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Back to School Basics: Forget Everything You Learned about Study Habits

Posted Sep 22 2010 8:19am
Now that all three of my children are back to school, my youngest now nearly all day after a slow three-week progression...weep, cheer, weep...I'm going back to school myself, relax mom, just here.

Lecture for Today: How Kids Learn.

Benedict Carey summed up the current research on study habits in a very good Mind column in the New York Times science section. Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits.   A must-read this time of year, especially if you're thinking of transforming the dining room into a study hall or rearranging the after-school schedule to block off a three-hour study period.

There's no need to create a library-like study oasis for the kids (like I just did! thankfully, I made room for just one body). Nope. Numerous studies attest to the value of mixing up the studying, literally and figuratively, space-wise, content-wise, and time-wise.

Lesson One: Forget one dedicated study space. A change in venue helps people young and old alike better retain information. Something I'll remember this afternoon as my fourth-grader plops herself and her three-ring binder on the kitchen floor, the bathroom floor, then the sliver of counter space between the toaster oven and the pile of mail. Although she's never shared it with me until now, my mother (a retired elementary-school teacher) has known this trick for years. As have apparently all education researchers. In fact they've known this since 1978 when a study came out showing college student remembered vocabulary words better after studying in two (very) different rooms rather than just one.  Don't tell Pottery Barn Kids.  Those desks are like minature space stations in their complexity and expense. 

Two rooms? It's not obvious.

A very subtle connection occurs in the brain (mostly subconscious) between the study material and the environment, details like the lighting, the sounds, the wall color, the texture of the seat cushion. “What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting,” said Dr. Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment. Love that idea. Slow down the forgetting. So the variation in environment makes the study information harder to remember and thus harder to forget. Knowledge that pretty much runs counter to the idea we have to remove the least bit of distraction from study hall.

I wonder though if children with attention issues benefit as much from changing spaces. Getting up and moving may provide relief from boredom and a chance to move the limbs but it might also prove too distracting or difficult to refocus. I would love to see that experiment. Anyone?

Speaking of distractions, do students learn better with fewer distractions? That would be the conventional wisdom. But it's possible today's plugged-in pupils are not deterred, might even benefit from more stimulation, a little instant messaging pumping up the math facts. Anyone seen anything on this? I know it's out there.

Lesson Two: Mix up the study materials. Studying the same exact type of math problems over and over? Not good. Mix up the addition with the subtraction, the story problems with the straight equations. The multiple choice with the essays. Even the reading with the spelling and the writing. This task change-up probably works because it makes the material more challenging. Before solving the equation or completing the sentence, the person first must figure out what cognitive tools they need to use. Much of this is probably automatic but still it forces the brain to become more agile. This cognitive boost has turned up in study after study from fourth-graders in math class to senior citizens distinguishing between painters. Maybe someone should inform The Princeton Review and Stanley Kaplan.

Lesson Three: Space study sessions out over time. Two sessions over a few days or even week are better than two back to back. The experts think it boils down to forgetting. Time between sessions allows students to forget and thus re-learn, re-master it. This probably reinforces and enhances the content, building more neural connections deep in the brain. As those of us who crammed our way through college know, intense all-nighters don't offer much opportunities for forgetting and thus, long-term recall. The info's there the next day but gone soon thereafter. I seem to recall a recent finding that a few hours sleep trumps a few more hours of studying. Anyone remember that one?

In any event, who knew forgetting was so valuable. Every time you can't remember where the car keys are you may actually be doing your grey matter a big favor. It's like a pop quiz every day.

Where are my keys?
Where are my kids?
Did I drive car pool?
What day is it anyhow?

Speaking of tests, maybe they've gotten a bad rep because as it turns out, they can reinforce knowledge. Not such a bad thing. Students who study one day and take a practice test the next better recalled material than those who just studied for two days. Again, the test forced retrieval and recall. It's the retrieving of info time after time that seems to reinforce it. Simply reviewing it isn't good enough. Gotta take it out, put it back in the brain. So even though the pop quiz may be hell on the GPA it's great for actual learning.

So considering all we know, the current educational strategy of stretching the same theme or topic (e.g. dinosaurs, the planets or Life in Colonial America) across the curriculum makes a lot of sense. Incorporating dinosaurs across science, math, social studies, even music, allows students to retrieve and forget those remarkable creatures over time, different tasks, and different class rooms. So many more opportunities to forget how to spell and say Saurornithoides (saw-ROR-ni-THOI-deez).

Momm-yyyyy! Why can't you be-member my favowit dinosauww!

Lesson Four: What's up with learning styles? This is the common idea that people differ in how they best perceive and process the world (visual/auditory, right brain/left brain, concrete/abstract) and therefore best learn with information presented in the appropriate mode. But this article disputes the benefit of teaching to different learning styles:

In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. (Benedict Carey, in the NY Times)
Sounds like a closed case that's been thoroughly investigated and debunked. But after reading the review cited above I came away with a slightly different conclusion. Though many researchers have addressed the topic not many have tested it in a well-designed experiment.

How many? Four! Of those only one found evidence that learning styles mattered and it wasn't a great study. So, yes, while there is "almost zero" evidence, it is more accurate to say there is simply not a lot of research that can address the issue. There's not much evidence either way. The learning styles examined in the limited experiments varied from the common visual/verbal dichotomy to the sensation/intuition dimension best known from the Myers Briggs personality test. Because the modes/styles were so different it doesn't seem worthwhile to even compare them. Also, the experimental contexts ranged from a brief computer task to participation and performance over an entire psychology course. Usually it's a good thing to show similar results across a wide range of contexts but because the styles are so different, again, it makes any comparison pretty darn difficult. So do visual thinkers learn better with visual materials? Really, we don't know because not many researchers have tried to figure it out.

FYI, I am such a visual learner, I refuse to believe there's nothing to the visual/auditory modes. I'll take a book over a lecture any day. Give me some more data and we'll duke it out.

Still, some interesting lessons here about mixing up study materials, mixing the learning across content, task, time and space. As for the latter, space, I keep thinking about the growing field of environmental psychology: the study of the interaction between space (e.g., physical, social, natural, constructed, etc.) and people (e.g., their behavior, thoughts, emotion).

It offers some promising useful applications in terms of education and learning. We've learned something about ceilings for instance:

Lofty, high-vaulted ceilings promote abstract thought conducive to brainstorming and creative endeavors, so in terms of school, maybe discussions of literary themes in English class or string theory in physics. Low ceilings, in contrast, focus attention on concrete details, no doubt something we value in surgeons, pharmacists and tax preparers or in school, math teachers and reading specialists. So in addition to simply changing spaces in a perfect world educators would consider how different rooms might better accommodate certain subjects. Would someone be willing to bring this up at the next PTA meeting? Maybe right after news of more teacher lay-offs and the death of the arts.

But thank goodness for those enterprising principals and school systems. People who are implementing findings from some of the newest research like high-schools shifting to later start times for sluggish adolescent brains or elementary schools moving recess before lunch. Kudos to those schools brave enough to change and change based on actual scientific evidence rather than political will or parental preferences.

So that's it for today.

Here's the syllabus for upcoming posts: multiple choice tests, kindergarteners and ADHD, merit pay for teachers, just in time for Back to School Night or the first parent-teacher conference.

But before the bell rings.....pop quiz:

Name the new field I just mentioned. Bonus points if you can define it.
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