The New York Times article Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits has been the most popular article on their site since its publication a week ago. That’s an amazing run for a piece at a paper that produces such much good copy. It obviously has struck a chord.
Here’s Benedict Carey’s premise:
In recent years, cognitive scientists have shown that a few simple techniques can reliably improve what matters most: how much a student learns from studying.
The findings can help anyone, from a fourth grader doing long division to a retiree taking on a new language. But they directly contradict much of the common wisdom about good study habits, and they have not caught on.
For example, popular ideas about children having specific learning styles (e.g., a “visual learner”) or the teaching style of a teacher making a difference aren’t born out in the research. What research has found evidence for is factors that make a difference in individual learning. In part, this is because it is easier to study, control and test these individual factors than complex interactional ones, but that’s a story for another time.
What matters? Variation, timing, and performance. Students learn better when presented varied material in varied settings. Students do better when spacing out their studying, coming back to the topic multiple times. And students do better when they have to put what they’ve learned into practice, for example, through practice exams or studying one day and getting tested a subsequent day rather than simply two days of studying material.
One main point of Carey’s piece, even if it comes through subtly, is that “book” learning is more like learning a sport or a musical instrument than we’ve imagined. Athletes and musicians know how much maximal performance impacts their own development. Training for the big race is different than just jogging around the block. Training for the big race by putting in some near-race level training is even better, and preferable over constant, steady practice.
Similarly, focusing on different skills and breaking an overall problem into parts can help in sports and music, and in studying too.
Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills.
The other major point of the article is that we have to take into account how the brain actually learns, rather than continue to rely on our assumptions, both personal and institutional, about what works for “absorbing knowledge.” Indeed, the “fax” model of learning, where a teacher magically delivers the content into a student’s head, is not based in reality, either for learning or for our understanding of culture. Creating a match between teacher style and student style so there is “clear transmission” of information is not the right model for how learning or teaching actually happen.
With the varying skills point, two points are made: (1) 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”; and (2) mixed collections of materials help students pick up what is similar and different, rather than intensive immersion in a single subject or artist assisting recall.
Having to pick and getting feedback on that choice, doing compare and contrast, learning to handle uncertainty – all of these can make a difference.
Let us take the basic information acquisition-storage-retrieval model of learning. Here is how it is cast in the article, always favoring a brain interpretation.
The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time… Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding. “What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting.”
Hurriedly jam-packing a brain is akin to speed-packing a cheap suitcase, as most students quickly learn — it holds its new load for a while, then most everything falls out… When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer.
The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.
When I originally read the article, I thought I was reading it to find out good hints for how to help my own children learn. That is how the article is actually cast, a primer in what we know about “good study habits” and how that contradicts familiar advice – “Clear a quiet work space. Stick to a homework schedule” and so forth.
But the reason I’ve kept thinking about this piece, and decided to finally write about it, is the lessons it might have for me as a teacher. If students learn best by alternating environments, mixing content, spacing material and learning, and emphasizing acquisition and performance, including practice tests, what does that mean for how I should structure my classes?
I have placed my syllabus for my graduate class in biocultural medical anthropology online. Looking at that syllabus now, I’d get mixed grades on how it matches up with these ideas about better learning. We move through a series of topics, and don’t really come back to touch on them in an explicit fashion. I’ve placed some major tests at the end – a research poster in class and a final paper – but don’t build up to that through prior practice. I certainly don’t go back and test them on what they learned the class before – the emphasis is always on moving forward.
We are also stuck in the same room for the entire semester. The main learning environment I control is constant – my assigned classroom.
That said, different people have to present and lead discussion each class, so that varies. Though the textbooks do move through topics, in my selection of readings I’ve tried to cover different points, sometimes repeatedly – the biological side, the cultural side, the applied side, bringing it all together. And then I think back to my own graduate training, and I know how much I learned there. I have confidence in that, and know that the research discussed by Carey is always done in artificial environments. I shouldn’t read too much into just one NY Times article.
Let us take the topic-driven point. I am training professionals who need a broad knowledge base, a basic familiarity with the breadth of the field. I know that, because I know feeling like a fool because you don’t know what someone is talking about at a meeting or when you get that question on a job interview is actually a much worse outcome than demonstrating testable mastery.
Yet I also know that I assume they acquire the knowledge I want over the course of the semester, in particular important aspects of theory and of how to do biocultural analysis. I don’t explicitly demand recall on that, for example, by going back the next class session and making them write out what they remembered about cultural or evolutionary theory or what McEwen had to say about social causation.
I also don’t explicitly think about constructing classes to demand multiple skills or varied efforts from students. We aim to cover the readings, there is general a key idea or two I want to stress, and then, at the grad level, we’ll see what comes up through questions and discussions. Perhaps it leads to the same end result. But still, I could see some interesting ways to try to structure a class to get at basic skills – idea recall, application, public speaking, literature search skills, and so forth.
Those are the two ideas that have stuck in my head – varied training and more emphasis on recall/practice/performance. They are at odds with a topic-by-topic approach (intense discussion of one area) and with a lone classroom/end of the semester big projects approach. As I said earlier, breadth of knowledge is important for these students, and so is preparing for and executing a big project – the first step towards what will be their own research and peer-reviewed publications.
But both those ideas don’t focus on the process of learning over the course of the semester, and how I could deepen their learning through making them engage and practice ideas and skills more and varying content and training so that they can develop better compare-and-contrast and skilled application capacities.
And if any of you have ideas for how things I might try out, I’m all ears!
Note: The first image is from the post The Brain Is Our Common Denominator written by Eric Jensen, where he covers ten basic results from brain research that can affect learning in the classroom. It’s definitely a good overview.