fix vs grow watering plants

Natural Learning

First, I should clarify that, with this article about natural learning, I’m not saying “natural” is better. I’m not advocating that we return education to a “state of nature,” move classrooms outside, and make everything hands-on because, among other reasons, those would be unrealistic aims. Rather, I’m saying that we can design better teaching methods and choose more effective study techniques if we’re aware of how humans naturally learn. This is one of the many reasons why it’s a good idea to know something about human nature.

The most compelling public speakers and the most effective teachers are people who know how to connect with the evolved psychology of their audiences. The best study methods are those that tap into how we naturally form strong memories. All of us are in possession of an old brain living in the modern world. We’ll do better at everything, especially academics, if we know our brain’s history.

Our brains evolved to learn in particular ways, and so we struggle when attempting to learn in ways that don’t come naturally to us. Modern schools, for the most part, ignore key aspects of human nature. For example, the physical location in which learning occurs is radically different from that of our ancestors.

Our ancestors learned outdoors, while moving around. Play has been a key part of natural learning for millions of years of mammalian evolution. But now we think there’s something wrong with kids who have a hard time sitting still for hours on end. And many schools have done away with P.E. and reduced recess, forgetting that exercise makes students better learners.1 We can’t go back to a state of nature, nor should we, but we also can’t completely forget where we came from.

More Senses

Our ancestors learned by hearing, watching, tasting, smelling, and doing. Their education occurred in a rich, multi-sensory environment. As such, we’ve evolved to remember things that stimulate many of our senses.1 Abstract concepts feel more real when we can link them to sensory experiences. The more senses a lesson stimulates, the more easily it will be remembered.1

Much of our ancestors’ learning was done through visual observation, and, to this day, the majority of the information we receive through our senses is visual.1 As such, vision is by far the most important sense to include in a lesson.And this has been true since long before our ape ancestors ever stood up and walked on two legs. The saying, “Monkey see, monkey do,” actually reveals a deep truth about how humans learn.

Public speaking expert Carmine Gallo explains the power of visuals aids in learning:

If you hear information, you are likely to remember about 10 percent of that information three days later. Add a picture, however, and your recall rate will soar to 65 percent. … a picture will help you remember six times more information than listening to words alone.2

This makes perfect sense, given our history. Language is believed to be a rather recent development in our line of ancestry, perhaps dating back just 200,000 years.3 Reading and writing are even more recent developments, dating back less than 6,000 years.4

Although our current school system relies heavily on verbal information to teach, students now have the option of seeking out educational videos that offer a more vivid sensory experience. My favorite is CrashCourse. These are not a substitute for classrooms and textbooks, but they make an excellent supplement.


When it comes to verbal information, we learn best through stories. Stories grab our attention by tapping into human nature.5 Our ancestors did not sit through long lectures; they told one another stories.

Ideas make more sense to us when they’re wrapped inside a narrative, so one very effective way to study is to tell yourself a story about the ideas you’re learning. And you can go one step further and teach that story to others.

Trial and Error

Our ancestors also learned most skills through trial and error. After observing someone else perform the skill, we tried to mimic the behavior, struggled, and got better by struggling. In other words, we evolved to learn by making mistakes and failing.

This is just one more example of why the growth mindset is not just the most helpful mindset, but also the factually correct one. We’re born with a growth mindset. We all learned to walk by stumbling and falling repeatedly.


Our ancestors evolved to remember the things that stood out as important, and our brains still respond to the same cues.

New and surprising information is remembered well because it grabs our attention, and we must pay close attention in order to learn well. Titanic explorer Robert Ballard explains: “‘When you get a jaw drop, you can inform. You can put so much information into that mind, it’s in full receiving mode.’”6

Another cue that signals importance is strong emotion. We more easily remember things that are coupled with emotional significance because we naturally pay better attention when our emotions are aroused.1 Nobody has trouble remembering the time they broke their leg or won the big game.

It’s the boring things that we find hard to remember – topics that don’t feel important. Our brains aren’t inclined to devote resources to remembering things that seem unimportant. In fact, we find them hard to focus on in the first place, making them doubly hard to learn.

Our attention span is rather short, and listening is mentally exhausting.5 So, despite its ubiquity, a long, boring lecture is probably the worst way to teach. It helps to be reminded of the significance of the topic every 10 minutes or so; otherwise we tend to lose interest.1

Schools often struggle with this. They have to present material to students that is boring to many of the students. And most kids don’t feel like what they’re learning in school has much significance. Of course, most teachers search for creative ways to spice up their lessons because they know that it’s the best way to hold their students’ attention.

But this is no easy task, and we can’t put all the burden on teachers. It is up to the students themselves to find ways to stay engaged. All students have a responsibility to be active agents in their own education. Even when you don’t really care about the content, you can convince your brain to care by acting like you care. Use two hands, make written product, and ask questions.

Boring content isn’t going away, so it’s up to students to make it stick.

Since writing is relatively new to our species, it probably seems like an unnatural way to learn, so it may be surprising to hear that hand-writing information is a powerful tool to remember it.7 The reason is that writing is actually a very active way to learn. Because it uses our hands, it aligns well with the sort of active learning our tool-making ancestors did.

This may help explain why hand-writing is more effective for memory formation than typing:8 Holding a pen or a pencil is more similar to holding a stick or a small tool, as our ancestors did, so it should spark greater activation in the learning centers of the brain. We’ve been manipulating tools and learning by using our hands for millions of years longer than we’ve had spoken language,3 so hand-writing information actually taps into a deeper part of the brain than listening to a lecture.

Likewise, self-testing is a natural way to learn because our ancestors were forced to put their knowledge to the test constantly. The challenges of their environment demanded it. Taking practice tests is an excellent way to signal to your brain that something matters, and, as such, it is a very effective study method.7

And probably the best way to fool your brain into thinking something boring is really important is to use spaced repetition. To our evolved psychology, repeated exposure to something is a clear indicator of its importance. The brain, quite naturally, thinks, “This thing keeps coming up, so I should remember it.”

Plus, a great deal of unconscious learning happens between exposures, so, the more exposures, the more unconscious learning is prompted.7 We evolved to learn things over time, so cramming all your studying into one night isn’t nearly as effective as spreading it out over several days.7


The modern world is brimming with distractions that we didn’t evolve to handle.

Our ancestors lived with much less visual and auditory stimulation, so it’s no surprise that we don’t learn well when distracted.1 If you want to study effectively, eliminate as many distractions as possible.7

Bright colors, loud noises, music, and other people – whether they’re really there, on a TV screen, a cell-phone, or on social media – are all things that naturally grab our attention, pulling us away from what we’re trying to learn. These things grab our attention because, to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, they would have been rare and genuinely important.

One of the most insidious forms of distraction is self-imposed: multi-tasking. We’re really only capable of focusing our conscious attention on one thing at a time,1 And yet we are routinely overconfident about our ability to multitask. David Glenn, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education explains:

That illusion of competence is one of the things that worry scholars who study attention, cognition, and the classroom. Students’ minds have been wandering since the dawn of education. But until recently—so the worry goes—students at least knew when they had checked out. A student today who moves his attention rapid-fire from text-messaging to the lecture to Facebook to note-taking and back again may walk away from the class feeling buzzed and alert, with a sense that he has absorbed much more of the lesson than he actually has.10


Lastly, I’d like to make the case that curiosity is a part of human nature that is underutilized in the world of education.

People like solving mysteries, deciphering clues, and putting puzzle pieces together,11 and mysteries naturally grab our attention.5 We’re more likely to be engaged in a lesson if we’re recruited by the teacher as sleuths. Sure, the teacher already knows the answer, but they can withhold it, and instead ask questions and provide hints that allow students to find the path to the answer on their own. This aligns well with how our ancestors would have figured things out. Lacking textbooks, professors, and Google, they would have had to go sleuthing to answer many of their questions.

We are natural explorers, with brains that evolved to scout the terrain and map the landscape. I, for one, experience a deep sense of exhilaration whenever I have the opportunity to explore someplace new, whether it is in the mountains or in the mind.

Students can choose to view their lessons as items on a to-do list, just things to get done. Or they can view their lessons as uncharted territory, awaiting exploration.

Works Cited

1 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.

2 Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. St. Martin’s Press, 2014. Pg. 213.

Zimmer, Carl. Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins. Harper Perennial, 2007.

4 Brown, Cynthia Stokes. Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. The New Press, 2007.

5 Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. St. Martin’s Press, 2014.

6 Ballard, Robert quoted in Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. St. Martin’s Press, 2014. Pg. 112.

7 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.

8 Hotz, Robert Lee. “Can Handwriting Make You Smarter? Students who take notes by hand outperform students who type, and more type these days, new studies show.” The Wall Street Journal. April 4, 2016.

10 Glenn, David. “Divided Attention: In an age of classroom multitasking, scholars probe the nature of learning and memory.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 28, 2010.

11 Restak, Richard and Kim, Scott. The Playful Brain: The Surprising Science of How Puzzles Improve Your Mind. Riverhead Trade, 2011.

Image Credits

Title Image: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. Text added.

Our Ancestors’ Classroom: Zenino, Christine. “Jungle girl…” Creative Commons 2.0.

Modern Classroom: Levine, Alan. “Ye Old Classrooms.” Creative Commons 2.0.

Campfire Story: Thomas, Martin. “Campfire.” Creative Commons 2.0.

Baby Learning to Walk: Nadiger, Sriharsha. “my first step.” Creative Commons Public Domain.

Written Product: Arment, Marco. “Brainstorming.” Creative Commons 2.0.

Stone Tool User: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Modern Distractions: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Curious Child: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

fix vs grow watering plants

Every Class, Every Day

Few academic strategies are resisted by students as strongly as the use of a planner. For many parents, asking their child to use a planner to keep track of his schoolwork is like asking him to simultaneously eat broccoli and clean his room.

Talking with your child about using a planner is a classic example of the challenges associated with talking with your children about school. One reason the planner conversation often goes so poorly is due to the misconception that, to be a successful student, you have to use a planner, and this simply isn’t true.

There is another way. (Actually, there are several other ways, but this one is my favorite.)

Most successful students do, in fact, use planners to keep track of their schoolwork. Planners can be very useful. But many top students do something else, either instead of or in addition to using a planner. At home, they engage with every class, every day.

If a student uses the every class, every day program, then he is in the habit of consistently working with and thinking about the content from each of his classes. This means that he has a ritual of doing a bare-minimum check-in with every class after each school day and at least once per weekend.

That check-in consists of looking through the binders, folders, or notebooks associated with each class to see if anything pops out. Often the student discovers homework that he might have otherwise forgotten about. Sometimes the student sees a handout or notes that reminds him of the content that was covered that day. Occasionally, the simple act of glancing at the class materials helps him remember an upcoming test.

Please note that this technique works with or without the use of a planner. So if you really don’t like the idea of using a planner or just find it difficult to use, consider instead the habit of engaging with every class, every day. It’s a strategy that anyone can adopt as his primary method of staying on top of the work. The program can also be a powerful supplement to the use of a planner, providing a safety net for those times when you neglect to write something in your planner.

The system is as simple as it is reliable. If a student checks in with the materials for each of his classes every day, he’ll find it awfully hard to forget about upcoming tests and due dates. Even if the student has failed to write down anything indicating an important date, briefly engaging with the course material will often jog his memory.

The every class, every day program is just one example of an alternative strategy. I’m highlighting it, partly because I like the strategy, but also because it’s a nice example of how we’re not rigidly locked into a universe in which a student must use a planner or nothing at all. There are other options.

Homework vs Studying

Although I’m a big fan of planners, calendars, and other systems of written reminders, there is one big reason to actually see the every class, every day strategy as better than a planner. The reason is that planners only record homework, quizzes, and tests, so if there’s nothing required for a particular class, then you won’t engage with it. The every class, every day program gets you to think about what you’re learning in each class whether or not there’s homework. It helps students develop the habit of daily studying.

Daily studying is an important habit to develop for a few reasons. One is that success in school often depends on much more than just doing the homework. Studying is typically defined as some sort of academic work that isn’t required, that you don’t get credit for. It helps you on the test, but no one is making you do it. The homework is typically aimed at getting you to a point of understanding, but understanding is not enough. To truly, deeply learn something, you have to go beyond understanding and walk the mastery path. Every class, every day is a habit that can facilitate that journey.

This habit is also important because it’s increasingly what you’ll be expected to do as you advance as a student. In college, the homework is often optional or ungraded, even though it’s more important than ever. Professors often don’t even suggest homework, but expect that you know how to use your textbooks to self-generate homework. Studying outside of class on a regular basis is essential to success in college. Less work is going to be asked of you directly, but more work will be required.

Lastly, the every class, every day program taps into an important feature of the human brain. Daily engagement is a form of spaced repetition, which is a very efficient way to deepen understanding and form memories. Working with the content from each of your classes every day is a powerful way to convince your brain to care about what you’re learning. When you do that, your unconscious mind helps you learn far more than it otherwise would.

Crafting the Habit

Now, developing the habit of engaging with every class, every day isn’t easy, which is precisely why I recommend starting small. Just look at the materials that are in your binder. Maybe something will catch your eye, maybe not. If you discover work to be done, of course do it, but even if there’s nothing due tomorrow, you’re at least creating an opportunity to think about what you’re learning.

By keeping the bar low at first, you’re making it difficult to make excuses. Perhaps just commit to one minute of engagement with every class, every day, no matter what. With six classes, that’s just six minutes per day! The goal at the beginning of any habit development is consistency.

Top students, of course, choose to go above and beyond merely checking in, and will engage in some form of actual studying, even when there isn’t an upcoming test. This is, of course, a fantastic choice, but no one gets to that point overnight. Once the habit of simply checking in is established, it becomes easier and it feels more natural to engage in a little mental recall or make some written product in order to solidify whatever you’re learning. After the basic check-in becomes routine, gradually increase the time and effort. If you reach ten minutes of studying with every class, every day, you should see big benefits.


Image Credits

Title Image: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. Text added.

Notebooks: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Thinking: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

fix vs grow watering plants



Whenever your brain is exposed to new information, it likes to ask the same question that many students like to ask: “Is this going to be on the test?” Since the answer is usually no, the brain’s default setting is to forget most of the information we encounter on a daily basis.

Even at school, when the information usually is going to show up on a test, the default setting is still to forget. You might consciously know that there’s an upcoming test, but your brain is unconvinced. This is especially true for situations where the information could easily be looked up online or in a textbook. Your brain is no fool; it knows that those resources are out there, so it knows that forgetting is a safe choice.

The solution is to take actions that make it obvious to your brain that the test is forthcoming. How? By taking practice tests.

That’s right, the best way to switch out of forgetting mode and into memory-formation mode is to take practice tests. By testing yourself, you make it crystal clear to your brain that the information is, in fact, going to be on the test.

Recall practice is essential to memory formation because memories are not merely formed by putting information into the brain; they are also formed by pulling information back out. 1,2 The act of retrieving the knowledge is nearly as important as the act of absorbing it in the first place.

It works because every time you try to remember some piece of information without using the book or your notes or the internet, you’re communicating to your brain that you want to be able to remember that information. Hence, self-testing is really a special version of convincing your brain to care. You’re acting like you need to know the information from memory, so your brain decides that you must actually need to know it.

Self-testing is, in fact, one of the most highly regarded study techniques by learning experts; it is thoroughly supported by scientific research.1,2 In other words, if you want to get the most bang for your buck when you’re putting in study time, take practice tests. Self-testing accelerates you progress along the mastery path.

mastery path diagram

Practice tests also work because they provide opportunities to learn from mistakes and failures. By getting things wrong on the practice test, your brain gets to experience the pain of being wrong–the discomfort of not knowing something that you’d like to know.1 Your brain wants to avoid this discomfort, so it devotes energy to learning the material.

Furthermore, as I often tell students, you’d rather fail a practice test at home a couple days before the actual exam than fail the real test in class. Heed the motto of Spartan warriors:

“He who sweats more in training bleeds less in war.”

All too often, student wrongly believe that they know all the material and so choose not to study. Well, nothing cures overconfidence like bombing a practice test. Self-testing can create a surprising amount of motivation to study. If, on your first practice test, you only know 25% of the material, that should inspire you to get to work.

And self-testing only works if you don’t use your notes or other resources while taking a practice test. Even if you’re truly unprepared, self-testing must involve taking risks and making your best guesses without any help. As unpleasant as it is to feel the discomfort of staring at a blank page, it’s necessary. It hurts more to make a full guess and write out a complete answer that is totally wrong, and that which hurts more creates deeper learning.

Of course, after you give it your best effort without notes or the book, check your answers and use resources to write your wrongs. Build more written product based on what was hardest for you. Spend some time studying that, and then test yourself on everything again. The second time around, it’s tempting to just test yourself on that which you got wrong on the first test, but the research is clear: You’ll do better if you test yourself on everything again.2

But maybe you don’t have time for multiple rounds of practice tests. Perhaps you’ve waited until the last minute and are now cramming for tomorrow’s exam. Well, self-testing is also the fastest way to discover what aspects of the material you don’t know. Perhaps you already know 50% of the content, but you’re not sure which 50%. You want to get the most out of your time, so you’d like to only study that which you’re missing. A single practice test taken before studying can therefore save you a great deal of time.

Practice tests are often available online, in your textbook, or from the teacher, but you can always make your own. One version is to simply pull out a blank piece of paper and write everything you can remember about the topic. As much as possible, elaborate on the ideas as you recall them. How are these ideas related to other things you know? What is their significance?

It’s best to test yourself on paper, but that’s not the only option. Mental recall is a less-powerful version of a self-test, but it’s one that can be done anywhere. During downtime, see how much you can remember of what you were just studying. Flashcards and Quizlet are helpful, too, especially if you build those resources yourself.

Whatever you choose to do, remember that the best way to convince your brain that something is going to be on the test is to test yourself.


Works Cited

1 Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Belknap Press, 2014.

2 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.

Image Credits

Title Image: DeBrincat, Brendan. “Pencil N’ Paper.” Creative Commons 2.0. Text added.

The Mastery Path: Loper, Chris. 2016.