+ Effective Study Strategies: New Research

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We think we know about good study strategies.  Study in one special place.  Keep it uncluttered.  Be sure it’s quiet.  Stick to a schedule. Set goals.  Don’t bribe.  Pay attention to learning (and teaching) styles.

But according to Benedict Carey’s article in the NY Times, no one really knows if our advice is true.  There has only been very sketchy research  on these matters.

In recent years, however, cognitive scientists have shown that a few simple techniques can improve what a student learns and retains.  And this applies not only to a k-12, college or post-grad student, but also to a retiree who wants to learn Mandarin Chinese.

Some of the information directly contradicts much of the common wisdom.

  • Alternating rooms improves attention– when the outside context is varied, the information becomes enriched; students are forced to make multiple associations “and this slows down forgetting” (Robert A Bjork of the University of California) 
  • “Learning styles” appear to be irrelevant — “the lack of credible evidence …is both striking and disturbing” (Journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest“)
  • Ditto, “teaching styles” — “We have yet to identify the common threads between teachers who create a constructive learning atmosphere” (Daniel T Willingham, University of Virginia
  • Alternate types of material studied in one sitting — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain. Musicians and athletes have known this for years.  “With mixed practice, each problem is different from the last one, which means kids must learn how to choose the appropriate procedure” (Doug Rohrer and Kelli Taylor, University of South Florida)
  • Intensive “immersion” in one thing doesn’t pay off — researchers found that students exposed to many different styles of painting were later better able to distinguish the styles of unknown painters.  “[T]he brain is picking up deeper patterns… what’s similar and what’s different…” (Dr Nate Kornell, Williams College)

One researcher likened cramming to speed-packing a cheap suitcase: it holds its load for a while, but soon everything falls out.

Says Henry L Roediger III, of Washington University in St Louis

With many students, it’s not like they can’t remember the material [when they move to an advanced class].  It’s like they’ve never seen it before.

So pack the neural suitcase carefully and gradually, writes Carey, and it will hold its contents far longer.  Study an hour tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session in a week. 

According to dozens of studies, this spacing improves later recall without requiring you to put in extra study overall.

“Forgetting is the Friend of Learning”

No one seems to know why.  Perhaps the brain, revisiting the material later, has to relearn some of what it absorbed before.  This very process may be self-reinforcing.

Says Dr Kornell

The idea is that forgetting is the friend of learning.  When you forget something, it allows you to relearn,and do so effectively, the next time you learn it.

Testing Itself As a Powerful Learning Tool

Cognitive scientists are now seeing testing — and practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning.  They say testing is more than merely assessment. 

The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf.  It seems to fundamentally alter the way information is subsequently stored.

And that makes it far more accessible in the future.

Dr. Roediger uses the Heisenberg uncertainty principle as an analogy, which says that the act of measuring a property alters that property

“Testing not only measures knowledge, but changes it,” he says.  Happily, in the direction of more certainty.

Tests are often hard, and here is the paradox.  It is just this difficulty that makes them such effective study tools, according to researchers.  The harder it is to remember something, the harder it is to forget.

Carey says that there are, of course, other factors at play: motivation, perhaps, and the desire to impress people. 

But now students have some study strategies that  are based on evidence, and not simple theorizing or “schoolyard folk-wisdom.”  

sole source: Benedict Carey’s article in the NY Times on 9/7/2010.  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/health/views/07mind.html?_r=1&ref=benedict_carey 

tutoring in columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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