Book Review – Outsmart Your Brain by Daniel T. Willingham

From time to time, we like to review some of the books available for parents of college students.  There is a wealth of literature available to help parents cope with the transition to college and the changes that occur throughout the college years.  We’ve offered some lists of recommended reading, and there is something for everyone. Visit our Resources page for suggestions of important books for college parents and their students.

Daniel T. Willingham’s book Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning Is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy is a book that will give high school students a boost and should be packed in every college student’s luggage as they head off to school. It’s not a book your student will sit down and read from cover to cover, and it isn’t meant to be. Your student may even scoff at it and assume they don’t need it. But as they settle into the work of college, as they begin to hit the inevitable bumps in the academic road, if the book is there waiting for them, they will have an approachable resource that can make the difference between failure and success.

Willingham makes clear early in the book that wanting to learn has no direct impact on learning. This thought alone should be a light bulb moment for students, parents, and teachers. When good students fail (either a test or an entire class) we all too often assume it happened because the student didn’t try or didn’t care enough about learning. But Willingham reassures us all that it isn’t the student – it’s their brain.

Willingham explains that when you are trying to learn, your brain encourages you to do things that feel easy and feel like they are leading to success – but most of these strategies and techniques don’t work. He says, “Outsmarting your brain means doing the mental exercise that feels harder but is going to bring the most benefit in the long run.” Outsmarting your brain takes work, but pays off.

Once students understand the premise of Willingham’s book, they may be willing to try some of the 94 tips that he presents throughout the book. Students can skip around in the book to find the sections that meet their need at the moment. Early in the semester they may want to look at chapters about how to understand a lecture, how to take and reorganize lecture notes, or how to read difficult books. By mid-to-late semester, students may look at how to judge whether you’re ready for an exam, how to take tests, or how to learn from past exams. At any point in the semester (early is better than later) students may turn to how to plan your work, how to defeat procrastination, how to stay focused and how to gain self-confidence as a learner.

Approachable and easy to read, with lots of practical examples, this book will benefit those students who are willing to experiment with their techniques and strategies and do the hard(er) work of real learning.

Willingham finishes each chapter with some takeaways for instructors about how to implement these tips in their classroom teaching. This makes the book equally helpful for those “in the front” of the classroom as for those “in the desks.” We recommend the book to all faculty members who care about understanding what may be going on in students’ heads and who want to help them really learn the material. Remember, it’s all about their brains!

This is a valuable book for students to have on their shelf for when they need it. It does not necessarily provide quick fixes, but rather helps students learn how to establish the habits that will outsmart their brain and put them on the path to productive learning throughout their lives. Put this one in your student’s hands.

About the author:

Daniel T. Willingham received his degree in cognitive psychology from Harvard University and is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several books, including Raising Kids Who Read and Why Don’t Students Like School? He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science.

What the author has to say about the book:

“Most of schooling has the same format: You learn by attending lectures and reading on your own. You demonstrate your learning by taking tests. These three tasks – listening, reading, taking tests – make up the bulk of a student’s work. So these are the tasks I’ve addressed in the book.

Independent learning calls for many separate skills, and you need someone to teach them to you. Most likely no one did. Surveys of college students show that the vast majority devise their own strategies for studying, avoiding procrastination, and so on. But the strategies they come up with usually aren’t very good.  That’s why I wrote this book. It’s a user’s guide to your brain that will allow you to fully exploit its learning potential and so become an independent learner.

Each chapter of this book guides you to success in one of these processes. You can pick and choose which chapters to read according to which aspects of learning you want to improve. You don’t have to read the chapters in order or read all of them. And I don’t expect that you will use all of the tips in a chapter. I offer a bunch so you can select one that appeals to you; if it doesn’t work, try another. But don’t reject a strategy simply because it sounds to you as though it won’t work. Remember, many will sound funny, and they may feel, at the time, as though they’re not working! Judge the effectiveness of a method by the results, not by how it feels to do it.

Your memory is a tool, and this book is an operating manual that will allow you to become an independent learner. I can’t promise that I’ll make learning completely effort-free. The brain just doesn’t work that way, and if anyone tells you otherwise . . . well, keep your hand on your wallet while they’re around.

What I can promise is much greater efficiency.  I will show you how to change your approach to learning so that you can learn on your own and so that the effort you put in will have much greater impact. You’ll learn faster, and what you learn will stick with you longer. All you need to do is understand a bit about how your brain works – and about its stumbling blocks. Then you can outsmart it.”

What others have to say about the book:

“At last, Daniel Willingham, one of the world’s experts in the science of learning, explains the keys to mastering the challenges of school. And he does it not just with evidence, but with clarity and charm.”

                       Steven Pinker, bestselling author of How the Mind Works and Rationality

“Brisk and interesting, this is a wonderful book with a wealth of practical advice . . . for anyone who cares about learning.”

                       Henry L. Roediger III, co author of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning 

“Willingham does double duty: he places the power to learn back where it should be, in the hands of students, while showing teachers how to harness the most effective systems and techniques for boosting learning.”

                      Jessica Lahey, New York Times bestselling author of The Gift of Failure and The Addiction Inoculation 

“The first, last, best, and only scientific guide to learning in the classroom. Filled with smart, simple, and fact-based advice.”

                    Daniel Gilbert, New York Times bestselling author of Stumbling on Happiness

Check out Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning Is Hard and How You can Make It Easy by Daniel T. Willingham, PhD

Be sure to check out our full list of books for both you and your student. (Parents are making a big transition, too!).

Note: Some links in our post are for affiliate products. If you use our links, College Parent Central receives a small percentage of your purchase price. This does not change the cost to you.  We think it’s only fair to let you know that.


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