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Sep 15, 2010

Mind Your Study Habits

In a recent article entitled "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits," Benedict Carey discusses good study habits.  Specifically, he outlines a handful of effective learning approaches that may improve how much a student learns from studying, and he also cites a variety of cognitive scientists to back up his claims. Some of the approaches outlined by Carey, interestingly enough, contradict conventional wisdom on the subject of retention. 

As a way to kick off the start of the fall quarter at Green River Community College, and in the interest of stimulating more productive study habits, this post will briefly address three of Carey's findings.  Also note, the three study habits discussed below can help anyone, from a fifth grader doing long division to a retiree learning a new language, at least according to Carey.  So let's get started.

Study Habit #1 - Instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room or location where a person studies can improve retention.  This contradicts the conventional practice of finding a specific place - a study room or a quiet corner in the library, for example - and plopping down for hours on end to do school work.  The research on study habits, says Carey, shows that switching up the locale in which one studies can dramatically improve retention.  As Carey writes,
"The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time...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."
Study Habit #2 - Spacing out the study of a specific skill or concept, as opposed to cramming / intense immersion, can also improve retention. The spacing approach to studying favors shorter, more frequent study sessions and goes against the common practice of cramming, say, Math, English, Anatomy, or whatever for 8 hours on a Tuesday and then ignoring the subject until next week.  As Carey observes,
"Cognitive scientists do not deny that honest-to-goodness cramming can lead to a better grade on a give exam. But hurriedly jam-packing the brain is akin to speed-packing a cheap suitcase, as most students quickly learn - it holds its new load for awhile, then most everything falls out....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."
Study Habit #3 - Studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single thing, can also improve retention.  This habit, again, contradicts the common practice of studying one, and only one, subject for long stretches of time and then moving on to the next.  Interweaving different subjects allows the brain to pick up on a deeper patterns and leads to more nuanced understandings of a given subject.  As Carey observes,
"Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting - alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading. and speaking 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."
In sum, change up the locale in which you study. Also, avoid cramming and space out your study of a given subject.  Finally, try interweaving and studying different but related subjects in one sitting. Cognitive science argues that these habits may lead to improved retention and increased academic success. Give them a test drive, see what happens, and make it a great fall quarter!