A User’s Guide To The Student Brain

Daniel Willingham’s new book, Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning Is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy, provides a handy guide for students and the people who work with them.

Willingham has a PhD from Harvard in cognitive psychology and currently serves as a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. His experience and study has given him a unique opportunity to look at where what we know about how the mind works meets students trying to get their mind to acquire and retain information.

Willingham notes that the greatest challenge will yield the best results in the long run, but we are wired to avoid those challenges. Because they are harder, he observes, they feel less productive.

Outsmart Your Brain does read like a user’s manual. Each chapter has a clear focus on a particular slice of learning (How to take lecture notes, how to read difficult books, how to study for exams, how to defeat procrastination, etc). And while many of the chapters complement each other, you need not read them in order, nor do you need to read them all. Each one addresses its particular focus independently, allowing the reader to move directly to their biggest personal concern.

Willingham has the gift, not always common among academics and scholars, of speaking clearly and plainly to the lay reader. An average high school student will find the book perfectly accessible. That’s a huge plus.

Each chapter includes a clear explanation of the problem being addressed. Students who struggle with any of these issues often blame themselves (I’m dumb, I can’t handle this stuff, I’m not tough enough, etc), but Willingham clearly locates the issues and offers simple explanations of “Why this is hard.” The shift in perspective that Willingham offers will by itself give some students a huge boost and empower them to take control of their learning.

To answer the question, “But what exactly am I supposed to do about this,” the chapters include tips, concrete strategies that students can use to achieve success. Some of these will be helpful to particular individuals, and some may not be, but all will give students a clear selection of specific actions to try.

The chapters all offer tips for teachers about how to tailor instruction to better suit the realities of the student mind, and teachers are likely to find these useful (I was particularly struck by his explanation of how to get past the problem of material that does not spark student interest). Parents will also be able to use the book to help coach their own students.

It’s a useful book, with one foot rooted in the world of scholarship about how the mind works, and one foot rooted in the practical world of students trying to learn. The book is scheduled for release on January 24; pre-order a copy for a student, teacher or parent in your life.


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