The One Thing You Need to Do to Gain Knowledge

Rethinking our learning is not just a matter of evaluation.

October 6, 2017
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Adapted from Ulrich Boser's book, Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything

Rethinking our learning is not just a matter of evaluation. We also need to look for a deeper sense of understanding. We need to deliberate on knowledge and skills.


As a society, we’re not inclined toward this sort of rumination. Our world places a lot of emphasis on action. Thinking is often a sign of weakness. People who spend a lot of time noodling over decisions can seem lazy. Former president George W. Bush called himself the decider in chief, not the deliberator in chief.

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For another example, take soccer goalies. During a penalty shot, it typically pays for a goalkeeper to stay in the middle of the goal rather than diving for the posts. By a small but measurable margin, most penalty shots are aimed toward the center, and the goalies have a better chance at stopping the ball if they stay in the middle of the goal.

But generally soccer goalies dive to the left or right. Why? According to Giadia Di Stefano and her colleagues, “it looks and feels better to have missed the ball” by doing something rather than doing nothing. In other words, the goalie wants to look purposeful and engaged and decisive, and so they jump to the left or right, despite the fact that they’re actually less likely to prevent a goal.

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For an education-related example, take something like changing an answer on a test. Should you switch the answer? Or go with your raw instincts? Talk to a few people, and most believe that the first answer on a test is the best answer. In other words, generally people want to go with their gut. Like the soccer goalie, they don’t want to seem like they’re waffling or brooding or overly pensive. But a solid body of evidence suggests otherwise: Fixes to test items usually boost scores. By thinking through an answer one more time, we generally improve our performance.


It turns out that deliberation is a crucial part of learning. To understand any sort of skill or knowledge, we have to reflect on that skill or bit of knowledge. This is different than simply checking on the details. It’s a matter of dwelling on the experience.

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Experts do this all the time. “It’s more important to think about what you’re doing than it is to do it,” was the quote that Car Talk’s Ray Magliozzi had hanging above his desk. Same with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who will spend hours mulling over previous games, looking for missed opportunities, figuring out ways for his team to get better, contemplating approaches to improvement.

The best example, though, might be guitarist Pat Metheny. In the world of jazz guitar, Metheny is a superstar. He’s landed some twenty different Grammys, playing with everyone from B. B. King to David Bowie. But Metheny continues to reflect on what he knows, setting aside time to figure out ways that he can get better. After each show, he’ll write up half a dozen pages about the experience. The short essay reflects on how he performed, detailing musical successes and failures, describing what he thought worked—and didn’t work.

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It’s no accident that Metheny writes down his ref lections. As a medium, writing slows our thoughts. It pushes deliberation, and one way to improve learning is to use a diary. Think of it as a learning journal, in which you write down everything that went well during class or practice.


The thoughts don’t have to be profound. “In hockey class today, I discovered that I need to use my hips more.” Or, “My acting instructor told me that I need to project my voice more.” Yet even these sort of mundane scribblings can be enough to spark a richer form of learning.

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Talking out loud can help a lot, too. It’s another way to slow down the thinking process, and after an experience—or even during an experience—people can improve their learning if they talk to themselves in ways that promote ref lection: “So what do I do next?” or “What am I solving for again?”

To find out more about the role of reflection in learning, I once met up with Susan Ambrose. A cognitive scientist, Ambrose wrote the important book How Learning Works and is now the senior vice provost of Northeastern University in Boston. We met up in Ambrose’s office, which was tucked away among a burrow of well-appointed rooms in the college’s central building. Ambrose argued that people often simply assume that reflection happens. Put content in front of someone, and they’ll transform that material into learning. “You see this in a lot of college courses,” Ambrose argued. “Faculty love their subject, and so they give students as much material as possible.”

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That’s not how learning works, though. People need time to think through a skill or bit of knowledge in some sort of focused way. As Ambrose told me, “The more knowledge that you get, the more you need to make those connections. But you need to be intentional about it.”

At Northeastern, Ambrose has rolled out various initiatives to help students engage in more of this sort of reflection. In the school’s internship program, for instance, students now regularly answer questions on what it’s like working for a company or nonprofit. Kara Morgan was one of the students who participated in the college’s revamped internship program, working for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh.

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For Morgan, the experience of living in Cambodia was exhilarating. A new country, a new language, a new job, and the writing assignment served a crucial purpose, encouraging Morgan to make sense of her experiences, to reflect on what she learned. “It made me consider what else I wanted to accomplish while I was there,” she told me. “The essays forced me to take a step back and think,” and in many ways, that was the point.