How We Learn

Course No. 1691
Professor Monisha Pasupathi, Ph.D.
University of Utah
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Course No. 1691
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Course Overview

Learning is a lifelong adventure. It starts in your mother's womb, accelerates to high speed in infancy and childhood, and continues through every age, whether you're actively engaged in mastering a new skill, intuitively discovering an unfamiliar place, or just sleeping, which is fundamental to helping you consolidate and hold on to what you've learned. You are truly born to learn around the clock.

But few of us know how we learn, which is the key to learning and studying more effectively. For example, you may be surprised by the following:

  • People tend to misjudge what they have learned well, what they don't yet know, and what they do and do not need to practice.
  • Moments of confusion, frustration, uncertainty, and lack of confidence are part of the process of acquiring new skills and new knowledge.
  • Humans and animals explore their worlds for the sake of learning, regardless of rewards and punishment connected with success.
  • You can teach an old dog new tricks. In fact, older learners have the benefit of prior knowledge and critical skills—two advantages in learning.

Shedding light on what's going on when we learn and dispelling common myths about the subject, How We Learn introduces you to this practical and accessible science in 24 half-hour lectures presented by Professor Monisha Pasupathi of the University of Utah, an award-winning psychology teacher and expert on how people of all ages learn.

A Course about You

Customers of The Great Courses are already devoted to lifelong learning and may be surprised at how complicated the process of learning is. We have a single word for it—learn—but it occurs in a fascinating variety of ways, which Professor Pasupathi recounts in detail. She describes a wide range of experiments that may strike a familiar chord as you recognize something about yourself or others:

  • Scripts: We have trouble recalling specific events until we have first learned scripts for those events. Young children are prodigious learners of scripts, but so are first-time parents, college freshmen, foreign travelers, and new employees.
  • Variable ratio reinforcement: Children whining for candy are usually refused, but the few occasions when parents give in encourage maximal display of the behavior. The same principle is behind the success of slot machines and other unpredictable rewards.
  • Storytelling: Telling stories is fundamentally an act of learning about ourselves. The way we recount experiences, usually shortly after the event, has lasting effects on the way we remember those experiences and what we learn from them.
  • Sleeper effect: Have you ever heard something from an unreliable source and later found yourself believing it? Over time, we tend to remember information but forget the source. Paradoxically, this effect is stronger when the source is less credible.

Dr. Pasupathi's many examples cover the modern history of research on learning—from behaviorist theory in the early 20th century to the most recent debates about whether IQ can be separated from achievement, or whether a spectrum of different learning styles and multiple intelligences really exist.

What You Will Learn

You start by examining 10 myths about learning. These can get in the way of making the fullest use of the extraordinary capacity for learning and include widespread beliefs, such as that college-educated people already know how to maximize learning or that a person must be interested in a subject in order to learn it.

Professor Pasupathi then covers mistaken theories of learning, such as that lab animals and humans learn in the same way or that the brain is a tabula rasa, a blank slate that can absorb information without preparation. Babies might seem to be a counterexample, showing that you can learn from scratch. However, you examine what newborns must know at birth in order for them to learn so much, so quickly.

Next you explore in depth how humans master different tasks, from learning a native language or a second language, to becoming adept at a sport or a musical instrument, to learning a new city or a problem-solving strategy, to grasping the distinctive style of thinking required in mathematics and science. Then you look inside the learning process itself, where many factors come into play, including what is being learned and the context, along with the emotions, motivations, and goals of the learner. You close by considering individual differences. Some people seem to learn without effort. How do they do it?

Tips on Learning

Along the way, Professor Pasupathi offers frequent advice on how to excel in many different learning situations:

  • Mastering material: Testing yourself is a very effective strategy for mastering difficult material. Try taking a blank sheet of paper and writing down everything you can recall about the subject. Then go back and review the material. Next, try another blank sheet of paper.
  • Second-language learning: Becoming fluent in a second language in adulthood is difficult because your brain is tuned to your native language and misses important clues in the new language. To overcome this obstacle, immerse yourself among native speakers of the new language.
  • Motivating a child: When trying to motivate a schoolchild to learn, avoid controlling language, create opportunities to give the child a sense of choice, and be careful about excessive praise and other forms of rewards, which can actually undermine learning.
  • Maintaining a learning edge: Middle-aged and older adults can preserve their learning aptitude by exercising to maintain cardiovascular health, staying mentally active, and periodically trying a new challenge, such as learning to draw or studying new dance steps.

Adventures in Learning

Winner of prestigious teaching awards from her university's chapter of Psi Chi, the National Honor Society in Psychology, Dr. Pasupathi brings today's exciting field of learning research alive. Her descriptions of ongoing work in her field, in which she is a prominent participant, are vivid and insightful, allowing you to put yourself into a given experiment and ask, "How would I react under these circumstances? What does this tell me about my own approach to learning?"

By the time How We Learn ends, you will appreciate the incredible breadth of what we learn in our lifetimes, understand the commonality and diversity of human learning experiences, and come away with strategies for enhancing your own adventures in learning.

"Learning is a human birthright," says Professor Pasupathi. "Everything about us is built for lifelong learning—from our unusually long childhood and our large prefrontal cortex to our interest in novelty and challenge." And she finds reason for optimism about the future of humanity due to our almost miraculous capacity to learn.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Myths about Learning
    Explore what it means to learn, and consider 10 myths about learning—for example, that learning must be purposeful or that emotions get in the way of learning. None of these or eight other widely held views is accurate, as you discover in depth in this course. x
  • 2
    Why No Single Learning Theory Works
    Take a historical tour of early work on learning, which was deeply influenced by classical conditioning, made famous by Ivan Pavlov. Learn that in the effort to avoid anything that wasn't directly observable, researchers left out key unobservable factors, such as the attitudes of the subjects. x
  • 3
    Learning as Information Processing
    Investigate the information processing approach to learning, which holds that learning occurs as people encounter information, connect it to what they already know, and as a result, see changes in their knowledge or ability to do specific tasks. x
  • 4
    Creating Representations
    How do you create representations of categories and events in your mind? Explore two aspects of this process. First, you seldom, if ever, learn passively; instead, learning occurs in the context of purposeful action. Second, what you already know changes your experiences in learning. x
  • 5
    Categories, Rules, and Scripts
    Whether you realize it, you acquire new knowledge by organizing experiences into categories, searching for rules within those categories, and establishing scripts—or patterns—that serve as guides for predicting what happens next in an unfamiliar activity or interaction. Find out how in this lecture. x
  • 6
    What Babies Know
    Newborns are not a blank slate on which parents can dictate whatever they want their children to know. Instead, babies come prepackaged to develop in certain ways. Investigate how babies manage an overwhelming amount of learning and what this tells us about how grownups learn. x
  • 7
    Learning Your Native Tongue
    Developing humans progress from no words to about 60,000 words by adulthood, while also mastering complex syntax and grammar. Probe the mechanisms that permit babies to absorb the language they hear around them and make it their native tongue. x
  • 8
    Learning a Second Language
    If learning a native language occurs almost without effort, why is it so hard to learn a second language, particularly after childhood? Examine this question in light of experiments to teach human language to other species, which provide intriguing clues for the difficulties adult language learners face. x
  • 9
    Learning How to Move
    Focus on four questions central to learning a new motor skill: What should you pay attention to while learning the skill? Can verbalizing the skill help with mastering it? What about learning by watching versus learning by doing? Does imagining the movement provide any benefits? x
  • 10
    Learning Our Way Around
    Investigate how you learn to navigate through the world, a skill we share with all other mobile creatures. Find that while spatial learning has a conscious component, we often don't know that we have a cognitive map of a particular place until we have to use it. x
  • 11
    Learning to Tell Stories
    Storytelling is a crucial way that you connect with other people and also learn about yourself. Discover how you learn to narrate your experiences in a way that is ordered in time, communicates the essential details of what happened, and makes clear to the audience why they should listen. x
  • 12
    Learning Approaches in Math and Science
    Math and science require learning both facts about the world and a special process—the "how" used to identify and solve new problems. Survey different approaches to teaching math and science. Some work for building a knowledge of facts, others for instilling an understanding of process. x
  • 13
    Learning as Theory Testing
    Scientists engage in theory testing to evaluate their own work and that of their colleagues. But is it realistic to expect nonscientists to develop similar habits of mind? Examine the problems people have in overcoming natural biases that inhibit scientifically rigorous thinking and learning. x
  • 14
    Integrating Different Domains of Learning
    Survey some common factors that apply to many learning situations, focusing on both intuitive and conscious processes. Tips for learning include spacing your rehearsals, varying the context, drawing on connections to things you know, learning the same way you'll use your learning, and sleeping on it! x
  • 15
    Cognitive Constraints on Learning
    Delve into three constraints on learning: attention, working memory, and executive function. Consider the evidence for the importance of these capacities in supporting or limiting learning. Close by investigating how they can be improved to enhance learning abilities over your lifespan. x
  • 16
    Choosing Learning Strategies
    Monitoring progress in learning can help develop a more effective learning strategy. Examine research showing how easy it is to misjudge success or lack of success at learning a skill or subject. Then look at approaches that let you increase retrieval and retention of learning. x
  • 17
    Source Knowledge and Learning
    Often it's important to know not only a piece of information but also its source, especially in today's information-rich culture with many different sources to be weighed for accuracy. Learn how to combat the common tendency to forget the source before anything else. x
  • 18
    The Role of Emotion in Learning
    How does it affect learning when you feel happy or sad? Examine the role of emotions in learning, discovering that some moods are better for some tasks. For example, mild anxiety in studying for a test might actually enhance performance by focusing attention. x
  • 19
    Cultivating a Desire to Learn
    Consider how to foster the kinds of motivation that will help support learning rather than undermine it. Rewards such as good grades can backfire by reducing a student's desire to learn about a topic and willingness to persist on that topic. But what is a more effective motivation? x
  • 20
    Intelligence and Learning
    Do IQ scores predict the ability to learn? Or are they simply a measure of what has previously been learned, giving a person a leg up on subsequent learning? Use the statistical concept of correlation to shed light on the long-running debate over the nature of intelligence and its role in learning. x
  • 21
    Are Learning Styles Real?
    An influential contemporary view holds that we're all good at some things but not others, and that we may each differ in the way we like to learn. Probe the arguments for and against these ideas of multiple intelligences and differing learning styles. x
  • 22
    Different People, Different Interests
    Trace the origins and growth of the different interests that people naturally have. Interest stimulates the development of initially higher knowledge, which then facilitates further learning and further interest. Then consider an interest-related personality trait that is likely to be shared by the audience for this course. x
  • 23
    Learning across the Lifespan
    Focus on the role of age in learning by reviewing four principles presented earlier in the course and exploring how they relate to different age groups. Close by examining a variety of strategies for preserving information-processing abilities into late life. x
  • 24
    Making the Most of How We Learn
    Conclude your exploration of how we learn with a look at today's frontiers of learning research. Then revisit the myths of learning from Lecture 1, review optimal approaches to learning, and consider what educators can do to make best use of our new understanding of this vital process. x

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Your professor

Monisha Pasupathi

About Your Professor

Monisha Pasupathi, Ph.D.
University of Utah
Dr. Monisha Pasupathi is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Utah. She holds a Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University. She joined the faculty at Utah in 1999 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany. Professor Pasupathi has been honored multiple times for her teaching. She was named Best Psychology Professor by her university's chapter of...
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How We Learn is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 41.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A tale of two courses I'm a bit shocked to see a number of quite negative reviews. I think I understand where they are coming from, but they are seriously overly harsh. I, too, had a problem with Dr. Pasupathi's initial speaking style. She is quite erudite and I found her a pleasure to listen to. (I listened to the audio version, and found her voice to be quite appealing.) However, she does stumble a bit here and there and it's pretty clear that she's relying on notes, not on reading a prepared text. Personally, I find this style much more engaging that reading from a prepared text. I'd much rather than occasional stumble than the stilted stiff presentation that a prepared text almost always engenders. I describe this as a tale of two courses because I thought the second half had much more surprising and seriously educational content than the first half. (So if you're only partway through and are thinking of giving up, I highly recommend you get through at least lecture 13. The discussion of confirmation bias was really eye-opening to me. We all do it, but we all need to be armed by knowledge about it to resist falling into the same trap. I also found lectures 14, 16, 17, and 18 to be excellent and surprising. Many people complained that they didn't learn much about how to improve their own learning. Again, I thought the same thing through lecture 12. But starting with the second half of the course, she really goes into great detail about how we can all improve our own learning strategies. While this is clearly much more of a theory course than a self-improvement one, there is plenty of self-improvement advice here. I know I've come away with a number of strategies to improve my own learning and retention. All in all a very valuable course. I can't give it five stars, because she's not quite that good (at least on audio). But it's a definite four star course with a strong recommendation.
Date published: 2019-10-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Decoding our encoding This course was informative and useful shop-talk for teachers, and is a fine introduction to how we acquire, process and retain experience. Although, I must admit that I usually have an interest-avoidance of theory in educational-psychology, the instructor was gracious in presenting her lectures without much technically-cryptic vocabulary or many concept-matrices. Some attention was paid to popular psychology, but not enough to trivialize her presentation. Lectures flowed smoothly from one to the next, and ideas were built-upon, and reviewed, as the course progressed. Good to know.
Date published: 2019-09-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from very well explained and engaging This course is well explained and full of important information about leaning theories and many interesting facts. The Professor does a great job at keeping the audience engaged in the learning process and provide many different examples to make the content more digestable.
Date published: 2019-06-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting Read I enjoyed reading this book, it showed me a different point of view in learning, the author has some wonderful things to teach us, and recommend it to anyone.
Date published: 2019-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from How we learn It is very good st giving deep insight into learning .
Date published: 2019-05-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Learning about learning. Very informative and well-presented course. I enjoyed the lectures.
Date published: 2019-03-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A must for college freshmen I wish I had a course like this BEFORE I entered my freshman year in college. It would have given me much greater insight into what would help me learn and what wouldn't help. Pair with "The Learning Brain" taught by Thad A. Polk, PhD.
Date published: 2019-03-08
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Too verbose, too convoluted, too little merit 'You can't teach an old dog new tricks!' Well, our lecturer puts down THAT fallacy. My objective in buying this set (on DVD) was to discover how to learn more effectively. I found it fascinating that when we retrieve some info, apply it and move on, when we "re-store" that info, we "update" it. I'm still thinking about that! The emphasis on USING stored material in order to maintain it, is so important: this consideration is compelling -- as I have found in learning languages and scripts, and in remembering the dozen or so passwords I need in order to live well in the 21st century ! Again, with this lecture series, recorded in 2011, I lament the apparent death of The Great Courses' lectern or podium. The use of the teleprompter and subsequent obsession with camera angles, causes the lecturer to roam back and forth across the studio set --- off-putting, I find. Btw, I was astounded to hear this lecturer use the term "very unique". The word "unique" is an absolute; there are no degrees of uniqueness. Frankly, although this course has some merit, I had to wade through a great deal of fancy terminology to get to the nub. Even very simple actions & procedures, with which we're all familiar, in this discipline, are presented using convoluted & complex reference terms attached to them. Chapter 10 in particular (Learning Our Way Around) was almost a lesson in obfuscation; I found myself laughing at times. Another reviewer referred to "psychobabble"; I understand that comment. I gather that this discipline absolutely revels in "high-faluting" terminology. An example: "Spatial learning involves aspects of: skill, knowledge, representations of how the world is organized in space." and "Spatial learning tasks --- Orienting: knowing where we are, knowing where desired objects or places are in relation to us in our current position." HUH? "But we can also navigate using spatial learning by integrating sensory and perceptual feedback into our orientation knowledge on a kind of continuously updated basis." HMMM. I think "continually" works better in that sentence, rather than "continuously". But what do I know? Here's a bit of Lecture 11: "Summing up, I want to highlight how learning to tell stories is an area of learning that is tacit or implicit; it's acquired in the service of other activities with repeated practice and assistance from adults and others." OK! Unhappily, at the end of the course, I could not say that I had learned anything of real help to me. I just didn't LEARN how to learn more efficiently, though I did see, to some extent, in a new light, having plowed my way through the verbiage, some of the ways that human beings learn and develop knowledge from babyhood on. Lecture 22 starts by asking "Are there individual differences in the things people find interesting?" Huh? Er, yeah!! And the next question is "Could they affect learning?" There was nothing exciting about this course; the studio setting is brown & drab, and the lecturer wore clothing to match. Lots of pictures of people (too many!) from a stock library were shown throughout ~ that introduced some "colour" and "sparkle". I'm glad I did not buy the audio version: that would have tried my patience. Regrettably, I can't bring myself to recommend Dr. Pasupathi's "How We Learn" lectures.
Date published: 2019-01-27
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