Can We Learn to Learn Better? An Interview with Author Ulrich Boser

Not only does Ulrich Boser hold down a steady job as an education policy wonk at the Center for American Progress, he also somehow has time to write books. They’re not wonky policy books, either; they’re about interesting topics like art heists and the science of trust. In his most recent book, Learn Better, Boser tackles the science of learning.

It’s a fascinating book, and Boser does an expert job of weaving together complex science with compelling stories about people learning all sorts of skills, including darts, foreign languages, math, medicine, and Scrabble. At one point, Boser turns his critical eye inward and writes about his experience of hiring his own personal basketball coach while in his mid-forties.

I spoke with Boser about the book, and what follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

CHAD ALDEMAN: Learn Better talks a lot about the value of practice, and you give a number of lively examples of both “good” and “bad” forms of practice. Based on your research, what would you say are the key elements of good practice?

ULRICH BOSER: The key element is making it difficult, not making it enjoyable. A lot of times we practice things without really getting better. For example, I drive a lot and have been driving a car since I was 18, but I haven’t gotten better at driving because I don’t really engage in it in a deliberate way, I don’t make it harder for myself, I don’t focus, I don’t monitor.

So, when it comes to practice, making it more difficult for yourself, and monitoring the results, are really key. One easy way to make practice better is this idea called “interweaving.” There’s just a tremendous amount of research on interweaving, and the idea, in some ways, is quite basic.

Chad, I’m going to ask you this question: If you want to get better at practicing the piano, should you practice all of your Beethoven one day, and then, in your next practice session, all of your Chopin, and then the day after that, all of your Bach? Or in each practice session, should you mix it up a little bit? Which way would you go?

ALDEMAN: Based on what you just said, I’m going to guess that I should mix it up.

BOSER: Yes, mix it up. Most people do the opposite. They “block” their practice. They do all of the Beethoven on one day and then all Bach on another day, but there is a ton of research that shows that mixing it up helps. It helps by making learning a little bit more difficult; you concentrate a little bit more and don’t get robotic, and then you’re able to see more connections.

What’s interesting to me about this is that when we think about schools more broadly, the science of learning — a lot of which comes out of memory — really has not filtered into schools. I have a nine-year-old who comes home with math worksheets all the time when school is in session, and they’re all using blocked practice. She’s practicing for one week all of her sevens, and then the next week, all of her eights. The research is very clear that she should be doing 5 times 2 and then 7 times 5 and then 9 times 3, because mixing it up that way will make it a little bit harder — and will make sure that she concentrates and focuses on it.

ALDEMAN: The book reminded me of my own history with golf. When I was a kid, I loved playing. Before I could drive, my parents would drop me off at a golf course where I had an unlimited pass. I would just go out and play the course, and I got better over the years, but I always sort of looked back and thought I should have spent more time either going to the driving range or having a coach work with me on specific skills. How does that interact with what you just said about mixing it up? What is the balance between practicing a particular skill versus mixing up different skills?

BOSER: Oftentimes, we might think that doing something is the same as learning something, but there are lots of examples that show that that isn’t really true, whether with driving or handwriting.

For example, I write all the time, but my handwriting still remains terrible. But with your example of golf — and I don’t know golf that well — where you place your tee, how you put your hands, how you swing, all of these types of details can lead to a huge amount of improvement. Some of that is also about breaking down the process itself, and that is what great teachers do: they segment the parts that make for good performance, and that’s true whether it’s learning math or getting better at golf.

ALDEMAN: You write about a study where students were taught to play darts. I’m paraphrasing, but the group that was taught to practice specific skills did better than the group given free practice time. It reminded me of a story I ran across recently of students learning pottery. I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but one group was asked to focus all of their efforts on the quality of their work and the other was graded on the quantity of their output. When the teacher looked at the finished product, she found that the best work was produced by the high-quantity group. The hypothesis of the article I read was that people learn from their mistakes and become more creative over time. So how should we think of quality of practice versus quantity of practice?

BOSER: That’s interesting, I hadn’t seen that study. The conclusion makes sense. I do think, though, that we gain a lot when we’re more focused on the process itself and less on the outcomes. So, if you’re trying to get better at golf, you’re better off focusing on where in the process something went wrong, as opposed to the type of thinking that says “I’m just plainly bad at golf” or “I always miss these types of shots.”

I think it’s very clear from the research that the ways in which we practice have a tremendous amount of difference. You can practice for 10,000 hours, or perhaps even 20,000 hours, and not actually get better. What makes a difference is whether you are getting good feedback. Are you practicing in a way that gets you out of your comfort zone? This is essentially what instruction is, a form of dedicated feedback.

In the book, I talk about the example of a neurosurgeon in Canada who wanted to get better at neurosurgery. All he decided to do was write down every single mistake. So, he would write down if he misspoke to a nurse, he would write down if he dropped the scalpel. It highlights one of the problems with this type of monitoring or feedback: it’s embarrassing. He once dropped a piece of someone’s skull. Clearly it’s an embarrassing thing to go to the family and say, “I’m sorry, your husband’s skull got dropped during the surgery.” But he showed considerable improvements over ten years or so by just monitoring and giving himself and his team this type of very low-level feedback.

ALDEMAN: One thing that struck me is the reminder that learning takes work — the surgeon had to take time out of his day to write down all of his mistakes — and it seems like we tend to take the easy way out. When I was in college, I was a big runner and I ran a lot of miles. While I got somewhat faster over time, my running times didn’t really improve dramatically until I introduced some more unpleasant training methods like interval training and weight lifting. So what’s the academic equivalent of interval training and weight lifting?

BOSER: There are a lot of them! One of them is means changing attitudes. In education today, a lot of technology companies promise things like, “We’re going to make learning easy; we’re going to make learning fun.” And I think that’s important but it undersells what really needs to happen. There was a math professor that I spoke to recently and he said: “I tell people all the time that math is hard and that’s why it’s fun.” And I thought, that’s a much better way to sell it.

To your point, when you can make learning harder, you actually gain more. One example would be not to use a highlighter or reread things and, instead, put the book away and quiz yourself. Another one is to space learning out more over time. If you read an article and then put it away, you’re going to forget a little bit, but that act of pulling in front of your memory what you’ve forgotten is another way that you can artificially make learning a little bit more difficult and, in that way, gain more out of it.

ALDEMAN: This point about better ways to study made me think about the grit and the socio-emotional conversation that has been happening in the education space right now. It reminded me of an interview I did last year with a psychologist who did a meta-analysis on the grit research. He had also done some work on things like study skills, and my takeaway from talking with him was that teaching a kid to work on their study skills and how they learn might pay bigger dividends than teaching them to be “gritty.” How should we think about the balance between teaching behaviors, skills, or mindset?

BOSER: The study skills work is remarkable to me. I often work at a law school near my house (there’s no Wi-Fi there so I get a lot done), and I walk past a lot of law school students. These are young people who have gotten into law school and are generally going off to do great things, and they love highlighting. Not only do they love highlighting, they often will have multicolored highlighters with a complex system underlying the different colors.

But it is shocking to me that young adults, who should want better studying tools, practice behaviors that don’t work that well. We know that these types of passive things — highlighters or rereading — are ineffective, and yet we don’t do enough to encourage other, more active, types of behaviors.

The other important thing to know that is that the social and emotional are not distinct from cognitive behavior. In fact, we now know that they are often one and the same. People can actually “think” with their bodies.

There have been studies that encourage people to think about something in their past. Right now if I said Chad, think about your past, think about running in college, studies show that people will start to lean back when they’re doing this; basically, they are thinking with their bodies.

My point here is that I think there is an artificial separation between emotion and cognition that has been shown in a lot of studies. The question is, what do we do with that? Are there specific types of mindsets that people need to learn?

ALDEMAN: The running point reminded me of something else from the book — the ability to do math and to train your brain’s cognitive functions with your muscular movements, like moving your fingers, for both math and memory. I was wondering if you had applied any of those tricks in your life.

BOSER: I find these tricks impressive. Another example is if you give “the finger” to your computer monitor and if I have the exact same computer model in the office next door, in a study of which computer monitor you like better, you’re going to like the one that you don’t give the finger to. It’s simply of matter of you thinking in your hand. Your middle finger did the actual cognition in that example, which is sort of a wild thing.

The most helpful way I’ve done it is in a speaking engagement where I have to remember to thank someone, or some other little detail. I will try to tie it to a specific hand gesture. I tend not to use my right hand a lot when I’m speaking, so I will use a gesture with my right hand to help remember something. And then conference call numbers. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience where you get these incredibly long codes to call into the conference line. I am always forgetting them because I don’t write them down. So I’ll use my one hand to remember one number and the other hand to remember the next. Making those physical motions helps me mentally download it easier.

ALDEMAN: I want to talk a little about the argument in the book, that one-on-one instruction can also be the most effective, about how someone working one-on-one is better able to diagnose where needs are and to offer more specific feedback. From your lens as an education policy expert, how should we incorporate more of this type of direct feedback in the way that schools operate, either for teachers or for students themselves?

BOSER: There have been a couple of really intriguing studies done in Chicago, and then Brookings did a wonderful job raising up the report, which showed that we should be thinking more about tutoring. If you look at programs that are really successful, like Success for All, they really try to incorporate tutoring. The problem with tutoring is that it’s really expensive, and we haven’t quite figured out how to scale it.

This has also changed the way that I think about my own children. I have a younger daughter that’s really into soccer and she wants to get better. She’s nine, so I hired a thirteen-year-old for a very small amount of money to coach her, because that’s a great form of transmission. It’s a low-cost intervention for me. They both enjoy it. And it’s very clear that it’s paid off in my daughter’s performance. The thirteen-year-old just knows more of the soccer drills and tricks and is very eager to teach them.

I don’t think this should be surprising. When you have a problem at work, let’s say you go to a colleague and say, “I can’t figure out this font issue with Microsoft Word” and they’ll sit down with you and explain it to you. Or if you want to learn to get better at riding a bike or any of other thing, it is very clear that one-on-one interactions take advantage of your prior knowledge. I think we can learn a lot from this, without question.

ALDEMAN: I love the example of hiring an older kid to teach your younger kid soccer skills. That’s great and fits with several things in your book. It’s probably good for the older child to work that way too, to think about and analyze the components of how they do what they do.

BOSER: Yeah, I think that’s true. I think this was part of your question earlier — how do we use interval training to learn more about learning? In other words, how do we make it harder? One of the things is to teach it to someone else. The thirteen-year-old, to a degree, is learning.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience where you’re writing a summary of someone else’s work or writing about someone else’s paper or talk or movie, but you end up learning more about it because you’re taking the time to try to explain it and figure out where the holes are in the argument. Even me talking to you actually helps me know this stuff better.

ALDEMAN: I’ll end with what, in the book, you call “The Question.” You pose this to various experts you interview as a way to see how they apply their insights from their work into their personal life. So now I’ll turn it to you: If you’re learning a new skill, how do you approach the task and what do you do with your own kids that other parents don’t do? You’ve already said the soccer, but are there other things that you’ve learned about in the course of your work that you’re starting to think about differently?

BOSER: One that I use the most is spacing out learning. There is a lot of evidence that we forget at a regular rate but we tend to try to cram all the learning in. So, during the school year, I would push my kids not to do homework on Wednesday nights but to do it on Sunday nights because that would be a simple way to spread their learning out over time. I’ll be very honest- this does not make me a very popular dad, but the evidence is very clear that people tend to forget at a regular rate, and anything you do to spread your learning out over time, the more that you can gain.

One thought on “Can We Learn to Learn Better? An Interview with Author Ulrich Boser

  1. Lisa Jones

    I would love to read a follow up interview “teach better”-with suggestions on actions classroom teachers can take to facilitate better learning😊

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