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A little late to this fascinating NY Times piece that highlights many of the recent findings about how individuals learn (i.e. retain information) and how these findings directly contradict some of our longest-held beliefs on the subject.  For example, people are encouraged to create a dedicated learning space where they routinely go to study.  Apparently, this strategy does not maximize information retention:

The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.

The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.

This strategy of variation also seems to apply to the subject matter of a study session.  Typically, we dedicate blocks of time to studying single topics rather than try to study multiple topics at the same time.  Apparently, this isn’t the way to go:

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.

I admit that for the most part if asked about optimal study techniques I would likely regurgitate the strategies that apparently lack scientific evidence.  However, if I think about those times when I am most productive and seem to absorb more of the material it is when I vary my study routine–both in terms of location and subject matter.  I naturally tend to bounce around from idea to idea, subject to subject.  What I’ve learned recently is that this actually helps me be more productive and retain more of what I read.  Given that these insights haven’t really filtered into the educational sphere it would not surprise me if professionals and graduates end up adopting these routines more often than undergraduates and students.

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