Study Habits Revisited

There’s a great article in today’s NY Times: Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits.  It spells out some valuable strategies for parents to help their kids get an edge on studying more effectively.

I wanted to outline the main points in the article and add some commentary from my own research and experience.

1) Learning styles and teaching styles: the evidence is just not there

Although we love to talk about learning styles and insist that certain individuals are visual learners, while others are kinesthetic learners, there is no consistent and compelling empirical data to support the learning style theory.  Students who self-report that they are “visual learners” are expressing their aesthetic preference for learning using their visual cortex; this does not indicate that they are incapable of learning using other modalities. It turns out we are multi-faceted learners, and we can learn using a variety of styles, matched with a wide array of teaching styles. Our “styles” are merely preferences. These preferences, in my opinion are still valuable tools for the educator. When we are learning from a teacher who matches our learning preference, we will have a more positive experience. When we are studying in our preferred modality, this can enhance the experience and, I believe, impact motivation. Whenever I work with a student, I will adjust my approach to match their learning preferences. With some I am more visual, with others I make up mnemonics or songs; I will give them choices, empower them and attempt to make studying as pain-free as possible.

2) Vary the location of studying

Though I have never personally followed this advice, I can see how this could help students. From high school to graduate school, I have always found a few sacred studying places and particular studying soundtracks to keep me focused and distraction free. In my experience with students, when I help them better regulate their study environments, good changes frequently take place. And once they’ve found the winning formula, why change a good thing? For other students who have yet to find their study niche, I can see the utility of studying the same material in several, ideally distraction-free, environments. The brain is always encoding information. Every new neural trace reinforces previous traces that are similar. You meet someone new at a party and learn their name for the first time. You see them again at a restaurant, and you reinforce their name and face in the new context. See them a third time, and there’s a good chance you’ll remember their name, pulling memories from 2 different contexts. The same could certainly apply to studying.

3) Change up the material and use mixed problem sets

Long study marathons are generally inefficient. Shake it up: vary the content. I like students to switch gears every hour and a half, even when studying for exams. Regularly changing gears keeps the mind more alert and the students more engaged. And when students will be assessed on material from several content areas, it is important that they prepare for this experience. It’s a fundamental learning strategy to study in the manner in which you will be assessed. When we are prepping for the SAT or ACT, for instance, we use officially released tests, and the students must bounce back and forth between algebra I, algebra II, arithmetic and geometry.

4) Cramming leads to poor retention

How many of us can identify with the students who see material, post cramming, and have almost zero recall whatsoever? Cramming can certainly help you pack in a lot of material and achieve a higher grade, but harbor no illusions about this material encoding in long-term memory. Cramming is a grade-focused strategy, appropriate for particular situations. Anyone who will need recall or deeper understanding at a later date would be remiss to rely on cramming. Med students be advised! Baccalaureate students be forewarned! Stick with deeper encoding strategies.

5) Using assessments, spaced study intervals and forced retrieval practice

Assessments and forced retrieval practices are essential to solidify learning! When you are forced to call up information from memory, the neural trace is strengthened. This is why it’s so smart to review your notes within 24 hours of writing them down. Reinforce those memory traces and they will endure. See my 2009 article on the forgetting curve which gives more background on the benefits of forced retrieval and spaced studying.

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