Book Review: How We Learn by Benedict Carey

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In How We Learn, award-winning science reporter Benedict Carey sifts through decades of education research and landmark studies to uncover the truth about how our brains absorb and retain information.

Learning is easier if you vary the way you do it, and don’t feel obliged to put in marathon sessions. Short bursts, with regular interruptions, can work better, as can roaming around learning in different places. Don’t worry if you are forgetting things as it can strengthen your eventual memory, but do use self-testing to avoid falling into the fluency illusion and thinking you are doing better than you really are.

You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book review will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

Without further ado, let’s get started. 

Key Insights

Lesson 1: Embrace Forgetfulness

Do you often forget what you’re trying to learn? Don’t worry – it might actually be a good thing. Carey argues that forgetting can be a natural part of the learning process, as it allows your brain to filter out irrelevant information and focus on what’s important. In fact, he cites the “forget to learn” theory, which suggests that the act of forgetting and then retrieving information can actually strengthen your memory.

So, next time you forget something, don’t beat yourself up – embrace it as a chance to strengthen your memory. And if you’re studying for a test, try spacing out your study sessions with breaks in between. This will help prevent you from cramming and increase your ability to retain the information over the long term.

Lesson 2: Mix It Up

Do you always study in the same place at the same time? If so, you might be limiting your ability to remember what you’re learning. According to Carey, varying the contexts and environments in which you learn can help you access your memories more effectively. He tells the story of John Locke and the dancing man, who could only dance well in a room with a trunk positioned in a particular location. By learning in different locations, times of day, and even moods, you can create more associations in your brain that will help you recall the information later.

Another way to mix things up is to collaborate with others. Discussing what you’re learning with someone else can help you gain new insights and deepen your understanding of the material. And if you’re feeling stuck or unmotivated, taking a break to do something else – like checking social media or playing a game – can actually refresh your ability to focus and process information.

Lesson 3: Test Yourself

Do you ever feel like you understand something perfectly, only to realize later that you’ve forgotten it? This is known as the “fluency illusion,” and it happens when we mistake our ability to remember something in the present with our ability to remember it in the future.

The solution? Test yourself on a regular basis. By self-testing, you can monitor how well you’re retaining the information and identify any gaps in your knowledge. Saying things aloud as you learn can also help solidify the material in your memory.

And don’t forget the importance of sleep. Getting a good night’s rest or taking a nap can help consolidate your memories and improve your ability to learn.

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1. Engaging writing style

One of the things that sets “How We Learn” apart from other books on the subject is its pleasant, engaging writing style. Carey has a knack for making complex topics accessible and interesting to a wide audience.

With no filler material, the book keeps you hooked from the first page to the last, guiding you through a century of research on learning science, the challenges faced by researchers, and the advances made in the field.

2. A deeper understanding of learning mechanisms

Unlike other books that focus on general information and common-sense approaches to learning, “How We Learn” delves deeper into the science behind how our brains acquire new information.

Carey doesn’t shy away from discussing the limitations of existing research, but he also presents evidence-backed methods for improving learning performance. This book has provided me with a more profound understanding of the mechanisms behind learning, which has proved invaluable in both my personal and professional life.

3. Practical applications for teachers and students

I was struck by how long we’ve known about certain ineffective learning techniques, yet they continue to be practiced in educational settings. “How We Learn” not only sheds light on these outdated methods but also offers research-based ideas for improving learning in classrooms. 


1. Overemphasis on memorization and retention

The book focuses primarily on learning through memorization and retention, which seems outdated in today’s world. While these methods may help students perform well on tests, they don’t necessarily translate into real-world problem-solving skills.

I was disappointed to see that the book didn’t discuss the importance of applying knowledge in authentic tasks or projects. As a result, it inadvertently reinforces the idea that success in school is solely determined by one’s ability to memorize information.

2. Lack of concrete learning techniques

Although the book provides an interesting history of learning science, it falls short when it comes to offering practical advice on how to improve learning. Many of the theories and research presented in the book have inconclusive findings, leaving the reader with a sense of uncertainty about which methods are truly effective.

The author often relies on anecdotes and personal experiences to support his claims, which can be misleading and contradictory to the book’s intended purpose.

3. Misleading title and limited scope

The title “How We Learn” suggests a comprehensive guide to learning strategies and tips. However, the book primarily focuses on memorization techniques, which may disappoint readers seeking a broader understanding of learning.

While the content is interesting, it’s crucial to adjust your expectations before diving into the book. For those seeking in-depth and authoritative information about learning, other resources, like the National Research Council’s website on education, may be more suitable.


“How We Learn” is a captivating read that offers insights into the workings of the brain, debunking some prevalent myths about study habits and techniques. As an educator, I appreciate the practical applications that can be drawn from the book, which can benefit teachers and coaches across various disciplines.

Carey has skillfully presented complex scientific concepts in a simple and accessible manner, making the book an enjoyable read for those without a scientific background.

Overall, “How We Learn” is a valuable addition to any teacher’s bookshelf, providing a fresh perspective on learning and the tools to help students succeed in and beyond the classroom.

About The Author

Benedict Carey is a journalist who has won awards for his reporting on science. He has been working for The New York Times since 2004 and is one of the most popular reporters in terms of reader engagement.

He studied math at the University of Colorado and earned a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. He has been writing about health and science for 25 years and currently lives in New York City.

Buy The Book: How We Learn

If you want to buy the book How We Learn, you can get it from the following links:

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