Outsmart Your Brain

From The Wall Street Journal:

Much has been made of ChatGPT, the artificial-intelligence algorithm, and its potential to disrupt education. We have already seen that it can write college essays and take graduate exams with alarming aptitude. At the very least, we’ll need new guards against students who rely on ChapGPT to cheat. One might even ask why we should bother to continue teaching pupils to remember and write things at all, given this new tool. But, for the foreseeable future, the human brain will have its advantages, and we still need practice loading our minds with content and extracting their insights. School will survive.

And while AI has its fancy feats, the old noggin still has a few tricks up its skull, if we can suss them out. Unfortunately, formal education offers little by way of a user’s guide. Many students flail around as they search for their own ways to organize knowledge and get through the curriculum—or not. Fortunately, Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, helps fill that gap with his charming and practical new book, “Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning Is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy.”

There’s something counterintuitive about the notion that the brain needs a user’s guide. What could the mind know better than itself? The fact that even those who study cognition need such a guide is all the more surprising. But there’s knowing the science, there’s knowing how to apply it—and then there’s knowing how to get yourself to apply it. It’s not a straight shot. As a college student of cognitive neuroscience, I still relied all too often on all-nighters, an established recipe for anxiety and underperformance. In his personable manner, Mr. Willingham recalls: “Until graduate school, my time management system was a mix of writing things on my hand, apologies, and excuses.”

His book is aimed most directly at high-school and college students—people in the world of lectures, exams and lab projects. But much of the advice also applies more widely to anyone who must learn by listening or reading, work in groups, assess what they know, or get anything done at all. It’s a course on learning how to learn and on metacognition in general—how to think about how you think.

Mr. Willingham structures his book cogently. There are 14 chapters covering how to understand a lecture, read a book, take and organize notes, study for a test, take a test, learn from a test performance and so on. Each has several tersely articulated tips, 94 in all, along with bolded text, bullet points and “in a sentence” takeaways. You can skip around. Chapters also include advice for instructors.

Some tips may seem obvious, others less so. But even the obvious-seeming ones merit close study. Consider the tip, which in this case acts as a metatip, “Be Clear About What It Means to ‘Know’ Something.” When someone tells you something and it makes sense, Mr. Willingham explains, that doesn’t mean you “know” it. You still have to explain it and put it to use.

Of the less obvious variety, Mr. Willingham counsels that although rereading notes and books are among the most common strategies for studying—they quickly render the material familiar and therefore feel productive—they are among the least effective. Better to prepare study questions and try to answer them. Memory retrieval feels hard and useless at first, like trying and failing to do a push-up, but that’s precisely why it works. You must build new muscle.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal