How to Learn New Things as an Adult

A new book explores the psychology of mastering skills and absorbing information.

Quick, what’s the capital of Australia? No Googling! (And no points if you’re Australian—that means the information is more meaningful to you, which means you’re more likely to know it). Did you get it? Or are you sure you learned it at some point, but forgot right around the time that you forgot how the Krebs cycle works? In his new book, Learn Better, author and education researcher Ulrich Boser digs into the neuroscience of learning and shows why it’s so hard to remember facts like that one. Boser explains why some of the most common ways we try to memorize information are actually totally ineffective, and he reveals what to do instead.

Because we’re all getting dumber in the age of Google, I interviewed Boser recently about what people can do to boost their memories and skill sets, even if they’re long past flash-card age. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

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 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.

They’re thinking about their own Buicks, their own car problems, to help you solve your car problems. You want to learn the systems, or the analogies, of the relationships between things in a certain field, and how they interact with each other. Then ultimately you gain that knowledge so that you can shift your own thinking, so when you see a new problem you're better able to solve it.

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.

The other reason that learning should be difficult is that, when we're a little bit out of our comfort zone, we are a little bit more challenged, and that helps us develop skills. We see this a lot in games. Part of the attraction of even a shoot-em-up game is that it's always getting a little bit more difficult, and that way it's building on our skill.

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: Why is it helpful to distribute learning over time?

Boser: I find this one really fascinating. The basic thing is, we forget, and we forget at a very regular rate. People underestimate how much they forget, and people who are able to revisit their learning at a regular rate end up learning a lot more. There's some good software that does that. Anki is one, and they have, I think, a really nice model, which is, you're learning at your rate of forgetting. If we know that you're going to forget details like the capital of France in three months, you would revisit that material at that particular point in time. What's surprising about it is, this isn't new. This is stuff that dates back to the 19th century, but we really just don't use it in schools or in colleges, even though we know that people forget a lot, and they forget at this very regular rate.

Khazan: I was really interested to read about Bill Gates' 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 plays 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.