By Anne Heise, Life Sciences

The review below is a text version of a brief talk I gave at my division’s September meeting. It’s a review of a book about learning – a book that is therefore also a book about teaching!

How We Learn, by Benedict Carey, is an entertaining survey of research into – surprise – how we learn. The book touches on everything from Carey’s dissipated days as a college student to the striking abilities of Berlin waiters to remember, and strategically forget, orders without writing anything down.

I found a lot in the book that I can use in my teaching. Here I’d like to share just a few tidbits, appetizers so that you might decide to read the book for yourself.  I’ll describe perceptual learning modules (what Carey calls “Learning without Thinking”), ways to help students notice more, and ways to help students remember more.

Perceptual Learning Modules

Perceptual learning modules came about when Philip Kellman, a professor at Bryn Mawr College, was trying to get his pilot’s license. A plane’s instrument panel might look something like this:


A beginning pilot has to read and consider each dial in turn, and decide what the total message is: level flight? Descending turn? Instrument conflict? Meanwhile, an experienced pilot can glance at the instrument panel and know instantly what it indicates.

Frustrated by his slow progress, Kellman created a computerized sequence of flash cards, where each card showed settings on the instrument panel plus possible interpretations. You choose the right interpretation, get feedback on your choice, and move on to the next. The program was given to some experienced (more than 500 hours flight time) and some novice pilots. After one hour, the experienced pilots had improved. Even better, the novice pilots now performed as well as pilots with 1000 hours flight time!

With his daughter’s help, Carey taught himself to recognize styles of modern painting with flashcards such as this:


“After half a dozen sessions, I took a test… and did well: 80%. I learned nothing about art history, it’s true, not one whit about the cultural context of the pieces… But I’ll say this: I now know a Fauvist from a Post-Impressionist painting, cold. Not bad for an hour’s work” (193).

These perceptual learning modules might be useful when students need to synthesize a lot of information to form one unified interpretation. Some possibilities include:



Carey is excited about these perceptual learning modules:

What I’ll remember most, though, was it was fun, from start to finish – the way learning is supposed to be…it’s absolutely worth the extra time if there’s one specific perceptual knot that’s giving you a migraine. The difference between sine, cosine, tangent, cotangent. Intervals and cadences in music. Between types of chemical bonds. (193)

I teach microbiology, so I made a perceptual learning module for identifying Gram stains. It was tedious to create and I forgot to make it available to students, so I don’t know if will help them or not. Maybe I’ll find out next semester!

Have you ever had the experience where you decide to buy something, say sunglasses, and suddenly you start seeing sunglasses everywhere?

sunSome charming experiments involving salty Dutch licorice demonstrate it really is possible to prime students’ attention. For this reason it makes sense to assign projects early in a semester: this offers students more opportunities to bump into ideas that pertain to their project. Carey quotes an interview with Eudora Welty, who said, “Once you’re into a story, everything seems to apply – what you hear on the city bus is exactly what your character would say on the page you were writing. Wherever you go, you meet part of your story. I guess you are tuned for it” (142).

Pre-testing students on material they have not yet learned improves their eventual performance on exams, and this effect may be due in part to priming. (Carey discusses pre-testing in detail and probably answers some of the objections you might be raising right now.)  I use a lot of pre-testing in my classes. They’re quick half-sheet quizzes over material we have not yet covered. Students might know some of the answers but sometimes they’ll have to guess. Sometimes these pre-tests are ungraded, sometimes they’re a homework assignment. They take five minutes to complete. I have not done a systematic study to see if they help my students but there’s a large body of research that says they should!

Finally, what about helping students remember more? Carey reviews the research on how and where to study, looking at such questions as working in a quiet versus noisy room or having a special study spot versus moving from place to place. Some of the findings are not what you might have thought – read the book and see what you think.

People remember more if they spend most of their time rehearsing as opposed to reviewing. If you’re trying to memorize a poem, it turns out you should spend about 2/3 of your time trying to recite it, and only about 1/3 of your time re-reading it.

For this reason when my students are preparing for an exam I advise them to devote more of their time to practicing actual exam questions,  and less time to re-reading their notes or the textbook. Every semester I post the last two semesters’ exams on Blackboard. The strongest students tell me they answer every question on these practice tests.

Here’s a screenshot:


If you budget three hours to study for an exam, does it matter if you do one three-hour session as opposed to three one-hour session?


According to Carey, the research shows that you divide your total study time into several sessions, you’ll remember more than if you study just once in a single marathon session.


There are probably a lot of ways spacing improves retention. Among them: with more study sessions you get more times to practice remembering things;  between study sessions your brain will keep working away unconsciously on unresolved questions; and sleep helps consolidate memories.

Teaching is great because we get to share our love of our academic specialties. We meet terrific people in our classrooms every semester. A hidden benefit of teaching is that it’s also a way to learn more about how our brains function.  Carey’s book might shine a bright light on some of the things going on with your students. As author Mary Roach blurbed about in How We Learn, “I feel as if I’ve owned a brain for fifty-four years and only now discovered the operating manual.”


Work Cited

Carey, Benedict. How We Learn. New York: Random House LLC, 2014. Print.