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Learning How to Learn

Posted Jan 26 2011 12:00am

The New York Times reported a study in Science that found that testing yourself on material you have learned is a good way to improve retention. Then they published a set of letters about it.

John Taylor Gatto, whose books I like, wrote:

Real learning is measured only by utility, by application. In the case of this research, the success claimed for practice testing is being measured by further testing not by any real-world application.So what? Nobody should care whether memorization is enhanced by practice testing or not.

I disagree. Every day I study Chinese. A lot of that study is memorization, such as what characters mean. Learning what the characters mean while studying in my apartment really does help me understand what they mean out in the world. I care a lot how to memorize better.

A Pace University professor and “director of learning assessment” wrote:

Studying, not test taking, is the key to learning. . . .Testing, particularly standardized testing, does nothing to enhance knowledge and hinders the development of an appreciation for learning that should begin in school and last a lifetime.

I couldn’t disagree more. After I have studied Chinese, frequently testing myself on what I’ve learned  turns out to be essential to long-term retention. Without those tests say, daily for a week, and less often after that I forget what I’ve learned.

Standardized testing is especially helpful because it helps me see what works and what doesn’t work. It makes it easier to compare various conditions, in other words.

“Development of an appreciation for learning that should begin in school . . . ” Should? I enjoyed learning long before I started school.

It has taken me a few years to figure out how to learn Chinese. Now I think I am on the right track but these letters illustrate what my self-experimentation also taught me: Experts say the darndest things.

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