Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek

The New Science of Learning

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The New Science of Learning Summary

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Co-authored by Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek, respectively an educational consultant and family medicine practitioner, The New Science of Learning (2013), uses cutting-edge research on brain science to discuss the question of how the process of learning can be optimized in humans. Partly a critique of older pedagogical ideas, which it argues are inefficient or based on inaccurate understandings of psychology, the book promotes an endeavor to apply brain science innovatively to learning environments. It addresses mainly a younger audience, elucidating a framework for learning more effectively in academic environments. This framework is not purely cognitive; rather, it acknowledges learning’s complex nature, explaining how it is impacted by other behaviors, such as sleep and exercise. Finally, The New Science of Learning employs sociological research and statistics, showing how a pedagogical revolution inspired by science is necessary for solving our rapidly changing and proliferating modern problems.

The New Science of Learning begins by examining the common phenomenon of “cramming,” the most common pedagogical method employed by procrastinators and other people who find themselves with tight deadlines or scarcities of time. Cramming involves an attempt to quickly memorize content with the goal of easily retrieving it during an approaching exam or other performance. Cramming, the authors argue, is wholly ineffectual, not only in the short term, but also even more critically, in the long term. It forecloses opportunities for the extended, more complex and iterative kinds of learning that improve human cognitive health and emotional well-being. Further, Doyle and Zakrajsek advocate extended hard work over trying to express or prove one’s innate intelligence. They argue that hard work, combined with smart learning strategies, is the real essence of genius. Only through real work, rather than devising shortcuts or oversimplifying problems, do individuals come to understand the different complexities that exist in the world.

Doyle and Zakrajsek discuss the importance of adequate sleep and taking regular breaks from work. They group these together in the category of cognitive rest since both involve periods where the brain consolidates and prunes its most recent memories and thought patterns. They cite various studies in neuroscience that provide evidence that deprivation of cognitive rest and natural sleep cycles leads to a host of biological issues. Among these issues is the loss of learning efficiency. The authors also discuss how physical exertion improves learning. Not long ago on our evolutionary scale, our ancestors walked and ran an average of ten to twenty kilometers per day. The authors refer to a study of a chemical in the brain called BDNF4, which is strongly correlated with learning ability. BDNF4’s most powerful behavioral precursor is exercise.

The authors discuss several other, less popularized theories about behavior’s connection to brain health and learning. One is the importance of reflecting on sensory information from every source. The human brain has evolved to combine disparate sensory data to create holistic models of reality, and the authors suggest that it is important to nurture that evolutionary legacy rather than treat certain senses as unnecessary or vestigial. They also endorse the idea of gamification, arguing that pattern seeking is the brain’s primary mode of exercise. They discuss ways to improve memory, including proactive approaches to ensuring that each successive day is stimulating. When trying to retain information, it is important not to rote memorize, but rather to embark on an emotional journey with new areas of study. Doyle and Zakrajsek deconstruct several myths about learning shortcuts. One is the idea of multitasking: studies show that human brains learn best when they focus on one task at a time, tending to flounder when they are overloaded with several parallel ones. They also look at the effects of different substances, such as sugar and caffeine, on memory retention, arguing that they are less effective than normally touted.

Towards the end of the book, the authors shift to the topics of mindset and employment. They describe two kinds of mindset, “fixed” and “growth.” While the fixed mindset tends to view many problems as outside the individual’s abilities to ever solve, the growth mindset is more introspective about one’s current abilities and optimistic about improving them. Therefore, the growth mindset is important to adopt.

Finally, the authors urge their readers not to panic about becoming a perfect learner or securing the dream job right away. They cast learning as a lifelong process in which efficiency gradually improves. Doyle and Zakrajsek’s thesis about optimizing learning is, therefore, also about living a life of balance, using radical self-nurturing to illuminate the best paths to take in any exercise.