How We Learn

How We Learn header

Have you ever thought about how you learn? We’re in academia, so I’m sure at one point or another you’ve spent a little bit of time wondering if you could be studying more efficiently or wondering if you’ll retain information you just learned. Given how crunched we are for time, I know more than once I’ve spent a few precious moments trying to determine the most efficient way to maximize my learning and retention.

Books in shelves

As I was browsing the (digital) library shelf during a brief moment of downtime between the end of the spring semester and the start of summer semester, I came across a book called “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why it Happens,” by Benedict Carey.  I figured, “why not?”

When, Where, and Why

I discovered that this book, written by a very curious journalist, was chock full of studies behind why we learn the way we learn, and best practices to maximize learning.  Carey writes, “Distractions can aid learning.  Napping does, too.  Quitting before a project is done: not all bad, as an almost done project lingers in memory far longer than one that is completed.  Taking a test on a subject before you know anything about it improves subsequent learning” (p 11).

Puppy sleeping

Why am I telling you this?  Well, we’re all life-long learners.  There will undoubtedly be something each of us will want to study or learn about in the near future, but more importantly, as educators, understanding how learning occurs can help us help our students.

Carey’s book covers a lot.  If you’re super interested in the individual studies he presents, I highly recommend you give it a read.  My intention here is to summarize some of the bigger messages that you may find useful for yourself and your students.  Here we go!


  • While our brain is an awful lot like a computer, it’s a bit more complex than that. As we absorb information, our brain “imbeds [the information] in networks of perception, facts, and thoughts, slightly different combinations of which bubble up each time” (p 36).  Basically because of our complex storage system, two different stimuli can recall the same memory.  For example, standing barefoot on rocks in a river reminds me of the time I slipped off a rock as a child and fell into the lake, but I can also be driving with my windows rolled down and the mixture of gasoline and water as I drive by a lake hits my nostrils and the same memory flies into my head.
  • Fluency illusion accounts for below average testing. Fluency illusion is how we forget that we forget things.  For example, I just learned this new term (fluency illusion) and because it’s new to me I think I’m going to remember it for a long time.  The illusion is that in two months, when you ask me what fluency illusion is, I will likely have forgotten all about it unless I have taken steps to keep it in my memory (aka study it).  Students do this on a regular basis with test items.
  • Homework Tests can change how we remember! Pretesting, even if you fail miserably and it’s not a replica of the final test, does aid in learning. I still remember a test question I got wrong from 5th grade!  I didn’t know what the word “sane” meant and selected it as the answer for a multiple-choice test that was asking me to choose the made up word. You better believe I looked it up after I got the test back and saw that my answer was wrong.  I now not only know what the word means, but I remember HOW I learned what the word means (through failure).
  • Pretesting when memorizing can be accomplished by spending a chunk of time after studying the material working on recall, without the material in front of you. Another way to accomplish this is to teach someone else the material.


  • A cup of coffee, a book, and a notebook with notes are all open. Sticking to one learning ritual slows us down. Evidence suggests that varying when and where you study actually helps you learn! So, instead of studying from some prewritten notes, writing new ones actually forces you to think about the material differently and, in a sense, relearn it.  Instead of always setting up shop at the kitchen table, heading down to a coffee shop or the library, or even a different room in your home makes a difference to the brain.
  • Disturbed Learning, or spacing out study time, is better for learning material than cramming is. Cramming works fine in a pinch, but the information doesn’t last the way it does reviewing information over time.  When it comes to disturbed learning, it’s best as a retention technique for facts or items one needs to memorize.

Getting Stuck

  • Men on a tree stump thinking When our brain is stuck on a problem we go through these stages of control: preparation (wrestling with the problem), incubation (stepping away from the problem), illumination (when you have the “aha!” moment and come up with the solution), and verification (make sure it does solve the problem).
    • During “incubation” our brain is subconsciously scanning the environment for clues to help us solve the problem.
    • Incubation can be a lot of different things and depends on the person to a degree: it could be accomplished through a walk, playing a video game, reading, writing, taking longer breaks, or taking shorter breaks.
    • Incubation won’t work unless the person has reached an impasse, or has simply tried everything they can possibly think of.
  • When our brain is trying to create, it goes through a similar process as when we’re stuck on a problem, however the incubation period is usually prolonged, and is called percolation.
    • Percolation has three phases that must be completed for it to be successful: 1) interruptions, 2) a period of gathering data, and 3) listening to what I think about the data being gathered.
  • Fixedness can make it difficult to solve problems. For example: looking for scissors when our keys would have done the job. We were fixed on needing a tool designed specifically for cutting instead of seeing what we have available that might accomplish the task.
  • To do list Interruption from what you’re doing keeps your mind working on it! It’s like it’s at the top of a to do list and since it isn’t done your brain won’t let it go. Our perceptions keep seeking out answers and do the same subconscious work mentioned above regarding incubation. 


  • Sleep plays a critical role in memory storage, both on an intellectual and a physical level. It’s also doing many of the same things with information while it’s asleep that it does while it’s awake, or at the very least performing complementary functions.
    • If you’re preparing for a performance of any kind, it’s better to stay up late than it is to get up early! Getting up early cuts short the period your brain spends time consolidating information, therefore interrupting the work sleep is doing to better help you learn.
    • Scott Pryor talks a bit about sleep in our Blog Post “Shadow a Student Challenge: Scott Pryor”

How Do I Use This Information?

An example the book included about the concept of interruption really stuck with me.  It wasn’t an official study, but a doctoral student teaching English to sophomores and juniors changed her methods after reading about research on interruption.

Woman with the hands behind head and staring at a blank wall

Originally, her students would write six separate controversy papers over the course of the semester, each on a different topic.  Embracing the idea of interruption, she changed the semester plan to one essay on a single topic, but structured throughout the semester with prewriting assignments (e.g., interview with an expert, defining a key term and its place in a larger debate, response to controversial school of thought, etc.).

The students kept journals and by the end she found that they were not only more invested in the topic they had chosen, but the students had also overcome an imposter syndrome of sorts because they were so well informed by the end of the semester.  The students were willing to question what they read and look at it more critically. The doctoral student attributed this to the built-in interruptions which led the students to continually think about their topic throughout the semester.

The way we learn is complex and fascinating, and while some of the ways we were taught to learn maybe weren’t the best for us, it’s exciting to find that several of the things we’ve intuitively known about our learning as a species now has a broad scientific foundation.


Carey, B. (2014). How we learn : the surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens. Random House, Cop.

About the author:

Amy Tichy

Amy Tichy is pursuing her M.Ed. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at NDSU.  She graduated with a Master of Arts in Theatre with a concentration in Drama Therapy from Kansas State University (2014), where she was a Graduate Teaching Assistant, lecturing 6 credits of Public Speaking per semester, and with a Bachelor of Science in History Education and Theatre Education from Dickinson State University (2010).  Amy is a licensed teacher and a Registered Drama Therapist.  She works in the Office of Teaching and Learning as a Graduate Assistant.

KeywordsInstructional, K-12 Professional Development, Learning Objectives, PD Tips, OTL Blog   Doc ID131552
OwnerLinda C.GroupIT Knowledge Base
Created2023-09-20 06:35:41Updated2023-09-20 08:52:49
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