a classroom described him as a frustrated, inattentive and distracted 11-year-old.

In hindsight, Boser now knows that he had not yet been taught something essential: He didn’t know how to learn.


Boser had some specific challenges, including a learning disorder that makes it difficult to follow auditory details. Over time, he got help from his teachers to develop basic learning strategies, and he expanded on those skills, eventually figuring out for himself how to focus his attention.


Read more here. 


Five Popular Myths About Learning That Are Totally Wrong

Ulrich Boser 0


You’ve made it this far in life, so you probably think you know how you learn new information. But it turns out that false beliefs about teaching and learning are a problem that we carry with us throughout our lives, says Ulrich Boser, author of Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or How to Become an Expert In Just About Anything.

“We’re learning all the time, figuring out how to use new tools,” he says. “When you get a new smartphone or system at work, you need to gain new skills to use it. How you do that impacts your success.”

Unfortunately, there is a gap between conventional wisdom and facts when it comes to the process of learning, says Boser. “There are so many myths,” he says. “A lot of people don’t give much thought to the best way to gain new knowledge and skills. But learning is often a form of mental doing, and the more someone is actively engaged, the more they learn.”

Through studies and research, Boser identified several myths about learning that can make the process more difficult.



Betsy DeVos has invested millions in this ‘brain training’ company. So I checked it out.

Ulrich Boser 0

A technician snapped a stretchy electrode cap onto my head, and I felt a cold pinch as she affixed each sensor to my scalp with a dose of icy gel. Perched on an office chair, with a rainbow of wires spiraling from my head, I followed the tech’s instructions to stare at a small orange object while an EEG recording device measured the electrical activity in various regions of my brain.

I was checking out the Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., branch of Neurocore, a “brain performance” company owned by the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. DeVos resigned her Neurocore board seat when she joined the Trump Cabinet, but she and her husband maintain a financial stake of between $5 million and $25 million, according to a financial disclosure statement filed with the Office of Government Ethics. The DeVoses’ private-equity firm, Windquest, identifies Neurocore as part of its “corporate family.” The Windquest website posts Neurocore news and includes links for job seekers to apply to Neurocore openings.

In other words, the family has a lot riding on Neurocore’s claims that it can help you “train your brain to function better” — addressing problems as diverse as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety, stress, depression, poor sleep, memory loss and migraines. “Unlike medication, which temporarily masks your symptoms, neurofeedback promotes healthy changes in your brain to provide you with a lasting solution,” touts a Neurocore overview video. “. . . We’ve helped thousands of people strengthen their brain to achieve a happy, healthier, more productive life for years to come.” The company currently has nine offices in Michigan and Florida, though there’s been talk of making a national move.

When the DeVos-Neurocore connection made headlines during her confirmation hearings, I was skeptical of the company’s claims. I had come across brain training while working on a book, “Learn Better,” about the science of learning. The field is rife with vague and overblown promises. Last year, the creators of Lumosity paid a $2 million fine to the Federal Trade Commission to settle a complaint that they deceptively advertised that their memory exercises could improve everyday performance and stave off memory loss.

Neurocore hasn’t been subject to any federal complaints, chief executive Mark Murrison told me. But my impression was that the company’s premise runs counter to an immense body of research suggesting that the human brain isn’t all that trainable. Study upon study has failed to support a game or a tool that can boost intellectual RAM.

So what is our education secretary doing investing millions in a brain performance firm? I couldn’t find any public remarks by DeVos about Neurocore or brain training. Her spokesman at the Department of Education did not respond to my requests for comment. But in January, Neurocore’s chief medical officer, Majid Fotuhi, asserted to the New York Times that “Betsy DeVos really believes in improving brain performance and helping children who have syndromes such as attention deficit disorder.”

I wanted to understand what Neurocore was about.

Read the rest of the story on the Washington Post.


Eulogy for My Father, Otmar Boser

Ulrich Boser 2

My father, Otmar Boser, passed away a few weeks ago. I said a few words at the funeral along with my brother and sister, and I am sharing my eulogy here. 

A few nights ago, my father, Otmar Boser, had a decision to make. At the time, it seemed pretty clear that a car accident had paralyzed my father from the chest down. His feet? He couldn’t use them. His legs? Also gone.

At best, my father might have use of his arms.

But my father could take a risk. On that evening, he could decide to get a surgery that might give him the power of his legs again. The risks of the surgery were high. Because of the nature of the car accident, Otmar might die during the surgery. Or in the words of the surgeons, he would “bled out."

My family all went into the hospital room together to discuss the decision, and within moments, my father indicated in a weak voice that he wanted the surgery. He wanted the risk.

Then we hung around for some short moments, hanging out in the sterile room, standing around his bed, waiting for him to be wheeled out away by the surgeons.

We talked about the decision, and what happened during that short hour says a lot about who my father was as a person.

Standing in the room, tears in our eyes, the implication of the surgery washed over us, and my mother mentioned Greek philosophers and the value of the quality of life over quantity.

But my father interjected loudly from the bed: "Who cares” he said.

This was raw dad. It was alway clear what my father wanted. If he didn’t like what you had to say, he would tell you. If he didn’t want to hear about Greek philosophers, he would let you know.

On the flip side, it was very clear about my father loved, what he cared for, what he wanted. Otmar loved my mother with an outsized passion, and when I was boy, my mother was in an accident. (We are a family with a long list of medical issues.)

And a police officer had to tackle my father—breaking two of my father’s ribs--to keep him from joining my mother on an emergency helicopter ride.

My father also loved science, and he had an unending curiosity. He wanted more than anyone to really know. Time, alloys, space, crystals. I once remember my father discussing—at length—the exact process by which eggs hardened when they’re boiled

Then, still waiting for the surgery, my family said a prayer together, and at the end, my father said something along the lines of “Rituals are important.”

You see, my father believed in conventions. Doing the right thing was important to him. Being kind was important to him. He could be so sweet, especially to children and he'd read them endless stories, patient with all their wishes. In much the same way, animals love him, and for a long time we had a cat that would hang around my father's neck like a scarf while we ate dinner.

Except, of course, when my father didn’t like the convention, and I'll admit it. He had a slew of odd little habits. Picking his nose, chewing on bones, using his pinky nail to clean his teeth. I remember my father once going on a job interview with two different colored socks.

As the minutes ticked by in that hospital room, as all of us stayed together, talking and crying, in the florescent light. My father grew impatient, as we all did, and he said loudly: “Let’s go.”

This is the final and perhaps most important take-away. My father was someone who wanted to live life. I remembering him talking to me about the art of pouring a wheat beer— slowly. If you put a bowl of whipped cream in front of him, he’d finish off the entire bowl, even turning his finger into a type of hook, so he could get every last bit of  cream.

He and my mother loved their adventures, from walking across obscure bridges to the occasional moments of skinny dipping. Or just listen to one of his favorite songs: Mighty Sparrow’s I’ve Got An Itch.

As we all know, the surgery wasn’t fully successful, and my father died a few days later. But I say to you “Let’s Go”and celebrate who he was—and the memories that he left us. That’s after all want he wanted for himself—and for us.


You Probably Believe Some Learning Myths: Take the NPR Quiz To Find Out

Ulrich Boser 0

We all want for our kids to have optimal learning experiences and, for ourselves, to stay competitive with lifelong learning. But how well do you think you understand what good learning looks like?

NPR published a quiz based on my new book Learn Better. Follow the link to check it out and let me know what you think in the comments!


Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

Ulrich Boser 0


Slate featured this excerpt from Learn Better about how, in order to get better at something, you need to know what you're doing wrong.

Smart, focused criticism helps us figure out how to improve. Feedback makes us realize what we’re doing wrong and how we can do it right. As researcher John Hattie writes in his book Visible Learning, “the most powerful single influence enhancing achievement is feedback.

”I’ll admit that I had long ignored this fact in my basketball life. Before pick-up games, I’d often go to the local gym to try and improve but I wouldn’t really monitor my outcomes. I didn’t get any feedback on my footwork or track the number of shots that fell in. Practice expert Anders Ericsson sees this all the time, and he told me that when most people practice, “they don’t have a clear idea of what they should improve, and so they’re just wasting their time.

When it came to hoops, better forms of practice¾and targeted feedback¾eventually came in the form of Dwane Samuels. During his 20s, Samuels had played basketball at some big-name colleges, notching up minutes in summer leagues against NBA All-Stars like Ben Wallace. Later, Samuels found a spot playing for the Washington Generals, the Harlem Globetrotters’ perennial opponents.



Education debates don’t focus enough on teaching and learning

Ulrich Boser 0

I wrote this piece for ThinkProgress about the need to focus education debates around improving everyday classroom practice. Here's the gist of the piece:


Most school reform headlines focus on a pretty narrow area of policy. The latest voucher study will spark fierce debates, while pundits write heated op-eds on the benefits of non-elected school boards. In Denver, discussions of charter schools funding dominate the education debate. In Los Angeles, the conversation is all about school choice.

These issues are important. Private school vouchers could decimate the nation’s public school system. But just about all of these policy debates revolve around a limited set of governance issues and don’t touch on ways to improve everyday classroom practice.

This administration-heavy approach to reform stands in contrast to the research, and a growing body of evidence — and, really, common sense — suggests that instructional reform can dramatically improve learning. A forthcoming study by researcher Chris Schunn shows that curriculum changes, such as spacing out content, can provide a large boost to student outcomes. Inexpensive online professional development could improve test-scores as much as lowering class size, according to a paper released last year by Kirabo Jackson and Alexey Makarin.


But take a look at the full article--and tell me what you think.



Why I learned how to do math with the ancient abacus

Ulrich Boser 0

Vox recently featured an excerpt from my new book Learn Better. I pasted the nut of the story below:


As a technology, the abacus predates the making of glass and the invention of the alphabet. The Romans had some sort of counting device with beads. So did the early Greeks. The word "calculate" comes from the expression “drawing pebbles,” basically using some sort of abacus-like device to do math.


Researchers from Harvard to China have studied the device, showing that abacus students often learn more than students who use more modern approaches. UC San Diego psychologist David Barner led one of the studies, and he argues that abacus training can significantly boost math skills with effects potentially lasting for decades. “Based on everything we know about early math education and its long-term effects, I’ll make the prediction that children who thrive with abacus will have higher math scores later in life, perhaps even on the SAT," Barner told me.






Learn Better chosen as “Top Pick” of the month by Amazon

Ulrich Boser 0

I am very excited to announce that Amazon chose my new book Learn Better as one of the editor's picks of the month! The book comes out on March 7th, so be sure to preorder it now!


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.


Buzzfeed Quiz

Ulrich Boser 0

Quizzing is a highly effective way to learn, and so I had a colleague help me pull together a Buzzfeed quiz that tests your knowledge of learning to learn. Like all things Buzzfeed, the quiz is a little goofy. But it does include an awesome Batman gif.

Tell me what you think in the comments.


Education Can Boost GDP Even More Than We Thought

Ulrich Boser 3

Policymakers and the public often talk about how important education is for the economy, saying that schooling promotes higher incomes, better jobs, and more growth.

Last month, for instance, Vice President Joe Biden argued that college degrees are crucial to national prosperity. "Six in 10 jobs will require some kind of education beyond high school," Biden said at an event in Denver. "Twelve years is not enough."

But how much does education really matter when it comes to the economy? A new research paper gives some key insight into this question, and it turns out schooling might have a bigger impact than even some of the staunchest education advocates have argued.

"Empirical research has shown that education is indeed one – if not the most – important determinant of economic growth in the long run," Ludger Wössmann 

The paper, published in Education Economics last month, argues that education might actually be the biggest single driver of economic development. What's more, robust skills and knowledge turn out to be critical, underscoring once again that the country needs to a lot more to improve its school system.

In other words, if there's one investment that policymakers should make to boost the country's GDP, it's investing in schools.

University of Munich's Ludger Wössmann wrote the paper as a way to convince policymakers of the strong connection between education and the economy. I first came across the study in the Twitter stream of former teacher Paul Bruno, and it turned out that Wössmann had looked at a wide variety of indicators, such as unemployment rates and income levels, showing that they're all deeply linked to higher levels of schooling.

But the strongest connection might be between student achievement and economic development. Using a host of international exams, such as TIMSS, Wössmann found that student outcomes explained some 75 percent of recent economic development. Or as Wössmann writes in the paper, "empirical research has shown that education is indeed one – if not the most – important determinant of economic growth in the long run."

When I reached Wössmann in his office in Germany to discuss his findings, he told me that "again and again, I am surprised at how robust and consistent the evidence is for education as a determinate of economic growth."

For Wössmann, the key driver isn't paper credentials like a high school or college diploma. Those matter, of course. What made a bigger economic difference was strong skills and knowledge. "It's really about achievement levels," Wössmann told me. "Not how long you went to school."

While Wössmann wrote an early draft of the paper for policymakers in the European Union, the analysis arrives at a key moment for the education debate in the United States. In the short-term, negotiators in Congress are working to hammer out a reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act. And, given the results of Wössmann's study, congressional leaders should emphasize reforms that promote student learning. In the short term, that includes high standards for students and equitable funding so that all children have the opportunity to thrive in the classroom.

In the longer term, the nation needs to do far more to upgrade its education system. That means pushing forward on thoughtful initiatives that promote deeper knowledge and skills like implementing the new Common Core standards and boosting the quality of the teacher workforce.

When it comes to education, it's easy to forget that we're in a high-stakes race with other nations, many of which are dramatically turning around their schools. China's high school graduation rate has skyrocketed in recent years, while other nations like Peru have "improved the equivalent of almost two grades in math and one grade in reading and science" on international exams.

Almost no one argues that education plays no role in economic development. Even skeptics like economist Edward Wolff believe that schooling has an important role in creating robust economies. But Wössmann's research underscores just how important education is for the nation's future, and if our country does not do more to improve its schools now, it's undoubtedly going to lose its economic edge later.

Image courtesy of Didier Weemaels

This blog item first appeared at US News and World Report. 


Center for American Progress Announces New Initiative on the Science of Learning

Ulrich Boser 0

I helped launch a science of learning effort at the Center for American Progress. Here's the press release:

Washington, D.C. — Today, the Center for American Progress announced a new initiative to promote the science of learning, aimed at examining ways to apply the new research on learning to education policy. CAP Senior Fellow Ulrich Boser is the founding director of the effort.

“This project aims to put the learning sciences at the forefront of school reform, showing how the nation can dramatically improve how teachers teach and students learn,” said Boser. “This effort will bring much-needed attention to the ways that the new science of learning can help schools, teachers, and students, going a long way to ensuring that all children—regardless of their family backgrounds—have an opportunity to succeed at high levels.”

The project will aim to answer a number of pressing questions, among them: What policies at the national, state, and local levels would support the new science of learning? What programs can spark more effective forms of learning? How can researchers, policymakers, and others better translate the science of learning into actionable policy and programs?

“We are asking more and more of students, and that means we are asking more and more of teachers. Despite the advances made in the field of learning science, we often do not link this information to how schools are run,” said Carmel Martin, Executive Vice President for Policy at CAP. “This requires innovation around teaching and learning, and ensuring that education policy reflects the newest research on learning will become a key priority for CAP.”

The effort will have three strategic areas:

  • Raise the profile of the science of learning and ensure that the latest research is at the center of conversations around teaching and learning.
  • Translate the research into actionable policy and programs and help inject cognitive science principles into the education reform debate.
  • Identify barriers to adoption and present compelling new ideas that will help schools and districts succeed. In this regard, CAP will aim to identify policy barriers that limit innovation, as well as detail structural issues that inhibit the development of better schools, such as more flexible forms of scheduling.

The project will begin putting out columns, issue briefs, and other products within the next month. In spring 2017, Boser will release a book, Learn Better: Six Strategies for Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, focused on mapping out the science of learning and capitalizing on the mind’s ability to develop new skills.

For more information or to speak with an expert, contact Allison Preiss at [email protected] or 202.478.6331.


How Deep Processing Shapes Learning

Ulrich Boser 0

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

Ulrich Boser 4

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”

Ulrich Boser 0

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

Ulrich Boser 0

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.


LEARNING TO LEARN Why Being Smart in the Information Age Isn’t Important— and Why Learning Is

Ulrich Boser 0

I just signed up to write a new book. The tentative title is LEARNING TO LEARN Why Being Smart in the Information Age Isn’t Important— and Why Learning Is. The publisher is Rodale; the book should come out in 2015.

Here's a brief description from the proposal:

Learning is as essential to being human as breathing. It is something we all do throughout our lives, consciously and unconsciously, at work, at school, at home. But what is learning, exactly? What does it mean to learn? For centuries, experts have argued that education was about information: You're supposed to study facts and dates and details. You learn to become knowledgeable and to apply that knowledge means you’ve learned something. But it turns out that this approach to learning doesn’t fit the world that we live in today. Nor does it match up with what science has shown works.

Instead, research now demonstrates that what matters isn't so much what we have learned, but how we learn. Learning isn’t a means to a goal. It often is the goal. What's more, it turns out that once you know how to learn, you can learn almost anything, and as a society, we need much deeper forms of education, where information and knowledge work to foster the creativity and problem-solving skills that are what ultimately matter in today's economy. Or think of it this way: When it comes to schooling, the traditional three Rs of education--reading, writing, and arithmetic--are woefully inadequate. Instead, we need to engage a new set of “Rs”--what I call the six Rs of learning: rigor, resilience, routine, interest, resourcefulness, and reflection. 

I hope to post more in the coming weeks.

Photo: Sara Cimino.

The Importance of Critical Thinking

Ulrich Boser 0

The Importance of Critical Thinking
We need better reasoning skills throughout our society.

As 2020 nears its merciful end, I wanted to post a few words about critical thinking. From elections to COVID-19 transmission to the climate science behind extreme weather, this year has demonstrated the need for better reasoning skills throughout society. This goes not just for the consumers of information, but for journalists, politicians, and academics as well. We’ve seen again and again that a great education and sparkling credentials are no guarantee of sound reasoning skills, especially online. 

Recently, I’ve been working with the Reboot Foundation to try to begin to remedy this situation. Reboot — and its founder and president Helen Lee Bouygues — believe that integrating critical thinking and media literacy education into schools is the first step to improving our reasoning skills as a whole.

To that end, Reboot just released a “Teachers’ Guide to Critical Thinking.” The foundation worked with 13 state and county teachers of the year, from different disciplines and grade levels, to develop this comprehensive toolkit for educators. From teaching argumentative writing to critical thinking in science to philosophy and critical thinking, the guide offers short, digestible articles that give teachers the theoretical background and concrete lesson ideas they need to get up and running. 

Reboot’s approach is based on critical thinking research that suggests teaching critical thinking is best learned not as a standalone subject, but along with content knowledge in various disciplines. Critical thinking doesn’t “come for free” when we learn ordinary subject matter, but, rather, requires explicit modeling and metacognitive reflection. 

Reboot’s guide responds to a genuine need. Teachers surveyed by the foundation in its latest look into “The State of Critical Thinking” indicate that they prize critical thinking, but lack both the materials and the institutional support to teach critical thinking well. 

The survey also found that members of the general public value critical thinking at a theoretical level, but don’t do the concrete tasks, like engaging with other viewpoints, that good critical thinking actually requires. In other words, everyone wants to think they think critically — but unless we start to commit to teaching it with a sound pedagogical foundation, that thought is unlikely to become a reality.

The Science of Learning in Action: A Visit to Iron Range

Ulrich Boser 0

There are not that many universities that have fully embraced the science of learning. Some schools might have clickers in a few classrooms for example. Others may have intense mentoring programs. But broadly speaking instructional practice hasn't changed much in higher education since it was first pioneered.

This makes Iron Range Engineering in northern Minnesota pretty unusual. The program has fully embraced the research on how people learn and it's made for a very different educational experience.

I visited Iron Range engineering recently and was really impressed by their approach. When it comes to assessment, they use a lot of oral tests. As co-founder Ron Ulseth explained to me, the oral assessments allow students to explain what they know, both elaborating on their knowledge as well as showing it to the assessor. In this sense the assessments are both a form of learning and a form of evaluation.

The school's faculty has also taken some innovative approaches to retrieval practice. One educator showed me this scratch-off that she uses to help students learn.

A spacing approach to learning is also encouraged, and once students learns a principle in any of their courses, they are accountable for being able to describe and apply that principle right up until graduation.

It helps that the program is small. It only has about a hundred students. It's also well supported financially. There is funding from a regional economic development agency that gives the school a lot of flexibility.

The program has won some recent kudos. MIT recently listed IRE as one of the best engineering programs in the world. For Ulseth, that’s not enough. “Engineering education should always be changing. That’s the nature of engineering. You’re always looking to improve for the betterment of people."

--Ulrich Boser

This post first appeared at The Learning Agency.

Sign up for Ulrich Boser's mailing list

Join Ulrich's mailing list today, to be the among the first to get news of developments in the science of learning. It's free, and we'll never share or misuse your email address.