No to highlighters, yes to flash cards: New book explores science of learning

A new book offers insights into the science of how we learn.

By the time he was in fourth grade, Ulrich Boser had been labeled a slow learner. He’d already repeated kindergarten, and a psychologist sent to observe him in a classroom described him as a frustrated, inattentive and distracted 11-year-old.

In hindsight, Boser now knows that he had not yet been taught something essential: He didn’t know how to learn.

Boser had some specific challenges, including a learning disorder that makes it difficult to follow auditory details. Over time, he got help from his teachers to develop basic learning strategies, and he expanded on those skills, eventually figuring out for himself how to focus his attention.

Boser, a former contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, has written a book, “Learn Better,” that offers insights into the science of how we learn.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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Research for the book took him around the country, including to the University Washington, where he sat in on biology classes taught by University of Washington lecturer Jennifer Doherty. Doherty uses a technique developed by UW biology lecturer Scott Freeman, who’s known for being able to successfully teach large introductory classes with an engaging style that keeps students on their toes by giving them instant short quizzes and getting them to explain concepts to each other.

Boser is anti-highlighter (no evidence they work) but pro-flash cards (as long as you use a large stack of them, which helps space out your learning). He’s an advocate of memorization as a powerful learning tool, but…

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