A study on how to study

By Daniel Holz | September 7, 2010 8:16 pm

One of the most delightful aspects of being a scientist is that you’re always learning. Your colleagues teach you things. Your students teach you things. Journal articles teach you things. You sit quietly at your desk and figure things out. You’re perennially a student. But how to be a better student?

woman_asleep_at_deskThis morning the New York Times has an article on “study habits”. It argues against the conventional wisdom (find a clean, neutral space, and bear down on a single topic), and in favor of what might be called intellectual cross-training: “alternating study environments, mixing content, spacing study sessions, self-testing”. The basic philosophy seems to be encapsulated:

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

You want to revisit the relevant material multiple times, in different contexts. And, in case you were wondering, all-nighters do not qualify:

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.”

Intermittent study sessions, coupled with testing, helps ensure comprehension and retention. And why not throw in some quantum mechanics?:

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.

I certainly wouldn’t take any of this as gospel. The article is full of anecdotal statements of this sort: “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.” We are not told how many children were involved in the studies, nor what the “error bars” might be. On the other hand, many of the suggestions are consistent with my personal experience. I often seek out new and different places to work, finding that changing the venue paradoxically helps me focus and facilitates progress. In addition, at any given time I’m often working on a number of different topics, and alternating between them seems to increase my clarity and productivity. I think the real message is that everyone is different, and there’s no “magic desk” to ensure that you become organized and brilliant. One thing that does seem apparent: hiding away in the corner for days at a time struggling with a single topic is not necessarily the road to enlightenment.

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  • http://www.cabi.org PSBaker

    Yes I found the NYT piece very interesting. This resonated: “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…”

    I find, for instance, that when I log in to a site on an unfamiliar computer in a different locality, that it’s harder to remember the password. So what I remember depends to an extent on where I remembered it, which is not helpful – especially for students at exam time!

  • Jason Dick

    I used to find watching TV while doing homework was a great way to get my homework done. The ideal situation was a TV show I was only mildly interested in watching. What would happen is I’d work on my homework until I started to get stuck. Then I’d look up and watch the TV for a few minutes. But this wasn’t open-ended: soon there would be a commercial, at which point the homework was infinitely more interesting. So I’d go back, and usually I’d find my mind refreshed and ready to fix whatever problem I was having before (not always, but it seemed to work very often).

    I definitely can’t say that doing my homework in this way led to me getting it done more quickly, but it most definitely did let me do well on my homework while getting some leisure in at the same time!

    I found it much better than, for example, browsing the web as a distraction when I got stuck, because browsing the web is open-ended and doesn’t have natural “stopping points” to keep me from wasting too much time.

  • steeleweed

    “… cramming can lead to a better grade … but it holds … load for a while, then everything falls out”.

    In college, I never took notes – I listened to the lecturer and thought about what he/she was saying. My room-mate took detailed notes, then struggled to understand the material later. The only time I crammed was when I had to read 700 pages the night before an exam. I passed, but a week later couldn’t remember much.

  • RJ

    Well, I’m no scientist but I am a life long learner. Any subject that I have even a passing interest in and learn on my own at my own pace sticks with me quite well. Digesting information force fed by others with the expectation to pass an exam never really worked out for me.

  • Eugene

    Personally, I find “changing environment” helps greatly. I find some of the most productive thinking I do is when I am traveling.

  • Paige

    When I was in college, I read a book called “The Memory Book” by Jerry Lucas (of NBA fame) and Harry Lorrayne. And using the techniques in this book, I studied far less than my fellow students, remembered the material better, and therefore got better grades. I have always felt, based upon this experience, that people can actually learn better study techniques, where they spend less time studying, and have greater retention of the material.

    Of course, our society does not teach or promote better study techniques to its students. Students are pretty much left to their own devices. Maybe we should promote it and teach it. Society would benefit.

  • Raj Gandhi

    The insights on how to learn effectively will be useful to many. Dr Roediger, however, needs to learn Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle…..

  • Brian Too

    What worked for me was to go with my natural inclinations. I found that environments I wanted to be in were more conducive to studying than environments I didn’t want to be in.

    For instance, carrels and hard seats in a fluorescent lighted room were bad. The student lounge with videos and comfy couches were good. Naps were actually good (as opposed to fighting them–wound up expending 90% of my energy fighting sleep, rather than learning the material).

    On the other hand, studying at home simply didn’t work. I’d find something, anything, else to do. Studying at school was the ticket to success.

    It took me a long time to figure out my optimal learning conditions.


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