Recent research results
reported in the New York Times on 7 September 2010

I have generally contended that learning is a long-term process. Some of the research reported here suggests that learning over a long term is more effective than short-term cramming. However, I also accepted the ideas about learning and teaching styles, which the current research cannot find evidence to support. Take from this what seems important to you. I've emphasized the ideas I think are most important.

Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits

[T]here are effective approaches to learning, at least for those who are motivated. 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 instance, instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention. So does studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single thing.

"We have known these principles for some time, and it's intriguing that schools don't pick them up, or that people don't learn them by trial and error," said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken."...

But individual learning is another matter, and psychologists have discovered that some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong. For instance, many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work.

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... Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding...

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...

Cognitive scientists do not deny that honest-to-goodness cramming can lead to a better grade on a given exam. But 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. "With many students, it's not like they can't remember the material" when they move to a more advanced class, said Henry L. Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis. "It's like they've never seen it before."

When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.

No one knows for sure why. It may be that the brain, when it revisits material at a later time, has to relearn some of what it has absorbed before adding new stuff -- and that that process is itself self-reinforcing.

"The idea is that forgetting is the friend of learning," said Dr. Kornell. "When you forget something, it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it."

That's one reason cognitive scientists see testing itself -- or practice tests and quizzes -- as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. 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.

Dr. Roediger uses the analogy of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics, which holds that the act of measuring a property of a particle alters that property: "Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it," he says -- and, happily, in the direction of more certainty, not less...

"Testing has such bad connotation; people think of standardized testing or teaching to the test," Dr. Roediger said. "Maybe we need to call it something else, but this is one of the most powerful learning tools we have."

Of course, one reason the thought of testing tightens people's stomachs is that tests are so often hard. Paradoxically, it is just this difficulty that makes them such effective study tools, research suggests...

None of which is to suggest that these techniques -- alternating study environments, mixing content, spacing study sessions, self-testing or all the above -- will turn a grade-A slacker into a grade-A student. Motivation matters. So do impressing friends, making the hockey team and finding the nerve to text the cute student in social studies.

"In lab experiments, you're able to control for all factors except the one you're studying," said Dr. Willingham. "Not true in the classroom, in real life. All of these things are interacting at the same time."

But at the very least, the cognitive techniques give parents and students, young and old, something many did not have before: a study plan based on evidence, not schoolyard folk wisdom, or empty theorizing.

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