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You’re Not as Smart as You Think You Are. Here’s What to Do About It

Habits & Productivity Psychology
You’re Not as Smart as You Think You Are. Here’s What to Do About It


  • Life hacks to help you learn anything
  • Why PowerPoint presentations are so ineffective
  • Why analogy, not necessity, is the mother of invention

Ulrich Boser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress whose research and writing on education issues has been featured in USA TodayThe New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and more. He recently sat down with Heleo’s Editorial Director, Panio Gianopoulos, to talk about the biggest misconceptions about learning, how we’re not so smart after all, and why getting it wrong is a great first step toward getting it right.

Panio: In your book, Learn Better, you argue that we’re learning wrong, not just in school, but in our everyday lives. What are some of the big things we are doing wrong?

Ulrich: There are a lot of misconceptions about learning. One of the biggest ones is learning styles, this idea that some people are audio learners and some people are visual learners. There is not a lot of evidence for that idea. Lots of researchers have pointed out the flaws in it, and yet, you hear it all the time. You hear it from politicians; I’ve heard it from my own kids’ teachers.

Another common misconception is that we are supposed to receive information like a computer. So if you read something, you’ll have learned something. And again, very little evidence for that idea. It’s a pretty passive way of learning.

Panio: What about something like PowerPoint presentations? Those are pretty common ways of getting information across. Do those work or not work?

Ulrich: Pretty much all learning, whether you’re learning to knit or learning Soviet history, goes through short-term memory. Short-term memory is the brain’s sketch pad. All information needs to go in there, and it’s a lot smaller than you might think. For a long time, people said it’s five to seven items. Now researchers think [it’s] really three to five items. And it gives you a sense of why PowerPoints, with lots of visuals and lots of text, are just overwhelming. They are overwhelming for short-term memory.

This helps us understand too, why checking Facebook while learning can [make learning] so difficult, or why someone talking to you while you are trying to read can impede learning. So sometimes it’s the technology itself, and sometimes it’s how we use the technology, that keeps us from gaining expertise and getting better at what we want to get better at.

“With the advent of Wikipedia, we dismiss just knowing stuff. And stuff is a basic starting point.”

Panio: So even something as innocuous as listening to music while studying can detract from your ability and performance?

Ulrich: Yeah. In my favorite study on this, they look at some college students in a lecture hall who have access to computers, and those kids did poorly in the academic setting. What I found even more interesting was that the kids who sat next to the kids who had computer access also did poorly. In other words, it’s not just having computer access, it’s also being distracted by the person next to you, who’s scrolling through Flickr.

The bigger message is to learn effectively, you need to not cause an overload. But you also need that background knowledge that allows you to learn something, right? The best thing to get a little better at speaking Spanish is just to improve your Spanish vocabulary. This background knowledge is not enough to solve problems, but it does help you get a better lay of the land.

Panio: So how do you get that background knowledge?

Ulrich: You know, occasionally I’ll see educators and people arguing, “Oh, if you can Google something, you don’t need to learn it.” And I think that’s short-sighted.

“Hast du heute Morgen gefrühstückt?” That’s German for “Did you have breakfast this morning?” You can Google all those words, [but] unless you have those words at the top of mind, you are not going to understand what I’m saying. Some of this is an argument for memorization, having fluency in the basics. Some of this is an argument for broad knowledge; the occasional Wikipedia rabbit hole can be a good thing, because you are getting a lay of the land. And then what is expertise? For that, you want to learn systems and connections and analogies. That is a richer form of learning. But with the advent of Wikipedia, with the advent of the fact that facts are so free, we dismiss just knowing stuff. And stuff is a basic starting point.

Panio: There is also something to be said for just the pleasure of knowing something. I was watching Alien: Covenant last night and one of the characters quotes the poem “Ozymandias.” I turned to my daughter and said, “Percy Shelley.” It’s a bit show off-y, but she’s thirteen, so I take what I can get [when it comes to impressing her]. And then the robot says, “That was by Lord Byron.” And I was stunned. I thought, “Oh my God, I remembered this wrong. This is so embarrassing.” It turns out the robot was wrong—spoiler alert, sorry—and later I was redeemed. And I felt great. Even in that absurd little anecdote, it did feel good to just know something.

Little Genius

Ulrich: I love that example for many reasons. Just knowing something has its own pleasures. And I alluded earlier to this idea [that] we are like computers, that information comes at us passively. But making errors is a great way to learn. Researchers call this the hypercorrection effect.

I’ll give you an example. I was visiting a researcher down in Florida and he asked me, “What is the capital of Australia?” I said, “Sydney.” He said, “That’s wrong.” I was going through all of them [in my head]. Melbourne? Perth? And he was like,”Canberra.” I had no idea. It turns out the more confident you are in your answer, even if that answer is wrong, the more you will learn. I think it’s a wonderful thing, right? Computers, if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. But since you said “Percy Shelley” in front of your daughter, who you are trying to show off for, you are going to remember that for a long time. Though I’m glad to know you were right.

Panio: Yeah, I was lucky that time.

One thing that was intriguing is the idea of quizzing yourself, because once you get out of school, you never do a quiz again. But self quizzes are a very strong strategy. Can you walk me through why that works?

Ulrich: So there are two aspects to why quizzes work. One, it’s back to this idea of knowledge. What’s fascinating is that we don’t really forget. Scientists know this because they can go and show you your old high school locker number. If they put four numbers in front of you, you will be able to identify that better than average.

What’s really the issue is retrieving something from memory. The more you practice retrieving something from memory, including Romantic age quotes, the more you are going to remember them. And when you retrieve something from memory, it’s sort of like going into the attic. You find other fun stuff on the way.

What’s important is that you start making connections. At a very basic level, if you want to get better at Scrabble, quiz yourself, [be] active in your learning. An even richer form of this is self-explaining. If you are reading a book, and you really want to get a sense of it, stop after each paragraph and ask, “What did the author really mean? How does this relate to other things that I know?” The evidence is clear that this is often twice as powerful as just rereading something.

“When you retrieve something from memory, it’s sort of like going into the attic. You find other fun stuff on the way.”

Panio: That also points to the social aspect of learning. Say you’re in a book club, or you have a friend who you have these long, interesting conversations [with]. That Socratic dialogue would help you learn better because you would be forced to ask these questions of each other.

Ulrich: Yeah. All of us have had the experience of seeing a movie, coming to a colleague at work, and trying to remember what the [movie’s] argument was. Building that argument, really putting it into words. Whether it is writing, teaching, [or] having that Socratic dialogue, [that] builds a richer form of understanding. You are picking the salient examples and pulling it together.

Panio: It seems there are a lot of different approaches to feedback. Has the research shown a most effective technique?

Ulrich: There is some debate in the literature around feedback. One thing that’s very clear about feedback is that it needs to be immediate. If a long period of time goes [by], you’ll simply forget what you did wrong or right. And feedback should be an active form of learning itself. In other words, it should make you do that task. It’s easy for us to forget that learning is this form of mental doing.

I was recently preparing for a speech. I was rereading and rereading the notes for the speech, and I was like, “Wow. I wrote a whole book arguing that we should have more active forms of learning.” Without thinking of it, I had settled into this much more passive way, just rereading my notes. Whether it’s feedback or quizzing, this type of doing is a form of learning. You need to be fully engaged.

“We kind of dismiss analogies, [but] they are a powerful way [of] expressing a new idea. In many ways, they are the true mother of invention.”

Panio: How does creativity fit into all of this? Do the insights around learning also [apply] to our approach to creativity?

Ulrich: We think of creativity as this independent thing out there, but it’s very much enmeshed in the knowledge itself. It’s very hard for me to be creative in thinking about electric cars because I don’t really know much about electric cars. But when you think about what creativity is, analogies end up being really important. We kind of dismiss analogies, [but] they are a powerful way [of] expressing a new idea. In many ways, they are the true mother of invention. When you look at so many new things, new ideas that entrepreneurs have, they just figured out a cool analogy. And we use them all the time without really thinking of it. Like, “Uber, but for haircuts.” It’s really just an analogy.

Panio: We also use this in movies, right? “It’s Back to the Future, but with dolphins!” Which has never been made, alas, but you get the idea.

Ulrich: Yeah, we use them all time. But we’re not deliberate enough about how we can use them for creativity or for richer forms of learning. One thing that’s clear from the research is that we need to use source analogies that we both know well. “It cuts like a knife” is a good analogy because we’re both pretty familiar with knives. Had I not seen Back to the Future, I would have had a hard time with your analogy. So we can use analogies to help us out by using a common source analogy.

Panio: That’s a good point. I think a lot about that in the sense of what we learn in school. A hundred years ago, everybody knew Latin and studied the Iliad and the Odyssey, and they could quote Virgil. Now, not so much, right? Now you need to know Snapchat. Culturally, we have to upgrade our references so these analogies make sense.

Ulrich: I agree. The other side of knowledge is that we are all overconfident. When it comes to learning, we are overconfident about what we know. I recently went to Gettysburg with my kids, and I thought, “Oh, I remember studying this.” And I got there, and even the basic facts of, was it winter? Or summer? Who was the general? I totally spaced.

So this metacognitive idea allows you to think about what we’re learning. Do we know something as well as we really think we know it? And if we’re explaining this to someone else, what are those common source analogies? Thinking about these [things] is really important to learning effectively.


This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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