“Do you think you can do that?” an unknown voice asked. I had just picked up a book from a display shelf in the library, and a gray-haired woman standing nearby was pointing at it. The book was Outsmart Your Brain by Daniel Willingham. I smiled at the woman and said, “I’m going to try.” We both laughed and then went our separate ways, but her question stuck with me. I checked out the book and upon reading it realized it would make for a good follow-up article to my previous one about learning styles.
When people claim to have a specific learning style, they are saying that they feel like they learn only when they are taught in a way that caters to their preferred style. However, it is to the detriment of teachers and students who have resigned themselves to that mentality because it can lead to despair for students when they are not taught according to their perceived learning style and for teachers who feel pressure to teach each student using their preferred style. Willingham’s book, Outsmart Your Brain, provides hope because his premise is that students can learn, regardless of teaching method, if they employ good listening, reading, and study habits.
Daniel Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. His expertise is in cognitive psychology, especially as it relates to learning. Willingham has spoken and written a lot for teachers about how the brain learns. But his latest book, Outsmart Your Brain, was written for students. At the end of each chapter, he provides tips for teachers, but the intended audience of his book is students to help them learn how to learn.
Why do we need to learn how to learn?
With so much focus in education on making teaching styles match students’ perceived learning styles for them to succeed, it’s easy to forget or fail to consider the possibility that students might struggle in school because of the ineffective methods they are using when listening to lectures, reading a textbook, engaging in learning activities, or preparing for a test.
Willingham, in his introduction, writes, “Surveys of college students show that the vast majority devise their strategies for studying, avoiding procrastination, and so on. But the strategies they come up with usually aren’t very good” (p. 4). Students have developed their habits because, in many cases, they haven’t been taught how to learn efficiently and effectively. That’s why Willingham has been trying to help teachers understand how our brains learn so that they can better help their students learn how to learn. But the onus for learning is not on teachers only. A teacher could use all the best teaching methods, but if students don’t have good learning methods and study habits, they can still struggle to succeed.
Willingham titled his book Outsmart Your Brain because learning how to learn often involves going against our natural inclinations and doing what might feel counterproductive. Our brains naturally encourage us to do what feels easy and what feels like it’s leading us to succeed, but that’s not the best way to learn. To illustrate that point, Willingham compared learning with exercise and used the example of doing push-ups to increase strength. He said if people want to increase the number of standard push-ups they can do, they should do difficult push-ups (e.g., clapping hands) rather than easy ones (e.g., knees on the ground). When we try difficult push-ups, we can’t do very many of them so we feel like it’s not working. When we do easy push-ups, we can do a lot more of them and we feel like we’re succeeding, but those types of push-ups don’t increase our strength as well as the difficult ones do. The push-up that is more beneficial for increasing strength is the more challenging one that takes more work and makes us feel less successful in the moment. Willingham wrote, “Outsmarting your brain means doing the mental exercise that feels harder but is going to bring the most benefit in the long run” (p. 5).
How can we learn how to learn?
Willingham offers a lot of tips in his book, but he doesn’t expect students to try and use them all. His goal is for students to evaluate their learning habits, attempt to learn in ways that might feel difficult, and then judge a method’s effectiveness by the results rather than their feelings. For example, highlighting words, phrases, or sentences might make us feel like we’re learning, but it’s not helping us retain what we’ve read. Also, even though filling in blanks on an outline while listening to a lecture might make us feel like we’re improving our knowledge, it would be better, instead, to do the more difficult task of writing down in our own words what we are understanding from the lecture.
For more examples, I encourage you to read the interviews conducted by Edutopia, The Hechinger Report, and UVAToday with Willingham about his book. The main takeaway for students is the positive and encouraging message that they can learn regardless of the teaching style. The teaching method is not as important as learning and studying habits when it comes to educational success. Willingham points out that even though students are taught by teachers, they are expected to be independent learners. Students can and should take the initiative to learn how to learn whether or not they are taught according to their perceived learning style preferences.