Reading: Making Meaning



Not long ago I spoke with Yayoi Ota, who grew up in rural Bolivia. Ota’s parents were Japanese, and she typically spoke to them in Japanese. As a kid, Ota also learned to write in Japanese and attended afternoon Japanese classes and spoke to many of her friends in Japanese.  

After graduating from high school, Ota moved to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, one of the largest cities in the country, and now she spends her days speaking largely Spanish. At work, at restaurants, on the street, no one around her knows Japanese, and today Ota has basically forgotten her native language. She can speak a halting form of Japanese with her parents—and some old friends—but her writing skills are almost entirely gone, a mother tongue that’s been essentially removed.

This seems bizarre. Ota’s first words were in Japanese. But this type of language attrition happens to native speakers a lot more than you might think. After being held for five years by the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl  had nearly lost his English. Despite the fact that Bergdahl spent his entire childhood speaking English in Idaho, his native language skills fell apart while being held captive in Afghanistan.  

People like Ota or Bergdahl don’t necessarily lose all knowledge of the words in their native language. Ota, for instance, can still recall—and write—some basic expressions. Instead, what disappears is meaning. People like Ota can’t recall how the language comes together. They can’t grasp the relationships and systems embedded in the language. As one researcher put it, language attrition is a slow “untangling [of] a complicated knot of interconnections.”

The point here is that learning is a matter of doing, an active, effortful process, and when people learn, they need to be thinking hard. More specifically, according to experts, they need to be thinking hard about knowledge. In this regard, Ota and Bergdahl lost their language abilities because they simply no longer could find meaning in their language abilities.

In recent years, psychologist Rich Mayer has written a lot about learning as a type of mental doing, becoming an unlikely crusader for a new way to gain expertise. A soft-spoken, Midwesterner, Mayer’s generally pretty avuncular. He won’t say someone screwed up. Instead, the person falls “somewhat short of being exemplary.” Mayer doesn’t believe that people have bad intentions—only bad consequences of bad decisions. Some of Mayer’s favorite advice? “Don’t radiate negative energy.”

But on the issue of learning as a form of dedicated cognitive effort, Mayer has become something of a firebrand. In his lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Mayer has shown in study after study that we gain expertise by actively producing what we know. As he told me flatly: “Learning is a generative activity.”

Mayer gives a pretty good description of how this works. First, people need to select information, figuring out what exactly they’re going to learn—like maybe a bit of Soviet history or Buddhist philosophy. Then people need to integrate that information into what they know by creating some type of mental connection between their current knowledge and the information that they’re hoping to learn.

So if someone is learning about the Soviet dictator Stalin, they would want to link what they know (that Stalin was a dictator) to what they want learn (that Stalin grew up in Crimea, killed millions, centralized power in Russia, and helped win World War II).

The power of mentally doing—of creating value in an area of expertise—is clear in basic memory tasks. Want to remember the French word for home, “maison,” for instance? People are far more likely to recall the word “maison” if a letter is missing from the word—e.g. “mais_n”—when they read it. When people add the “o,” they’re doing more than completing the word. They’re finishing the thought—and in the most basic of ways, they’ve done some work to produce their learning—and make it more meaningful.  

This idea also extends to more difficult cognitive tasks. Take something like reading. If we push ourselves to dream up some sort of mental image of what we’re reading—if we imagine the text in our minds—we retain a lot more of the knowledge. By creating a type of “mind movie,” we’re building more cognitive connections—and making the learning more durable.

There’s also lots of evidence from schools. “We have shown, from a lot of research, that the simple act of retrieval can boost memory by about 10-20%,” says Pooja Agarwal, an Assistant Professor at the Berklee College of Music. In one study with 8th graders, for example, students were given three very brief, two-minute low-stakes quizzes in addition to the teacher’s instruction, and by the end of the school year, those students raised their grades from a “C” average to an “A.”

For a different example, consider something known as “repeat backs”  The next time a person gives you a set of detailed instructions, take time to repeat back the instructions. When you repeat back everything in your own words, you’re taking steps to generate knowledge, and you’ll be far more likely to remember the information.

Over the past few years, the research on learning as a type of mental doing has shifted a lot of the conventional wisdom around how people gain expertise. In a large and recent review of the research, Kent State’s John Dunlosky and some colleagues found that highlighting was a weak approach to learning, for instance.

"...highlighting was a weak approach to learning..."

Why? It seems that the activity doesn’t do enough to push people to build their knowledge. Likewise, re-reading showed limited effects, according to Dunlosky and his colleagues. Why? Again, it appears that the activity doesn’t spark enough mental doing.

So what approaches did show outcomes in Dunlosky's landmark analysis? When I reached Dunlosky on the phone, he argued that the most effective techniques were more effortful activities such as self-quizzing and self-explaining. “This is a fundamental feature of how our minds work,” he told me. To learn, “we’re not just copying the information. We are making sense out of facts.”

In this sense, we’re coming across a key theme of this course. Learning requires struggle. It’s a matter of mental work. “Learning is hard,” argues learning expert Paul Rivas. “You’re supposed to be suffering, making faces and crying every now and then. If it’s not hard, you’re not actually learning.”

Learning as a type of mental doing, mental work, works in larger settings, too. I once sat in on biology professor Jennifer Doherty’s course at the University of Washington in Seattle. The course has long been praised for its high outcomes, and  while the lecture hall for Doherty’s class was big, with more than a hundred students, Doherty continually pushed the students to learn through dedicated cognitive effort.

During the course, for instance, she often asked the entire class to answer quiz questions and would randomly call on students. Doherty also had the students pair up and then ask the groups for an answer, asking things like, “How do plants get their food if not from the soil?”         

You can do this yourself. More specifically:

  • Ask yourself questions. If you are reading a memo, stop and ask: What does this mean?
  • Also engage in free recall. So if you just heard an important podcast, try and summarize it.
  • Explain something to someone else.
  • And then there’s quizzes. You’ll find a lot of them in this program. I’ll extoll their value again and again. They make learning more active.

I once interviewed Lisa Son, an expert in this field, about how she goes even further. Indeed, she will also often withhold a key bit of knowledge from her kids to help them learn. She’ll be vague about feedback during science topics, for instance, or she will not correctly answer a math fact that her child had asked for.

Son actually tries to cultivate difficulty for her kids. Son won’t protect her young son from bumping his head on the kitchen table, for instance, unless it seems like he’s really going to crack his head open. And when Son’s daughter asked about the idea of time zones, Son would not explain the concept, even after her daughter asked about the idea for months: “As a researcher, I will never give my kid the answer. Never,” she said. Only “hints.”

Son’s approach builds on the idea of learning as mental doing, and Son herself has seen similar effects in her own lab: If people have to put forth more cognitive effort, they gain more.  “People need to do learning on their own for long-term maximum learning power.”

“People need to do learning on their own for long-term maximum learning power.”

In light of all the evidence about learning as a form of mental doing, what’s perhaps most remarkable is how little our schools and universities have paid attention to it. Walk into any library on any college campus, and students will be passively reading. (If you want to learn the material, do more to actively engage it.) Stride through any high school, and students will be mechanically highlighting every last page of text. (Self-testing is much more effective as a learning approach.) People often prepare for a talk by skimming their notes. (The superior approach? Going into an empty room and actually saying what you want to say.)

University of Washington’s Scott Freeman has been studying learning as doing for years. In fact, Freeman helped created the biology class that I attended at the University of Washington, mentioned earlier. Freeman and his colleagues have decided that the data is so conclusive, so plainly decided, that they now refuse to even conduct studies comparing lecture courses against more mentally engaged types of classes. “If you’re a professor and you refuse to use active learning techniques, it raises an ethical question,” Freeman told me. “It’s like a doctor giving you a less effective drug. You’d think it’s an issue of malpractice.”

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