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Book Review: 'How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens' by Benedict Carey, Part 2

Second part of Carey's book

June 07, 2018 | About:

A few years I ago, I took level two of the chartered financial analyst exam. I can’t recall any specific questions, but I can still remember the many moments where I thought the questions and answers looked so familiar, yet I wasn’t sure which answer was the correct one.

I’m glad I’m not alone.

The fluency illusion:

In chapter five of his book "How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens," Benedict Carey describes what psychologists call fluency. Reflecting upon how he laid an egg on his trigonometry final he needed to ace to get into an advanced placement course, Carey said:

“The problem wasn’t that I hadn’t worked hard enough, or that I lacked the test taking ‘gene’. No, my mistake was misjudging the depth of what I knew. I was duped by what the psychologists call fluency, the belief that because facts or formulas or arguments are easy to remember right now, they’ll remain that way tomorrow or the next day. The fluency illusion is so strong that, once we feel we’ve nailed some topic or assignment, we assume that further study won’t help. We forget that we forget.

Any number of study ‘aids’ can create fluency illusions, including (yes) highlighting, making a study guide, and even chapter outlines provided by a teacher or a textbook. Fluency misperceptions are automatic. They form subconsciously and make us poor judges of what we need to restudy, or practice again."

Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College, shared an interesting observation with Carey: If you learn something twice in spaced sessions, you’ll have a harder time the second time processing the materials, but you learn more (even though it feels harder).

In my previous article, I mentioned the principle of desirable difficulty, which states that “the harder we have to work to retrieve a memory, the greater the subsequent spike in retrieval and storage strength (learning).” Fluency is just the exact opposite of desirable difficulty – it’s undesirable easiness. In Carey’s words, “the easier it is to call a fact to mind, the smaller the increase in learning. Repeating facts right after you’ve studied them gives you nothing, no added memory benefit."

Testing is a powerful technique:

Now we know that we are naturally inclined to confuse fluency with mastery, what can we do about the fluency illusion? It turns out testing is a very effective way to overcome the illusion. Here, testing has a slightly different meaning than the one we most commonly associate it with – in my opinion, when Carey talks about testing, he means active retrieving or reciting. To quote Francis Bacon:

“If you read a piece of text through 20 times, you will not learn it by heart so easily as if you read it 10 times while attempting to recite it from time to time and consulting the text when your memory fails. “

Carey also cites William James:

“A curious peculiarity of our memory is that things are impressed better by active than by passive repetition. I mean that in learning – by heart, for example – when we almost know the piece, it pays better to wait and recollect by an effort from within, than to look at the book again. If we recover the words in the former way, we shall probably know them the next time; if in the latter way, we shall very likely need the book once more."

Psychologist Arthur Gates went a step further and came up with the optimal ratio of reading versus retention. Gates’ experiments showed that “in general, the best results are obtained by introducing recitation after devoting about 40 percent of the time to reading. In the older grates, the percentage was even smaller close to a third. The superiority of optimal reading and retention over reading alone is about 30 percent.”

Another interesting idea is pretesting. Say you have a geography test covering the capitals of all European countries. Carey says you’ll do better by taking a test before you study them. Even though you’ll get most of the answers wrong by guessing, it (guessing wrongly) increases the likelihood of you “nailing the question” the next time.

The fluency illusion and the active retrieval technique reminds me of a practice used by Bob Cialdini, who I had the pleasure of speaking to at this year's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A)(NYSE:BRK.B) annual meeting. I asked Cialdini about one of his reading habits –jotting down a summary of a chapter after reading it. He confirmed that it is, indeed, his habit to write chapter summaries instead of merely highlighting and underscoring, which is probably the practice of most people.

To use Carey’s words:

“Testing – recitation, self-examination, pretesting, call it what you like – is an enormously powerful technique capable of much more than simply measuring knowledge. It vanquishes the fluency trap that causes so many of us to think that we’re poor test takers. It amplifies the value of our study time. And it gives us – in the case of pretesting – a detailed, specific preview of how we should begin to think about approaching a topic."

It worked like magic:

I actually followed Carey’s advice recently when studying for a license exam. It’s not a very difficult exam and I only needed a score of 60 to pass. But the exam covers a wide range of topics and the study materials are dry, detailed and meaningless.

In the past, I probably would have started studying three to four weeks before the exam. My study plan would work like this: read the study materials; do the practice questions; take some mock exams; take notes of the questions that I didn’t answer correctly and tie them to the study materials until I can get most of them right.

After reading Carey’s book, I took a bet. This time I used the techniques in Carey’s book – pretesting, testing and distributed learning.

First of all, I started studying one week before the exam date. According to Carey’s book, the optimal interval in between my studies is one or two days.

I took a mock exam without reading any of the materials by basically guessing each question. Needless to say, I flunked it. Then I went over the answers and explanations, as well as the study materials, very quickly. After that I took another mock exam and did a little better. But I still would have failed.

On day two, I went over the study materials again, but this time I was more attentive to the details. I also reviewed the mock exams I took the day before.

The next several days were similar – taking mock exams, reviewing the materials from the previous day and the day before.

The day before the exam, I did a quick and full-blown review of everything.

Amazingly, it worked well. I spent much less time studying than I otherwise would have had I used my old techniques and still got a satisfactory score.

More notes to come.

About the author:

A global value investor constantly seeking to acquire worldly wisdom. My investment philosophy has been inspired by Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, Howard Marks, Chuck Akre, Li Lu, Zhang Lei and Peter Lynch.

Rating: 5.0/5 (3 votes)



Fluidityinglass premium member - 7 months ago

Another great post... Great cognitive biases reminder with some depth.


Grahamites premium member - 7 months ago

Fluidityinglass - Thanks for the nice words. And you are very welcome.

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