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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Learning is hard


Learning is hard, Dan Willingham tells Laura McKenna. It takes effort. But motivated students can learn effective learning and study skills. A University of Virginia psychology professor, Willingham is the author of a new book, Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy.

Cramming the night before the test with music playing in the background is not effective, says Willingham. Writing down everything the teacher says? Also not effective. Highlighting everything that seems important in the textbook? If you're a beginner, you'll highlight the wrong things.


He tells students how to analyze a lecture, read a complex text and take useful notes and the importance of avoiding distractions (your brain is not good at multi-tasking) and quizzing yourself. Multiple study sessions work best.


"This message — you have to work hard to perform better and be successful — is subtly subversive," writes McKenna. "I’ve been to countless school presentations where the superintendent or another school leader told parents that students no longer need to know things, because all facts are easily found on Wikipedia." (Been there. Heard that.)


"Education nihilism — the belief that students no longer need to know things — is responsible for dumbing down schools for millions of children and is partly to blame for the massive college dropout numbers," she writes.


Study skills should be integrated into classes starting in middle school, Willingham believes.


Outsmarting Your Brain "is chock-full of useful, specific, and concrete advice" for students, but following it will not be easy, writes Stephen M. Kosslyn, an emeritus psychology professor at Harvard who's now president and CEO of Active Learning Sciences, Inc. and chief academic officer of Foundry College.


Tips 1 and 21 ask students to "analyze a lecture into a hierarchical structure," while Tip 28: is to "write a summary and about three statements for each of a book’s headings" and Tip 56 calls for categorizing exam mistakes, writes Kosslyn. Many students will give up before they start.

To use all of the advice in this book, the reader would need to be highly motivated to learn, have a lot of energy, be very organized and focused, and have a lot of time. For example, the author recommends that students meet with a study group to discuss what will probably be on the exam, then create encyclopedic individual study guides, then meet again (perhaps 48 hours before an exam) to quiz each other (Tip 38); this is no doubt a good idea but not realistic for many students.

What's hard at first can become fun, Willingham writes. I think confusion is exhausting and understanding is satisfying.

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