Learning How to Learn: A Critical Life Skill

Photo by Agence Olloweb on Unsplash

Knowing how to facilitate durable and flexible learning has never been more important than it is today. Our complex, hyper-competitive, and rapidly changing world requires that we obtain or transmit new skills and knowledge as efficiently and effectively as possible, not only during our years of formal education, but across our lifetimes as jobs, careers, and interests change. Adapting successfully to these challenges requires a critical life skill: learning how to learn. Whether you’re a high school teacher, college student, or parent of a young child, understanding and applying evidence-informed learning principles is necessary to optimize learning in the classroom, at home, in the workplace, or on the practice field.

The problem is that learning how to learn has never been a priority in our educational system. Students are taught what to learn, but not how to learn. Consequently, most students carry with them numerous misconceptions about how learning works and, therefore, often make poor decisions about how to study. This can lead to profound challenges and frustrations for students, especially in college where students are expected to take responsibility for their own learning.

Teachers, too, are inadequately trained on how the science of learning can be leveraged to enhance their educational practices. Consider the report, Learning About Learning, published in 2016 by the National Council on Teacher Quality. The report — which was signed by leading learning scientists from around the world — points to an alarming and extensive failure of teacher-training programs to disseminate information about fundamental, evidence-informed teaching strategies. Out of the 48 textbooks examined in the report, nearly 60% made absolutely no mention of six core teaching strategies that have garnered widespread empirical support. Furthermore, considering those textbooks that did mention the strategies in question, only 15% devoted more than a single page to the strategies.

These statistics — in addition to the report’s finding that many of the textbooks discussed unsupported theories of learning, such as the idea of “individual learning styles” — led the authors of the report to level the following criticism of teacher-training programs:

“A textbook purporting to cover instructional design to maximize learning and retention that fails to cover these six strategies is no less remiss than a botany textbook that fails to address photosynthesis or an American government text devoid of a discussion of the three branches of government.”

Clearly, the science of learning is not being conveyed adequately to educators. This is not to say that teachers don’t receive good training in general. There are lots of great teachers out there and teacher-training programs deserve a share of the credit, but there’s room for improvement. Evidence-informed teaching strategies are not prominently featured in teacher-training programs, which is a problem that must be pointed out and remedied if educators are to be maximally effective in the classroom.

The problem is made worse by the fact that many of the fundamental learning principles that trigger long-term retention are surprisingly unintuitive (for examples, see my article, Want to Make Learning Stick? Make it Harder). Unfortunately, common sense won’t lead you to their discovery, which means it’s necessary to educate ourselves and others on the matter.

But just how do we do that? We can’t possibly expect inquiring minds to sift through an endless supply of expensive, jargon-laden research articles. So where does one turn to learn about learning? Fortunately, several wonderful authors — some of whom are learning researchers themselves — have taken it upon themselves to synthesize decades of research into highly accessible books on how to apply the science of learning in various contexts. Here are some excellent books that educators and students should find highly readable and, more importantly, useful (listed alphabetically):

College Smart: How to Succeed in College Using the Science of Learning (Soderstrom)

High School Smart: Essential Learning Strategies for Parents and Students (Soderstrom)

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

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel)

Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning (Agarwal & Bain)

Study Smart: 10 Ways to Master the SAT/ACT Using the Science of Learning (Soderstrom)

Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide (Weinstein, Sumeracki, & Caviglioli)

What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? (Didau)

Here’s the bottom line: Knowing how to learn efficiently and effectively has never been more important, and the opportunities to do so have never been more available. It stands to reason that if we want to make better decisions about learning — about how to teach math, acquire a foreign language, or gain a new skill — we need to know how learning actually works. To become more effective educators and life-long learners, we need to learn how to learn.

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Nick Soderstrom, Ph.D.

Written by

Nick is a cognitive psychologist with an expertise in human learning and memory and has been recognized for his excellence in research and teaching.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

Nick Soderstrom, Ph.D.

Written by

Nick is a cognitive psychologist with an expertise in human learning and memory and has been recognized for his excellence in research and teaching.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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