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Study Hard–But How? September 20, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Teaching.
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All you good people who started fall classes recently—you think you know how to study? Well, maybe your teachers and professors have been wrong all along. According to psychologists, studying in a quiet room without any distractions doesn’t give you particularly good memory retention; neither does studying the same material twice. It’s good for short-term memorization, but not for long term, and as we all know, you’re supposed to learn for life, not for school—non scholae, sed vitae. In a recent New York Times piece by Benedict Carey, “Forget What You Know about Good Study Habits,” we learn that some of the things we instructors have bent over backwards trying to incorporate into our classroom style is, apparently, nothing but BS.

Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.

So what really works? In the classroom setting, the student should be exposed to several kinds of stimuli:

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.

In addition, the article points out that what really works, after the student has studied the material once, is being faced with a hard test afterwards!

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. The harder it is to remember something, the harder it is to later forget.

Pretty interesting article. The ultimate learning environment is one of a multitude of sensory impressions? Such as, a classroom with a window to the outside, a textbook/laptop in front of you, a bit of PowerPoint stuff once in a while, some discussion, some lecturing? Sounds like a normal, modern classroom setting to me, so perhaps we’re doing something right. But I can’t really warm up to these sweeping ideas that Everything You Think You Know is Wrong. Learning has been going on for a long time in the history of humanity, and folk wisdom tells us that there really is no shortcut. Learning takes time and effort. Maybe not the kind of effort we used to think was necessary, but a generation of school kids has been guinea pigs for new learning methods that apparently aren’t so useful after all, either. Some people just have the knack for learning anything and everything, and the rest learn how to learn when exposed to the right material, the right teacher, and the right motivation. And as we all know, teachers have vastly different teaching styles. And if you, the motivated philosophy student, can hook up with the instructor with the teaching style that appeals  to you, and challenges you the most, then  good for you. But regardless of whether you’ve found the perfect stand-up philosopher or not, you’d better just expect the learning situation to consist of mainly reading and analyzing texts, and being tested on them, regardless of whether the learning process is accompanied by nice views, soft music, jokes in a foreign tongue, or whatever else the psychologists can think of…