Yet there 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.
The advantages of this approach to studying can be striking, in some topic areas. In a study recently posted online by the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, Doug Rohrer and Kelli Taylor of the University of South Florida taught a group of fourth graders four equations, each to calculate a different dimension of a prism. Half of the children learned by studying repeated examples of one equation, say, calculating the number of prism faces when given the number of sides at the base, then moving on to the next type of calculation, studying repeated examples of that. The other half studied mixed problem sets, which included examples all four types of calculations grouped together. Both groups solved sample problems along the way, as they studied.
A day later, the researchers gave all of the students a test on the material, presenting new problems of the same type. The children who had studied mixed sets did twice as well as the others, outscoring them 77 percent to 38 percent. The researchers have found the same in experiments involving adults and younger children.
“When students see a list of problems, all of the same kind, they know the strategy to use before they even read the problem,” said Dr. Rohrer. “That’s like riding a bike with training wheels.” With mixed practice, he added, “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.”
These findings extend well beyond math, even to aesthetic intuitive learning. In an experiment published last month in the journal Psychology and Aging, researchers found that college students and adults of retirement age were better able to distinguish the painting styles of 12 unfamiliar artists after viewing mixed collections (assortments, including works from all 12) than after viewing a dozen works from one artist, all together, then moving on to the next painter.
The finding undermines the common assumption that intensive immersion is the best way to really master a particular genre, or type of creative work, said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College and the lead author of the study. “What seems to be happening in this case is that the brain is picking up deeper patterns when seeing assortments of paintings; it’s picking up what’s similar and what’s different about them,” often subconsciously.
(click to continue reading Mind – Research Upends Traditional Thinking on Study Habits – NYTimes.com.)
I’m luckily not a teacher, but I do remember how I performed best in college exams: review the material a few days before the test, let it percolate, revisit the topics the night before, sleep well, and depending on how challenging the material, review a last time the morning of the exam. Of course, not all classes benefited from this sort of regime – too boring, or too many social activities conflicting, or whatever – but the tests that I studied for in different places, at different times, I nearly always aced. I also never crammed, more so because I was lazy, and there were other items on my agenda, but also because I never found staying up all night to give a good end result.
postscript – this correction amused me:
Correction: September 8, 2010
An article on Tuesday about the effectiveness of various study habits described incorrectly the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics. The principle holds that the act of measuring one property of a particle (position, for example) reduces the accuracy with which you can know another property (momentum, for example) — not that the act of measuring a property of the particle alters that property