Debunking Myths About Learning and Study Habits

September 13, 2010 at 9:25 pm 1 comment

Woman Helping Boy With SchoolworkIn the recent New York Times article, Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits, author Benedict Carey recaps a number of best practices for learning retention that contradict conventional wisdom.  Many of us would assume that focusing on a single concept in a consistent, dedicated study location would promote learning.  Quite the contrary: one of the common themes of Carey’s article is that variety matters.  Our brains develop stronger connections with the learning material when provided with diverse associations.   Interestingly, the research applies equally for younger learners as well as adults.

Variety of Locations: Studying material in different settings creates subtle, possibly subconscious connections with your surroundings.   Studying the same material—say vocabulary—in different settings results in better memory retention.  The hypothesis is that our brains have additional associations to rely on when recalling the learned material.

Variety of Learning Material: Researchers have also found benefit in combining related but different concepts in a given study session, e.g. practicing vocabulary, grammar, and speaking when learning a language.   In one study, a group of fourth graders practiced examples, one equation at a time, of four equations used to calculate the dimensions of a prism.  Another group studied the four related equations mixed together.  The latter group scored twice as well on a test of the material the following day.   Researcher Dr. Doug Roher explained that, with mixed practice, “each problem is different from the last one, which means kids must learn how to choose the appropriate procedure — just like they had to do on the test.”

Similar results were found when college students and older adults were asked to learn the painting styles of twelve unfamiliar artists: those who viewed mixed collections did better in distinguishing the artists’ styles.   The hypothesis is that the brain picks up on patterns when seeing assorted collections and subconsciously or consciously factors in similarities and differences.

Variety of Times: Spacing out study time improves memory.  As the author explains, “An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.”

Varying Study with Testing:  Finally, testing is particularly beneficial as part of the learning process, not only for self-assessment.  Researchers are finding that the process of retrieving information seems to create more persistent memory.  Carey concludes, “the harder it is to remember something, the harder it is to forget.”

Recommendations for Parents

  • Keep variety in mind when helping your kids learn.  For example, when teaching the alphabet, rather than using the same tool, for example alphabet books, try different materials such as an alphabet puzzle, or play a “letter hunt” game with her favorite books (I use a letter puzzle piece while reading with my two year old so that he has a tactile association with the letter for which we’re looking).
  • Reinforce topic s that your kids are learning.  For example, if your child’s preschool or play group talks about horses, look for opportunities in the following days to discuss them.    You can print out images that you find online – either photos or artwork or both.  Think about stories related to the topic (or make them up!) to help create lasting and varied associations.
  • When kids are older, encourage self-assessment and practice tests

Entry filed under: General, Research. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. slamdunk  |  September 13, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    Good advice. I think planning effectively so that studying can be done spread out is the most difficult challenge–but it certainly can be overcome.


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