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How to Learn Better with Ulrich Boser

Ulrich Boser, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, strongly believes that learning more about learning can benefit everyone, no matter their goals or stage in life. Learning how to master new skills and relate new information to existing knowledge is especially important as technological and societal change continually alter the kinds of work we perform throughout our lifetimes.

In his new book, Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything, Boser draws on a wide range of research to identify seven key stages in learning:

Value: how to “see the skills and knowledge as valuable”

Target: how to “figure out exactly what we want to learn and set goals and targets”

Develop: how to “hone . . . skills and take dedicated steps to improve”

Extend: how to “apply what we know . . . and create more meaningful forms of understanding”

Relate: how to “see how it all fits together”

Rethink: how to “reconsider our understanding and learn from our learning.”

Boser argues that the process of learning remains fairly consistent, no matter what the subject area or learning goal. So whether you are learning to play guitar, give an effective presentation, or to solve algebra problems, many of the same strategies can be applied. Although the book is not aimed specifically at teachers, there is an appendix that discusses “Strategies for Parents, Teachers, and Managers,” and many teachers will find useful ideas in the case studies and examples throughout the text.

Some of the strategies for better learning suggested in this text include:

  • explicitly stating your personal connection or motivation for learning the material;

  • gathering feedback on your performance as you proceed in learning new skills or information;

  • tracking specific aspects of your learning so that you can determine when you are improving;

  • explaining ideas to yourself, either aloud or in writing, to help you see how concepts fit together;

  • deliberately spacing out practice sessions to promote memorization of skills or information.

Although some of this material may seem familiar to readers of pedagogical guidebooks like Elizabeth Barkley’s Student Engagement Techniques: a Handbook for College Faculty or John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (both of which I recommend), one of the strengths of Boser’s book is that it is so wide-ranging in its scope and approach. For example, he asks experts in neuroscience and cognitive psychology not only about their research, but also about how they themselves learn new skills or how they help their children to learn. These questions provide very useful insights into how learning operates throughout our lives, not just in the classroom.

How do you support your own learning? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user Pedro Fernandes]

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