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Book Review: The ABCs of How We Learn

Humans have a basic need to learn. From navigating a busy freeway, to watching an exceptional tennis match, learning is happening all around us. And yet, the questions of just how we learn, which types of learning are best for each person, and how each specific type can be used to solve everyday problems, such as disengaged learners, is seldom addressed. With this in mind, Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica M. Tsang, & Kristen P. Blair pen their new book, The ABC’s of Learning: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them.

Schwartz, Tsang, and Blair, all Stanford faculty and learning experts, combine their vast knowledge to offer a novel approach to understanding the science behind how we learn. Separated into 26 chapters, with each dedicated to a unique type of learning, the authors present what each type is, the research behind it, why it works, and then give specific examples of how and when it may be used.

Learning occurs in multifaceted ways through various perceptual faculties, and achieving learning outcomes often depends on finding the right learning strategy. Creating an analogy is one example, where a novel idea is explained by drawing on a familiar one. And when we use analogies — especially ones that help transfer information accurately — we are as much as 46% more likely to learn.

Another interesting, and frequently overlooked, type of learning is social learning. Particularly when people feel as if they belong, or are taught by someone who is part of their social group, not only are they able to reframe their attributions more positively, but they also see setbacks as part of the learning process and not signs of social exclusion. The authors cite one study where African Americans who were given a “belonging booster” cut the achievement gap between themselves and their European American counterparts by 79%. The authors eplain, “People try harder when they belong, and they are not distracted by a sense of alienation.”

Learning also occurs through deliberate practice. But here the authors make the point that deliberate practice is not appropriate for all learning settings. Because it demands a narrow focus to automate skills and concepts, making them faster, more efficient, and less effortful, it is best used in environments where distractions can be controlled. For example, instead of trying to shoot 300 free throws and simply sink the ball, we should be focusing on knee bend, balance, and perfect form.

Not all learning is physical, either. Often, learning depends on memorizing and retrieving large amounts of information. For this, elaboration is a helpful strategy that improves the way in which we memorize declarative information — that is, things we can talk about. If we want to remember our Bank of America password, for example, we might use the keyword America to trigger our memory of things which we associate with America, one of which might be the Bald Eagle. In thinking of the Bald Eagle, we will remember our password, which is Bald&Bold.

Similar to elaboration is imaginative play, which can be used to improve executive function and cognitive control, especially in children. The authors write, “Imaginative play involves two key moves. The first is that it requires preventing the stimulus from driving one’s responses to the environment (a fork is not a fork). The second move is to construct an alternative, cognitively controlled interpretation (a fork is a mother). Exercising these core human abilities should spur [childrens’] maturation.”

Because learning is also an active process, strategies such as making something, participating in an activity, teaching another person, and self-explanation can also help drive feelings of productive agency, ownership, and self-efficacy. In the case of teaching, the authors note the protégé effect, where students make greater efforts to learn on behalf of others than they do for themselves.

Learning strategies can also be used to improve student engagement. Through positively arousing emotions, the brain’s reward system and the amygdala become activated, which improves the process of forming new memory traces. This is also why babies learn language better from a real person than from a video of a person.

Arousal, the authors tell us, is also highly linked to the same reward processes that are active when we enter a state of optimal performance (or flow). And because optimal performance is such a powerful intrinsic motivator, it often leads us to seek out and engage in increasingly difficult tasks, which further stimulates learning. Indeed, the more we overcome challenges, the more we develop a sense of mastery, improve our feelings of self-efficacy, and create a growth mindset that enables us to take on the very struggles and challenges that facilitate learning.

Packed with tips, tools, and exercises for every type of learner and learning situation, The ABC’s of Learning is a book whose utility goes far beyond the classroom, but into every area of life — from remembering your password to learning to play golf — and it should be required reading for us all.

The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them

W.W. Norton & Company, August 2016

Paperback, 341 pages


Book Review: The ABCs of How We Learn

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Claire Nana

Claire Nana is a regular contributor and book reviewer for Psych Central.

APA Reference
Nana, C. (2016). Book Review: The ABCs of How We Learn. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 22 Sep 2016
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 22 Sep 2016
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