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.
Boser, a former contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, has written a book, “Learn Better,” that offers insights into the science of how we learn.
Research for the book took him around the country, including to the University Washington, where he sat in on biology classes taught by University of Washington lecturer Jennifer Doherty. Doherty uses a technique developed by UW biology lecturer Scott Freeman, who’s known for being able to successfully teach large introductory classes with an engaging style that keeps students on their toes by giving them instant short quizzes and getting them to explain concepts to each other.
Boser is anti-highlighter (no evidence they work) but pro-flash cards (as long as you use a large stack of them, which helps space out your learning). He’s an advocate of memorization as a powerful learning tool, but says students also need to understand relationships, to identify cause and effect, to see analogies and similarities to fully learn a topic.
Education Lab talked to Boser about what he learned while researching the book.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: There are many other books on the shelves about how to learn. Why did you decide you needed to write this one?
Boser: Some of it was personal. (As a child), I had a hard time learning. I wanted to report on it because it’s an area of passion. There have been a lot of books and research papers written, but I’m calling you from a law school library where I work, and almost every time I’m here, I see these law school students studying with highlighters.You’d be much better off putting the material away and asking yourself questions about it. Interestingly, I was recently preparing for a speech, and I had my notes in front of me, and I kept reading my notes to prepare myself — and it dawned on me I was doing what I argue against. I would have been much better putting my notes away and preparing for the speech from memory.
Q: What’s one myth about learning you’d like to see banished?
Boser: The idea of learning styles, which is just pervasive. If you start to think about it, it doesn’t make sense. Imagine you are an auditory learner — would you really want to learn soccer that way? Would you want to engage all soccer experiences by hearing them, as opposed to going out and kicking the ball? Like many things, learning styles are rooted in some things that are true. People are different, they have different talents, interests and curiosities, and learning styles are a way to talk about that.
Q: What takeaway about learning would you like to see more K-12 teachers incorporate into their daily lessons?
Boser: Learning is sense-making. If we understand learning that way, it shifts how you think about how students engage in material. Interleaving is (another idea) — the idea is you should mix it up. My 8-year-old is studying her multiplication tables — she does all her 4’s on a single week, and then all her 5’s. There’s a ton of research, going back to the 1970s, that shows that mixing it up (by studying all the multiplication tables together) brings a better effect, and it costs the teacher no additional time. The more we mix up our learning, the more we need to pay attention.
Q: You wrote about attending a few biology lectures at the UW where the professor randomly called on students for answers, and asked the entire class to respond to quiz questions while the class was going on (using a clicker). Why was this a good approach?
Boser: What we see in a lot of colleges, but also in high schools, is information that’s put out there without any checks for understanding, and what you see in that class is a lot of quick questions, which provide checks on understanding, and a lot of students teaching each other, which is another way of having more engaged forms of learning. I found these classes were really dynamic. It would be hard to fall asleep. And students were really engaged in the material itself.
I’ve started doing some version of it myself — so if my wife gives me a complicated explanation for something, I’ll repeat it back to her. It’s an attempt to show I understood what she said.