Olga Khazan: What does it mean to learn something? Is it to memorize something? How do you know when you’ve learned something? Ulrich Boser: Really what we want to do is to be able to think in that way, so that it shifts our reasoning abilities. If we want to learn to become a car mechanic, you want to learn the reasoning abilities of a car mechanic. My favorite example of what it means to be expert, are the Car Talk guys. Because it’s such a weird thing, people call them and they have a car problem, but the Car Talk guys can’t actually see the car. Someone will call and be like, “I have this issue with my Buick, and it makes this weird noise,” and they’re able to solve the issue.
Khazan: You mentioned things that don’t work, like highlighting a lot, or skimming your notes before a meeting. Why don’t those work? Boser: Re-reading and highlighting are particularly ineffective. They’re just passive, and you are just kind of skimming that material. It makes you feel better. You feel comfortable with the material, but you don’t really know the material. Doing things that are a little bit more difficult, that require you to really make connections, is a better way to learn. [You might] explain things to yourself, [or] simply quiz yourself. If you’re preparing for a meeting, you’d be much better off just putting the material away and just asking yourself questions. It gives you a false sense of security, that kind of re-reading.
Khazan: Why is teaching other people such an effective learning strategy? Boser: It’s not that different from explaining ideas to yourself. Self-explaining has a lot of evidence. You’re explaining why things might be interconnected, and why they matter, and those meaningful distinctions between the two of them. The other thing that’s particularly helpful about teaching other people is that you have to think about what is confusing about something, and how you’d explain that in a simpler way, and so that makes you shift the way that you’re thinking about a certain topic.
Khazan: You mentioned that learning is, by necessity, really difficult. Why does it have to be so uncomfortable? Boser: I think there’s so much stuff out there now that’s like, “Learning’s supposed to be easy, learning’s supposed to be fun!” If I ask you, what’s the capital of Australia? Do you know what it is?Khazan: [Breaks into a cold sweat.] Is it Sydney? I don’t know. It’s probably not. Boser: No, it’s not Sydney. Another guess? Khazan: Melbourne? Boser: Nope. One more. Khazan: Oh my God, I can’t believe I don’t know this. What’s another … Brisbane? I have no idea, I’m so sorry. Boser: Yeah, it’s Canberra. Khazan: What? Boser: Yeah! Khazan: Oh my God.Boser: I had this experience with a researcher. I was in your spot, where I was like, “I’m so embarrassed by this. I should know, this is a major country.” The difficulty of that is going to help you remember it. I’m not going to promise you that you are going to remember the capital of Australia 10 years from now, but it’s now a much more salient fact. It’s something that’s a little bit more meaningful to you.
Both of us probably, at one time in the world, had this fact come across us, but it wasn’t meaningful, it certainly wasn’t an embarrassing situation. In my experience it was a source being like, “Do you know this?” I’m trying to be like, “I went to a fancy school, I should know this information.” It became salient to me. Part of the reason that learning’s supposed to be hard, or a little bit difficult, is it makes memory work a little bit more.
Khazan: What’s the most effective type of feedback that you could be getting in order to learn better? Boser: What is helpful is that [the feedback] comes close to when you perform the task, and that it requires you to generate an answer. You don’t necessarily want to simply give people the answer, because then they haven’t really made that information meaningful to themselves. By forcing you to make these wrong guesses [about Australia], when you heard the actual answer, it made it more meaningful to you.
Khazan: I was really interested to read about Bill Gates’s Think Week, where he reads all those white papers in a secluded cottage. Why does he do that in that way, and what can other people learn from that? Boser: He just sort of squares away and has these moments of quiet in order to develop new skills. I think we really underestimate the role that deliberation and reflection play in learning. To a degree we know it, this is why you think of things in the shower or right before you go to bed. You have these moments where your brain is thinking through the day, making connections, and what’s important, I think, for people who are trying to learn more effectively, is to make organized time for that. We’ve seen some schools have students do more reflections on their learning. There’s one or two studies that have even found that reflection can be more effective than practice itself.
Khazan: How can I get better at remembering peoples’ names? Boser: One thing that helps with memory is if they’re emotional. You will not forget the name of the person that you gave your first kiss to. I don’t think this is, of course, a very practical solution to this problem. The other thing that you can do is try and hang that information on other information. Say you want to remember the names of your boss’s daughters, you can see if you can wrap that information into other information that you already know. If you like the Knicks, and his daughters are named Kelly and Neely you can be like, “Oh, the first two letters of the New York Knicks.” That’s another way of making that information more meaningful to you.