Want to study more effectively? Mix it up.
An interesting article from the New York Times on learning and retention explodes some of the myths about the best ways to study.
First, students retain more information when they study the same material in different places:
[M]any 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. 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.
“What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting,” said Dr. Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment.
I can personally attest to this phenomenon. Ever since I opened my classroom and stopped tutoring in students’ homes, I’ve noticed a marked improvement in my effectiveness at raising their scores. Perhaps this improvement is caused in part by students learning the material from me at one location and then reviewing the material (via homework) at another, rather than simply learning and reviewing at the same location.
It also helps to vary the type of material studied in a single sitting.
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.
For SAT tutors, varying Critical Reading, Writing and Math subjects during a lesson may help students retain more of the material. For students, practicing different subjects in the same homework session may help your overall test performance.
Finally, the article emphasizes the importance of testing itself as a valuable teaching tool.
“Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it,” he says — and, happily, in the direction of more certainty, not less.
In one of his own experiments, Dr. Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke, also of Washington University, had college students study science passages from a reading comprehension test, in short study periods. When students studied the same material twice, in back-to-back sessions, they did very well on a test given immediately afterward, then began to forget the material.
But if they studied the passage just once and did a practice test in the second session, they did very well on one test two days later, and another given a week later.
My approach to homework is to assign sections out of the Official SAT Study Guide and then tell my students to simulate as closely as possible a live test environment – what I call ‘practicing like you play’. That means I want them answer a full section in one sitting while timing themselves as if they were taking the test for real. According to the article, this homework approach should help students retain more information than an approach that simply assigns random practice questions without the formal structure of an actual test.
“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.”
You won’t get an argument from me, Dr. Roediger.