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The New Science of Learning

Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek
Stylus Publishing
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Jacob Ogle
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As should be clear from the title, this interesting little book is explicitly targeted at learners, and perhaps more specifically at students.  It’s not a very long book, but the authors do a good job of giving valuable synopses of research about how the brain works without getting into levels of technicality that might be daunting or distracting for students.  As a professor, I would consider myself a ‘professional learner,’ but I still found some interesting tidbits in here, including a few recommendations I will probably try myself.  As a teacher, and someone who is interested in the process of learning, I found much, but not all, of the material to be things I already had floating around in my head, but this book provides some explicit information about the relevant research, and I would be surprised if much of the material was already known by undergraduate students.
Within the first 10 pages, I was imagining using the book in class, so most of my reflections come from that viewpoint.  Since this is an MAA review, it’s probably worth pointing out that the book isn’t specifically devoted to mathematics, but is about learning in general.  This means that different sections vary in their relevance to a mathematical classroom.  I think I would be more likely to use this in a liberal arts type of math class, where the goals are more about attitude or thought process than a calculus or topology class.
Each chapter also has a subsection on athletics, focusing on how the topics in the chapter are related to athletic performance.  For instance, the athletics section of chapter 5 discusses how noticing patterns in your opponents’ behavior can allow you to predict their actions, allowing you to better respond.  I teach at a small college with a lot of student-athletes, so I think these snippets (as small as they are) may make the book easier to sell to students.  In fact, for any student, athlete or not, it’s nice to emphasize that learning strategies aren’t generally discipline-specific.  Since I regularly encounter students who think of education as a batch of completely-disconnected experiences, this holistic view of learning could be incredibly helpful.
I do have a few complaints about the book, one more serious than the others.  First, the least important: the chapter titles and title page are printed in a bubbly, handwritten sort of font.  I’m not usually a person who notices font unless it’s particularly odd, but in this case, the very first page has the title simply written in this font.  For whatever reason, the odd font made me not want to take the book seriously, and I think that’s a shame: it’s a good book, full of useful information, but every time I started a new chapter, the weird font distracted me.  It was like trying to watch a serious talk given by someone who walked onto stage wearing a goofy mask; regardless of how serious the rest of the talk was, I’m still distracted by the odd intro.  (Perhaps, and I hope, I’m the only person who is distracted by this, but since it was a recurring distraction, it has been officially mentioned.)
A slightly more serious complaint concerns the Mindset chapter.  I deal with students who don’t get enough sleep, who study inefficiently, and who have holes in their background knowledge.  But all those problems consistently get tied up with mindset issues.  Students who obviously didn’t sleep the night before the test will attribute their poor performance to ‘not being a math person’ rather than the fact that they fell asleep and drooled all over their exam.  Thus, I would have opened a book about learning by talking about mindset.  Students can correct all their bad habits, but if they still don’t think they can learn the material, it will not be very helpful.  This book does address mindset, and it does a solid job of it, but it doesn’t do it until chapter 7, near the end of the book.  (For comparison purposes, The Power of Smell is a full 50 pages before.)  If I use this book in class, we would definitely cover the chapters out of order.
Ultimately, as much as I enjoyed this book, I’m not sure I would be able to use it successfully in a math classroom without spending an inordinate amount of effort.  For my ‘good’ students, who already have good study habits and systems that work for them, who don’t cram the night before the exam, much of this will be confirming things they already do.  They will read the book, agree with it, maybe pick up a few pointers, but it is unlikely to revolutionize their habits or outlook.  On the other hand, my ‘poor’ students, the ones who need the most help learning how to learn, are unlikely to read the book and take it seriously in this form.  I would love to think that I could assign a chapter a week and have them respond somehow (and the chapters do have helpful Discussion Questions), but I have trouble imagining students taking advantage of this opportunity.
Having said that, this book has given me, as a teacher, a ton of useful information that I might build into my classes in a different form, so I’m going to try little snippets: next semester, in one of my remedial classes, we’ll do quick, 5-minute summaries, a couple of times a week, about one of the very small topics in the book.  While this won’t be nearly as nutrient-dense as the book is, I’m more hopeful that a pill-sized portion might get digested more fully.


Jacob Ogle teaches at Kansas Wesleyan University.  He spends much of his time teaching, learning, and learning about teaching.  He also loves playing games, reading books, and his family.
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