Ep 40: Learning and Study Strategies

Episode Summary

Ulrich Boser, author of “Learn Better” and “The Leap“, discusses the latest research on the science of learning strategies and reveals how you can help your teen to adopt proven study techniques for accelerating academic performance with less effort.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

For millions of teenagers who wish they could get better grades (or wish they could get the same grades with less effort) the answer might be as simple as adopting some new learning strategies and study techniques.

Over the past few decades, a lot of research has been conducted about which learning strategies work best and the results reveal that you can significantly improve your academic performance without increasing the amount of time you spend studying.

This week, I spoke with Ulrich Boser, the author of the book Learn Better, to find out what the best study techniques are for teenagers and what parents can do to introduce these new learning strategies to their teens.

How to Teach Learning Strategies

Let’s face it, teenagers don’t want to learn about study techniques from their parents. Your teen wants to discover their own learning strategies.

The problem is that there really are some strategies that are scientifically proven to work better than others.

In fact, as Ulrich told me during our interview, the idea that people have different “learning styles” and that different study techniques work best for different people is actually a myth that isn’t backed up by modern research.

He emphasized that one of the best things parents and English tutors can do to teach teens learning strategies is to use them themselves. Pick something you want to learn and model proper study techniques for your teenager.

Also, you want to help your teen adopt an attitude of experimenting with learning strategies. When they don’t do well on a test or in a class, you want to encourage them to think about how they could use different study techniques next time rather than thinking they just must not be very smart.

The Best (and Worst) Study Techniques

So what does research suggest are the best learning strategies your teen should be using?

Ulrich mentioned a few during our interview that have been proven to enhance performance over and over again.

For instance, imagine that two people study for the exact same amount of time but one person distributes that studying over the course of a couple weeks, doing a little per day, while the other person does all of their studying in a single sitting. Research shows that the person who distributes the studying over time will perform much better on a test that the one who does it all at once.

Scientists refer to this study technique as “distributed practice” or the “spacing effect”.

A learning strategy that many high school students use is highlighting important passages in their textbook while reading. However, Ulrich told me that research shows this doesn’t improve performance at all. Neither does reviewing your notes.

Quizzing yourself in a way that forces you to generate the information each time, however, has been proven to work very well. Doing practice problems without having the answers in front of you is one way to achieve this. Or making note cards with questions on one side and the answers on the other could be effective as well.

In this episode, Ulrich covers all of these ideas and more in depth. He breaks down the science of learning strategies and reveals exactly what parents can do to help teens learn better.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1.  Instill a value of learning in your teen:

“Every family has values and learning is something that we value as a family. This is what I’m doing right now. I’m really struggling to learn how to do my taxes. What are you struggling to learn?”

-Ulrich Boser

2.  Get your teen thinking about learning strategies:

(Members Only)

3.  Reinforce a family value of learning:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Teach Your Teen How to Learn:

One of the most beneficial things you can do for your teenager’s future academic success is to help them develop the mindset that they can learn better if they find better strategies. And the best way to do this, Ulrich told me, is to model the attitude yourself. This means you need to be learning something. Choose a new thing you want to learn, like an instrument, or a language, or calculus, or Taoist philosophy. Get enrolled in a class or club or lessons immediately and start learning! Now you can legitimately talk with your teen about learning strategies without sounding like a hypocrite. Plus, as Ulrich put it, teens learn very strongly through social learning and modeling. So when you experiment with learning strategies yourself it rubs off on your teen. Write the subject you’ve chosen on the line below, and then circle 5 learning strategies you can use in learning it.
Quizzing yourself
Spacing your learning out over time
Mental rehearsal
Talking to yourself
Using your hands/body
Making strong mental images
Setting specific learning goals
Drawing knowledge webs
Using concrete examples
Discussing the concepts with others

2.  Start a Weekly “Goal Session” with Your Teen:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: An interesting place to start is just you. Can you just talk a little bit about what led you to write these books? Clearly it’s like in both of these, you have done so much research. You’ve interviewed all of these top researchers in their respective fields, both about learning and about trust and oxytocin. There was a massive amount of effort, so what inspired that?

Ulrich: Sure. For me, I would really start this conversation with learning. That is a topic that is really near and dear to me and has been something that I’ve been writing about, learning or education, for most of my career. It stems from my own experience in school. I struggled a lot as a student, I repeated kindergarten, I managed to spend some time in special education. I have this one account of a experience in elementary school where I got into all sorts of trouble. Couldn’t read my handwriting was talking to other students. And I know this because there was a psychologist sitting in the back of the room and it really inspired my interest in education and learning how people gain skills, how they gain knowledge, why it’s so important. That’s what sparked the Learn Better book and in many ways, my career.

Andy: You mentioned that there’s a scene in the book, Learn Better, where we are brought back to that classroom. We get to see you from the perspective of that psychologist, whose sitting in the back of the room, taking notes on you. It’s really interesting. I wonder how did you then later on put those pieces together and start to figure that out?

Ulrich: It took a while to get the pieces together. It helped that I had a very supportive family and broadly grew up in a nice suburb of New York city. To a degree there was some luck involved. I also eventually learned some learning to learn skills on my own, and then eventually went on to college. And after that it was really what sparked it. What helped put it together, I think was really learning that learning itself is hard work that I was going to have to learn and really work harder than other people. And then having those supportive environment, supportive teachers, supportive parents and siblings, I think can make such a big impact.

Andy: Yeah, because I think there’s this belief that some people just get it and things come naturally to them and others don’t and learning is one of those that some people just are assumed to be smart and just learn things easily. What you point out in this book is that there’s more going on behind the scenes there and that there are strategies that are being used. And a lot of stuff I noticed while reading your book that I hadn’t even realized was a research based thing.

Andy: I’ve always been pretty good at the standardized tests and that kind of thing. And a lot of it I realize is, after reading your book is, I am really tactile and I make hand gestures for everything. I don’t know why I just have always done that when I’m trying to memorize words or memorize facts. I make little hand signs for them or something like that. And as I’m in a test situation, I can really easily recall them or manipulate them together by just going back to those feelings in my hands. And in reading your book, I learned that there’s some science behind that. And you even talk about someone who was able to do really, really fast mathematical calculations by using her fingers and picturing in her mind, like it was an Abacus.

Ulrich: Yeah. I want to stay with what you just described. It’s, I think, really powerful and gives us all sorts of really interesting things to talk about. The idea that our hands help us think. It’s funny, we’re not sitting in front of one another, but I’m gesturing even as I speak to you-

Andy: Yeah.

Ulrich: And you’re right, we forget how much learning is a physical thing, even when the learning is entirely cognitive. So you gave this example where you were studying facts and you used your hands to help remember them. Really that’s quite common. There are all sorts of ways that we can use our hands and our bodies to help us learn. So if people just even use their fingers to trace around a concept, they’ll do better learning that concept than people who don’t use their fingers to trace.

Andy: Interesting.

Ulrich: I think this also gets to this very, I think really important idea, especially when it comes to teenagers is that we have this idea that our thinking and our feelings are separate. That our bodies are all about passion and then maybe hormones and then the other side there’s thinking and rational thought, and that, that rational thought is cool and collected.

Andy: Sure.

Ulrich: It turns out that they are deeply intertwined and that’s why you can offload thoughts onto your hands and really vice versa that your hands can help you think in more effective ways.

Andy: And it strikes me just in reading that, that we tend to want people to be normal or to conform, or it might seem like a little odd to be over there in the corner, frantically doing things with your fingers. But if that works for you and that’s your learning style, maybe that’s good or that’s something that you should explore. I think we like to think of being so good that you don’t need the tricks or something like that. I guess I always had this impression that needing to do it on your fingers meant you aren’t that good at it or something like that. Right? But I like the way that you quote it in your book, which is that if it’s a strategy that helps you, then there’s nothing wrong with that.

Ulrich: Yeah. I think everyone uses strategies. I think we have this idea that some people are just so smart, but even the people and you look at accounts of people who had special gifts, someone like Einstein, they also struggled. I think it’s really important to remember the bell curve, which we all saw in science. In other words, what’s important about that in terms of intelligence, is that 90% of us basically have the same thing? We’re all using strategies to one degree or another. And these strategies, we can have strategies that we’re just using informally and we may have just come to them from conventional wisdom or we’ve just heard about them, or we can look at the research and see what strategies really work. And that’s really the point of this book. Some learning strategies are far more effective.

Ulrich: Highlighting for instance, which is something we see teenagers and adults use all the time. It doesn’t actually have a lot of evidence behind it, but quizzing yourself is very effective. Learning styles, the idea that some people are tactical learners and some people are visual learners, doesn’t actually have a lot of evidence to it. I’m happy to talk about that a little bit more. Some people feel really strongly about it and I’m happy to run down that, but more broadly we have strategies for learning. And there are some strategies that are far more effective, whether it’s goal setting or using analogies, they allow us to learn a lot more. There are even studies that have shown talking to yourself while problem solving is the equivalent of having a boost in IQ and these types of strategies, I think we should think in that way. It allows us to really boost our natural intelligence.

Andy: I totally agree. And I think that it gives you some confidence to be okay talking to yourself if you know that there’s research behind it, that shows that it can be helpful.

Ulrich: Yeah.

Andy: I wonder, as a parent, if you’re trying to help your teenager to develop better strategies, how do you introduce new ones, or is it more about then also having conversations with them about what went well when you were preparing for that test, or how could you have done it differently? Is your goal as a parent to just try and get them to try lots of different strategies and see what works for them or to more specifically guide them towards ones that you think would be better for them, or what’s the approach there you think?

Ulrich: No, I personally believe that there are some strategies that work really well and they work really well for all of us. So there are, and especially when you think about teenagers, literally hundreds, hundreds of studies that show when you write down a goal, you’re far more likely… And unpack that goal, right? I want to get an A in this class, I want to be better at soccer. Okay. Here are the 10 things that I need to do. This idea that quizzing yourself is an effective way to learn has been shown in schools and other environments in labs, just very, very effective strategy.

Andy: Sure, yeah.

Ulrich: But you bring up this question, which is, do you want to teach one strategy or even just teach people to think about strategies? Just thinking about strategies is a good approach because what we see in a lot of teens and frankly, a lot of adults is that people are overconfident. They think that they know more than they do. The example that I like to give is driving. I have driven a lot since I was 17.

Andy: Right.

Ulrich: Probably, I don’t know, hundreds of thousands of miles. God knows how many parallel parking jobs that I’ve done, but I haven’t gotten better at it largely because I don’t really think about it all that much. Most of my time when I’m driving I do think about other things. So even beginning to talk about strategies is a good thing. Okay, so here’s your problem? How are you going to think about doing this? Especially for teenagers who want a lot of autonomy, allow them to explore different strategies. Maybe they’re going to fail. That’s good too. Maybe they’re going to succeed. Maybe they’re going to come to some of the research on their own, but already that process of thinking about your thinking. Wondering, okay, am I doing this right? Am I overthinking? Certainly a problem of teenagers and adults. Just encouraging that type of approach, I think already is a good step though. I personally have some strategies that there are some where the evidence is crystal clear. There’s some where they might work in some very specific situations, but already thinking about thinking, very powerful approach.

Andy: So you mentioned quizzing a couple of times as one of the big ones and another one in the book was distributed practice. The spacing effect, I think you talked about as a pretty powerful one. What are a couple of the undisputed things that you would say are places to start in terms of learning strategies to work on with kids?

Ulrich: We’ve covered one, this idea of quizzing yourself and really what’s important about the quizzing yourself is that you’re generating the information and we can use this in all sorts of ways. So now with my spouse and also with my kids and students and people also who I manage, I ask them to engage in repeat back. So you gave me some instructions about how to engage in this podcast. If I really wanted to learn it, one thing that I could do is just repeat it back to you, not rereading the notes, which is more passive, but really engage in that type of more generative form of practice and quizzing yourself, putting yourself on a stage is one way to do that.

Ulrich: The key idea here also is that it involves some struggle. I had this experience recently, Andy, where I was preparing for a speech. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but I started to reread my notes-

Andy: Yeah.

Ulrich: And I thought to myself, oh my gosh, I didn’t actually use that language. I thought to myself, I just can’t believe this, I wrote this book arguing for more active quizzing, generative forms of learning and suddenly I’m in a new situation where the surface details are a little bit different and I go back to this more passive approach. I’m re-reading it. When we’re practicing for speeches, just to finish the story, we’re much better off putting these notes away.

Ulrich: After you have some idea of what you’re going to say, but really just practicing the speech without the notes. A little bit harder to do. You don’t feel as comfortable, like when you have the warm blanket of the notes, but far more effective.

Andy: Yeah.

Ulrich: I do think that spacing is a big one and it relies on a really simple fact. We forget at a regular rate. There’s research going back to the 19th century, where if you give someone a nonsense word or a word that really you have no other kind of sense of meaning. If I taught you the Swahili word for table, and I’m assuming you don’t know Swahili?

Andy: No.

Ulrich: I can predict, based on previous people, about when you’re going to forget that. There’s a 50/50 chance, if you were to learn a new word, you learn the German word for calculator, [rechnermasjien 00:13:08]. There’s a 50/50 chance that if I email you tomorrow around this time, you’ll have forgotten it and within a few days, see this learning curve, it will have dropped off all together. We all know that this happens. We regularly forget things. The question then is what can we do about it? And one thing that we can do, anything you do to distribute your learning out over time is really effective. You’re much better off studying a little bit each day. You can learn more with less time by studying a little bit each day, rather than just studying once over the weekend. My own kids, what’s funny about this very specific example is my kids actually now try to use this as a way not to do their homework. There, you told us that we need to just study every other-

Andy: You’ve got to space it out, dad.

Ulrich: Day and we’ve got to space it out. Come on. They in some ways know that the strategy too well.

Andy: Well, but also though it strikes me that it’s a call to not procrastinate because if we leave it all until the end, then we aren’t able to get that spaced out effect. We end up doing it all on the same day, right? Yes, it’s a call to not do it all at the same time, but also in order to do it, we have to be a little more prepared or there is a little more planning involved, right? Because we have to get started earlier and then we have to be diligent about doing it every day or every other day or however often?

Ulrich: Absolutely. When I think about really some of the key messages, we’ve talked about some of them, but just going to reaffirm them. Planning is very, very effective, particularly when it comes to teenagers who are dealing with a lot in their life and teaching them some of these types of strategies. How to plan. And then also something that we talked about at the top, knowing that learning even something that’s very cognitive in nature, like chemistry is both a social and then an emotional thing. Using our hands, using our bodies, understanding how we feel that if we’re feeling stressed or insecure, we’re not going to learn as effectively than when we’re in a good spot, when we trust the people that we are studying with. And these are all, I think some really important takeaways.

Ulrich: Yeah, I’m really so grateful that we had a chance to talk. Really appreciate the time to chat. Really feel like I, myself learned a lot from this.

Andy: Hey, this has been totally awesome. Thank you so much for making the time. Can you tell us quickly where people should go to find out more about you and what you’re doing and get on your list or anything like that?

Ulrich: Sure. Yeah. My name is Ulrich Boser. not that many other Ulrich Boser’s out there, so Google away and if you find something that strikes you as good or bad reach out. Would love to hear from folks.

Andy: Yeah. And the books are Learn Better and The Leap. Both of which are really fantastic.

Ulrich: Awesome. Well, thanks so much. Great chatting with you.

Andy: Thank you, Ulrich.

About Ulrich Boser

Founder of The Learning Agency and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, Ulrich Boser is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur. He wrote a book on the science of learning titled Learn Better, which has been featured in Wired, Slate, Vox, Fast Company, and The Atlantic. Amazon called it simply “the best science book of the year.”

Boser’s work has appeared in a variety of outlets ranging from “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” to the front page of USA Today and he has served as an adviser to many institutions including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Reboot Foundation, and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

His writings have appeared in a variety of publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Wired, Slate, Smithsonian, and many other publications. Boser’s examination of brain training was featured on the front page of the Outlook section of The Washington Post.

Earlier in his career, Ulrich wrote The Leap: The Science of Trust and Why It Matters, which Forbes called “recommended reading” and Talking Points Memo described as “both comprehensive and engaging.” He is also the author of The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft, which became a national best-seller and was optioned for film.

Want More Ulrich Boser?

You can find Ulrich on Twitter, his website, or by email.