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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘Learn Better’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 10, 2017 4 min read
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Ulrich Boser agreed to answer a few questions about his new book, “Learn Better.”

Ulrich is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

LF: One thing I like about your book is that it is not just a list of learning strategies that research says works best—it also talks about motivation. It doesn’t matter if something is effective if students won’t do it. I was struck by what you wrote about the importance of students identifying the value of learning something, as opposed to being told that it’s valuable. It sounds similar to what Dan Ariely calls the Ikea Effect. Can you share about this idea?

Ulrich Boser:

I hadn’t thought of the Ikea Effect, but you’re totally right. When we’re involved in the making of something, it creates a type of meaning.

This isn’t how people typically approach motivation, to be sure, and at a high level, I think that teachers often assume that if they tell students that something is meaningful, then the students will find it meaningful.

This is a common practice, and we’ve all had professors who have proclaimed: “This is important.” My parents said it all the time about my schoolwork, too: “You’ll need this later.” Now I hear versions of the idea from my company’s HR department: “Your retirement account is central to your future.”

But that’s not how motivation works. Recent research by Kenn Barron and others show that motivation is a one-way street, and people need to find their own meaning in something in order to be motivated to do it. This helps explains the IKEA effect, and we will often find meaning in something by making that something.

LF: It sounds like your book is more in line with what David Yeager, Gregory Walton and Geoffrey L. Cohen have defined as “the fuller formula for success: effort + strategies + help from others.” How do you respond to some who might push the idea that grit and perseverance is the key?

Ulrich Boser:

I think that grit is a key part of the formula for success, but it’s only one part of the formula. Strategies are often just as important. After all, doing something isn’t the same as learning something.

Or just consider that some first-year college students will have clear misconceptions about basic physics, even after they solved more than 1,500 basic physics problems. So while the students had banged out Newtonian problem after Newtonian in high school—and thus showed lots of gritthe students still couldn’t really explain Newton’s third law.

In other words, I think Yeager et al. are right on in their formula, but I would add at least one more thing, and that’s knowledge. We can’t learn in a vacuum, and according to folks like Rich Mayer, what we know is the best predictor of what we’re able to learn.

LF: Can you share two-or-three key learning strategies you recommend in the book that teachers should emphasize more in the classroom and why?

Ulrich Boser:

The first idea is interleaving. The idea is pretty simple, and it often pays to mix up our learning. So instead of learning something in a blocked manner like AAAA,BBBBB, CCCCC. People should mix up their learning, and so it’s more like this ABC, BAC, ACB, CAB, ABC.

A library of research provides support for the idea. In one study from the 1990s, some young women learned to fire off foul shots. Some practiced only foul shots. Others took more of a jumbled, mixed up approach—they practiced foul shots as well as eight and fifteen footers. The results were remarkable: The jumbled-shot group performed much better, with a deeper sense of the underlying skill.

The same is true in more academic fields, from memory tests to problem solving skills: By mixing up practice, by interweaving different examples, people have a better sense of the underlying relationships with outcomes sometimes as much as 40 percent higher.

The second idea that I highly recommend is analogies. Now, analogies can often seem like an esoteric thing. They often spark memories of IQ tests (Nest is to bird, as doghouse is to ______) or bizarre turns of phrase like term “the pecking order.”

But analogies are at the heart of understanding and can very helpful when it comes to teaching new concepts and ideas. In this sense, analogies give people a way to understand something that they’re not particularly familiar with, and teachers should use analogies to get their heads around something new in the same way that we can use Latin to understand Italian or Spanish to grapple with Portuguese.

The phrase Uber but for... is a great example, and people will often reference the car sharing company to describe start ups. The company Blue Apron has presented itself as the Uber for high-end cooking. The dry-cleaning company DRYV has been described as Uber but for dry cleaning. There’s also now an Uber for haircuts—and an Uber to shuttle kids around.

LF: Now, can you elaborate on two or three learning strategies that you think are emphasized too much now and why they should be taught less?

Ulrich Boser:

The first is learning styles. In my own research, I have found that most people still believe in learning styles, and even some education schools continue to push the idea. But there’s no research to support learning styles. One major recent review stated that the authors “found virtually no evidence” for the approach.

Rereading is also widely used. But the approach isn’t all that effective. It’s too passive. Students don’t really learn in a meaningful way. Instead, I would recommend more active learning strategies like self-quizzing or self-explaining.

LF: Thanks, Ulrich!

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